At a Loss

Since she died I’ve noticed that my ability to speak with others is slowly being eradicated, gradually fading away like this emaciated pink bar of soap I currently wash myself with as I bathe.

   Drip. Drip. Drip.

This water will soon be cold and I’ll step out, dripping. I will shiver. The bathroom will be unwelcoming and I’ll leave in a hurry; my scrawny, pathetic body with its limp flesh covered by a damp, frayed, yellow towel. But for now I will bathe.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This is not the first instance in which I’ve considered my verbal constipation. It’s been a number of years since this inadequacy began to rear its ugly head.

I stumble over my words, if I’m fortunate enough find them.

The water in this porcelain tub swashes as I sit forward and look out the bathroom window which is ajar. I look at the woman from one of the houses opposite mine (number forty-four, I believe) as she hangs her washing in the back garden. I consider masturbating, but my thoughts are too busy to construct a pleasing fantasy. Once again I rest my back against the cool tub as I wash my underarms.

There is a great void in my mind, it seems — I cannot express myself with the requisite words when prompted.

And what if I do not speak? What if I choose silence? Where will I be then? How will I live, in this highly connected and garrulous world, when I find it such a challenge to assemble a satisfying sentence? How can I, for instance, charm a member of the opposite sex with my daft tongue? It’s not just what lines the pockets that dictates a woman’s interest. The power of words, ah, yes. Powerful, indeed. Powerful, too, is a distinct lack of them.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

But not my short supply: a silence that is chosen can be a cunning tactical move, but a silence that indiscriminately finds one during discourse is as debilitating as a thunderous kick to the groin.

Like, for instance, only a week ago when — against my better judgement — I agreed to meet with a number of work colleagues. Upon being asked a question about my education (where was it you studied all those years ago, Graham?), I faltered. Of course I responded by stating the name of the exact place where I had studied, but that was it. No substantiating or elaborative information followed. Instead, a silence of immense discomfort. Only when the group had moved on to another topic had I conjured up the desired information I had wished to share with them, but by then it was too late.

I was forever missing trains; always knowing where I wanted to go but never reaching my destination in time.

I debated whether or not I was suffering from a crisis of confidence, that perhaps the youth of today was somehow intimidating me, but even when I spoke to those with whom I’ve been familiar for years I found myself lacking. There appears to have occurred some catastrophic incident within the cerebral cortex, an incident which I cannot comprehend. For when I write, it is fine. When I sing, it is perfect. When I dance, my steps find themselves effortlessly. My thought process isn’t fazed in solitude. The frontal lobe does not shut down when I’m alone. Is the frontal lobe really responsible for my social deficiency? Is it merely a result of some sort of social anxiety? Perhaps. Do I feel anxious? Not to my knowledge. I’m merely struck down with some sort of ‘dumb’ syndrome at the most inconvenient times.

Or, perhaps, it’s delayed grief.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Even the tap which I cannot turn any further is more prolific than me.

I splash the ever-cooling water onto my chest and run my soapy hands over my well-fed stomach.

I am not an object of desire.

I place my hands each side of the tub and pull myself forward. The woman from number forty-four is still in her back garden. I’ve watched her on many occasions. The female form is forever distracting, invariably alluring, occasionally tormenting. I cannot remember the last time I had sex. I do, however, remember the final time I had intercourse with her.

 

My current state of vocabularic impotence hadn’t found me at that time. Her name was Lucy. She was American (from Pittsburgh) and weighed approximately 15st, and what attracted me to her was her brown eyes which suggested an open, warm heart. We met when I was in my late-forties. Lucy was two years older.

Together we enjoyed simple pleasures in life. For hours each day we would sit indoors and read and listen to music. Her favourite authors were Joe R. Lansdale, Stephen King, and John Saul. Her favourite musicians were Billy Idol, INXS, and Blondie. Her favourite snack was a chocolate éclair; I would regularly find her in bed, wrapped in a duvet reading Night Shift while devouring the oblong pastry.

Lucy engendered in me a firm belief in being oneself: she wore what she pleased, however unflattering. She sang at the top of her voice, despite her inability to hit one correct note. She ate her éclairs whenever she felt the urge.

Now that I think about it, I recall an instance when my apparently latent inability to form an articulate sentence may have signalled its existence during that period.

In our apartment, which was situated above a Chinese restaurant (the smells from which would regularly slip under our door and greet us and our guests like irksome door-to-door salesmen), we were hosting a small gathering of friends.

Lucy had spent the afternoon cooking. Beads of sweat on her forehead captured her russet fringe, so it stuck there until she would wipe her brow with the greasy tea towel. She would regularly swear when she cooked; becoming vexed by the slightest inconvenience.

“Fuckin’ macarone,” she’d say. “Boil, you basta’d kettle!”

Of course I found these outbursts rather odd. One may get angry and curse, sure, but to scold a kettle for not boiling fast enough?

I would make myself scarce as frequently as possible when Lucy prepared food, and afterwards I would scour the kitchen for any stains she may have missed when cleaning — a product of my OCD.

During the friendly gathering Lucy’s friend, Noel, a reticent, plaintive and socially awkward chap, found the courage to ask me where I grew up.

“Terenure,” I told him. “Whitehall Road, to be precise.” I rocked from heel to toe as we both stood waiting for the other to continue to speak as the numerous conversations taking place in the room swirled around Noel and I as if to mock us. We both smiled. I rocked back and forth some more. This is when I should’ve known there was something on the horizon, that some sort of irreversible malfunction had occurred up there.

Noel, sensing my dishevelment bordering on despair, pushed himself to his conversational limit in a bid to sustain the pathetic attempt at a discussion.

“It’s quiet, or so I’ve heard.”

“Yes!” I enthused, quite relieved. “Yes, it’s very quiet. It’s, um, a quiet area.” I gave him a sheepish smile and excused myself, entering the kitchen as Lucy was muttering swear words at a carrot she was chopping, and I quietly sank into a chair by the kitchen table.

I put my inability to converse down to fatigue; I had been feeling tired most of the week, after all. Work had indeed been long and arduous as of late.

While I sat in a daze, I looked over at my lovely Lucy as she prepared the carrot.

“I thought you’d cooked everything earlier today?”

“We’re out of pre-meal snacks. I’m chopping some carrots for dipping into the hummus.” She stood upright and flopped her wrist back so that the knife pointed away from me. “You look off colour. Did you have too much to drink? You know you can’t handle more than two gin and tonics.”

“I’ve barely indulged, honey. And I can handle more than two G&Ts. I’m not a bloody child.”

“Sweetheart, get yourself a drink of water and get back outside. We’re the hosts, we can’t both be absent from the living room at the same time. So if you don’t mind…” She flipped her hand back the other way, so she was now pointing the knife at me. I’m still unsure as to whether or not this was a threat.

Eventually, after a couple of G&Ts, I found my voice once again and the words rolled off my tongue like marbles off a coffee table. I freely participated in conversation while poor Noel stood by nodding his head and sipping his drink uncomfortably.

Fatigue, yes! That’s all it was.

 

The night had proved a success, and Lucy and I had intercourse soon after everyone had left. The next morning, a Sunday, I had forgotten about Noel and those few embarrassing minutes, and Lucy and I took a morning stroll to the supermarket where she purchased three fresh chocolate éclairs.

Back at home we lay in bed together while Debbie Harry told how ‘once I had a love and it was a gas’. After finishing two éclairs Lucy turned on her side as I read Faulkner. I placed one hand on her massive hips as I held the book open in the other.

“Graham?” she asked me in between deep, laborious breaths.

“Yes, dear?”

“Rub my back.”

I placed the book page-down on the duvet so I could resume reading where I had left off, as Lucy turned onto her stomach, her face becoming lost in the pillow.

Placing my knees either side of her and resting my bottom on her calves, I lifted up her carmine red T-shirt, revealing the pale white and acne-covered skin. With both thumbs I pressed deep into the muscles causing the skin to crease and Lucy to release a low moan.

“Don’t be afraid to be tough,” she said – her words muffled by the pillow.

Halfway through the massage I changed the CD from Blondie to INXS. Lucy had a thing for Michael Hutchence, and, fully aware that I offered little sex appeal to the female of the species, I would play his band’s music in a bid to conjure up a sexual fantasy in her mind: INXS were nothing more than an aphrodisiac, and quite an effective one.

After ‘Mystify’ had finished, I moved my hands from her back to her enormous thighs. With much effort I parted her legs — it was like lifting two massive slabs of beef — and began to rub between her inner thighs and her buttocks.

By this stage I had developed a massive erection, and with one hand continuing the massage, I manoeuvred my penis from my underwear with the other and began to touch myself.

Soon thereafter I noticed that Lucy wasn’t being receptive to my massage; which by now had moved to her vagina. This wasn’t unusual, however, as she would prefer to lie static during intercourse more often than not. Highly aroused, I continued, and, positioning myself higher up the bed, I rested one hand on the pillow by her head and used the other to position my penis between her legs.

After no more than twenty thrusts I climaxed inside her.

‘Never Tear Us Apart’ began to play through the speakers as I used the bed sheets to wipe my penis clean as I lay on my back looking at the ceiling, spent.

“A little quicker than usual,” I sniggered, then turned to Lucy whose face was still buried in the pillow. “Were you thinking of him or me?” I asked.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Lucy?” I called, but still she failed to acknowledge me. Had she grown tired of me? Of us. Did the latest round of lacklustre sex arouse in her a latent depression?

As Hutchence declared that ‘we could live for a thousand years’, I rested my hand on her shoulder nearest me and shook her gently. “Lucy,” I intoned, but still there was no reply.

 

When I called the ambulance my voice trembled.

“Where is she now?” the woman on the other end of the phone asked.

“In bed,” I answered. “We were… having sex.”

The paramedics arrived  a short time later and pronounced Lucy dead at the scene. Before they left one of them noticed the case of the INXS record.

“Good, huh?” he said.

“They’re OK,” I opined quietly. “Do I go with you?”

“My colleague here is going to ask you a number of questions.”

I looked at Lucy, who by now was spread on the gurney with a white sheet covering her whole body. With her massive belly the sheet looked like a miniature model of a snow-covered mountain range. I imagined tiny people skiing down her stomach and over her breasts, towards her thorax.

 

Later that evening, having attended the mortuary, I returned to the apartment and sat myself down on the bed on which Lucy had been lying only hours earlier. I reached for the remote for the stereo system and pressed play; the system automatically choosing disc 3. Driving drums began and Billy Idol proceeded to sing ‘Mony Mony’.

I lay my head on the pillow next to Lucy’s; the indentation made by her head still remained, and Billy sang with great vitality. I had never cared much for that track, but somehow it was the perfect song to accompany me at that moment. I reached my hand over to the empty space next to me and ran it over the now cold duvet cover.

 

The bathwater is now quite cool. My skin is puckered and the room lacks condensation. I move forward, reaching for the tap, twisting the handle, but all the hot water is gone. I look out the window once again; the woman from forty-four has long left the garden. A chill envelopes my face and I settle back into the tub.

I picture Lucy and think about my worry over words, and a faint chuckle arrives. When I think about her and I together, and when I consider our exchanged words, my memory serves me monosyllabic ones like ‘love’, and ‘rub’, and ‘soap’. Words such as ‘back’, and ‘hug’, ‘kiss’, and ‘play’. These are the important ones. I wonder, for a moment, if I’ll experience another relationship before I die. I’m in my mid-fifties, hardly an OAP. I can still muster an erection. Even the thoughts of that last sexual encounter with my lovely Lucy had me mildly aroused, despite its morbidity.

I cannot be sure if my struggle with words is a result of Lucy’s passing, or something that predated her departure. But if on a date I should I find myself lacking in something to say, I suppose I could tell them about her.

Couldn’t I?

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Conversations with Family Members (and the Bits In Between).

 

 

The mother (i)

 

My mother calls while I’m in the middle of editing a piece that’s to run in a tabloid.

I pick up, because she’ll keep calling until I do.

‘Hey, Mam. I’m kind of busy.’

‘I know, you’re always busy, can you just do something for me for a sec?’

‘What’s that?’

‘I can’t get into the Facebook.’

Sigh.

‘Why can’t you get into your Facebook?’

‘It’s asking for my password. What’s my password?’

‘I don’t know; it’s your password.’

Silence.

‘But, is it my email?’

‘Is what your email?’

‘Is my password my email?’

‘Is it your email address?’

‘Is what my email address?’

Frustrated deep breath and closing of eyes.

‘Are you asking me if the password for your Facebook is your email address?’

Silence.

‘No, is the password for the Facebook the one I use for the email?’

‘I don’t know, Ma. I told you to write down all your passwords in the notepad I gave you after I helped you set them up.’

‘I did!’

‘Well, where’s the notepad?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Okay.’

‘It says,’ she begins again. ‘Beside the box for the password it says. . . email or phone. If I press phone will that put me through to a helpline?’

‘No, Mam, that’s your username.’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Your email address or phone number.’

‘Oh.’

Audible exhale on my part.

‘Can you ring Aaron? I really need to get this done and sent before ten.’

‘Okay. Are you working on something?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is it good?’

‘I think so.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘How the sexuality of men can be shaped by the toys they had as kids.’

‘Oh. . . That sounds interesting. Will that be in the paper?’

‘Yes, I’ll pick up the paper for you.’

‘Your dad used to play with your granny’s clothes when he was a boy. It makes sense, I suppose.’

‘Mam, I didn’t need to hear that.’

‘And you used to play with Barbie with Amy across the road.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘You did.’

‘Did I?’

‘You did, and your brother played with anything he could get his hands on.’

Smile on my part and think about that one.

‘Mam, I really have to get this done-’

‘Can you try blog-in on your computer?’

‘Blog?’

‘Yeah, can you get in to the Facebook for me on your computer?’

‘Mam, I can’t get into your Facebook if I don’t have the password. Did you click on forgot account? I told you this before.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘It’s below the box where you enter your password.’

Silence.

‘But I don’t know my password.’

‘Okay, bye.’

‘Oh, you’re always so impatient, I’m only asking!’

‘Bye, Mam.’

 

The brother (i)

 

My brother calls an hour later as I put the final touches on the article.

‘Hey bro, I’m in the middle of-’

‘Did you tell Ma to call me about her Facebook account?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Dickhead.’

‘Hello?… Aaron?’

 

The piece I’m editing is something of a throwaway article on a recent study about how men’s sex lives are fundamentally shaped by their childhood toys – Stretch Armstrong and cable ties featured prominently from ages six through eleven so I’m not entirely sure what that would indicate for me, but anyway, I tell myself it’s okay that I’m writing a frivolous article because these additional jobs pay for the additional expenses, i.e. fun things like drinking (fun apart from the hangover) and films (fun apart from the bad ones and the cost of a cinema ticket and food) and gym (fun apart from the big men who look at themselves in the mirror psychotically, and who release audible exhales and loud groans similar to those of a Game of Thrones character being disembowelled, and with whom I’m afraid to make eye contact).

Born Quitter

Well, I decided I’d quit after I’d heard about Stuart Frost’s father. I’d just turned 21, and Stuart’s father thought he had a year or two left in him. But it wasn’t to be: he died after a short battle with lung cancer a few days after my 21st birthday, aged 51. I decided there and then, on the spot, that I would never smoke a cigarette again.

Then I had a beer in Stuart’s father’s memory and said a few smokes with a beer was all right.

 

I was determined. I’d think about Stuart’s father, and I’d think about the toxins and all the horrible things smoking does to the body. I’d read up on it, you see. That book by that guy. It was all in my head. I got myself some of the gum that’s supposed to help with the cravings. This was a year after Stuart’s dad’s death, so, needless to say, I hadn’t done incredibly well in my early endeavours to quit following his passing. But, like I said, I was determined. For two weeks I chewed the gum and I only wanted a cigarette around four times a day, which wasn’t too bad.

At the time I was dating Lorraine O’Neal. Now, there was a babe. Jesus, she was wild. We’d been together a few months after I’d met her at a fair, and there was this chemistry between us right away; only a few hours after meeting we were tearing each other’s clothes off and going at it like rabbits at her friend Wendy’s apartment.

Jesus, she was wild.

And things were going well with us, I thought. I thought that that kind of physical chemistry was something unique. Hell, it was to me. But to Lorraine, well, I soon learned that she experienced it with a lot of guys, and on the night I found her in Wendy’s apartment with Ritchie Landis I must’ve smoked about two packs. I deserved them, of course. In the event of heartbreak I was entitled to allow myself some form of comfort. I never saw Lorraine again.

Jesus, she was wild.

 

So a few years passed and I hadn’t quite managed to quit. But I’m a pretty determined individual, and I found myself in the midst of a new attempt at kicking the habit. They say the years go by and, boy, do they go by. I was 28 and it felt like only yesterday that I was hanging out with Stuart Frost and smoking cigarettes on the hood of his car. Now it was seven years to the day since his old man had bit the dust and I was back in town for a special service being held for Mr. Frost and poor Stuart’s poor grandma who’d died a few days earlier.

I was feeling good at the time. I felt healthy, and fit. I looked good, too. I hadn’t smoked in three weeks. When I saw Stuart I shook his hand and we embraced.

‘Cigarette?’ he asked, holding out a pack.

‘Sure,’ I said.

 

I met Sarah Jane when I was 31 (10 years after the death of Mr. Frost). SJ was so damn beautiful. God, she blew my mind the moment I laid eyes on her. She took a bit of work, mind you. She wasn’t as keen on me as I was on her. But I got there in the end. I was cigarette-free, too. I’d been cigarette-free for seven months (apart from one before bed and a maximum of five with beers, allowing myself a maximum of three drinking nights per week). Well, SJ and me eventually got together after I’d hounded the life out of her. I’d told her. I’d said, ‘I’m going to marry you. As God is my witness I will marry you.’ And she’d rolled her eyes at me and said she wasn’t interested in getting married until she was at least 35, but two years after we met we were hitched and on a honeymoon in Italy, where I allowed myself full licence to smoke as often as I liked—you only get one honeymoon, after all.

Well, sometimes.

We had our first child, James, a year later. The kid—for the first two years of his life—was a  goddamn nightmare. Every time that little monster screamed his head off I’d have the urge to smoke a full pack there and then, right in front of the exasperating little bastard. Then I’d calm down and regret thinking like that and I’d hug him and kiss his forehead and tell him ‘daddy loves you’ and then I’d feel bad for a day or two for thinking that way. Of course those days would be filled with regular smoking intervals at the office as a way to help assuage the guilt.

 

You know, some things stick with you, and some things fade from your memory like fog on a spring morning. One thing that never seemed to leave me was poor Stuart Frost’s father. No matter how many years passed by, I’d always think of Stuart’s old man. How he’d once been so healthy, only to croak after less than a few months of being sick. If anything was gonna make me quit smoking, well, that poor man’s end was going to do it. He’d been dead twenty years when I crumpled up my last pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the trash next to the back porch. I kept one from the box to celebrate my intentions, of course: one last smoke.

Me and SJ? Well, we were great, still. Never did a day pass by without us laughing. Not one day. No matter how stressed we got, we’d always laugh, be it first thing in the morning or right before bed. We’d laugh. In between those laughs we’d argue, of course. What couple doesn’t argue? And SJ would know when she’d see a cloud of smoke on the front porch that she’d pushed me too far. She’d have to take some responsibility when she’d driven me to drive to the store to buy a fresh pack. And as for when her parents visited. Jesus, you may as well have sparked up ten at a time and stuck them in my mouth. It’s typical, isn’t it, that the mother-in-law is a nightmare? How clichéd. But, God help me, a vegetarian would work in a slaughterhouse if it would help shut that woman up. She never stops talking.

 

When my parents died within a year of each other it was a difficult period, and I told myself I’d quit once I’d allowed myself time to grieve.

 

When I was 49, coming up fast and furiously to the ‘Big Five-O,’ I decided I’d quit smoking. I really meant it this time. I was only a couple of years away from being the age Stuart Frost’s father was when he died all those years ago, and so I said ‘no more mucking about, for real this time.’

I arrived at my 50th birthday a non-smoker. We toasted the big night with whiskey and cigars and I thought, Okay, this is nice. My youngest, Sophie, had brought her boyfriend (who, if we’re being honest, was a little bit of a wiener, and I knew she could do much better – I’d even told James to do something about it but he told me he’d ‘do it later’). When I noticed The Wiener getting a little touchy-feely with Sophie, I grabbed him by the shirt collar and slapped him upside the head, and warned him to keep his hands off of my daughter and to get out of my party. I knew the little bastard smoked so before he left I told him to give me his pack and I shared a cigarette with him before I told him to take a hike.

 

I’d just turned 63. My doctor told me it’d be a good idea to quit smoking. I told him that I’m a determined man—always have been. He told me he’d been a smoker, but he’d quit seven years earlier and hadn’t smoked since.

I asked him, ‘What’s the trick?’

He said, ‘I got divorced (hahaharr)!’

Sophie’s wedding was happening a few weeks after my appointment with the doc. She was marrying The Wiener. It was a long time coming, but he was all right. Her mother wouldn’t stop encouraging James to pop the question to his girlfriend but that was about as likely as peace in the Middle East, I’d told her.

Sophie took me aside one day. She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to do something for me. For my wedding gift, I want you to promise me that you’ll quit smoking. It’s something I’ve never liked, and the thoughts of you getting sick and leaving mom and James and me. . .’ Here she got a little emotional. ‘That’s all I want. And I want you to know I’ll help you every step of the way.’ And she kissed me on the forehead like I’d kissed her and her brother when they were kids.

I said, ‘Okay, sweetie. Right after the wedding.’

 

After Sophie had her first kid I made a promise to myself. I reminded myself that I was a determined man—had been all my life. I’d worked hard, raised my kids, provided for my family. The promise I made to myself was that I would quit smoking. It was having the first grandkid, you see. Well, it tickles the heart; made me as emotional as my wife watching Titanic. So I’ve decided that I’m going to kick the habit once and for all. And I bumped into Stuart Frost, too. Yeah, a few weeks back. Good ol’ Stuart Frost. Looks well, he does. His old man, huh, I remember his old man well. Gave me my first pack of cigarettes, he did.