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I’m here for Max, but the birthday girl has all my attention. It’s her I’m watching from up close, like a creep, naturally without anyone noticing my presence in the smoking area. And why would they? My plainness is my armour.
I register every single detail about this birthday girl and her interactions with the other art students. She is dark-haired with a fringe and a gigantic silver E balloon attached to her head. Her hands are shaking with delight, holding a brown chocolate cake with trimmed nuts on top and, of course, candles. Long, blue dotted candles, their lit peaks flailing demonically in the wind. Memories surround me in no time. I graze my shoes on the pebbles to make them go away. I concentrate on Max, my anchor to the present. He is dressed in black and smoking a cigarette, his face submerged in thick smoke, slowly clearing out. He looks different from his pictures. He has ditched the bleached blond hair in favour of what seems like his natural hair colour, black and very straight, the kind that feels smooth to the touch. I prefer him this way. He looks good. Handsome, even. But the closer I get, the more red flags emerge, as if from behind a curtain, in patches of stage light. A layer of sweat covering his forehead. Enormous pupils about to explode. The sharpest dark circles I have ever seen. Not that you will see me leaving any time soon. I wave once in front of his face.
He looks up but doesn’t seem to recognize me. “I’m your date. We met on the app?”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
“Are you all right?”
“Can I touch it?”
He hasn’t heard me or doesn’t know how to take “no” for an answer. He goes to feel my hair, and to my surprise, I don’t stop him. He is gentle at first, all things considered. That’s until he starts wrapping his fingers around my curls and twisting them like they were Spaghetti Bolognese. My cue to take his hand and place it on the table, where it won’t be making me uncomfortable. I sit on the bench opposite him, close my leather jacket over my breasts. On the table, candles are burning in wine bottles. Their light flickers once, then twice on Max’s face. He is smiling at me, parading his cigarette teeth, staring at me through half-closed eyelids. I snap my fingers.
“Hey. Are you there?”
“Yes. What’s happening?”
Rain starts pounding on the gazebo over our heads. I should have gone while I could. I forgot to bring my umbrella.
“Nothing is happening, can’t you tell? What are you on?”
“What have you taken? Drugs.”
“I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
But I’ve stopped listening. I’m looking over his shoulder at the birthday girl’s stupid, pretty face. Her lips, two perfectly shaped curves, the essence of refinement. As if they were given to her solely for blowing candles on birthdays. After three failed attempts, one hundred percent calculated to increase everyone’s agitation, there is smoke. Applause. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY EFFIE.” Enter a blond, pretty girl, freakishly tall, her head crowned with a green paper hat rife with silver stars. She hugs birthday girl Effie from behind as if she were an item of vintage clothing. I hope they both get soaking wet. Catch pneumonia, if possible.
“It’s okay,” I tell Max. “You can talk to me. What did you take?”
“I opened the drawer on my desk to get my tobacco. There was this tab of LSD…”
I roll my eyes.
“I don’t know how it got there, I swear. Why I thought it was a good idea.”
This time, Gail won’t get me out of this with a phone call and an excuse. But Gail is also a cunt and I don’t need her. I’m doing just fine on my own. I’m going on dates.
“Okay, I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to go. Are you going to be okay by yourself?”
“No, no, it’s okay. Look.” He digs his hand in his jeans. “I got the other half. If you drop it now…”
If I was still eighteen, doing a degree I didn’t enjoy, and knew no better, I would have maybe accepted his offer. But as it stands, I despise drugs and the people that take them. They are immature and they usually have nothing going on in their lives.
“What makes you think I want to do that?”
“Just take it. It will be fun.” Said the guy with the self-control of an infant.
“Is there anyone you can call? That I can call for you? Your friends?”
He shakes his head.
“Okay, fine. What’s your address?”
He points at something over my shoulder and starts laughing. “Whoa.”
“What?” I turn around. There is nothing to look at. He is pointing at the art students who have stopped their conversation and are looking at us.
“It’s okay. He is… tripping balls. He is having fun.”
The art students laugh at that. Birthday girl Effie says “nice,” drunk, but there isn’t any time to ask her to shut her hole.
“Max. Your address.”
He seems sad, hesitates. “Sure, I get it, I get it,” he says finally, laughs, and gives me his address.
Outside the pub, cars are flashing by. This one is blasting reggae at a sickening volume. That one is carrying a middle-aged couple arguing. When the Uber pulls over, I think: “Thank Christ. I finally get to go home and forget about all this.”
But then I realize that Max is no longer standing next to me, but has moved under the streetlight and is embracing it, his arms wide open, his eyes transfixed by its glow. “I’m in heaven, I’m in heaven,” he keeps saying, to make my life more difficult. The Uber driver has gotten out of the car and is watching this ridiculous spectacle, along with the people pointing at Max and laughing, some of them, filming.
“Is he all right?” the Uber driver asks.
“Oh yeah, he is fine. It’s a joke about this friend of ours who is really… Never mind, you wouldn’t get it.”
The Uber driver looks at me as if I’m crazy. “How long will this joke –”
“Oh, no, I’ll go get him, right now.”
“Babe, come on,” I tell him, taking him by the arm. “The driver is waiting. Come on. I’ll find you another streetlight to play with, I promise.”
He smiles at me sheepishly, allows me to lead him to the Uber. I open the door for him, nearly push him into the back seat.
“Okay, that was… Interesting. Good night. Get home safe.”
I’m about to head off, but then I hear Max asking the Uber driver if he has ever tried DMT and realize that I can’t possibly leave him to his own devices. Best-case scenario, he’ll drive the driver mental and will go mental himself. Worst-case scenario, and most likely to happen, he will get kicked out of the Uber. Maybe even get run over by a car or several cars while he is trying to find his way home. I open the door and get in the car. I sit next to him. “One second, one second. Honey, what are you telling the driver?” Then turning to the driver: “I’m sorry. He’s had a few.”
“Won’t be throwing up, I hope.”
“Oh no, never. He can hold his drink. Can’t you?” I squeeze Max’s thigh. “I can hold my drink. My LSD too.”
I cover his lips with my hand, stroke them gently with my thumb, try not to seem disgusted or suspicious. I wipe my thumb on the door handle. I laugh very loudly.
“Oh, he is so funny, isn’t he?”
The driver is giving us weird looks.
“It’s okay. Just drive please.”
The driver doesn’t say anything. He starts the car. Max is silent for the next half an hour, and I’m hoping he stays that way. Except, he doesn’t. His mouth opens, and he speaks.
“Can I rest my head on your lap?”
I resist the temptation to text Gail about my date. She is probably too busy with her new boyfriend and won’t care anyway.
“Sure. Why not? Help yourself to my lap. Or don’t.”
“Don’t mention it. The pleasure is all mine.”
He lies back, rests his head on my lap. “That’s nice.”
The driver slows down on what appears to be Max’s street. Brick houses on both sides. Stray cats pacing in front of bins with the flat numbers spray-painted on them, overflowing with rubbish. The lights are on in some of the houses. From the windows I can see couples my age making dinner in narrow kitchens with gas stoves. The smell of curry is everywhere. The driver pulls over at a sorry-looking flat next to a sorry-looking church, with a cheap, blue sign I can’t make out.
“We are here,” he says.
I’m in Max’s flat, sitting at his kitchen table, a cigarette in my right hand, a beer on my left. An empty can in front of me, which I’m using as an ashtray. As for Max, he is lying on the floor, his cheek glued on a dusty tile underneath the cupboard.
“What are you –”
I should have left an hour ago, really. But staying with Max seemed infinitely more entertaining than going home to my empty flat. He keeps talking to me, explaining things from the floor.
“Everything is amplified. The sounds. I can hear the tap dripping like it’s plugged on a speaker.”
“That’s cool,” I tell him, yawn, sip my beer. “What else can you hear?”
“Sounds from the garden.”
“That’s great. You wanna get off the floor now or…”
He hasn’t heard me or doesn’t want to break his love affair with the floor. “I am so happy right now. You have NO idea how happy I am.”
“Oh, no, I can see that.”
“I wish I could be this happy all the time,” he tells me, then mutters, for his benefit: “I guess I could just take more LSD.”
“Or maybe try reality for a change? Joking, don’t do that.”
I’m not worried about him taking more LSD. That’s because I took the other half from him and flushed it down the pub’s toilet under the pretext of wanting to take a closer look at it. (Supposedly, I’d never seen what a tab of LSD looked like, let alone taken it. This led him to more exposition on his lame trips, but I guess that was to be expected from a guy like him.) Seeing him in this state makes me feel I can say anything to him. I ask him if he meant what he said on the app.
“Do you find me attractive?”
“Ha ha ha.”
“You know what? Forget it. I don’t know why I bother.”
“Why? You are, you are.”
Gail once described me as “odd-looking, but in a cute way.” Another one of her many attempts to spare my feelings.
“Just get off the floor please, this is weird.”
“You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. In my whole life. You have nice hair. So nice.”
“Max, get off the floor and come sit with me, or I’m leaving.”
He reluctantly picks himself up and takes a seat opposite me. He is smiling. I could slap him right now. I’m hoping for something that resembles a conversation, but right then, he spots something on one of the shelves where he is storing his records. He moves over there, drags a sketchbook from between two record sleeves. He brings it back to the table. He opens it to a blank page and starts drawing childish illustrations, strange faces mostly, every now and then pausing to let me know that they are moving, that the lines are all tangled up, that it’s like an animation, and isn’t that crazy? Can’t I also see them moving? I tell him “yes, of course,” drawings people make are meant to move. He tells me that this sketchbook, right here, is the bible or a bible.
He then proceeds to write “the bible” on the cover of the sketchbook with a red, permanent marker.
The two most boring activities in this world are listening to people describing their dreams to you and watching people tripping on drugs that you are not even on, telling you all about their experiences. After Max loses interest in the drawings, he starts scribbling words furiously on the page. I watch him, then the ceiling. There is a crack, out of which shy mushrooms are popping out. The “hospital” lighting is hurting my eyes. I smoke more cigarettes, drink more beer. By the time he is done writing, I’m drunk. He tells me that he’s had an epiphany. I don’t ask what it is because I don’t care, but he tells me anyway: he is meant to be a writer, always has been. He doesn’t know whether it’s memoirs, journalism, or fiction that he should be writing, just that he is meant to be a writer. That as he was writing just then, suddenly his whole life fell into place. There were no obstacles. He was doing what he was supposed to. Writing, that is. Then, in a fit of mad excitement, he stands up, places his palms on the table, and looks down at me, very seriously.
“Don’t you understand what this means?”
“I’m cured, I’m cured.”
He sits back in his chair, exhausted. “Wow. Look at that.”
He is pointing at the particles of dust floating under the ceiling light in one, neat cylinder.
“They are full of colour. The world… Is full of colour.”
“That’s so great Max. I’m so pleased to hear that you are experiencing the world in such a pleasant light.”
I figure, if he is not going to initiate conversation, a normal conversation, not this cryptic nonsense, I might as well take the lead. So I tell him about Gail.
“What a bitch,” Max says when I’m finished, which pleases me immensely. He is right.
Gail is a bitch. This is the sanest thing he’s said all night.
“Right? She knew I had no friends at school. That no one ever turned up to my birthdays. How important it was for me to have my best friend next to me instead of a bunch of idiots I have drinks with and don’t even like. And she chose him. This fucking guy she had just met. Tell me, honestly, do you blame me for not talking to her since?”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“Yes, I am. Your friend, Gail.”
But he is absorbed by the linen curtains swaying in front of the open window. “So? What do you think?” I ask him.
The window is looking out to a white wall covered in ivy. Below, a snail is crawling on an empty wine bottle with the label removed, heading straight for the neck as if trying to drink from it. I watch the snail for a while. When I can’t take the suspense any longer, I dig my nails into my palms.
“You know, I could be having this conversation with myself.”
“I’m sorry. I was distracted,” he says, his eyes fixed on the white wood between his sweaty fingers as if it were a portal to a different, better place.
“Are you really sorry? Are you also sorry for dropping LSD before going on a date with me? For ruining it for me?”
He thinks this is funny, or I’m making him nervous. Either way, I’ve had enough. “Whatever, I’m going to the bathroom,” I announce and get up. Then I’m going home.
I’m about to head to the bathroom, but then I remember that I’m not in my house. “Where’s your bathroom?”
“Up the stairs, first door on the left.”
Upstairs, I take the first door on the right. I’m reaching out for the switch in the dark when something brushes against my cheek. I back off, bump against the wall. The lights are on. I gasp.
“Shit. What are you doing… Here.”
That’s when it all comes together. One, I’m not in the bathroom. Two, the woman I just saw is not Gail and not even real. I move closer. She is incredibly realistic, to an off- putting extent, and dressed in a suit and jeans, her big brown eyes staring through me underneath a lopsided bob wig. The resemblance is uncanny. My heart is still racing.
“What the fuck is wrong with him?” I ask the room. Who the fuck keeps a mannequin in their room, or any place, really? I look up. The thing that brushed against my cheek earlier must have been one of the many ivy branches hanging from the ceiling. But that’s not even the worst of it. There is not an inch of the walls to be seen. He has taped black bin bags from top to bottom to cover them up, what for, I don’t know.
I let my body fall back on the bed. Gross. It smells like a thousand boys’ farts. At least the mattress is comfy. I slap my feet together, rest my arm on my closed eyes. Gail’s face emerges out of the darkness. Go away. But it’s futile, I know this too well. I tried everything. I even went on a date. Gail has left me plenty to remember her by, to torture me with in her absence. Her smell. I could never figure out what it was, whether it was the perfume she was wearing or the soap she was washing her body with. She always smelt like Christmas, of cinnamon. Her straight black hair, like a doll’s, gently touching the mole on the back of her pale neck. Her slender figure, her black clothes, the way the colours in the room, any room, seemed brighter when she entered it. The way she said, “What are you looking at me like that for, you weirdo?” partly judgmental, partly affectionate, and the way I always had to look away and go red while staring at a wall or a window, telling her I didn’t mean to, that I was spacing out. Her laughter, somewhere between a girl’s and a woman’s. I could listen to it the way she listened to her folk records: with religious devotion. But she had to go and ruin everything. Feed our friendship to the foxes. I sit up, try and regulate my breathing. I should go. What am I even doing here? But then I spot a six-pack sitting under the desk, collecting dust. “Oh, he-llo.” I drag the six-pack out and crack a can open. I pour the beer down my throat like water. I slam the can on the desk and burp. Fuck it, why not? I take the other half of the LSD from my pocket, close my fingers over it. I never flushed it down the toilet. It seemed like a waste, even though LSD is not my thing anymore.
“There you are. I thought you were gone.” Max is leaning against the doorway.
“Sorry, I mistook your room for the bathroom.”
“YES, MAX. THAT”S EXACTLY WHAT I MEAN. I PISSED ON YOUR RUG. I TOOK GIANT SHITS EVERYWHERE.”
“Oh, no, don’t cry, it’s okay.”
I drop the LSD into the can. I raise the can in the air towards Max. “TO FRIENDSHIP.”
I drink and don’t stop until the can is completely empty.