The Inebriational Philosopher
So they were a couple, and they were alcoholics. I was an alcoholic too, so we all made friends. We lived on a flying rug and the spirits would come out of the bottle for us every night.
There seemed to be no exit from the night, only erratic loops or, sometimes, neat circles. All the lights shone inwardly, towards a bright center, as if the night was a volcano. Appropriately so, because the heavier I was soaked in vodkas, the more inwardly turned I found my own feelings. And yet there were streams and streams of faces, fiercely battling the fading sensation with glitter make-up, killer heels and loud music.
Like sinking ships? What can you do when a broad man throwing chairs or a screaming, gleaming, red-dressed diva in distress can only solicit one half-raised eyebrow? And, worse, when the eager stories of hunters on white horses all start to ring hollow, all alike, when you already know all the types, all the painters in search of the ultimate breast, the photographers in search of the ultimate vagina, playwrights in search of the ultimate irony? Nothing. You let them pass in revue like a meta-variety show, in circles, swapping roles, passing the baton, one’s wearing a white suit, the other is wearing black leather, one turned up in drag…
Go on then. Entertain us.
The barman always understands.
“There should be a degree in bar psychology.”
I looked at the other woman and imagined she was thinking all these things, because she was quiet, and I was thinking them, thinking that we were lost in an underground maze full of attractions and amusements, but with no exit.
There was the eternal feminist, in button-down and cardigan, lifting beers at the arguing table, the mandatory blonde in heels sitting on a bar stool throwing her head back, the funky, messed-up chick in leggins dancing like a crazy person, and then, knocking on the windows from the outside, like a portrait of Dorian Gray that had eloped from the attic: the tramp with dirty nails, cracked hands and deadly halitus, wrapped up in a fading parka.
Thoughts, indifferent and no different, were inwardly bubbling and exploding on the surface, in the form of my annoyed face.
I was paralytic, full of vodka, unable to walk out, thinking in slow motion.
One of our girlfriends at the time, mesmerizing and tall like Jodie Foster, put a concerned, leather jacketed arm around me and said “what’s wrong, dear?” – “nothing”, I winced, “I just looked around and thought Oh. My. God.” – we drank to that.
“Let’s change location”, she suggested. “OK” – “there’s a better life out there, you know?” — “Yes, yes, oh yes, in the daytime, there is. But how do we get there? It’s late, my head is heavy and we’re not gonna make it. More whiskey. Please, make me awake again?”
I had got to know those nights so intimately, they seemed to be a microcosm within a cardboard box, when the night is so dark and the city so radiant that there can be no horizon in the distance, and all the people, like moths, are perpetually drawn back towards those cold and flashing city lights, and in their sequined, glitter dusted and brilliantined looks they begin to circulate like ants, from bar to bar, from dance floor to dance floor.
Those nylon moments in plastic bodies and synthetic emotions were not even what had been the most sinister about those old days. It was I who, upon emerging from the clouds of smoke brewing tempests in the ceiling of an old and vaulty bar, sat with my phone one midnight, texting the guy: “I am tired, off to sleep. Suppose you’re only just getting started, have fun”.
I was the faulty part, the chip in the varnish, the little piece that broke off the whole, and I was sitting in the train station pretending to be on my way home. I wanted to go for a solitary nocturnal walk. No more drinks, no more parties, just a peaceful, meditative walk. But the others needn’t know about that, they’d say I’m weird, and taunt me with their inane drinking games…
I felt scared for our lives. Worry was eating me up and drink had stopped helping. But surely it was basic politeness to respect other people’s hours and drinking habits?
I stopped short of adding to my text “think you’ll hold her in your arms in the morning”. It would have been so false of me, and cruel, in my worried state of mind. A fear that death might creep up on us faster than expected, and a fear of realizing that our gorgeous lives had been wasted by our own doing, was gently darkening the hues of my emotions.
I had bad premonitions. Empty eyed fears, nobody could foresee the future! What if everyone was to live happily ever after? I imagined how she might have already gone home, drunk, and was probably lying somewhere in her scruffily grand apartment in Chelsea boots, leather mini and chipped nails, sleeping perhaps, dreaming, on the couch like a luxury leftover from yesterday.
And he, I knew deep down, was not partying, but pacing nervously through the night from bar to bar, greasing his long hair and darkening the circles under his eyes. He would be dragging in his trail a rattling chain of shrink parades and mental institution loudspeaker announcements like radio waves speeding through his head, like sparks of electricity, humming console game music into his suit jacket, dark shades on at night, a desire not to see, not to know. His nerves kept him awake through the night, a stroboscope of conversation fragments buzzing around his head like wasps in a balloon.
Life “before her” now seemed like a drawn-out, sluggish black memory turning all muddy and murky under a dark lake, full of kinky thoughts of latex and neon-illumined city strolls. Fluffy living rooms shared with only his television, which was full of vice and girls with lipstick, perms, and zircons, a television that was at times praising the burgers that were in his freezer, too. So tasty, so juicy. He never really knew what came first: the burger in the freezer, or the burger on the telly. He was living just the life the adverts always told him to live. The burgers were one thing. The women were a darker tone of blue.
At night, he dreamed of Michael Jackson’s children, never knowing quite whether those were nightmares or desires. All these memories, of the night walks and that solitary drinking, the doors and faces that had passed in review on the circular road of bar crawls, yapping after some woman in stilettos and long coat, from and to the homely loneliness of a cheaply shining city apartment, always that same shining, that same light switch, that same fear of death that grips you at the end of a night, when you hit the light switch, and zing! those same few words detonate like clockwork: “Let’s have some fun”.
All this now was sinking in the slump of hazy yesterdays, an oily latex dream of velvet gloves and golden gates, darkly immersed in half-oblivious moors now, ever since the violet lilac girl had made it into the already upgraded life of unashamed, purposeful and officially declared drink and drug skating.
That I had seen them, known them, nearly ghosts already, was hard to live with. In a year, i had got to know them quite well each, and loved them dearly. I wanted to say I was happy they had gone on a date. Excited for them. I wanted to say all the silly things friends tell each other to keep up hopes and cheerfulness. But not with them. The words stuck in my throat. Arthur, by then, had already died. I knew awful things were coming, had already come. Sometimes before, I had seen death’s shadow, like a panther pacing silently across the eyes of someone shooting up and fainting. Death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone, but it was the time before death, the here and now, that I could feel slip out of my hands like dandelion seeds flying off a flower.
I felt too cowardly to begin the long and merciless job of telling them they were going to die, especially since I didn’t know that for sure. Even if I did know, they would have brushed it off with the suicidal nonchalance of the drunk and addicted. Another reason was that I, for my part, really believed they could die, and did not want to say it, for fear of bad luck.
So I crept away and drifted from them, and with time and distance, I grew less and less interested in them, more and more convinced that they were probably still stuck right where I left them or maybe dead already, and more and more disoriented about who, what kind of person, my actions had made me, just like Arthur’s death had, and as I became afraid of mirrors, I entered my very own, long and painful, hardly remembered, vague years.
The fog was so thick, I could have eaten it like candy fluff, the paths of my life were all cotton wool and muffled silence.
One day, I remember that I got distracted from something, and went for a random city wander in midst the sandwich papers, autumn leaves and flyers on the floor. Between the slowly awakening neons winking moodily at the city sunset from sleazy windows, from behind plastic palm trees garlanded with Christmas lights, tinsel and fake sunflowers, pushing the violet hour away slowly, with flickering fits and starts, as the blue velvet swirled in convulsively, grimly threatening to drown out all of the day’s light and life.
I kicked before me some crumpling night club flyers and looked at the long road before me, noticed a drug store to my left and remembered about some nail varnish that I wanted. Inside the store, I stood momentarily mesmerized by the long row of make-up displays, full of pink and silver, purple, green and red colours, black, yellow, and gold, too. I slowly picked up one nail varnish, turned the bottle on its head and watched the glittery, poison-colored paste move slowly and sluggishly, like amoebae, through the tiny glass vial. The glitter was very fine, in dark silver and purple tones, and it seemed strangely animated, the way it slowly let an air bubble swim from one side of the bottle to the other, like a cute brat popping bubble gum.
I stood there with the nail varnish, thinking, “I wonder if they are actually all as ugly as this, or whether some of these could pass for good taste”.
I picked up another. Here, the glitter was much less fine and dusty, and it was multicolour, more like confetti. It was swimming in bubble gum colour pink fluid, and had a similarly caterpillar-like way of moving its gooey consistency about, as I turned the bottle over and a bubble of air went through the body, like a pulse, it seemed.
The lip pencil section, with fragrances and tastes as well, had me particularly transfixed, as a dance of words like “ballet pink”, “blushing nude”, “sexy cherry”, and “dreamy decadence” stared into my eyes. “Such crudely misogynistic, pseudo-girly conceptual tags for such pathetic, distasteful goo”, I thought, “what a shambles”, as a big and bulging pink cloud fell over my brain.
I started to think pink handbags, Barbie dolls and watermelon martinis, white cars and palm trees, and then again, I started to think that all the make up and nail varnish I ever wore was like so much dust from a poisoned cloud settled on my skin, and on everybody else’s too, like so many worms and maggots moving over my lips and eyes and nails, a thought I found difficult to shake off.
Yes, I thought, I had recognized the decay to be what it was, decay, rather than the lavish joie de vivre that happy people fondly refer to as decadence. Creeping out of a rotting cake like a stray worm and trying to make it on my own amongst the bubblegum-plastered streets, ducking the crushing boot of society, seemed to me just as insane as staying in the mold, hatching in the familiar nest of desperation and thinly fading southern comforts, and whiskey sours rubbing off and off on purple velvet bar furnishings like a big, fat, vulgar fungus on the soul.
I had left a strange tale of mine at that table around which arched a conference of drunk philosophers, the day I had said my last goodbye.
The smoking area was like a train compartment, enclosed within a glass case, and the drinkers and smokers moved through it like strangers on a train, smiling politely, nodding, sitting down, folding their hands on a table, casually starting an amusing conversation. Trams passed before the street windows and sometimes created the drunken illusion that it was in fact the smokers’ room, not the trains outside, that was in motion. Often it seemed to me also that when I left there, the rest would travel onward in their inebriational travelogues, whilst I was stepping out again into the unabashed reality of broken tiles on pavements, prostitutes in pink, and late night red rose sellers in shabby shirts.
And who the hell was I?
The strings of destiny, rolling up lives in fast forward motion from the back in reverse, like a spiderweb, where faulty particles like me got lost in erratic corridors and catapulted into limbo, which was a chaotic ball of mosquitoes over a muddy lake. “Endstation Ruhleben”, where all lives terminate, Last stop : Still Life. Oh, I went for a few glum and eerie park walks between weeping willows, the sky reflecting in the calm pond. A perfect day to die.
Through the shallow marsh valley that lay at the centre of Ruhleben, where hospitals rose between cemeteries and nursing homes in the style of the 1970s, hospices and funeral homes, I slowly crept and meditated. It was a gauzy, quiet summer afternoon with weeping willows, their green hair long and wavy, bowing down to a small pond, whose polished surface smiled back at the sky in a dead tone of blue, like a blind mirror.
Between wheel chairs, limps, and walking canes, unsteady steps at the lead of a guide dog, all seemed to walk in slow motion in an endless loop waiting for death to come. It was a place to dream up great white birds coming in through the windows, or grotesque doctors with huge scalpels in their white-cuffed hands with metallic laughter around the operating table. To imagine Satans with pointy ears coming out of the marsh in the middle, sucking patients and their souls one by one into the dark hole in this eerie valley where classical music was always blaring.
The faces all seemed distorted now, turning long and warped, disappearing in the smoke and the haze, and I soon wandered off, unexpectedly thrown into reflections about people I had lost, things I’d done, and my generally limited and inarticulate reflection upon time and being.
This is when I realised my brain had holes in it.
I could not reflect like before. And fear was everywhere, in my bed at night during a tempest storm, when the screech of bending pines and the moist, warm embrace of a flying shower curtain restored me to my grandma’s village and her scary bedtime stories.
I screamed in my pyjamas, and the door howled like a hungry wolf as I walked through it, the silhouette of a toilet outlined itself in a brief flash of lightning behind some milky glass, doors slammed, only half dreaming. Trees waved their hands from the outside, and exchanged knowing nods about me, and their knotty fingers flew by the window, knocking, teasing, sending horror down the spine.
On a light blue, swallow crossed summer afternoon in town, I walked into her, my old friend, by a city toilet. She was shy and girly, fiddling with a studded, post-punk designer handbag.
“I’m going to stop drinking”, she said.
“Now I don’t feel as good as I did, but I can feel my self”.
“Congratulations. You’ll manage it.” — “For a scientist, it’s important to have a working brain.” — A trembling hand smoking cigarette after cigarette, flighty eyes and an utterly charming, shy smile graced the room that afternoon when for a few minutes, all things seemed possible again.
This is a short story by Polly Trope, author of the independently released novel Cured Meat