An excerpt from my story “The Regulars”.
As a teenager you repeatedly told yourself that the day you settled was the day you would ascend the tallest building in the city, haul yourself up onto the rooftop, undo your belt buckle, drop your pants, pull off your shirt, and stand at the periphery. Hands on hips, you’d look out at the grey expanse of the city, unclothed and uncaring of the lives of others, just like the vocal cord-shredding moment you entered the living, breathing, combative world covered in placenta and foetal membranes. You would inhale a deep, intoxicating breath of air, and – as if nudged by a gentle breeze – fall over the edge and laugh maniacally as you plunged 36 storeys to your sky-dive death.
Yet here you sit, twenty years later, feet resting on the couch, the remote control a sailboat full of terrified immigrants on your temperamental, overfed gut; lying in your three-bedroom house that’s adjoined to the neighbouring identical structure like pig-ugly Siamese twins. Your wife is asleep upstairs, as is the kid. Settled. You’d settled. You hadn’t climbed the building, undressed, and taken the plunge.
Now you sit on this couch chugging a bottle of beer as you watch an online debate between two erudite professors – one of psychology, the other of philosophy – thinking to yourself how you’d never had a hope of being as brilliant as them, no matter how hard you tried: When they’d pulled you from the womb screaming and sticky with vernix, it wouldn’t have been unseemly for them to slap a sticker on your forehead reading ‘intellectually limited/one of the rest’. Your genes would always be working against you, regardless of the visions you had of your future self; they would taunt you daily and haunt you nightly – noticeably worse when the dreams were so triumphant and exquisite that the morning return to reality was especially shattering.
You raise your leg and fart. There’s moistness. This is now your life – cheap beer and wet farts while listening to men who are much brighter than you speak about the human condition.
You’d have settled if it meant being one of them.
Six years before you’d found yourself married with children there were occasions when you’d wake up with a desert-dry mouth and a colossal headache – lying next to the latest sexual adventure whose name you had scribbled on your forearm the previous night so you would remember it come daylight – and you’d think about where you’d come from.
You had left Dublin on a June morning nine months earlier. You’d left behind boarded-up windows, morning traffic jams, and daily encounters with junkies. You’d also left behind family and friends, and the night-time, liquor-fuelled pulse of the city. You’d abandoned your fellow countrymen and the prevailing charm, and the late-night Celtic take on the cha-cha-cha, and with it the nascent pathology of a nation seemingly intent on making things harder for the majority of its denizens, year after year.
Across the Atlantic on a plane filled with fellow travellers, mediocre movies and gag-worthy grub. To St. John’s airport where they searched your bag upon entry and confiscated your copy of Lolita. Tired, irritable, a little hungover – and for those reasons pugnacious – you fought your corner.
“It’s a novel. A classic.”
“Sir,” the rotund Canada Border Services Agency employee began, her expression stern, her tone firm — unlike her bowed breasts. She was sweating; her chubby cheeks were red. You’d noted that it wasn’t particularly warm. You’d also noted that she had a bar of chocolate sticking out of one of her pockets. You had thought to yourself Big isn’t beautiful, not matter how you try to spin it, lady; big means big trouble for the pulmonary artery. She’d looked at you and said: “This work is considered a gateway to child pornography.”
You rolled your eyes.
“Are you serious?”
“Sir, at border security we do not joke,” she said. “We’re not here to entertain you.”
You considered making a quip, but you didn’t want to risk making things worse. Instead you tried reasoning with her; something you’d come to realise is usually futile when dealing with anyone in a perceived position of power – be it a postal worker, a clerk at the tax office, or in this case a border officer crazy on power – or was it sugar?
“It’s a classic piece of literature that’s taught at universities around the world. Have you even heard of Nabokov?”
“Sir,” she said again, raising the book in the air. “I have heard of Nabinko. Yes. I’m merely following procedure here. This book is on a list of prohibited books in Canada. I have the list here right in front of me. You are not permitted to bring this book into the country. It is considered a gateway book . . . Had you been coming from Thailand and not Ireland this may be a much more serious issue.”
“Yes, sir. Thailand has a high rate of Western child molesters. This book is a gateway book.”
“So, you’re going to take my book?” you asked.
“You have two options,” she said. “Your first option is that I take your book and destroy it, and we forget about this whole incident. The second–”
“This is an incident?”
Ignoring you, she continued, placing a form in front of you. “The second option is you can fill out this form, contesting the decision, and you will be flagged on every North American flight for the next four years.”
“Flagged as what?”
“As someone who was in possession of a gateway book, sir.”
You shook your head. “Fine,” you said. “Destroy the book.”
“Okay, sir,” she said, before she permitted your entry into the Great White North and issued you your work permit. As you left to board your connecting flight, you felt outraged and embarrassed by what had occurred, but also relieved that they hadn’t noticed your copy of O’ Conner’s My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories, which may have made things a little more awkward considering the literary ignoramus you had dealt with.
You proceeded to Vancouver and there you were greeted by a downpour heavier than anything you’d experienced in Dublin – something you’d thought was an impossibility – and after you’d boarded the meandering Sky Train and exited at the Yaletown-Roundhouse station – people zipping by left and right under umbrellas and newspapers – you ventured to the nearest newsagents and when you looked at the Vancouver Sun you read the headline When Will It Stop Raining?
As you dragged your suitcase along Hornby Street towards your AirBnB you googled bookstores in Canada. Your search results presented you with a major bookseller, and after you tapped at the rain-speckled screen thumbing a search you stopped walking as you were greeted by the book, in stock, ready for purchase:
Nabokov, Lolita, $12.99.
You arrived at your temporary apartment, your clothes heavy and your skin soaked. The airport worker mocked you, the search result mocked you, the rain mocked you.
Things had gotten off to a bad start. You should’ve known then to get out. But the North-Hollywood vibe, the superficial parties, the Canadian take on the cha-cha-cha; much more refined, much less feral, more polite, less genuine, all of this blinded you and led you down the road to where you’d wound up.
The kid cries. You move the remote. Your back aches as you stand up.
You ascend the stairs, not the tallest building.
You try not to think.
But that’s impossible.