It’s Saturday night, the night before Saint Lucifer’s day. This year you’re the only weekend boarder at the boys’ hostel hidden behind the red brick provincial cathedral of St. Lucifer-Before-The-Fall.
Why are you here on weekends? At home a hundred miles away your parents are having the first exhilarating bout of their divorce battle. It’s the liveliest thing to happen in that house in years. They’d rather not have you around to mess it up.
You’re seventeen, a sports-shy loner with a hugely superior inferiority complex. You are proud of your wordy mind, but ashamed of blushing. You thank your father for the size of your organs and the length of your legs, but resent your mother for your narrow shoulders and big, adolescent hips. You spend your school days wallowing idly and blindly in self-knowledge.
A classmate has given you a small piece of hashish for your birthday. You have no idea why he likes you. His older brother recently came back from a bus trip across Asia, bearing several waxy fingers of Royal Afghani, hidden god-knows-where on the journey. Like black, withered relics of a saint brought back from the holy land, fragments of the spoils have found their way onto groovy adolescent altars hidden in attics around town.
It’s nine p.m. and you’re alone in the upstairs dormitory where the older hostel boys are left in peace. You sit on the narrow bed in your cubicle. Your trembling fingers peel the foil off the little ball and you examine it. It’s as black as a rabbit’s turd. You bite into it with your fingernail, into its grainy brown-green softness. You sniff its peculiar animal spiciness. You have no idea how to smoke it but for the past three months you’ve been sporting one of your father’s old tobacco pipes. You place the lump in the charred bowl and light it. Between drags the flame jumps up and burns your fingers. Black and broken matches drop and snap on the scuffed linoleum floor. The fleshy incense rises and curls, of chamomile flowers, rosemary, green tea, a tang of dung. The smoke spreads its legs around the room. You puff, and huff, and try to consume the whole fingertip sized piece at once. It chokes and burns you but for once you make a sportsman’s effort to hold it all down. Your windpipe feels like a dry stone drain with an iron spike scraping against it. You cough haggardly and gasp for oxygen.
You are feeling good. So good. No reason to feel so good. You know how drab your six-foot cubicle is. It smells of sour socks and lavender disinfectant. The cheap furniture squeaks. The wall by your bed is spattered with stains and fingerprints. Your burn-pocked bedspread smells of cigarette butts and semen. It’s all the same, but bearable and different, as though you were peering at a diorama of boyhood in a natural history museum, or the scene of your miraculous nativity. You think abstractly about yourself.
“I’m watching the watcher watching me.”
Heh heh heh. Should you say it out loud?
No, the sound of your voice is more stupid than cool, so you brush that impulse aside. Then the urge is sucked back out of you like the tide anyway.
You remember how miserable you were earlier in the day and indulge yourself with a deliciously warm, intellectual bathos. You imagine yourself as your father, wilting by the town swimming pool, holding your nose like a ten year old ready to fall in, crying “I have grown so leery of my wife.” You watch your chest and belly quiver as you laugh.
Then your thighs thrum and your asshole relaxes and you think about giving yourself a tug, but decide to wait and see what more might happen to your disconcertingly hairless body all by itself.
Specks of dust float above you, undulating very slowly like molecules around a nucleus. The particles glow in the orange and purple light of the spray painted bulb dangling above you from its umbilical cord. Two mosquitoes hum like tuning forks way out of sight. Humming against each other a whole tone apart. The notes drift in and out of range as though on the wind. One zooms in and lands on your cheek with a shattering crescendo and silence. The other mosquito hovers up near the ceiling, humming away on its high note, looking on nervously.
You wait. You’re feeling somewhat genial, like a young lord of light, and you wait some more. You almost anticipate the tiny stab of pleasure. It radiates a pink patch of hot corruption. You indulge the itch and let the little parasite have a six-second suck before you slap your hand down. It feels as good as real sex must feel. You take a look at it, poor little mite, torn apart on the life line of your left palm, like a tiny black aeroplane smashed into a sand dune far below, its fuel tank ruptured leaving a sticky orange smear. You feel compassionate and so good you could lick it off, like it was mashed sardine on a piece of toast. But you don’t really like sardines. You wipe your heavy hand against your inner thigh instead. You retain a speck of fastidiousness that rises and insists on cleaning your thigh with the corner of your bedspread, in whose orange thickets lie mangled mosquitoes and poisoned flies desiccated and crumbing into dust.
You put Tangerine Dream’s Rubicon album on your record player. The electronic dirge swirls and turns itself inside out. You lie still, imagining your legs rising out of your body, like virile young locusts out of dead shells. The shuddering sonic arc draws a figure at the edge of your vision. A dark shredded mass walks towards you. You flick it away with your line of sight. An inkblot comes at you from the corner of the room, slipping out from behind the laminex wardrobe. No, it’s not you it’s the music. The drone of moog synthesizers conjures shadows of dark angels and armies of arithmetic. But the music sags and dies and the shadows and armies of numbers are buried with it as the record needle kicks against the dead end of the spiral.
There’s silence, only ka-scratch, ka-scratch, ka-scratch around the black vinyl crotch of the spinning disk. Your body is as heavy as Jupiter turning on its axis. You become wet cement rolling in a barrel. You are a plastic bag of rocks and water sliding onto the floor. Your body turns, but your watching mind stops it every half second with flashbacks of disbelief. You shudder between dimensions of inertness and spin. Spinning slowly, you’ve become slurry of mud and small polished stones. You are a bag about to rip. You’re going to heave yourself all over the floor.
You lie there stunned, watching yourself leave this miserable life. You regret the loss of the lucky dice that rolled for you every Sunday morning in the church of light, height and beauty. The war between spiritual doubt and religious self-congratulation will neither be won nor lost. It ends in this stalemate of good and evil pieces scattered on a dirty gambling room floor. No more bodily garden from which to chase away the snake of lust during long genteel sermons. No longer the chance to show your coin as it drops into the collection plate. No more sweet wine and crisp bread consumed along with everyone else in order to avoid the suspicious eye of God or of his bishop. No more pocket money earned serving coffee and cake to old curmudgeons, starchy middle-aged ladies and blank-faced married couples with babies.
No, all you can do in this endless last minute of life is drag yourself across the floor, down the hall to the toilet. There, with a heroic lunge of family pride and death rattling decorum you raise your arms and grip the porcelain rim. You haul yourself up just in time. Your hatch bursts open and out pours your stream of existence.
Oh what a bottomless well of swill and shit you are.
You puke till your lungs, guts and balls ache. Stomach acid strips your teeth away.
“I’m watching the watcher watching me.”
Oh woe. The toilet bowl is a stone megaphone throwing the moan back in your face.
Then, in your dopey delirium you remember your generous friend, and after that his older brother’s voice, whispering the ancient and celebrated eastern riddle.
“What . . . is the sound . . . of one . . . ham . . . crapping.”
And you spin, and whirl inside the bowl as you puke, miserable and full of wit.
“This . . . poo . . . wilt . . . ass.”
You think you might have shat yourself, your shorts cling to your bum as though whipped cream had been squeezed out of your doughnut.
You lie there for a long time until the watcher slinks off and leaves your alone, so you can crawl to your feet, strip off and have a long stinging shower. The water stabs you like day light stabs a released prisoner. Paranoia has let you go. Your pants are clean.
It’s two a.m. Sitting on your bed rocking back and forth in the dark. Your brain has finally stopped dancing with itself and sulks quietly in a corner. Your body bag is empty of mud and rubble. Your depleted blood cells ache for sustenance, and from your pit comes a cry for food. You remember that the cook has prepared a feast for the coming day. Is it safe to raid the kitchen?
The housemaster is off at an orgy of drinking with his cronies, the fat wine merchant who lives next door, two young choir men and the junior priest. You’ll be alone in the building until dawn.
The kitchen flickers in grey fluorescent light. You marshal your inner army. First, the pantry. Then, the fridge. The pantry doors are unlocked, revealing seven shelves of cans and boxes, a ziggurat of imperishable food. First you’ll try for the gourmet touch:
Olive paste, capers and processed cheese slices on Ritz crackers
Slabs of fruitcake spread with honey
Peanut butter and pickled gherkin sandwiches
Then eyes glazed with grim and determined food lust, it’s time to assault the fridge.
You nibble cubes of cheese to sustain your engine as you prepare gourmet monstrosities:
Wedges of melon drizzled with lemon and sugar
Beetroot and mustard rolled in sliced roast beef
Spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream with raspberry jam
Your sense of order and discipline breaks down. You reach in and tear off hunks of meat, scraping the cold jellied juice off the roasting pans with your chewed and broken fingernails.
Towards the end of your frenzy your gaze rests on the top rack of the fridge. In a billow of icy cloud a bloated sac rests there, covered in cling film. It’s a plastic udder full of whipped vanilla cream, the snowy summit of a pudding you have not yet touched. You reach in and pick up the pendulous bag, grasp it with both hands and place the jagged metal nozzle between your lips. You gobble cream hungrily from the shark-toothed nipple of this matronly tit bursting with milk. You squeeze and suck smooth sugar butter until you are done. No more. You have well and truly raped yourself senseless with food. You’ve gorged on life and become pregnant with clay, an earth baby to breathe life into. An inner manikin to replace the one purged with smoke so you can still be beside yourself when not even watching.
You flop onto a chair in the dining room and stare in prayerful disbelief at your scrawny frame and swollen belly, enough time to gather strength and haul your self back upstairs.
You don’t know if you are asleep or not, still spinning on your bed. Perhaps you are dreaming about a hidden lover. You can’t say for certain who this love might be, or what this formless person might look like. You’re in the back of your old Ford wagon with the wind whistling outside, and the windows open a crack to let the cold comfort in.
You dream about your dusty old yard dog, at home with your parents, wouldn’t it be nice to be curled up with him under a tarpaulin somewhere? No, you just want to be alone, in the back of your rusty wagon, being made love to by the wind. The wind rocks and shakes you. It ardently tries to break into your virgin space, but is prevented from touching you by the walls of steel and glass that enclose you. A big brown tomcat is kneading itself into your lap.
Suddenly, you’re awake. You look down the bed and see a hairy hand spread like an octopus over your crotch. The hand kneads away through the bedspread, clumsily. It’s the housemaster, back from his piss-up, body raging from the evening’s literary cock teasing, reeking of alcohol, drunk as a skunk, moaning softly to himself.
“Oh,” he sighs.
“Looks,” he whispers.
He almost falls on top of you.
“O . . . Lux . . . Beatissima,” he moans.
You grunt, roll over and pretend to sleep. Your groin is tingling and you don’t really mind. You know he won’t dare unbuckle his belt. He hovers over you for a moment, oozing brandy fumes, and pats your back; a fearful, wistful little pat, before he staggers up and flip-flops down the linoleum stairs, trying to light up a Marlboro as he goes. You hear his melancholy moan, “purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” You feel sorry for the man. It is quite secretly exhilarating to feel such pity because on weekdays the noisy boys hero-worship his nonchalant manliness.
He’ll find the mess in the kitchen, think twice and say nothing. Later in the morning, exhausted and nursing your pregnant virgin gut you encounter him on the stairs. You gaze at his mouth with a mysterious gaze. He parries the thrust of your eyes with a weak smile, hung over, stoical and terrified. He scurries off to clean up the kitchen and reprovision the pantry before St. Lucifer’s tea ladies arrive.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org