Elia was going to be posted to Iraq next month to work for Doctors Without Borders and this evening had turned partly into his Goodbye Party. Currently he was talking about a murder by ‘defenestration’ – there was the murder and then there was the word. His way of telling the story was staled with rehearsal, I suspected it was his latest silence filler and we were not witnessing the debut performance. John recalling enough of his lone semester at Institut Francais cut in with, ‘oh of course la fenetre! It makes parfait sense’ while swirling his wine glass – a parody of himself. It was hard to believe that I had once had a crush on him. A while back he told me that he was ‘so jealous’ of me being ‘SO unencumbered by the history of art’, of my ‘authentic atavism’ in relation to my short videos. The more time passed the more grating I found that comment. His paintings made me think that he was just another person stuck in competition with Rembrandt, propelled by ego and a love of sepia. Under his leadership the conversation moved on to the origin of the word ‘essay’ and the current state of the form. Sibs walked in with June. He had a moustache and a goatee but his wiry pube-beard was better suited to a close stubble or to being clean-shaven. He said that he was ignoring us for the past couple of weeks because he had been on a ‘mental health break’. He was freshly out of rehab where he had been sent after spending three days high and drunk and excited. The morass of apparent laziness and irresponsibility that rose to the surface suppressed any real concern that anyone but his long-suffering mother could muster for him. Elia and John started playing chess on an ornamental set. I was thinking of leaving. Earlier in the evening this party and my life had seemed full of possibility. Now, neither did. I’d felt on the verge of something momentous, a vague invincibility but it was fast dissipating along with my hopes of being propelled into my Destiny, meeting my Soulmate and changing lives with my presence.
June and I leant on the kitchen island sulking because there were a lot of people there that we did not know and even more that we did not want to know. John had invited June’s ex despite her protestations and she was trying to avoid bumping into the ‘kitchen-poo guy’. She said that it was very much like John to not care. There was some commotion and we saw Sibs getting up on a chair, a crowd gathering around him and we realised that our naked-in-the-street nightmares were about to come true. He was going to do a spoken word piece. It was always going to suffer an anaphora but ‘My lusty destruction’?! ‘Hath’ and ‘thou’ and ‘mandragora’ were elbowing ‘clout’ and ‘DMs’ and ‘Sephora’. It looked like ‘patriarch wits surviv’d a thousand years’ after all, Pope could sleep easy. Sibs walked up to us, his arm wrapped around the shoulder of a guy in a shirt. The guy turned out to be a trainee priest, catholic, friendly and smelled like fresh linen. ‘I am a Christian but I don’t agree with the Church’ – Sibs was making conversation, tugging at his diamond-encrusted cross. The Father-to-be did not have to convince Sibs of the part most people objected to – ‘God etc.’, Sibs just hated having to read a whole book that was not even written by Bukowski. Our new friend excused himself to go to the bathroom. I asked June how her audition had gone.
‘Hmmm I don’t know… it was for the part of the gravedigger and they’re auditioning men and women for it but like they told me to put on the generic poor person accent which was just cringe! But then afterwards also they were like we’re going to interview you in character so like I had to imagine the gravedigger’s life story and answer everything in character and I just couldn’t get into that.’
‘Because you couldn’t relate to the character?’
‘Yea kind of… It is a contemporary take on Hamlet so it might be a female interpretation of the gravedigger or just a woman playing the part of a man but I didn’t know if the rest of it would have a contemporary feel too and they asked me things like so how did you end up becoming a gravedigger and in the heat of the moment I was like well I left school without any qualifications and my options were limited!!!’
I laughed at June being possessed by her parents in a moment of panic. ‘I know, it’s tragic!’
‘As it should be’ Sibs chimed in.
‘And then they were like so do you have siblings and I was like ‘yes a sister but I don’t see her anymore’ and they were like why and I was like ‘because she lives south of the river and I live north of the river’. That was the worst, I couldn’t think of anything.’
‘That’s so funny! Shakespeare is so overrated anyway’ I said, not just trying to console her. Sibs accused me of taking a ‘typical contrarian viewpoint’. I said that I did not care and that Shakespeare’s jokes were lame and he got off on handing out sloppy punishments to his female characters. June said that the one thing Shakespeare had going for him was that he was vain and hypocritical and obsessed with ageing which made him kind of relatable, ‘he was telling young handsome men to just impregnate someone, anyone, so that when they’re old there’s someone less offensive to look at and then when his own son-in-law impregnated a rando, guess what? He cut the son-in-law out of the will!’.
‘Mine honour!’ Sibs beat his chest and continued, ‘Nah man, he was the OG Freud, his stuff is so incestuous and psychological.’
‘You think everything is sexual and psychological Sibs. Sometimes “a cigarette is just a cigarette”, but you do you and your relations’ I said.
‘That play on “do” is classic Shakes.’ And he made the gesture of dropping a mic. ‘That was ironic you fool!’
‘Shakespeare basically invented irony…’
‘Oh please! As if…’, I did not have the energy to elaborate. ‘Prithee, relax guys!’, June wanted to lighten the mood.
‘Please don’t?!’ I replied.
‘Sorry.’ June said. Sibs saw someone he knew and went off.
Aura and Ava walked in to the party, one wearing tinted prescription glasses in rose gold and the other in mauve. When we were little the parents were obsessed with whether the twins were IVF kids because their Mom had them in her late thirties. Aura was the barometer by which Ava was judged. Ava was holding her chow-chow which she was taking everywhere; he was still a puppy and needed to learn to socialise before he hit adolescence or he would grow aloof and troublesome. She was shouting instructions at him as though patronising a person hard of hearing. June said to me ‘Is it me or has Ava had lip fillers?! I swear Aura’s upper lip is looking thinner than hers’. ‘Aura’s features have always been a lil more delicate’ I replied. ‘Yeah I guess… she’s naturally like a filtered Ava’. I asked June if she ever worried that she would get lip fillers despite herself. She said no but that sometimes when she was standing somewhere really high up she worried that she might jump ‘just to be done with the scary part. I hate Aura!’
I shot a look of surprise at June and she explained herself, ‘I’ve heard a few different friends’ success stories this week and I just feel triggered. It’s more the idea of her rather than literally hating her. Her life is too perfect. It’s stressful to follow but I can’t stop looking.’
‘She hasn’t done anything we haven’t except for the company her Dad started for her with his fracking money, also would you even want to be running a PR firm?’
‘No but I want to be able to!’
‘People exaggerate, look at Sibs, he is running his friend’s Depop and telling everyone that he has a marketing and management consultancy. Aura’s photos stress me out more than she herself, she has a way of curating life rather than just going through it like she’ll go somewhere that we all go to but then she captures it in such an amazing way. It makes me worry that all the good things in life are already there but I am just missing them behind a fog of my flawed perspective.’
‘No, she’s just formulaic.’
‘Or aesthetically consistent?’
Aura was walking towards us with her new boyfriend – a man a decade older than us who used to be an investment banker but now was part of a team managing the investments of a very rich client. He was not at liberty to disclose the client’s name but he assured us that if he did ‘you’d shit your pants. I don’t care who you are, that guy has been a bigger part of your life than your parents’. Aura and the financier met travelling first class on a long haul flight or as he bellowed, ‘I thought finally, here is a beautiful woman who doesn’t need my money for her to turn left’. He talked at Jonathan about investments, ‘Forget about cryptocurrencies, you wanna get into Clouds right now’ and talked at me about my future, ‘it seems to me like your life is funded by the patriarchy. Wouldn’t you be happier doing something for yourself, you know, I’m sure you’re a feminist and all’. As he spoke he shot wasabi peas down his throat into an ever burgeoning pool of masticated sludge. Every now and then some of the debris that fled his mouth landed on my face. He asked me where I saw myself ten years from now. I wanted to say hopefully still alive, instead I found myself in a state of panic championing a flimsy thread of possibilities and bolstering them with borrowed ambition. Amid my cross-examination his phone rang. ‘I’ve got to take this call’ and he handed me his business card. I was mindlessly munching on salty kale chips and my tongue had turned to wool. I went to get some water; there was some fruit in the kitchen – real and ornamental. I took out the calendar notebook that I had recently bought after seeing a man who looked very much like my late Grandfather carry one. I made a note:
Two oranges on the table
One glass, the other flesh
It may break, it will rot
A swoop of color, glowing
A dimpled da’ayereh
Am I more beautiful than either?
I went to the bathroom and took off my slippers to feel the cool marble underneath my feet. Sitting there and basking in the relief of urination it dawned on me that I had not wanted to have that conversation with Aura’s boyfriend but it had seemed impolite to not give the right answers. I had thought it inharmonious to meet his certainty with my lack thereof. But maybe I should have been honest and let this person of probabilities and certainty – this purveyor of feminism – analyse my decisions. He could be holding the key to my happiness. I resolved to go back out and find him and beg him to bludgeon me with his thoughts and lash away my confidence. Washing my hands I looked in the mirror and saw that my chin hair was sprouting out. I rummaged through the bathroom and found a pair of tweezers. Twenty minutes later I emerged with the root of the hair still in place, a shortened stub poking out and a blood moon marking the territory. I wished I were Aura, in real life and online. Back in the lounge the boyfriend had found a new audience and was dispensing more wisdom and mushed peas. ‘There is one truth in the life of any man and that is death but two in the life of any woman – death and the pursuit of beauty’ – here was a real clairvoyant but I could not approach him now, not with my red chin. I should have really left then.
Elia had lost the game of chess and was downcast. Usually while the rest of us were out there trying to fashion careers out of our megalomania Elia was literally saving lives. But for someone so well-versed in mortality and English poetry – variations of ‘early or late, they stoop to fate’ is how most of his stories ended – he was the sorest loser we knew. John, he and a bunch of other people were discussing an upcoming event of sleeping out in tents in the middle of the city for one night in order to raise money for the homeless. They had wanted to invite a few ‘ambassadors of the community’ to join and educate the participants but the logistics were proving more complicated than they had anticipated. It was difficult to get a homeless person to guarantee that they would claim a particular piece of land in the very park chosen for the event. During regular times the park was patrolled to ensure these precise patrons were not sleeping there at nighttime. Moreover the event was still a month away and there were concerns that the homeless would be flakey. A rejected proposal had been to pick up homeless people in rough neighbourhoods and to drive them to the location of ‘Under the Stars for a Good Cause’. The current consensus was to scrap homeless participation and invite some influencers instead to spread the word. I asked John why they did not just make the donations without the ‘camping’, he knew that I was minimising their grand gesture by calling it so. He said in a tone of stating the obvious that the idea was ‘to raise awareness not just money’. Having unsuccessfully confronted my chin hair, I was in the mood to be a douche and said, ‘Is that why your email promised that ‘there will be Hibiki’? Is it to give people a taste of what is keeping the homeless warm?’ Elia, trying to diffuse the tension, said that people were more likely to part with their money if they were paying to feel better about themselves rather than someone else and a show had to be produced of their goodness or as he phrased it, ‘you have to generate a sense of achievement and momentum for the donors’. ‘I am not ashamed of how I conduct my charitable undertakings and I certainly would not shame you for how you undertake yours, that is if you were to’. John was fighting back undeterred by Elia. I did not want in a fit of reaction to shame him in turn for his mother’s activism. She had recently spearheaded a local campaign, the first successful one of its kind, to stop the development of social housing within the vicinity of their neighbourhood. I had not previously thought much of this or held it against either of them but now… this was war. We were targeting the other’s virtues until a winner would emerge as the better man. I wanted to shout at him that consoling himself with a rhetoric that far exceeded his actions in its altruism made him a self-soothing hypocrite, not a philanthropist. Instead I looked at my phone and walked away pretending that I urgently needed to message.
I went to say goodbye to June. She had just spotted Max – the lead singer of Yeah Right! – at the party. This would have been June’s dream scenario when we were thirteen and he was twenty-something, the prime of the boy band, and seeing him had made her nostalgic for school. Our school was a bubble in which nationality and nationhood was an academic concept rather than a reality. Institutionally we were to never again find such a place and so as some of us moved around we learned how to fit in more seamlessly. This came with the price of conscious adaptation, of cultural fetishism substituting for belonging, of knowing that we were never quite not misplaced except when we came together. One summer June had forced me to go to a Yeah Right! concert for which she had front-row tickets. She had bought her first and last ever pair of polyester panties just to throw them on stage. One time when they released a new album she called in sick at school and lay in bed all day, her feet leaning against the wall and staring at their poster while listening to the songs on repeat. I asked her why she would not speak to Max. She said that she was tired and could not be bothered. She described him as an itch that went away before she got to scratch it. She reflected for a moment and added that it was reassuring to know that there were probably Maxes in her life right now and that at least some of her desperate wants were transitory. ‘But then does that not make you worry that you won’t even want some of the things that you’re working towards by the time you get them?’. She concluded that ‘anything worth pursuing is going to seem attractive for longer than a hot second’. I mentioned the conversation with John and said that I was in a bad mood and was going to head home. She convinced me to say goodbye to John and stand on the right side of the line that lay between John and I having agreed to disagree and having had a disagreement. I knew she was right, there was no grander irritant than a slight wrapped in an indignant bow and nursed in lieu of peace. John and Elia were settling down again at the chess board for another round, no doubt at Elia’s insistence. Elia was focused on studying the board already, John was rolling up his sleeves, rubbing his palms, cracking his knuckles, cradling his head in his hands and cracking his neck – a habit Elia had tried to put a stop to for years. John slipped and toppled out of his chair, knocking over a photo of his handsome Dad. John’s Dad was in his fifties but looked no older than thirty. It would be hard to not think yourself the first human who would never die if time had so not made its presence known upon your person. I headed to say a quick goodbye before they began playing. But John did not get up. In a few seconds Elia would jump up, a flash of recognition on his face and shout repeatedly ‘call an ambulance’.
The funeral was held a week later. Aura had inadvertently uploaded a video that captured the exact moment at which John suffered Vertebral Artery Dissection while cracking his neck and induced a stroke in himself. Most people who experienced this condition eventually recovered. A much smaller number sustained more serious injuries. John was among the 2% of people who died from its complications. His death was viewed by millions and picked up by the news before Aura had remembered to take down the video. John’s was a demise that drew a special breed of horror – horror at being fatally inadequate custodians of our own bodies without even realising it. The twins were not invited to the funeral. The morning ceremony was at a Church. June, Elia and I sat next to each other. There was no sign of Sibs. John’s death had breathed new life into my erstwhile crush on him. I wished that it were an open coffin ceremony so that I could look at him with longing one last time. It felt as though I was already forgetting what he had looked like in real life and that the image that I remembered was only that of him in photos, which was why I kept on trying to remember him rolling his eyes dismissively, tears filling my eyes as the image felt more blurred with each passing day. His mother was reading her eulogy when Sibs burst through the heavy doors.
He had a large black tub of protein shake lodged under one arm and a gym bag in the other. He was limping and slowly made his way to us while everyone looked on disapprovingly. He sat down and hissed, ‘these fucking brogues man…’, an elderly relative seated in front of us turned around and grimaced. Sibs threw back his head and said, ‘How’s it going?’. It was during John’s Dad’s eulogy that Sibs began to bray, altogether muting the gentle sniffs of John’s immediate family. When his Grandpa had passed away Sibs had told us that he came from a culture where ‘if there aren’t people howling at your funeral everyone will think no one loved you – that’s why three of my aunts threw themselves at the coffin when they were about to put it in the ground’. I was grateful for the cremation ensuring that this latter part did not await us next. After the church ceremony we were driven to the reception. It was just the four of us in our car and June said, ‘isn’t it weird to think that by the end of today John will be no more than this bulking supplement Sibs is lugging around?’. ‘It’s actually essential proteins’ – Sibs looked genuinely offended as he said this. Elia was staring out of the car window and did not respond; he had not said very much since last week. John died at a moment when his stock was riding low in our friendship circle and his loss had trailed guilt through us. June was the only one brave enough to rub salt on this wound and admit how much she missed him. John was the person who finally had taught her how to swim.
Prior to that, every time she got in the water she felt as though walls of waves stood ready to close in on her. She had not made a crucifix of her gratitude when John was alive and annoying but in his absence her ingratitude nailed her. I sat quietly replaying memories of first meeting him before he joined our school. He was the Secretary-General at an inter-school Model United Nations Assembly. He received so many messages exalting his charms that they had to make a special announcement requesting ‘member states’ refrain from sending personal messages to the Secretary-General. His navy suit draped and hung on his boney adolescent frame. In those days he never had a haircut so much as as trims in the many directions in which his black hair grew, and it found its own way to the formation of waves falling in nonchalant elegance. Sibs said that anything we have to say about John now was about us, not about him, ‘because we don’t know where he is, right? So anything we say is from the perspective of not being dead ourselves. It’s tough man’. I noticed that Sibs looked good, he had shaved his beard and washed his hair.
The reception was in a random townhouse, Sibs was disappointed as he had left his pipe at John’s on the night of the party and had hoped to retrieve it after the funeral. It appeared as though we were now expected to eat and socialise against the backdrop of elaborate flower arrangements and photos of John through the years. There was one of all of us together after the last exam, sitting on the school stairs making summer plans, John slouched in front of me, his hair tied out of his eyes with my scrunchie. Our friendship was always going to end – by difference or death. As it were, it was ended by difference but in quick succession death rang the more romantic knell and was keeping alive the fantasy of our peak. My eyes were filling with tears for John and for that summer and I rushed to the bathroom. As I reached to open the door Sibs was about to step out. When he saw me crying he held my arm and led me in. He asked if I was OK. Reaching for air and words in between sobs I asked if he remembered our last summer together, the trip to Spain when John made us stand in front of Las Meninas and stare at it for an hour and Elia cried by the end, when we tried to stop at every square and knock back alcohol and café con leches like Hemingway, when we slept on a pool of June’s vomit and laughed cleaning it up the next morning and went for pancakes after…. Sibs hugged me and kept on saying, ‘it’s OK’. His interjections gave me enough pause to note my discomfort at sharing intimate emotions with him and I stopped sobbing. He then lifted my chin and kissed me. I could feel the balmy air and smell the oakwood corridors and see John floating through it and I latched onto his eye roll which I could now see most clearly. I kissed Sibs back. Pulling my dress up, my spin instructor’s words from earlier in the morning echoed in my head:
DON’T GO TOO FAST BUT DON’T GO TOO SLOW EITHER IT’S ALL ABOUT PACING
COME ON GET YOUR GROOVE ON
Sibs pulled away and groaned with relief, he had freed himself from his painful shoes and was kicking them off his feet.
WHEN YOU PUSH THIS HARD YOU DESERVE A BREAK
We resumed. John was gone.
THIS NEXT ROUND IS WHEN YOU’RE GOING TO GET YOUR GRIT, YOUR HUSTLE, YOU’RE GOING TO GET TOUGH
I kissed Sibs more aggressively.
DON’T THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE DONE, THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO
I pushed Sibs away and pulled on my clothes to which he said, ‘What the fuck’.
‘This isn’t working,’ I opened the bathroom door, my eyes meeting John’s mom’s eyes as hers darted from the pink of my cheeks to that of Sibs’s penis. I froze in my place, the door closed slowly on Sibs standing there clutching his balls. John’s mom looked at me for a second too long and then walked away without a word.
I joined Elia and June who were having some food and Sibs made his way to us too after a short while; neither of us said anything. We could overhear John’s Grandmother, ‘They’re not very well-travelled, they have taken more photos of the Burj than the Dubai tourism board’. She was wearing a black skirt suit and a large gold necklace in the shape of a chain. Her usual acerbic edge was unblunted by loss, her contempt remaining so sharp and complete through the years that it verged on adolescent idealism. We used to be afraid of her scrutiny when we were younger and we realised that nothing had changed as we saw her approaching us. ‘You’re all here…’ she moved her gaze one by one over each of us. ‘We wouldn’t miss it’ Sibs having rushed to please stopped himself short of saying ‘for the world’. Without acknowledging this, she went on ‘but he had to go!’ and she cocked her head to the side as though calling God out on the mistake and walked away biting into a caviar blini. Sibs lit a joint, smoking it in the middle of the room to our embarrassment. One of the suited staff members from the funeral home came around and said, ‘Sir I am afraid that smoking and use of drugs is prohibited on the premises.’ Sibs let the woman know that he took umbrage with her characterisation of his Marijuana usage and that she had no legal authority to make such a request. ‘Sir I am going to have to ask you to smoke outside the premises or leave’. ‘Make me!’ Sibs slouched and opened his arms wide. Elia took him by the shoulders and tried to pacify him. He shook Elia off and raised his voice at the funeral home person, ‘I don’t see what the problem is, I’ve just lost a friend, can you not right now?!’. ‘I am going to have to check on that Sir’ and she left. She returned with John’s Mom. Before Sibs could say anything she looked at him and said ‘Get out! Right now!’ and then addressing all the four of us shouted ‘Get out!!’. To be told off by a friend’s parents sucked even more now that we were mostly too old to be told off by our own parents.
We were escorted out through the back door which faced a private alleyway, lest we made a scene upon being ejected. We swarmed out onto the pavement. Next to the house was an imposing dusky pink wall against which a mother and child were settled on the grey asphalt.
The ground was streaked with spilled milk. The mother wore black clothing and an emerald-coloured headscarf. Her long arms poked out of her sleeves, her arm hair was thin and brown, she had a delicate wrist encased in a small watch. The child of two or three was seated to her right and somewhat further forward. He had a round brown face, sun-bleached hair, green eyes and thick dark eyebrows. He held a glossy packet of biscuits, eating some and using others to lead an army of ants. The mother looked at us while running her fingers through pearly rosary beads. June was standing on a manhole that blew up warm air. We were all standing on manholes. Every now and then the manhole would give way under someone’s feet and they disappeared. We knew that we were going to disappear too but our feet felt so firmly grounded until they weren’t. Presently June was walking up to the woman with the beautiful fuzzy arms.