A NEW CHAPTER (PART 2) aka THE PUPPY FROM HELL

He’s the embodiment of cuteness. How anyone could simply abandon this cute little bastard, put him in a cardboard box and toss it in the bushes beside a busy road is beyond me. Stretched out on my lap, paws in the air, he stares at me with a look of undiluted love. The fact that I’m holding a bag of dog treats probably has something to do with his loving gaze but that doesn’t matter. He loves cookies. I’m the cookie source, a vending machine of little chunks of love, if you will. Hence, I’m literally a love machine. He’s still got a boner and it grows whenever I take a treat. He gets off on food, I find myself thinking. Just like me! We’re made for each other!

The girlfriend is driving and occasionally her eyes shift from the road to the rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of all the commotion on the backseat.

“Don’t give him too many treats,” she says. “He’ll throw up tonight if you do.”

“I won’t, I won’t. Don’t worry!” I say as I surreptitiously slip the pup another treat.

“There you go,” I whisper to the pup, “our little secret!”

“I saw that,” the girlfriend says.

“Last one!” I say, pretending to give the pup a kiss but really I’m just giving him another treat. A Copperfield-esque sleight of hand if there ever was one.

Eventually the pup falls asleep on my lap. I can’t sleep. I haven’t been this excited since I discovered my first pube. I just look at him sleep and pet his furry little pup head. He’s perfect. Our little baby. Then the pup farts and the car fills with the smell of oyster sauce, carrion and what seems to be sulfur. 

“Dude!” the girlfriend yells and covers her nose and mouth. She gags a little. I’m doing the same thing. It’s bad. Real bad.

“It’s the pup!” I yell back.

“Oh,” she says. “Damn, dog!”

I make a mental note of this. It’s brilliant. I’ll never, ever again have to take responsibility for a fart as long as the pup is around. I’m a genius.

The pup wakes up just as we pull into the driveway and yawns. It’s the cutest thing ever. As he stretches out and yawns again and I quickly stuff two more treats into his mouth and carry the munching bunch of awesome out of the car and into our house.

“It’s pretty cute,” the girlfriend says, waving a little rope toy in front of the dog, who in turn wags his tail and attempts to maul the toy to death.

You have to remember that the girlfriend was never too keen on getting a dog. Treasured concepts like sleeping in and, well, staying in bed for the better part of the day on weekends and holidays are sacred to her and I had to promise her that, during those times of unadulterated bliss, I would take it upon myself to entertain the pup, e.g. get up at 7am on a Saturday to go for a walk. Which, of course, I agreed to immediately. Tomorrow is a Saturday and we’ll take our first, quiet morning walk together. Awesome. Maybe 7.30, though. It’s been a long week. Possibly 8.

We play with the dog a bit more, give him some dinner and turn in. The girlfriend walks into the bedroom and I turn the couch into a makeshift bed. I put the dog’s bed next to the couch and we fall asleep together, my hand dangling from the couch, every now and then brushing one of his floppy ears. I may never sleep in my bed again.

I wake up and the pup is nowhere to be seen. I panic. Crap! He’s run away! I think, but then I hear tiny (razor-sharp) nails clicking away on the kitchen tiles. I look at my arms and they’re covered in long, narrow gouges deep enough to draw blood. I pop my head into the kitchen and see the dog playing with one of his new toys. Great! I think, well done boy! He already knows what’s his and what isn’t! Proud as a parent whose forty-two year old kid has just moved out, I strut into the bathroom to take a shower and possibly disinfect my arms.

The horror.

Oh, the horror.

The four shredded bath towels and the disintegrated socks are bad. The two destroyed (how the hell can that tiny little mouth cause such havoc?) electric toothbrushes are worse. But the worst is yet to come. As I clear away the strips of premium-quality bath towel, I discover a small pool of off-white slime that looks like it was regurgitated by the queen extraterrestrial from Aliens. Tiny pieces of dog treats are still discernable and protrude from the puddle like candles on a melting ice cream birthday cake. I run to the kitchen to get some paper towels and clean up the sick in order to avoid proving the girlfriend right. Must dispose of the evidence! The problem is, I’m horrible with vomit. Whenever I smell it or see someone else throw up, I inevitably end up puking myself. So I ready myself, taking rapid deep breaths like I saw someone do in a movie once, supposedly to hold your breath longer. TV has taught me a lot of useful stuff. I go back in and there’s a new smell. No, smell would be too kind. Stench. No, funk. Reek. Stink. An olfactory offense to nature. I scan the bathroom and, after a second or two, discover the source. The pup, seemingly having returned to the bathroom while I was prepping myself in the kitchen, took a dump.
On top of the vomit.
I can feel my stomach and throat contract and the gagging begins. My eyes begin to tear up. The pup enters the bathroom like a general surveying a post-slaughter battlefield. He tilts his head and, for a split second, I’m pretty sure he smiles. I gag loudly and he looks at me and begins to wag his tail. No. Nonono. Stay there, pup. Stay. There. Before I can utter these words he launches forward towards me. His two front paws touch down smack in the middle of the cocktail of semi-solid feces and vomit and he skids about half a yard towards me, his stomach now also coated in the stuff. Nooo! is all I can muster in my mind as I gag again, louder this time. I take a step back but it’s too late. My bare legs are greeted by two tiny paws sticky with stool and semi-digested pieces of dog food. My gagging becomes more violent and I throw up a little in my mouth. I succeed in swallowing it just as the girlfriend walks out of the bedroom.

                “What the shit is—”

She’s unable to finish the sentence because the pup has jumped up at her, grabbing her leg and, much like a fireman, he’s now sliding down her leg, his stomach firmly pressed against it. The girlfriend looks at me. Still gagging, I gesticulate wildly at the bathroom. She looks at the river of raw sewage and follows it to where she’s standing. Then she looks down at her leg. At the same time the smell hits her. Now, the girlfriend is a tough little number. But if there’s one thing that’ll make her throw up on the spot like a Blackpool slag that’s had one too many Jägerbombs, it’s the smell of shit and vomit. So she throws up on my feet. She looks at me and our eyes meet. Horror, shock and a dozen kinds of disgust are communicated non-verbally in less than a second. I throw up in my mouth again but, quite luckily, am able to swallow it again. The girlfriend heads towards the toilet and I can hear her vomit again, more profusely this time. I feel something tickling my feet and look down. It’s the pup, licking the girlfriend’s vomit from between my toes.

The horror.

A NEW CHAPTER (part 1)

“This is it! It’s finally happening!”

“I guess it really is,” the girlfriend says, part dazed, part confused, and definitely in some form of shock. “How did we suddenly get here?”

“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was ten! It’s going to be great!”

“I’m still not sure—”

“Sweetie sweetie sweetie. Trust me, you’ll love it just as much as I will! I mean, sure, it’ll be a bit messy and exhausting at first, but think about the payoff! Think about the love! You love me don’t you? I mean, I’d do anything for you, you know that, don’t you? Please—for me. Do it for me. You don’t even have to buy me a birthday or Christmas present this year. This is my birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year all rolled into one! Come on, sweetie, let’s go the distance!”

“Sure, sure…” she says, staring out the window. “But—”

“But what, hon?” I say, unable to wipe the enormous, childlike grin off my face.

“What if it hurts me?”

“Hon, come on, sweetiepie, sugarpuff, snookums, summerfart, it’s not going to hurt you! You’ve seen it before, haven’t you? Let’s be honest, it doesn’t look very threatening, now does it? I mean, come on, it’s pretty tiny. Trust me, okay? We just have to go slow, give it time to, you know, get settled in, let it get familiar with its surroundings and all that before we go any further. Alright? Step by step, inch by inch? I mean in all honesty you don’t have to actually do anything. I’ll do all the heavy lifting, so to speak. All you have to do is enjoy the ride!” I look over at her and notice her vacant stare has become one of lamented surrender. A sort of whatever—let’s get this over with look. I clap my hands, rub them together Hans-Landa-like and yell:

“THAT’S A PUPPY!”

I wait for the girlfriend to feed me the line, urging her on by nodding fervently.

She rolls her eyes and says: “Oh for the love of—” she sighs and, with deadpan delivery, mutters: “You just say ‘puppy’.”

“PUPPYYYYYYY!” I scream, doing a little dance.

“What have I done,” the girlfriend mutters under her breath as we round a corner and pull into the parking lot hard by the airport. The tiny local airport, where a small travel crate containing our new family member awaits, pops into view and I can’t help but giggle like a schoolgirl.

“PUPPYYYYYYY!”

 

The wait seems eternal.

“Where are they? Seriously? We’ve been here for hours!”

“It’s been five minutes.”

“No it hasn’t!”

“Yes, it has,” the girlfriend says and shows me her watch. It has, indeed, been only five minutes since we arrived at the airport.

“Oh, well, sure, in real time, but it feels like hours!”

“No it doesn’t. How many coffees have you had?”

“Three.”

A cold, disbelieving look.

“Sure, ok, four.”

A cocked eyebrow and folded arms.

“Alright, seven! Okay? Seven! I’m a bit nervous and didn’t pee before leaving the house.”

“Go pee.”

“No—no. I’m good. I’m fine.”

“Go pee.”

“Hon, I’ll go pee when I need to pee. It’s all good,” I say while surreptitiously crossing my legs and grunting.

“Alright then,” the girlfriend says as she wanders over to the vending machine behind us. She returns with a bottle of water and a complementary paper cup. The bottle hovers high above the cup as she takes aim and then the drops trickle out, falling babbling-brookly into the cup by the dozen. Damnit, woman! Touché.

“Yeah I think I’m going to go pee real quick.”

When I return from what was quite probably the longest (and best) pee ever, the girlfriend has been swallowed up by a huddle of random people. I run on over and force my way through the mass of endeared strangers swooning over the contents of the crate. And then, there he is. Tiny, brown, tail (and ass) vigorously wagging from side to side with sheer joy, big blue eyes staring up at me, a big pink tongue licking its tiny black nose. The woman holding him looks at me and understands. She knows I’m the one. She dutifully hands him to me and I give him a big ol’ cuddle. Our eyes meet and it’s magic. We were made for each other. He licks my nose, I kiss his forehead. It’s love at first sight. I can’t help but feel all warm inside. What a moment. Pure beauty. Priceless.

“He’s got a boner,” the girlfriend says.

THE TREES

Autumn has arrived. The trees joyfully shed their orange and auburn leaves, blanketing the streets in an every-romcom-ever color filter. Most trees, that is. Two of my neighbor’s trees are massive pines that occult what little light we have left during these marginally sunlit days. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love trees. I love the way they smell and I fully support their mission to provide us with breathable air. Cheers, buds. Much appreciated. These two, however, have lost track of normalcy. Much like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the latest of a seemingly never-ending spate of action movie installments, the trees really ought to cut down on their protein intake. They tower fiercely over our humble abode like mean schoolyard bullies trying to hide their insecurity by asserting their superior physical mass. A couple of dicks, really. The more I look at these trees, the more they assume the shape of the knuckle-draggers that used to push me around in high school. This thing just got personal. Revenge is a tree best decapitated. Or something like that, but cooler. A saw best frozen? No, no, that doesn’t make any sense. Let’s put a pin in this. I’ll get back to you.

 

‘I’m going to cut down those trees,’ I proudly announce to the girlfriend, who’s just walked in, nursing her first cup of coffee of the day.

‘Mornin’ to you too, grumpy.’

‘I’m serious. They’re toast!’

‘I believe you.’

‘Don’t do that.’

‘Do what, sweetie?’

‘That thing you do where you believe me.’

‘But I do believe you.’

‘There! You just did it again!’

‘Sweetie, if you say those trees are history, I’m sure they are.’

‘It’s impossible to converse with you. Shit, woman! But I don’t care if you don’t believe me. I’m going to go all Paul Bunyan on their asses.’

‘Go get ‘em, tiger.’

‘Just you wait. I will! I’m telling you I will!’

‘I know you will.’

‘Italian Christ on a Vespa, woman!’

‘Right, I’m off to work. Enjoy your little project, sweetie.’

‘It’s not a—whatever—you’ll see!’

‘Can’t wait! See you later, sweetie. Watch out for the spiders!’

‘Stupid woman! Spiders don’t live in trees!’ I yell in my awesome ‘Allo ‘Allo impersonation but she’s already gone and I’m left with a faint aroma of coffee and perfume and a determination I last felt that time I vowed to get laid before I turned eighteen. And this time—this time I’m actually going to get the job done.

After another coffee and a smoke, I’m ready to gear up. No need to shower, I’ll be soaked in manly man-sweat in no time. That’s what hard manual labor does to you, baby. I pull on a pair of old jeans, a ripped t-shirt and a pair of weathered Timberlands. Alright. ‘Bad-fucking-ass, my friend,’ I say to the manly man in the mirror. Maybe I should grow a beard? A full one, like those hipsters in tight pants and—hmm, better not. Alright. Step two. Gloves. Not going to get my hands sticky with all that sap and crap. I’m a manly man, but I’m also a smart one. No gloves. No gloves except the pink latex ones we use to clean the toilet. Great. Butch manly man with pink gloves. Sure, whatever, let’s do this! Next step: Tools. Tools… Do we own a saw? Usually my dad does this stuff and he lives miles and miles away. He also wouldn’t approve of the pink gloves. Alright, man, think! Think! AHA! I run towards the living room and rummage through some drawers. It’s here somewhere. It’s gotta be. Score! That’s a BINGO! I fold open the Swiss Victorinox army knife, trying to pry out the stainless-steel saw. It’s impossible. I take off the pink gloves. Better. The saw pops out, sharp as hell. Two of my knuckles are already bleeding. It’s smaller than I remembered. A lot smaller. I look up and outside at the behemoths blotting out the sun. Branches as thick as a longshoreman’s arms. Trunks as wide as a drunkard’s distended belly after a night on the town. How the hell is this supposed to work? I accept the question, mull it over for a second or two, then choose to ignore it. I plug in my earphones, turn on the theme to Mission: Impossible and step outside, pulling on the pink gloves, not caring about the blood pouring from my knuckles. Bad-ass.

 

I’ve been at this for two hours and I’ve just about taken down six branches. That’s three branches an hour. That’s one-point-five branches every thirty minutes. Fuck. My. Balls. The two geriatric widows that live upstairs have settled in to enjoy the show like the two old guys from The Muppets.

‘Another branch down, well done, young man! Isn’t that great, Mary?’

‘It is, indeed, Mary.’ (Even though the other woman is named Catherine, people also call her Mary. Go figure. Mary & Mary)

‘Look at that. That’s a big one! And it only took him half an hour!’

‘Wonder what he’s going to do about those trunks, though. They look like quite the job!’

‘He’ll manage, Mary! Look at him, a real man at work right there!’

I’m distracted for a moment and wonder if strangling two old women to death whilst wearing a pair of pink gloves would be considered a serious crime. The mental picture is both unsettling and strangely satisfying. And then, out of nowhere, the saw lands beside me, cutting an already severed branch in two as it digs itself into the ground a mere two inches from my foot.

‘Here, son. Use that, it’ll make things easier!’ Mary shouts after having nearly decapitated me by throwing a sharp saw down at me from twenty feet away.

‘Where’d this come from?’ I ask, still picturing the saw blade severing several toes or even slicing open my carotid artery, spraying blood all over the wall and trees. A single drop of urine seeps into my boxers.

‘Oh, I have a bunch of tools that used to belong to my dear departed husband. Thought you might be able to use this!’ The other Mary raises an eyebrow and tries to hide a snigger. Tries and fails.

‘Thanks,’ I say, fighting the urge to shout out this would have been real fucking useful three fucking hours ago! and start attacking the trees with my upgraded gear. The branches are flying off with this thing, I have to admit. After about an hour the trunks are completely stripped of their appendages and simply stand there in all their naked shame. Time to die, you naked bunch of bullies! I shout in my head and dig the saw into the first trunk. It doesn’t even take the bark off. After a couple of minutes of fiddling with the saw to get some sort of grip on the trunk, I give up. It’s wet, slippery and, most of all, made of solid diamond. Fuck! I’m about to pack it in when my next-door neighbor sticks his head up over the wall.

‘Hi there! Need some help?’ He asks. Pshuh! Do I need some help? Phoey!

‘Hi!’ I call back. No—no, I think I’m good. Thanks anyway!’

‘You sure?’ he asks, raising an eyebrow at the little saw in my hand and my pink gloves.

‘Yeah, not unless you’ve got some sort of magic tool that’ll cut through these fuckers.’

‘Oh, sure, yeah, I’ll be right back.’

Seriously? Every time I try to do something manly around the house this guy shows up out of nowhere to save the friggin’ day.

The neighbor returns with a pair of long orange scissors that look like they were designed to cut Donald Trump’s hair.

‘This oughta do the trick!’ he says, a smug smile cemented onto his face.

‘Really, man, I don’t think a pair of scissors is going to get the job done. Seriously. These things are—’

The neighbor opens up the blades, places them against the first trunk and cuts. They slide through it like a red-glowing knife through room-temperature butter. It’s ridiculous. A few more cuts left and right and the first tree comes toppling down. I’m in awe. I’m also pissed that my neighbor is doing this instead of me because now I have to thank him. He finishes about five minutes later and helps me cut the big chunks into smaller ones before he leaves. He’s preposterously hard to dislike. Bastard.

‘So, err—well—thanks, I guess?’

‘No problem, neighbor!’ He retorts, all joyful and friendly. What an utter bastard.

Mary Statler and Mary Waldorf applaud as my neighbor vaults over the wall separating our two gardens like he’s Bruce Willis or something. Dick. At least I’ll be able to tell the girlfriend that I did it all by myself. She dislikes talking to Mary & Mary as much as I do seeing as how it usually takes up about three hours of your life you’ll never see again. Trees are gone. Ego still faintly intact. Good day, all in all.

I light up a cigarette and grab some of the longer branches—festooned with leaves—and start carrying them towards the back of the garden. Something tickles my pinky (the pink gloves are little more than rags now, torn to shreds). I look down just in time to see a small black spider crawl inside the glove via the tear just above my knuckle. It’s fast. It’s so fast my mind doesn’t have time to process what is going on. I can feel it wriggling its way through the glove and, from time to time, I can see a leg or two pop out of as it continues to explore the cozy new habitat that is my latex-gloved hand.

Two things happen simultaneously. My brain, the ever-rational genius, tells me to calm down and relax. It’s just a spider. Most spiders are harmless. If this one wasn’t it would have bitten you the second it crawled into the glove. It’s tiny and you’re a man. Be a man! Let the little itsy-bitsy spider be and dump the wood at the back of the yard and, above all, stay cool. The other thing that happens is my body deciding to ignore the rational musings of my brain. It can smell my blood! It’s out for blood! My blood! Fight or flight kicks in. I’ve officially gone into Neanderthal mode. Branches fly as my arms heave them into the air. My spider-free hand is already pulling at the glove, desperately trying to rip it off. But of course my hands are sweaty and the glove won’t come off. I can hear a little girl screaming even though the sound of blood rushing in my ears is deafening. Must be one of the neighbor’s kids. I don’t blame her. It’s a horror show. Big blotches of blackness begin to obscure my vision. The glove finally comes off and I throw it down onto the grass and stomp it with my boot in a single, violent movement. I keep crushing the glove with my boot until I’m confident the eight-legged daemon is dead. With my still-gloved hand, I wipe the sweat from my brow and shaved skull. I turn around.

‘How—’ I start, stuttering a little. ‘How long have you been standing there?’

‘Oh, about twenty minutes, give or take.’

‘I see.’

‘That was mighty nice of Tom to come and help us out, wasn’t it?’

‘Who’s Tom?’ I say, a desperate, final attempt at playing dumb.

‘The guy with the big scissors?’

‘Ah, yes. Him. Sure, yeah, I guess,’ I say, wiping more sweat off my forehead. An awkward silence ensues. Then:

‘Spider?’

‘What? No, no, nononono. Hand just got real itchy, that’s all.’

Tom’s head pops up from behind the wall, a troubled look on his face.

‘Everyone alright? I thought I heard a woman scream?’

‘Fine. Thanks, Tom,’ is just about all I can muster.

‘So—Spider?’ the girlfriend asks with one eyebrow cocked towards the heavens. I walk past her, momentarily placing my index finger on her lips as I make my way to the bathroom for a three-hour shower with a steel wool loofah.

Fucking spider.

 

 

THE BOAT

‘We’re going to miss the boat!’ my girlfriend yells from somewhere deep within the bowels of our hotel room. I’ve already spent the better half of an hour in the bathroom abolishing the miserable tufts of hair that randomly infest my skull, clinging on to some forgotten glory. I draw this out, running the clippers over my head again and again to ensure none of the hairs survive. There’s nothing worse than a balding man with a couple of five-inch hairs reaching out into the sky like weeds from an otherwise expertly kempt flower bed. It even surpasses the famed comb-over in sheer awfulness. Not the mullet, though. That’s a whole nother ballpark.

I finish my male grooming ritual and jump into the shower, taking my time even more than usual. I don’t want to go on this boat thing. It’s going to be full of tourists and entertainers and fuck knows what else. I’d rather hit the beach or Limassol’s old town center with a book and a cold beer within drinking distance. Preferably under an umbrella or any other contraption that provides sufficient shade to protect my newly exposed, albino-white, baby-butt smooth dome from the sun. But no. We’re going on a boat trip. Shitsticks.

My procrastination only results in us having to run like madmen through the crowded streets filled with food stalls and people trying to sell you boat trips. I arrive at the harbor sweating like Sean Spicer when, well, whenever he tried to string a sentence together. My skull is already on fire despite the fact that I’ve slathered it in sunblock. The sunblock stings my eyes as it trickles down my shaved head. I realize I’ve forgotten my hat. Double shitsticks.

The damn boat is still there and there’s a massive queue of tourists in front of us already pushing and shoving and sweating and trying to get on the boat first. More people form a disorganized mess behind us, obviously annoyed at not being able to get on the boat first. I have to admit I enjoy this moment, just for the sake of spiting other tourists. For some reason over 90% of the people waiting to get on the tourist trap are Russian and, even weirder, all the useless nonsense barked through the P.A. system is voiced in Russian and then quickly mumbled in something that vaguely resembles English. I won’t get into the whole ‘Russian tourists are the worst’ thing, don’t worry. Russians are bad. Brits are worse. Luckily the boat trip’s advertisement campaign didn’t make it all the way to Blackpool and the boat is pleasingly devoid of spray tans, fake nails, soccer shorts and platform shoes. I make a last attempt to dissuade my girlfriend from dragging me with her on this thing.

‘It’s a party boat. I don’t like party boats. It’s going to be hell.’

‘It’s not a party boat. The brochure said Odyssey Adventure Boat trip. Adults only, which means no kids. It doesn’t mean party boat.’

‘It’s the same thing!’ I hiss under my breath, careful not to upset the crazy Russians. ‘There’s going to be a party and group dancing and, shit forbid, maybe even karaoke.’

‘Oh! You think there might be karaoke? I’d love some karaoke!’

‘My head is quite literally on fire. I think my brain is being boiled alive. It’s still a virgin, in a way, my skull. It’s never really tasted sunshine. I shouldn’t go on this trip, I might get sunstroke. My brain is going to die! It’s medically insane for me to set foot on this boat!’

‘I wonder what I’d sing if there’s karaoke. Maybe some Celine Dion? Oh, or something by the Spice Girls!’

Please, someone, just shoot me.

By some miracle we’re able to score the last two lounge chairs on the top deck (the girlfriend having pushed her way through the throng of Russians heading for the bar first and worrying about seating arrangements later). I’ve gotten hold of a glass of disgusting white wine watered down with a huge ice cube and a lounge chair that arbitrarily tries to change its lounging angle. It’s boiling hot and I’m sweating again. My newly-shaven head has gone from red to a strange purple hue. I gingerly touch it and discover it’s already sore. I decide to use my T-shirt as a turban. I look like an idiot.  People all around start taking pictures and the boat even has an in-house (or would it be in-boat?) photographer and he’s snapping away like we’re all Grace Kelly and Cary Grant on a yacht in Monaco. The Russians love this. Must be a Putin thing. The boat’s engines start up and the captain revs them and we’re off and I force back tears as I glimpse the fading outline of my favorite beach bar. I know what you’re thinking. It’s just a boat trip. It’s not like you’re landing in Normandy, for crying out loud. Well, at least they had guns to shoot people with.

Almost immediately after we leave the harbor, a breeze picks up and rids the upper deck of diesel fumes. My lounge chair has fallen into a tired submission somewhere between upright and horizontal. The photographer has fucked off somewhere below deck to edit his ‘art’ and select the cream of the crop for submission to the Pulitzer Prize jury. I crack the spine on my Stephen Fry novel and escape into the hilarious world of a washed-up poet called Ted and, somehow, this floating turd on the Mediterranean Sea isn’t as horrible as I pictured it would be.

About sixty pages into the novel I begin to realize I’m probably the most annoying person in this deck. Fry has me laughing out loud with almost every page and sniggering with delight at least as often. The girlfriend simply rolls her eyes while other passengers give me looks that are quizzical, annoyed, and from time to time pitying (as in ‘That poor retarded bald man. Look at him having fun on his own. At least he doesn’t have five-inch hairs sticking out of his skull.’). I become self-conscious about my lack of hair and overt displays of joy and am extremely grateful that we’ve arrived at a jump-off-and-swim spot and I’m able to leave the penetrating gazes of humorless Russian tourists and rid my body of one salty fluid by submerging it into another. The captain mumbles something over the P.A. and I pick up ‘pirates’, ‘caves’, ‘loot’, and ‘minutes’. I have no idea what minutes have to do with anything but I’m seriously intrigued by the pirate caves. They’re about a five-minute swim from where the ship has anchored and there’s snorkeling gear available. Could it be? Am I about to enjoy myself?

Yes! As the chef begins to roast some wonderfully marinated chicken on the grill, I leap off the twenty-four foot high deck in a swan dive. The girlfriend has already been in the water for ten minutes, waiting for me to gather the courage to jump. Weightless for what seemed like eons, I crash into the water, the swimming goggles in my hand thumping into my nose and my swimming trunks migrating from my waist to my ankles. I spend about twenty seconds below the surface pulling up my trunks and rubbing my nose. As I resurface, the girlfriend rewards me with a sarcastic slow clap. Salt water runs down my face so she can’t see the tears in my eyes due to the bruised nose. All in all, not bad.

We swim together for a while until I put on the goggles and put the snorkel in my mouth and disappear in the wonderful under-water world of the pirate caves. It’s grand. There’s all kinds of maritime life, fauna and flora and the occasional discarded coke can covered in weeds and moss. Having just read a brilliant pirate novel by Miéville, I’m entranced by the caves. Pirates hiding their swag (yes, kids, that’s what the word actually means: shit you stole) in these dark and mesmerizing caves, probably dumping a few bodies and shooting or stabbing their fellow looters over a discussion about who gets what. Fantastic. I keep floating, head under water, fantasizing about those days of yore. I inadvertently drift to another cave and crawl out and onto some rocks to continue exploring this magical place. A party boat has pulled up close to me and it’s blaring Despacito through its oversized speakers. I clock plastic cups and reddened skin and group dancing and, for the first time today, I’m looking forward to going back to our boat that has barbecue and lounge music and actual glasses instead of cups.

I scramble up some rocks, unsteady and undoubtedly looking like an idiot, towards the second cave. I’m trying to move quickly because, now that my skull is no longer submerged in seawater, it’s on fire again. The wind picks up and it seems to carry the ghost of someone yelling my name. I look round, see no one, and write it off to the party boat’s horrible mélange of noises. I take on last look at it and vaguely realize it looks a lot like our boat. Poor bastards, I think, and scurry up another big rock. As I am tackling a particularly sharp and pointy patch of rocks, I swear I again hear someone calling my name. I look around, puzzled. There’s absolutely no one around. There’s absolutely no one around. I scan the water for the girlfriend but she’s not there. Nor are the pale, sunburnt Russians. Hmmm. Odd. I turn around and see our boat. It’s moved. It hasn’t just moved, it’s about twice as far away from where I am then when we arrived. CRAP! I can see the outline of the girlfriend on the boat’s stern, surrounded by Russians and the captain. The captain is holding a bullhorn and slowly puts it to his mouth.

‘NEIL. FROM BELGIUM. PLEASE GET ASS BACK ON BOAT NOW!’

Oh fuck. I scramble back down the rocks, scraping, cutting and bruising a wide variety of body parts. Without thinking, I dive off a large rock into the water, cringing the second I hit the water. Luckily there are no rocks there to further maim me and I start to swim like a madman. In all the hysterical excitement, I forget to don the goggles and end up thrashing through the water with my eyes closed. I’m making good time. I’m flying. I’ve never moved this quickly before, on land or elsewhere! People on the boat must be pretty impressed by this smoothly shaven head popping up from the water only to fill my lungs and then disappear again as my muscular arms propel me forward at terrible speed. I’m like a torpedo, displacing the water before it, gliding through the currents. Like a fat kid going down a water slide, nothing can stop me. I’m one with the water. One with the sea. I. Am. Aquaman.

I reach the ship, completely exhausted and out of breath. I use what’s left of my strength to pull myself up the tiny stainless-steel ladder and onto the boat. My ears are filled with water so it sort of sounds like I’m still under water. But that’s fine. I made it. I prepare for people to congratulate me on my amazing swimming skills and grace in the water. I raise my head high as I board the ship.

A dozen or so people look at me in silence. Some tilt their heads much like a dog would when given an order he doesn’t quite understand. There’s something off about these people. I don’t readily recognize any of them and they don’t shower me in complements. Something’s wrong. One of them crushes a plastic cup and throws it on the floor. I’m about to lecture the person on littering when something clicks. Plastic cup. Plastic. Cup. All of a sudden I hear the music. I look past my stunned audience and see what can only be described as a miniature maritime Blackpool behind them. White seats are stained with the outline of spray-tanned butts, peroxided and extended hair blots out the sun and plastic cups are literally everywhere. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. Suddenly, even over the horrid music blasting from the party boat’s speakers, I hear our captain on his bullhorn.

‘NEIL. FROM BELGIUM. PLEASE GET FUCKING ASS BACK ON OUR FUCKING BOAT!’

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck balls cock fuck fuck shit balls.

I’m too tired to swim so I have do a lazy back crawl, which doesn’t go over well no our boat. When I finally arrive, some ten minutes later, I am greeted by an uncanny silence. The captain, some members of the crew and the girlfriend simply stare as I slowly crawl up and onto the boat. The crew and captain scowl for a while and then leave to get the boat moving again. The girlfriends shakes her head in disbelief.

‘Twenty minutes. That’s what the captain said. Twenty minutes.’

‘Oh. Ah. I was wondering what those minutes were about… But surely, sweetie, I wasn’t gone for much—‘

‘Fifty-two minutes.’

‘Oh. Ah. Well. Er. Sorry? ‘

 

Already having missed the food, I’m prohibited from leaving the boat again. A crew member actually follows me around to make sure I don’t go swimming again. I ease into my lounge chair and pass some time by running ice cubes over my fiery-red skull.

‘Well, at least we’re not on that party boat, huh?’ I joke to the girlfriend. She just rolls her eyes as we move down to the lower deck for what the captain has dubbed ‘the big surprise’. We’re gently forced to congregate in front of the bar, where tables have been cleared to form some sort of impromptu open space. I secretly wish for more food seeing as I’m starving. My arms are sore from swimming and the girlfriend won’t allow me to drink any more bad wine. The captain appears and moves behind the bar, clutching a microphone.

‘Lovely peoples and friends,’ he says, pauses, and then adds ‘and Neil from Belgium.’ What a dick. The Russian roar with laughter. The girlfriend hits me over the head, quite hard. ‘Now, the big surprise!’ A strong bass begins to emanate from the speakers and suddenly colored lights flash all around us. The crew members throw off their matching yellow T-shirts and start clapping. The Russians join in. Despacito bursts out of the speakers like a demon from an evil vagina. Everybody begins to dance and shake stuff and topless, burly crew members emerge with platters of shot glasses filled with some foul-looking blueish-hued alcohol.

‘PARTYYYYYYY TIMEEEEEEEEEEE’ the captain screams and the tourists go mad. The girlfriend simply laughs, and laughs, and laughs, and laughs. I try to flee upstairs, to the top deck that holds my book and uncompliant lounge chair but a six-packed crew member blocks the stairway and simply shakes his head. I turn around to see the tourists have formed a conga line and are slithering across the room like an overfed, diseased snake. The girlfriend snatches my arm and pulls me into hell.

‘Isn’t this great!’ she screams over the whooping and shouting and off-key singing of the tourists. A Russian tourist, bright-red with sunburn, grabs my shoulders and pushes me forward in order to follow the conga line, then shouts in my ear,

‘Neil, stupid man from Belgium. We forgive you. Many partyink, yes?’ and then joins the rest of the tourists in screaming ‘DESPACITO’ from the top of their lungs.

Not a party boat, she said.

 

 

THE MACHINE

My phone rings. A picture of my sister flipping me the bird appears on the screen as the phone kindly requests whether I would like to engage in a conversation with my sibling or prefer to blatantly ignore her request for parley. I contemplate this while I inspect the snapshot on the screen: my sister’s head turned to one side, hair flopping around, caught in its own personal whirlwind by my phone’s optical lens. Blocking her face is a ring-infested hand clenched into a fist, the middle finger rising into the air with gusto, like an average-sized man wading through a crowd in Tokyo. Or like that guy who fell asleep at the beach, got a hard-on and pitched himself a little swim shorts tent. I decide to gracefully accept the incoming call. A gentleman always swipes right.

“Sup, bro?” She says before I can say “Ahoy-hoy”. My sister has two kids, aged somewhere between nine and twelve, who like hip hop, especially gangsta rap. She now also believes she’s “a bad-ass ho, yo.” My many urgings for her to seek out professional help have all fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, every time she calls, I’m talking to a very, very white version of Missy Elliott while, in the background, sleekly hidden between tasteful cottage-style furniture, expensive speakers speak of bitches, hoes, Lamborghinis and, inevitably, marihuana. My sister works for some secret government thing. When she leaves for work in the morning, she looks like agent Dana Scully. I often lie awake in the dead of night, fearing for our future.

“What’s the haps, brohim?”

“All good in the hood,” The words spill from my mouth in an awkward tumble and I curse myself for being drawn in by her gangstaness. “You?”

“All good. Chillin’ with my peeps,” she adds, which means she’s spending some time with her children. In the background, Dr. Dre is announcing he enjoys indulging in illegal substances while cruisin’ the hood for bitches. “Big daddy is jettin’,” she adds, meaning my brother-in-law, a commercial airline pilot, is at work. I can hear the boys playing hockey in the living room, their hockey sticks slapping loudly against the polished marble floor. My sister is also a hockey mom. Pretty damn gangsta.

“I’m selling my rower.” Ah, so this is why my Westside suburban hockey mom sister has called me. About a year ago she purchased a top-of-the-line rower. Fancy stuff. Digital display, sturdy, high-quality metal frame, the whole shebang. I fell in love at first sight. I wanted one. Bad. But this fine piece of engineering was way out of a humble teacher’s pay range, so I had to settle for looking at it for a while whenever I went to visit. But now, for whatever reason, it could become mine. Mine! Mine! Mine! MINE!! I’m atingle with excitement and realize I should stop watching Finding Nemo over and over again. Alright. Play it cool.

“Oh? How come?” Smooth.  Well done, ol’ chap.

I hear my sister shout something to her kids about playing hockey in the house and expensive Venetian tiles and a threat that includes the words “college funds” and “an interior decorator”. Suddenly she sounds normal again, as if rebooted in hockey mom mode.

“My doctor said it’s hurting my back. So I need to get rid of it. Start swimming instead. You interested?”

“Well,’ I say, doing my utmost to stay cool, “Maybe. It’s a bit pricey for me.” Excellent show, sir!

“Yeah, well, I need to get rid of it, so, let’s say half price?” Half price. My new two favorite words.

“Oh, well, okay then, if it’ll help you out, sure.” You’re a master, they should call you Ace!

               “Great! When do you want to come and pick it up?”

“Well, it’s a forty-minute drive, so… let say, forty minutes?” You were so close…

               “Erm, well, I gotta get the boys over to hockey practice first, then go to the store for groceries and buy the kids some new sneakers on the way home. That usually takes forever. Bunch of princesses when it comes to shoes. How about 7?”

“Oh, yeah, sure, of course, no rush.” Yeaaahh, nobody’s buying that anymore at this point, dude…

“Alright, see you tonight little brother.”

“Cool. Thanks. See you then, sis.”

I get in the car after five minutes of jubilant dancing and drive over to my sister’s house, where I end up waiting for five hours. I watch Finding Nemo on my phone, twice, to kill the time.

Finally, my sister arrives, bags of groceries and hockey paraphernalia straining her SUV’s massive trunk. The boys spill out of the car and greet me with a deadpan “Yo” while my sister starts unloading the groceries. She asks me if I’d like to stay for dinner but I politely decline, making up some excuse about having papers to grade. We go upstairs and there she is. Two hundred pounds of metal and plastic, ready to push my physical capabilities to their limits and beyond. The Machine. My sister shows me how to disassemble the rower and re-assemble it once I get home. But I just stand there, transfixed, gazing at The Machine. This has always been a problem. Whenever people try to explain to me how stuff works, my mind enters a Twilight Zone of thoughts old and new, fantasies and emptiness. I call it The Place Where My Mind Does Weird Stuff and I Don’t Listen to People. My mind runs amok, thinking thoughts of its own without allowing any new information to be retained. During my sister’s tutorial on how to assemble The Machine, I’m riding a unicorn, bareback, through a futuristic wasteland. Two holsters straddle my leather-clad legs and contain two high-tech pistols, capable of shooting impressive and very destructive laser bursts. For some reason, I’m wearing make-up and smell like roses. Like I said, weird stuff.

Eventually my sister stops talking, indicating that the tutorial has ended. I cease blowing holes into seemingly cute but really quite vicious and aggressive pink teddy bears. I make a mental note to seriously talk to someone about these fantasies. I thank my sister, tell her I’ll wire her the cash, and drag The Machine to my car. Even disassembled, it barely fits. My ridiculously small car groans and protests loudly, until it finally accepts the abuse and settles down. I fly back at a mind-blowing forty-five miles an hour, homebound with my new love snug in the back seat.

When I arrive home, The Place Where My Mind Does Weird Stuff and I Don’t Listen to People cashes its inevitable debt. I have no idea how to put this thing together. The internet offers little help and so, after another two hours of actual blood, rivers of sweat and, I reluctantly admit, a fair share of tears, The Machine occupies about half of the space of our soon-to-be guest room/study. It’s huge. And pretty. Very pretty. I’m too tired to actually exercise so I just stand there, looking at it for about half an hour until I hear a jiggle of keys at the front door. My girlfriend walks in and I run up to her, too excited to speak and grinning like a shot fox.

“What?”

I still can’t really speak so I just jerk my head towards the guest room/study.

“What’s wrong with you? Why are you all wet? And why are there one, two … seven Band-Aids on your fingers? Is that blood on your shirt?  And have you—have you been crying?”

Again I jerk my head towards the guest room/study, several times in a row. Finally I sort of wave her along as I hop towards the room.

“Seriously, Neil, what is—” She goes silent, obviously taken aback by the beauty and sheer awesomeness of The Machine. Finally, her eyes meet mine. She’s gobsmacked. I don’t blame her. It’s a lot of awesomeness to take in. I’m still beaming and slowly nod, confirming that it’s not just a dream. It’s real. It’s here. The Machine is ours. Boom.

“What the fuck?” she says, slowly enunciating every word. I am now doubting the reason for her gobsmackedness. It sort of kills my buzz and I can finally speak again. Surely she just doesn’t see the awesomeness yet. It’ll need some explaining.

“It’s a rower, hon!” There we go. Should clear things up nicely.

“I can fucking see that, you idiot.” Ok, maybe a slightly more in-depth elucidation is required.

“I bought it off my sister! It’s great for working out, you know, rowing and such. It trains the whole body. I could show you some videos if you’d like?”

“You bought this? Why?” Clearly, my girlfriend can’t fully grasp the awesomeness of The Machine and its endless possibilities.

“To work out, you know? It’s the best way to get in shape. I read about it in a magazine.”

“You’re an idiot. You’re going to use it once, maybe twice, and then get tired of it and it’ll be left here, in this room, forgotten, its only purpose gathering dust. By the way, where are we going to put the guest bed now?”

“Ah, well, see—” I complete forgot about the guest bed. I grab a measuring tape and see how much room is left for the bed. It isn’t pretty. I roll with it anyway.

“Well, if we buy the smaller version, the rower could simply stand in the corner, next to the bed!”

“And how will people get in and out of the bed?” Damn her and her logic. Crap. I wonder if a joke would diffuse the situation.

“Well, they can climb on the machine, do a few laps before bed eh? Ha ha ha ha.” Nope.

Somehow the temperature in the room drops to near freezing and I start to shiver.

“Whatever,” she says. Ha! Victory for me and The Machine. Double boom! “I give it a month, tops.”

“Oh, no no no. Just you wait and see. I’ll be sporting buns of steel and washboard abs you can wash your pink panties on!” Seriously, go see someone. Like, now.

“A month,” is all she retorts. I’ll show her. I’ll show her good. Tomorrow.

Two weeks pass before I actually use The Machine, which is great seeing as how the fact that I almost forgot I’d bought it makes me feel all warm inside now that I lay eyes on it again. I straddle The Machine and strap in my sneakered feet. Cool. I switch on the digital display and it looks like a HUD straight out of Star Wars. Seriously cool! I make sure all four of my sweat bands are in place, wiggle my butt a little to make sure I’ve got the right position and grab the stick attached to the freshly-oiled chain that powers The Machine. We take off. The Machine rumbles and begins to emit a whooshing sound. Air is blown in my general direction with increasing force and I feel like I’m in a World War 1 biplane. I also feel that I’m already breaking a sweat. But that’s fine. That’s what we’re here for!

Twenty minutes later I’m soaked and cold because of the wind that keeps coming from the rotor. My shoulder hurts and, frankly, I’m bored. I’m so bored that I start getting bored about the fact that I’m bored. I struggle through the next five minutes, until the display, which by now just looks like a standard, underwhelming and frankly cheap-looking display, finally tells me I’ve rowed 5k. 5. K. I’ve burned something like 400 calories. Fuck my balls. I get off the machine, which is now slippery with sweat, and take a shower. Two hours later I realize there is something seriously wrong with my shoulder. It actually hurts more. The next day I get out of bed and can barely move my arm. My shoulder is an orchestra of infinite pains and aches. I have to sell The Machine.

Selling it was the easy part. A guy came round the house two days later and bought it straight away. He disassembled it in two minutes flat, without bleeding. We chew the fat a little as we load the rower into his car.

“So, why’re you getting rid of her?” he asks as we both light a cigarette.

“Ah, you know, girlfriend didn’t like it. Said it was too big. Said it didn’t go with the interior and whatnot. Women, right?”

“I hear ya, man. I hear ya.”

We let this vibe of mutual manly understanding and comradery hang in the air as we finish our cigarettes. He heads out and I can’t help but give The Machine a farewell salute. The man clocks this (admittedly odd) gesture in his rear-view mirror and frown so I just hurry back inside. There’s a hole where The Machine used to be, both in the guest room/study and my heart. I flip open my laptop and start looking for a new hobby. Afterwards I enter the words “how to be wrong and still be right”, “relationship”, and “manipulation” into the search bar and spends the next few hours studying.

Once again keys rattle against the front door and my girlfriend walks in. This time, she’s beaming. A big, victorious grin is stretched over her face like Lycra over the balls of an overzealous amateur cyclist.

“It’s gone?”

“Well, you see, hon, it’s not the question of whether or not it’s gone that’s important. The real question we must ask ourselves is—”

“It’s not gone?”

“Well, yeah, sure, it’s gone. But The concept of—”

“Great. What’s for dinner?”

“No, wait! What I was trying to say was—”

“Are you in the mood for pasta? I could murder a carbonara.”

The moment has passed. I can only slink into the kitchen and cook dinner, somehow beaten before the battle had begun. Women. Damn them and their superior psychological warfare skills.

“Oh, by the way, Susan and Tom are coming over for dinner on Saturday, so we need to go shopping for that guest bed. We can use the money we saved selling that rower!” she says through a mouthful of creamy pasta.

“Ah. Well… bit of a problem there, I’m afraid. A little snafu, if you will. The funds have been, let’s say, reinvested already,” I say, unable to repress my new-found joy and, for some reason, British politeness.

“No,” she says, shooting me an incredulous look.

“Wait, hear me out, it’s completely different this time!”

“What is it?” She asks, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s really cool. Trust me. You could even join me! We could do it together!”

“What. Is. It.”

“Ready?”

She just looks at me, phlegmatic, eyebrow still cocked. After ten seconds of somewhat awkward silence, I realize she’s not going to answer my question, so I just fire away.

“Kung. Fu. Boom. How cool is that? I’m going to be like one of those Kung Fu masters! Maybe even a grandmaster one day! And then I can buy one of those outfits with the white sleeves, you know, like in that movie I showed you? I know you fell asleep but you saw the guy, didn’t you? The guy with the white sleeves? You know? The grandmaster guy? Hon? The guy that kicked ass, you know? The badass guy? Hon? Hon? Hon?”

“A month.”

 

 

 

 

 

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

“I’m having a little get-together for my birthday tonight. You should come!”

The friend uttering these words is a relatively new one—a colleague at my new job, so naturally my over-analytical mind goes into overdrive. A party? I like parties. There’s usually booze. And snacks. And hors d’oeuvres! Like miniature pizzas and foie gras on tiny little pieces of toasted raisin bread and those sticks with cheese inside. How do they get the cheese in those things? Do they wrap the dough around it or do they make a little hole and inject the cheese directly into the stick? Are they oven-baked or deep-fried? They’re greasy, sure, but usually not very sticky. Maybe it’s the cheese that makes them greasy. Surely they can’t be microwaved and be crispy at the same time. You’d probably end up with some sort of limp stick of mangled grease and soggy dough. That’s disgusting. Like re-heating a pizza in the microwave when you’re hungover and try to take a bite and the tip of the slice bends down and all the cheese and tomato sauce and veggies and meat slowly begin to slide off and you think you can catch it, all the while ignoring the fact that you’ve just nuked the damn thing and you burn your lip, which only adds to the throbbing pain behind your eyes and you push the plate aside and decide to just roll over and go back to sleep. Wait, what was the question again?

               “So, what do you say?”

I look at her and am vaguely aware of the fact that I’ve got that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look on my face again. I honestly can’t remember the question and am craving a crispy cheese stick. Preferably something tangy.

“Sure!” I say, going with what I assume is the correct answer to the elusive question.

“Great!” she says, and hands me a little pink business-like card. In my mind, the deer standing next to me as the headlights close in turns to me, cocks an eyebrow and shakes its head slowly from side to side right before the truck splatters the both of us all over the highway. “See you tonight!”

“Great!” I say, maintaining eye-contact way beyond the accepted standard of 3.2 seconds. My new friend shrugs uncomfortably, takes two steps backwards while still retaining eye-contact (we’re up to fifteen seconds now and neither of us knows what the hell is going on) until she finally just gives me a curt little nod and turns away, exiting quickly without looking back. I look at the card and, in between the glitter and emoticons, am able to ascertain certain facts.

  • It’s a party
  • At her place
  • It’s her birthday
  • It’s tonight

Well, that’s not too bad, is it? Aside from the fact that Helen (the new friend who has just invited me to her party, that’s her name, Helen) and I have a grand total of zero friends in common and that my girlfriend is out of the country for work. It’ll be fine! I tell myself. There’s always loads of people at birthday parties, slightly inebriated and social and talkative. You’ll be fine. Get to know some new people! A veritable leap of faith! And there’ll be booze, and food. Those little meat pies with the crispy crust and…

 

I arrive an hour late. Before I ring the bell, I check myself in the reflection of the apartment building’s glass door. White mandarin-collar shirt, black tailored blazer, dark jeans, black Chelsea boots—polished to perfection—sexy two-day stubble covering my cheeks, a hint of chest hair poking through the top of my unbuttoned shirt (apparently chest hair is ‘it’ these days, so I finally have a chance to exploit the perpetual hairy sweater I’ve been wearing since I turned twenty), my fancy Longines Legend Diver on my wrist and a new job teaching at respectable college. You’re going to rock this joint, babe! I ring the bell and take one last look at my reflection and can’t resist: “Woof!” I say to, well, myself.

“Hello, what?” Cock! Who answers the door so fucking quickly? What? Does she just stand there all day waiting for people to ring the damn bell? Ok. Ok. Be cool. Nothing to worry about.

               “Helen? It’s Neil.”

“Neil? Oh of course! Did you just say ‘woof’?” Idiot.

               “What? Me? No! Maybe the lines got crossed.” Maybe the lines got crossed? What are you, a 1930s switchboard operator?

               “Oh. Yeah … that must be it … well come on up! Third floor!”

She buzzes me in and I walk towards the elevator, pleading with myself to, for the love of fuck, get a grip and be cool. The elevator arrives and I step in. No mirror. Damn. I press 3 and the old Otis shakes, coughs and finally takes off. The door opens and I step outside. There’s a door directly opposite the elevator. I knock and it’s a confident knock. Powerful but not violent. It hurts my knuckles but I don’t let it show. Cool. A man dressed solely in tighty whities and a blue, orange and red Hawaiian shirt opens the door.

“What?” What. The. Fuck? Maybe it’s her dad? Or … weird … much older unemployed I-only-shower-on-the-national-holiday boyfriend? I feel my face contort back into its trademark deer-in-the-headlights mode. It’s bound to stay this way forever at some point.

“Hi!” I say, unable to change my facial expression.

“What?” The man says, obviously not impressed with my sartorial magnificence and the sexy whiff of Tom Ford wafting subtly from my shirt.

“I’m here for the party?” I say, not too sure if I actually am. I showed up at a meeting twice last week only to realize it’s actually next week. I dig inside my blazer pocket and yank out the pink and glitter card and shove it towards him, avoiding eye-contact. “This, err, party?” My shaking hands cause some of the glitters to leap from the card onto his face and they make him look like an elf that’s just really let itself go.

“Fuck off, gaylord,” the fat elf says, and slams the door in my face. Okeydokey.

I turn around and head back to the elevator, still unsure of what just happened. And then it dawns on me. Literally. The sign above the elevator doors reads 1. I’m on the first floor. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.

I arrive on the third floor and the door facing the elevator is slightly ajar. Muffled voices echo from within. I must still be one of the first people to arrive. Damn! Memo to me: arrive two hours late next time. I knock on the door and it opens a bit wider. There’s nobody in the hallway or dining area. My hart skips a beat and cold sweat starts to run down my natal cleft. It’s the wrong place! Again! Double cock! But then Helen steps into view, all smiles, and ushers me in.

“Hi! Come on in!” she says. She’s wearing jeans and an old sweatshirt. “Any trouble finding the place?” she asks, still smiling.

“Hi!” I say, maintaining eye-contact for less than a second, pretending to take in her place. “Nice place!” and then, realizing I also have to answer the question, “No problemo. It was cool.Get it together, man. Seriously.

“Thanks!” Helen says, kindly ignoring my nonsensical answer. “I just moved in, it’s great. Small, but cozy. Don’t you look nice! All dressed up! Come meet the others!”  Nailed it.

“I’d love to!” I say. My voice is loud and unsure of which octave it should pick.

Helen takes my arm and leads me into the living room. I do a quick head count and freeze. There’s seven people in total, all drinking soda. The two geriatrics slumped down on the couch are obviously her grandparents. One of them is asleep, snoring gently. His wife is sucking on a microwaved cheese stick, her dentures resting on the table, still gleaming from recent spittle. Next to them are two teenagers, both lost in the magic blue light emanating from their smartphones. One is a younger version of Helen, fifteen or sixteen, the other an awkward boy of about thirteen still deciding whether to go with testosterone or estrogen. There’s about two years’ worth of blonde-going-on-black fuzz on his upper lip. Opposite them is a middle-aged couple in their fifties. The parents. It’s obvious the fuzz kid is trying to imitate his dad, who sports one hell of a Tom Selleck. He’s wearing sneakers, faded jeans, and a sweatshirt. The mother is pretty much Helen in about twenty years: blonde, slim and still surprisingly perky. And yes, she’s wearing a sweatshirt. The last person must be Helen’s other sister. She’s probably two or three years older than Helen, dark hair, pretty yet plain, and obviously pregnant. The redness under her nose tells me she got her dad’s genes. There’s one empty seat, pretty much positioned in the middle of the semi-circle of sofas. I look around again and conclude that everyone is wearing sweatshirts and sneakers, even the grandparents.

“The other people from work couldn’t make it, so it’s just us! Have a seat,” Helen says, pointing at the chair of doom. “We were just about to open up the champagne. Would you like a glass?”

“That’d be wonderful,” I say, looking at the chair. “Need any help?”

“Don’t be silly,” Helen says, “take a seat! Mingle!” Mingle. Mingle? MINGLE??

I sit down and the room goes dead silent.

“Hi,” I say to no one in particular. In perfect unison (with the exception of the kids on their phones) everyone says “Hi!” right back. Then silence. After a cringe-worthy twenty seconds—according to my Longines which I use to escape the questioning looks and because it’s pretty and I like to look at it—I add: “I work with Helen.”

The women go “Aaaahhhh” and the men don’t care.

“So you’re a teacher as well?” the mom asks, taking a sip from her can of diet cola.

“Yes,” I say, “But, technically, because it’s a college, they call us lecturers. Because we give lectures. See?”

“The mom just stares at me blankly, then goes: “But you teach students things, right?”

“Well, yes, sure, we teach—”

“So, then, you’re a teacher, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes, strictly speaking, but the diff—”

“So what do you teach?”

“I—err—English. I teach English.”

“Why?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why do you teach English? Doesn’t everyone already speak English?”

“Well, yes and no. I mean—”

“What do you mean ‘yes and no’? Who doesn’t speak English?”

“Well, yes, we all speak it, but it’s more than just speaking, right? I think it was Noam Chomsky who once said: ‘A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a—”

“Who wants champagne!” Helen shouts, coming out of the kitchen carrying a tray filled with champagne glasses. Everyone takes a glass and I gulp mine down in one go while trying to remember the rest of the Chomsky quote. A few seconds later, the dad lifts his glass, untouched, like all the others, and toasts his daughter.

“Here’s to our Helen. Happy birthday, sweetie!”

I pretend to drink from my empty glass. It fools no one.

An hour later the recently waxed sister and I are clearing away the remnants of half-eaten cheese sticks and empty champagne glasses. In the time that has passed between then and now, I’ve listened to the mom tell her daughter, who’d just aged another year, that she should really find a man to settle down with, glancing at me every time she mentioned it. Helen had brought out a bottle of red wine and we’d finished it off together, the rest of the family still sipping diet cola after the champagne. Just as the mother started to ask Helen why teachers drink so much, her sister and I moved into the kitchen carrying the dishes.

We load the dishwasher in silence. She seems like a nice woman and the red wine has loosened me up a bit so I take a shot starting a conversation. Pregnant woman love talking about babies.

“Boy or girl?” I ask.

“I’m sorry?” she says, looking up at me quizzically.

“The baby, I mean. A boy or a girl?”

“Oh I don’t have kids,” she says, smiling and closing the dishwasher.

“Ah! No, I mean the one growing inside of you, like, now! Or can’t they tell yet? You must be, what, about five or six months along?”

The sisters smile fades, fades, fades—and it’s gone. Her eyes go black and the redness under her nose left by the wax job only accentuates her flaring nostrils. This woman is seriously pissed off. I wonder why and it takes me about three very long seconds to realize she’s not pregnant at all.

“Oh shit! I’m so sorry,” I say, for some reason raising my hands in a please-don’t-shoot-me gesture. “I must have been the sweatshirt, I mean, it’s hard to tell, you know, with a baggy sweater like that, it just looked like—” Her mouth actually drops open at this and there’s a big blue vein throbbing on the side of her throat. I take one last stab at trying to mend this obviously unmendable situation and for the life of me can’t figure out why I can’t simply shut the crap up. “Not that you look fat or anything, you know? It must be the picture of the cat on the front of your sweatshirt, some sort of optical illusion?” Fuck being cool, my brain urges. Just. Run.

Just as the sister is about to open her mouth to shout at me, I dart out into the living room and bump into Helen.

“Hi! I gotta run! Great party! Thanks for having me!”

“Oh, so soon?” Helen says as I make my way to the front door, the Great Escape within reach. Then I remember Steve McQueen all tangled up into barbed wire and go into a weird hopping motion that only makes things more awkward. I lay my hand on the doorknob, twist it and open the door. The elevator comes into view and I exhale loudly. I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it! I’m going to—

“I’M NOT PREGNANT YOU DICK!”

Massive rods of steel nail me to the ground. I turn around and see Helen looking at her sister who is standing at the end of the hallway, fuming. Helen turns and looks at me, her jaw inches from the floor. I wrench my feet from the ground and step backwards into the hall. For the first time that night, I’m speechless. Don’t. Just. Don’t. my brain advises.

“It was the sweatshirt,” I hear myself saying as my hand gently pulls the door shut. I forgo the elevator and run down the stair, taking two at a time in order to put distance between me and the now probably homicidal sister. Maybe you’ll fall and break your neck. It’d probably be for the best. When I arrive at the first floor, the fat elf is standing in his doorway, repositioning his balls in his tightie whities. The screaming sister must have made him curious.

“Good party?” he asks, grinning his fat elf grin.

I hate sweatshirts.

 

 

A BIT OF BANTER

I’m in a bar with some friends having a beer. Nothing awkward about that, you might say, and you’d be right. As glasses of Belgian draught beer are drained and fresh ones are ordered, the conversation flip-flops from work to movies to some arcane philosophical notion of reality about which none of us really knows anything but we talk about it anyway. The thought that I’m shackled to a rock in a cave looking at shadows of people drinking quality beer and having fun pops into my head. It’s very disconcerting. Then I realize I’ve already finished my beer and am pretty drunk. “I’m not drunk,” I say to no one in particular. Right when the conversation jumps back to movies I think I recognize a woman across the bar and squint and lean forward to confirm my suspicion. Yup. It’s her.

“Remember when I interviewed for that sales job a while ago?” I ask my friends, bluntly yet effectively putting an end to a discussion on Star Wars actually being a western. It’s sort of true. Look it up. Anyway, they vaguely remember my one-day foray into the world of door-to-door sales. “The one where you had to go door to door?” one of them says, trying to figure out whether I’m staring at something in particular or just zoning out. “Yeah,” I say, distracted. “Yeah, that one.” She’s coming over to the bar to order drinks. I smile and raise my hand and she fails to acknowledge both signs of familiarity as she arrives at the bar. Part of me really just wants to see if I’ve still got the moves after being in a relationship for, well, ages. It’s an ego thing. I’d obviously not pursue it, but knowing I could would boost my ego up into the stratosphere.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi,” she says.

“Sarah, right?” I’ve both gotten her attention and flabbergasted my friends with one sentence. So far, so good.

“That’s right,” she says, somewhat suspicious yet smiling nonetheless. She’s Irish and so generally good-natured, or so my ethanol-inflamed brain tells me.

“You interviewed me for a job a while back,” I say. My friends look at each other with an ‘ah, of course, it all makes sense now!’ expression on their faces and sip their beers in contentment.

“Right! Sure!” she says. Her shields go down and she smiles a genuine smile now, amused. “How are you?”

“I’m good!” I say, and have immediately run out of things to say. I think hard, take a sip of my beer and finally muster, “You?”

“I’m great,” she says.

Silence.

“These are Vince and Pedro,” I say, attempting to fill the horrendous void. “They don’t work in sales.” I have no idea why I just said that and judging by the look on everyone else’s faces, neither do they. Sarah comes up with a nice save though.

“Right. Nice to meet you guys.” Ah, the Irish, champions!

More silence.

“So!” Sarah finally says, and adds “Why didn’t I hire you?” jokingly. Aha! Banter! I love a bit of banter. Especially when I’m drunk. I feel that, with the right amount of alcohol flowing through my veins, I banter like a pro.

“Well, Sarah. To be fair, you did. I refused!” I say, giggling. I am nailing this banter thing.

“Oh really?” she says, still smiling. “Why did you?”

I have to take a minute to think about this. How do I put this lightly? Keep the banter going without being blunt or rude? Aha! I’ve got it.

“Well, Sarah,” I say, smiling, “I just thought it was a bit of a soul-sucking job, to be honest!” I chuckle and finish my beer. Nailed it. I have to keep this up while I’m in the zone.

“You know, nothing personal! It’s just, you know, going door to door, badgering people and selling them crap you’d never buy yourself and then afterwards celebrating the fact that you’ve basically conned these people and made money whilst doing it … it just all seems a bit sordid, don’t you think? So I went back to teaching. Sure, you have to deal with a lot of shit on a daily basis and drink like a fish at night to get through the day, but at least it’s fulfilling in a way. You know, an honest living. But I liked you though! You seemed like the least vulture-like of all of ‘em!”

There. Banter 101. I should do this for a living! Maybe there’s a career for me in stand-up comedy?

“Wow,” she says. Great. She’s so impressed with my banter she’s speechless.

“Well,” Vince says, “That just got real awkward real fast.” Pedro just nods in agreement. I’m stumped. What happened? A bit of banter never hurt anyone, did it?

Sarah excuses herself and walks back towards her friends.

“What?” I ask my friends.

“Well,” Pedro says, “That was pretty rude, man.”

“It was banter!”

“Pretty sure that was just really insulting and hurtful, man,” Vince says. “You were getting close to grab-them-by-the-pussy territory.”

“No it wasn’t!” I say, but I’m not too sure now. Was it? “Look,” I say, “I’ll prove it to you.”

As I walk over to Sarah, who’s talking to her friends and trying very hard to ignore me, I hear Pedro say “This’ll be good.”

“Hi,” I say, softly. Sarah ignores me and keeps talking to her friends. The possibility of the fun, just having a laugh kind of banter actually being ‘a bit of a dick’ banter becomes more real by the second. “Sorry, Sarah?” I say, too loud this time. Sarah turns around and faces me.

“Oh, it’s you. What?”

“I’m sorry if I insulted you back there. I really didn’t mean to,” I say. She’s quite a bit shorter than me and is showing quite a bit of cleavage and I must admit that not sneaking a peek is challenging. “I didn’t mean you were a vulture, just the people that work for you, you know? You’re fine. You’re a nice person, it’s just the job that sucks. See?”

“You’re not doing any better,” she says. “This is all still extremely insulting. Please leave.”

“Look! Wait! Hang on. I think you’re probably a great boob, it’s just that the job wasn’t for me!”

Sarah looks at me and cocks one eye-brow as she slightly tilts her head to one side. I know this look. My girlfriend has given me plenty over the years. The shit has hit the fan. The room is now a giant shit stain. Did I just say she’s a good boob? I did, didn’t I? Crap in a bucket, that’s bad. My mind races to figure out what to say next, a magic sentence to minimize the damage, something damn it, something, say something!

“I’m sorry I called you a boob back there.”

Sarah actually smiles a bit at this. Could it be?

“You’re an idiot. And not just the goofy kind, are you? But, like, a serious, full-blown idiot,” she says, laughing.

“I am,” I admit. “But at least I’m not in sales, right?” I say, laughing and punching her on the shoulder. She spills some of her drink.

“Get away from me,” Sarah says. The vein that runs across her temple is throbbing so I know she’s serious.

I slowly make my way back to my friends, who literally have tears in their eyes from holding back their laughter.

“Well, that was awkward,” I say, and they burst out in hyena-like fits of laughter.

Bastards.

“No, seriously, Neil. In all seriousness. You. You would have made a great salesman,” Vince says. They crack up again and even the barkeep joins in.

I hate banter.

THE LIST

When you discover the horrible truth… and find proof…    

 

“Aha!” I shout from my desk. There’s no reply from the other room. I decide to give it another shot, a bit louder this time.

“AHA!”

Still nothing.

Seriously. What does a man have to do to get some attention around this place? There’s a stray boot next to my desk. It looks heavy enough for the job I have in mind, but light enough to minimize collateral damage. What the hell. I hurl the boot down the study doorway and quickly turn around again as it sails through the corridor. It greets the living room door with gusto. Even in its footless state it manages to deliver a precision Van Damme high kick that blows the door wide open.

Bupkis.

Could it be the woman has already grown accustomed to my antics? Seems implausible. With the tract between us now no longer obstructed by a closed door, I decide to give it one last go. Deep breath. Here we go.

“AH—huh?” is all I manage to utter as I crane my head back and see my girlfriend standing in the doorway of my study.

“What?”

“I—“

“You threw a shoe.”

“I—“

“Who throws a shoe at a door?”

“I—“

“Yes, I know it was you. The question is why?”

“Well—“

“Well?”

“I don’t remember now,” I say, confused.

“Right.”

“Sorry?”

“Damn right you’re sorry. You owe me a massage. And not just one of those one-handed petting things. I’m talking candles, Barry White, the whole nine yards.”

“Yes, hon.”

What was I thinking? As my girlfriend rolls her eyes and starts to walk out of the study, I catch a glimpse of the PDF file on my computer screen. It’s entitled ‘Neil: a Case Study.’

“AHA!” I belt out, euphoric beyond control. She turns around reluctantly, one tired eyebrow cocked.

“Look! Look at the screen, woman! Look!”

She looks at the screen, unimpressed.

“Here, I’ll read it to you!”

More of the eye-rolling. She should know by now that it takes more than some passive-aggressive non-verbal communication to faze me.

“’Neil, twenty-seven years of age, has been drinking steadily since he was eighteen.’”

“Okay.”

“Don’t you see?”

“You’re writing about yourself again?”

“No woman, for the love of—I’m researching alcoholism for my psychology class and came across this case study. Listen! ‘As Neil grew older, his alcohol intake increased. Over the last few years, Neil has gotten into the habit of having a couple of drinks a day to help him sleep or in the company of friends who also drink.’”

“And?”

“It’s about me!”

“It’s not about you.”

“It is! I’m telling you. Here, listen to this: Neil is the youngest of a family of seven. He’s got four older sisters.”

“You have two sisters.”

“I know that,” I say and now it’s my turn to indulge in some eye-rolling. “Obviously they’d change a few things here and there to throw me off track.”

“Uh-huh.”

“’His sisters took an active role in raising Neil and he often says he was raised by four mothers.’”

“You talk about your dad all the time.”

“Yeah, sure, but I’ve said that, too! Remember? When your friends and I were talking about my feminine side?”

“Please. Don’t remind me.”

“It goes on! ‘His father, who died from a heart attack when Neil was twelve, also struggled with alcoholism, which often led the family to fighting.’ See!”

“Your dad just called you twenty minutes ago.”

“You’re not getting it,” I say, throwing up my hands in disbelief.

“Not really,” she admits. “What am I missing?”

I look at her suspiciously. It’s a trick… I go on anyway.

“It’s the list.”

“Oh, God.”

“No, seriously, hear me out.”

“No.”

“Remember when I told you about the list?”

“Nope.”

“Sure you do. You made fun of me. A lot. Well, this is it. This is proof! They’re watching me. They’ve got my whole life on file. They know everything about me. I’m. On. The. List.” Boy, must she feel stupid now!

“Let me get this straight,” my girlfriend says, smiling a bit. Finally, she’s getting it. To quote Bradley Whitford’s character Josh on The West Wing: ‘Victory is mine! Victory is mine! Great day in the mornin’, people. Victory is mine. I drink from the keg of glory, Donna. Bring me the finest muffins and bagels in all the land!’ “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me the government has put you on a list, of sorts, and they wrote a case study about you?” she continues.

“Yes! Well, not just that, of course. A lot more than that! The case study is just the tip of the iceberg!”

“Sweetie?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“You need help.”

“I—whatever. I should have known you wouldn’t understand.” So much for victory. “You know, you can be pretty naïve from time to time.” The words slip out of my mouth a split second faster than my brain needs to register their meaning. Crap. My girlfriend looks at me. The smile that was there before has leapt off of her face and left a large mouth-shaped hole in the wall.

“Beg your pardon?”

“I—hon—sweetie—I—“

“Wait, what’s this?” she says, eyeing the screen. Whatever it is, it seems to have taken her mind off my momentary lapse of sanity, so I roll with it.

“What, hon?”

She pushes me aside (damn office chair with its stupid wheels) and reads the rest of the case study out loud.

“’Unlike his intelligent sisters, Neil had trouble keeping up at elementary school. His below-average intelligence would haunt him throughout high school and into adulthood. He was bullied in high school. His schoolmates nicknamed him Mongo, after the dimwitted character from the movie Blazing Saddles.’”

“Well, that—that’s just—more stuff to throw you off!”

“Uh-huh. Let’s read on, shall we?”

“No—no, it’s ok, I’ll just—“

“Once Neil entered adulthood, he presented severe signs of social awkwardness, attempting to use humor and alcohol as a front to hide his insecurity.’ Hey, you know what? This really is about you!”

“Alright, let’s just—“

“’Neil had a lot of trouble interacting with women and used alcohol to ease his nerves and boost his self-confidence.’ My God! It’s all true! If I had only known…”

“Are you done?”

“Oh, no. Not for a long time. Mongo.”

“Please leave.”

“Sure. No problem, Mongo.”

“Right. You know, this is pretty childish. You know that, don’t you?”

“Shhht! They might be listening,” she says, her eyes darting left, right, up, and down, nervously scanning the room. As she walks out of the study, laughing so hard the cat who’d just arrived to see what all the fuss is about jumps up into the air and flees into the kitchen, I try to review what just happened. How could something as scary and disconcerting as the list end up making her laugh?

“Women,” I mutter, turning my attention back to the screen. “They just don’t get it.”

An echo of laughter bounces off of the walls of the corridor and into the study. A second later, the word ‘Mongo’ creeps in behind it.

Crap.

Babel, it ain’t

Ever wonder what happens when a man’s brain goes numb? Find out here!

BABEL IT AIN’T

 

We’re all dressed up and ready for dinner. We’ve had a couple of drinks (okay, we’ve had two bottles of store-bought wine) and are running on a mild buzz (we’re drunk). It’s a lovely night in the city of Split. The sky is blanketed in a mesmerizing orange hue and a cool breeze rustles the leaves of the tree-lined street we’re walking down.

“All in all, it’s been a good day so far,” my girlfriend says. “I mean, the beach itself was nice, wasn’t it?”

The word penis flashes into my mind for the umpteenth time today and, of its own accord, my hand moves to my sullied thigh. Even though it’s still eighty degrees out, I shiver and goosebumps break out all over my arms and legs. Penis.

“And the water was wonderful!”

“Yeah,” I say. “The water.” I swallow hard and flick through my collection of mental images in an attempt to drown out the still of an elderly man bending over to put on his pebble-beach shoes. A shriveled and well-tanned scrotum dangles between two skinny and varicose-veined legs. Grey hairs protrude from it in odd places. It is so long it completely obscures the geriatric Croatian’s penis. Penis. I try to conjure up an image. Any image. Multitudes slide by like a PowerPoint presentation on speed. It’s the most random collection of images I’ve ever seen. There’s movie posters, sunsets, my girlfriend on a surfboard, an old family portrait where the photographer asked me to give him a big smile but then saw my braces and said “Okay, well, maybe not, then,” and the result was a family snapshot of my mom, dad and sisters smiling beautiful smiles and me standing to the side wearing an oversized white nineties turtleneck sweater looking like my cat just died. There’s a GIF-like image of Power Rangers fighting. There’s pizza. And then there’s the beach again and the thing smacking against the guy’s legs like a Grandfather clock’s pendulum. My girlfriend is standing about ten feet from me down the street, eyeing me curiously.

“Are you okay, sweetie? You’ve been zoning out for about a minute now. And you’re trembling a little. Do you wanna sit down for a bit?”

I snap out of it and focus on her. I picture her naked and, praise Hugh Hefner, it works. The image fades and my nausea subsides somewhat.

“Nah I’m okay, hon.”

“Still hung up on that p—”

“Don’t!” I shout and lunge forward, placing a hand over her mouth before she has a chance to bring back the image. “Please,” I whisper, “Please, let’s never speak of it again.”

My girlfriend nods, wide-eyed, and I let my hand drop to her waist. We continue our walk down Split’s idyllic streets, towards our table in a popular restaurant we’ve cleverly booked at noon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, two girls appear in front of us. Well, actually they just walked out of a side-street onto the larger thoroughfare we’re walking down that leads to the harbor, but it really did seem like they simply manifested out of thin air. Some serious Copperfield shit right there. They’re gorgeous. Both are clad in shorts so short they reveal the smallest hint of cheek. The legs and tiny cheek parts and all the other parts of them that aren’t covered up (which is most of them) are consummately tanned. They look as if they’ve been dipped in chocolate mixed with gold mixed with butter to add a nice satin finish. I am in awe. I’m thrilled I’m wearing my darkest pair of sunglasses. My girlfriend, however, doesn’t need to see my eyes to know what they’re focusing on and says,

“Well well, they’re cute!”

I look at her, perplexed, gobsmacked, dumbfounded, shocked and most of all, ashamed.

“Yes—yes they are,” I say, hoping that the guilt in my voice and my overtly uncomfortable body language are enough to put the whole thing to rest.

“Especially the one on the right,” she says. I look at her again. She’s not raising an eyebrow or scowling or anything, just smiling a little. I am so confused that for a second I can’t remember where I am. I realize I’m sweating again. My mind races, this time not flicking through images but juggling about ninety-nine bad replies and one that possibly wouldn’t get me killed. There’s no way telling which is which. Like Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I take a leap of faith.

“Not bad,” I say.

“God, I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”

Alarms: bells, whistles, sirens, bullhorns and the chorus of Highway to the Danger Zone go off in my head. What the hell is this? Sure, I’ve heard of girls joking about threesomes, about being bi, but never, ever in my dating history have I ever been this close!

“Haha,” I chuckled. My mouth is drier than psoriasis. We’ve closed in on them now and they’re only a few feet ahead of us. They smell like sunscreen oil and perfume. My legs go numb.

“And that ass!” My girlfriend says, a little hushed. She sounds sincerely awed. “What a great ass! I could bite that ass. An ass like that, I’d glue my hands to it. I would ruin that ass.”

Something inside of me will never be the same again.

“Oh yeah,” I try, attempting to match her gusto. “Yeah, an ass like that,” think man think think think think, say something sexy, say something cool! Be a man! “I like ass!”

I don’t just say it. I shout it. Way too loud. I got caught up in the moment. I’ve not yet fully realized what I’ve said. By now we’re almost right behind the two girls and my girlfriend has stopped dead. She just looks at me for a moment, then looks at the girls. They’ve also stopped walking and have turned to face us. I realize what I’ve just said.

“It’s okay,” I say, trying to placate my girlfriend, “Nobody here speaks English! They don’t know what I’ve just said. They’re just looking at us because I shouted!”

The girl on the right opens her mouth. It’s a pretty mouth. Nice, full lips. She’ll undoubtedly have an angelic voice in which she’ll ask us a question in some beautiful, yet incomprehensible Serbo-Croatian dialect. I flash her my kindest smile.

“What the fuck is wrong with you people? Seriously? What? The? Fuck?!” a harsh, Midwestern accent belts at us. The absurd fallacy of my previous statement hits me like a bowling ball to the head. My girlfriend’s eye meet mine and, for some reason, it’s soothing to realize she’s as shocked as I am.

“Sorry,” we mumble in unison.

The girls turn around and walk away from us at twice the speed they were walking before. I pick up some bits and pieces of their conversation. The words perverts, sick and disgusting are used repeatedly. My girlfriend and I turn into a side-street in order to get away from the girls as quickly as possible. We walk the rest of the way in shame-soaked silence, except for “Nobody here speaks English? Seriously” When we arrive at the restaurant, we’re talking again. And laughing. My girlfriend keeps repeating the phrase ‘I like ass’ and we crack up a little more every time. She says it one more time while sitting down and we both wipe our eyes with our napkins. A familiar voice at the table next to ours speaks.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

We stop laughing, get up, and leave without making any eye contact with anyone. Even when the waiter comes over to ask us what’s wrong we just power on through until we’re out the door and in the clear. On our way home we buy two bottles of wine and a bag of Doritos.

Croatia. Babel, it ain’t.

 

 

 

The Beach

The boardwalk is strewn with tanned, mustachioed men in sweat-stained t-shirts, flip-flops and cotton shorts. Many of them are wearing straw hats or baseball caps to ward off the supernova in the sky that has cranked the temperature up to a mind-melting one hundred and thirteen degrees.

“We need a beach,” my girlfriend says. I look at her and realize the world is preposterously unfair. She’s wearing a white tank top, a colorful skirt and flip-flops. But there’s something very wrong with her. She’s not sweating. No big fat drops of sweat rolling down the back of her neck, staining her tank top. No dark, damp circles under her arms. Alien. I’m dating an alien! I find myself thinking while I catch my reflection in a store window. I’m literally leaking sweat out of every visible pore. I’m wearing a white T-shirt that went from crisply washed and ironed to transparent and baggy in a matter of seconds. I don’t do heat well. At all. Hence, when my girlfriend said “We need a beach,” she actually meant, “You need to be submerged in cold water before you spontaneously combust. Stat.”

The Croatian city of Split is a sight to behold. Marble streets and ancient buildings, small alleyways crowded with cozy bars and restaurants invite you to get lost in the atmosphere. Dump your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide or whatever tool you’re clutching—pausing every two seconds to locate yourself on the minuscule, disorienting map and read trivial info about what the best place is to buy a pair of silicone-soled pebble-beach shoes (who needs shoes on a beach? Seriously?)—and just experience it all first-hand. Unfortunately, the marble heats up, the humidity is murder and now my forearms are sweating. No kidding.  So the beach it is.

Sadly, Split isn’t really known for its beaches. There are a few around, but they’re not that easy to reach and extremely crowded. But the two-mile walk to the closest beach is the lesser of two evils when compared to climbing near-vertical streets to explore the inner city some more. Did I mention Split is situated on a hillside? Well, it is. I’m afraid that if I start going up and down those marble streets people will slip on the trail of sweat and sunscreen I’m leaving behind and break their necks. Can’t have a mass tourist murder on my conscience. I’m already on the list

We make our way to the closest beach, going up and down and getting lost a bit, asking for directions, secretly checking our tourist map. After making a massive detour, ascending and descending small paths that crisscross through a massive park, we find the beach. Well, I say beach, but really it’s a big five-star hotel that has annexed a small pebble bay and littered it with beach chairs, umbrellas and pale, sunburnt and already inebriated Brits.

“Look!” my girlfriend says. “They’ve got chairs and everything!”

I notice just about everyone is wearing these pebble-beach shoes and I start to panic a little. But then I spot a couple of leather-skinned locals trudging across the beach barefoot without flinching so I relax. If they can do it, surely, so can I. There’s a sign nearby laying out the prices. They’re insane. Fifty kuna for a chair, sixty for an umbrella. That’s more than we paid for an elaborate dinner last night.

“Hell, no,” I say, shaking my head.

“But what’s the alternative?” my girlfriend asks, looking at the near-critical state my body is now in.

“We’ll find something else. A fountain or something. I’ll stick my head under a tap, I don’t care. This is just crazy.”

“It is expensive,” my girlfriend says, casting a final, longing glance at the shade and, I have to admit, comfy-looking beach chairs.

“We’ll find something else,” I say. I’m pretty sure we won’t.

 

On our way back we pass the boardwalk once more and one of the sweaty, mustachioed men walks up to us. I wonder what gave us away.

“Best beach! Best beach! Very cheap! Very quiet!” My girlfriend meets my eyes with a look that says yeah, right. I cock an eyebrow and go for the well, maybe, who knows? look.

“How much?” I ask, exaggerating my skepticism.

“10 kuna! Boat! 10 kuna! Very nice! Best beach! Best Beach!” If anything, this guy is really enthusiastic about this beach of his.

“Show us,” I say, opening a new pack of paper tissues to wipe my brow. He shows us. The pictures look amazing. A small cove, hidden away, only accessible by boat. The water is a stunning aquamarine and, save from a small beach bar, the place is deserted. We look at each other. I shrug my shoulders. My girlfriend shrugs her shoulders. We’re game.

“Best beach?” I ask one last time.

“Yes! Yes! The very best! Come!”

Off we go, to the best beach.

 

It’s everything the pictures showed and more. It’s breathtaking. There’s maybe twenty people on the boat with us, and there isn’t a soul on the beach when we arrive. Most of our fellow boat people seem local, as well. We’re by far the youngest couple there, with at least twenty years between us and the others. Some are well into the geriatric classification. The chairs and umbrella here are 40 kuna all together. That’s one hell of a deal. We spread out our towels, strip down to our bathing suits and flop down on the chairs. Comfy. I begin to rummage through our stuff in order to locate my book while my girlfriend is slathering herself in sunscreen. Good, I think, more shade for me. I can’t find my book and begin to panic. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good beach. Go for a swim, lie in the sun for ten minutes, dry off the sweat and apply new sunscreen. But I have to be able to spend at least two hours in the shade reading a book. That, to me, is bliss. The book I’m currently reading is quite brilliant and I’m already getting seriously pissed at myself for not bringing it. In a minute or two I’ll start blaming the girlfriend, finding a way to somehow make it her fault.

“Neil?” I hear my girlfriend say, as she taps my sweaty shoulder. I ignore her for a second, still looking for the book.

“Neil? Neil?” She tries again, a bit louder now, but still in an oddly hushed voice.

“Hang on a sec,” I say, spotting something at the bottom of the bag.

“NEIL!” she sort of whisper-shouts, still facing away from me, tapping my shoulder more frantically now.

“Just a second!” I say, raising my voice a bit, trying to be authoritative. It doesn’t work. It hardly ever does.

“Nude!” I hear her whisper behind me as she gropes my shoulder and squeezes down hard. I have no idea what she’s on about and suddenly feel the book in my hand at the bottom of the bag, underneath the spare bottle of sunscreen.

“BINGO!” I yell, and look up.

Penis. That’s all that my brain is able to process. An old, surprisingly large, uncircumcised penis. I leap back and inadvertently push my girlfriend off her chair. I look back and see her on her hands and knees near a woman in her seventies, butt-naked, staring off into the distance, surveying the ocean. I hear a little shriek leave her throat as she scurries back onto her chair, her eyes never leaving the tanned and surprisingly well-waxed private parts of the elderly lady.

“Nude!” she whispers to me, grasping blindly for my hand.

“Penis!” I whisper, grabbing her and pulling her against me, some sort of anti-nudity shield. She looks at what I’m seeing and gasps. “Penis! Penis!” she whispers, awed.

We look around and now everyone is naked except for us. Nobody even looks at us. They wave at each other and flap their genitals around in the breeze as if they do this every day. They probably do. So we spend the afternoon marooned on our bed-and-umbrella island, our noses buried in our books, afraid to look around, afraid to move. The time comes when dehydration is nigh and I bite the bullet. I walk over to the bar. I get several nods from men old enough to be my grandfather, their penises and balls, hairy, trimmed, or shaved, but all of them definitely wrinkled, seemingly following me as I go past. I nod, then return my focus to the foliage above that covers the bar in a cool blanket of shade. A man of about sixty joins me at the bar, also waiting to be served. He, of course, is also naked. He scratches his balls, repositions his member and then extends his hand to shake mine. I’m petrified. I don’t move. I don’t even blink. He stabs his hand in my direction a few times, thinking I’m just not getting this international gesture. Reluctantly, I shake it. It’s slightly moist.

“Nice, beach, no?” he says, winking.

“The best,” I reply. Our drinks arrive. I’m about to leave when I notice they gave us the wrong drinks. I put them back down and ask the nudist next to me if they’re his drinks.

“Yes! Mine! Thanks!” he says, and picks them up. I turn back towards the bar to get the waitress’ attention, clear up the misunderstanding. The man next to me turns to leave, drinks in hand.

His penis flaps and slaps my thigh. I can feel his pubes brush against me as he squeezes past, even though there’s nobody else at the 10 foot bar. An unreproducible groan of horror slithers out of my throat. I leave the drinks and walk back towards where my girlfriend is, my feet hurting so much on the hot, sharp pebbles I’m actually dancing, hopping and staggering like an idiot instead of simply walking. Memo to me: get some pebble shoes.

My girlfriends looks up from her book and asks: “No drinks?”

“No,” I say. “We’re leaving.”

“Why?” she asks, “I’m just starting to like it here!”

“No. Let’s go.”

“But why? Come on, it isn’t that bad. Just some naked people. You’ll survive. Now sit down and read your book.”

“I can’t,” I say, shivering now.

“But why, sweetie? What’s wrong?”

“I—it—it touched me.”

My girlfriend takes a second to process this rather cryptic message. Then she bursts out laughing, the same pitch and intensity as in the airport on the way here. She laughs and laughs and I just stand there, feeling violated.

Best beach my balls.