1. It is frowned upon to smoke at the lido
January (part one)
January happens. It used to happen once a year but seems to be getting more frequent. The last one, the bad January, was the worst in memory. That one arrived sometime in late summer. This one has the calendar on its side, at least. And you’re alive. That’s never guaranteed as far as Januaries go.
Months rarely start on the first. Most take a day or two to settle in. January especially. This one finds you falling apart, and not just from the hangover. You’re in bits. You gather what’s within reach and realise there are gaps, parts of you missing, pieces you’ve lost. Things forgotten. Given away. It’s hard to account for everything, being that your brain is among the casualties. Your right arm. Your left eye. Those are obvious. The echo in your belly suggests your heart isn’t home (that’s where you’ve always felt heartache, never your chest). Who knows what else is on the lam. There is a growl in your gut that feels like hunger, but since you just ate that seems to indicate your stomach is also absent. On the fridge, a note. Pull yourself together, it says. Perhaps your therapist broke in over the holiday to taunt you. You’re studying the note when a scream behind you confirms it was a bad idea to stand starkers in the kitchen while you eat cold pizza from the box. You apologise to the woman the scream belongs to, who is either a stranger or your sister-in-law. Sorry, you say, covering yourself with a half-chewed crust.
They say you learn something new every day, and today you learned that it is frowned upon to smoke at the lido.1
A package arrives addressed to a name you haven’t used in a while. It’s from the States. Last summer you gave your tongue to a woman you met on the internet. In the subject line of an email you sent some time before Christmas, between Januaries, you asked for it to be returned. Lack of tongue hard to swallow, you said. You tend to amuse yourself. It appears she obliged. At the time you loaned it to her, she said she wanted to use it for self-pleasure, but on closer inspection you suspect she’s been using it to wash the dishes. Tongue tastes of soap, you write in a follow up email. She tells you she ran it through the dishwasher before posting it back. Seemed polite, she says.
At the lido, the girl stops to talk to you. Why aren’t you swimming, she asks. You flick ash into the drain at the edge of the pool to an audience of scowls. You tell her you are swimming and take another drag. It’s important to go at your own pace, she says, and sets off for another lap. You wonder if she might be your daughter. The faces of nearby mothers offer no clues. It’s hard to tell if they are scowling at the cigarette or the eyepatch. The silver lining you were promised in your horoscope is that the lifeguard who kicks you out isn’t the same one who kicked you out last time.
January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors and gateways, passages and transitions, beginnings and endings. Time itself. He’s depicted with two faces, one looking to the future, the other to the past. You know the feeling. The problem with being stuck between memory and possibility, mistakes and maybes, is the one place you’re guaranteed to never be facing is the present. The ever shifting now. You’ve been living this way for days, possibly years, standing in the doorway of your own existence, never walking through. Janus makes a better bouncer than doorman.
You wake in the middle of the night in a panic because you’re turning forty in a little over a year. You’ve never worried about ageing, and this isn’t about ageing, per se, but expectation. You always thought forty would be your era, peaking somewhere mid-decade with a silver streak and a closet stacked with smart jackets. Even sans brain it’s easy to tell that it’s not working out that way. Not on its own. Your thirties (and your brain) have done their best to tear down whatever future you thought was owed you, the one guaranteed by some combination of genetics and professional success. A future where you’re the kind of forty-something man everyone flirts with and who does catalogue modelling for a sustainable knitwear brand on the side. Instead, you’re a few organs shy of medical viability and living in your brother’s attic. You do your best to go back to sleep, which is bound to take more than one wank after all this excitement.
You’ve wasted most of an afternoon in bed browsing the sales on your phone between episodes of House, a show you didn’t watch when it was on and have no nostalgia for, but which has nine seasons and a consistent formula: everyone suspects illness A, but they didn’t know about factor B, which means it’s actually illness C. The sales are in full swing, and your inbox offers plenty of opportunities to spend money you don’t have on things you don’t need (January is a reminder that your mental illness is a marketing opportunity). Wellness is the major theme this year and the subject lines are a cocktail of snake oil and subterfuge. Dear Idiot. Yes, Capitalism made you sick, but did you know it can also save you? Sounds like something House would say. You are tempted by CBD ring-pops and erectile dysfunction gobstoppers (you know, everlasting), but what catches your remaining eye is an invite to join a study on the effect of micro-doses of LSD on major depression. You sign up. House is currently popping pain pills like Tic Tacs and being a horrible cunt to everyone around him. He’s brilliant, so he gets a pass. You can’t quite relate.
They say people who have traumatic head injuries are sometimes able to move damaged functions to new areas of the brain. It appears your body is attempting something similar. In the absence of certain organs, you’ve started using other parts to compensate. Without a mind, you store memories in senses. A smell, a touch, a taste. The place where something hurt you. In the absence of a stomach, your fat tissue is stocking energy, which explains the holiday weight. Without a right arm, your left feels stronger, your hand more deft and dexterous (it could just be that you’re left handed). You don’t have a traumatic injury. Nothing a doctor could point to and say here, this is where you’re leaking from. Not even House. What you did have was a strategy. A way to compensate. To cope. You cut out the parts you no longer needed. Rid yourself of burden, of baggage. Warranty be damned. And it’s easier, isn’t it, to strip yourself of the things that aren’t working, or which you disagree with. Easier than trying (and failing) to fix yourself. Better than suffering. They say there’s truth in every lie, even when you lie to yourself. The truth is this: Pain is tiring, and everything hurts. For a while, this way hurt a little less.
You’re sitting in the shallow end of the slow lane, shoulders slung below the surface, when the girl stops to tell you that she’s done four lengths today. You’re impressed, and you tell her so. How many have you done? she asks. You look at your cigarette, half smoked. Not enough, you say. You scoop stray ash from the water. These places should be better managed. I’ve done four lengths, she says, again, then adds, It’s okay if you don’t feel like it. She sets off on the fifth. You’re considering employing her as your therapist.
A lido is a public open air swimming pool. The name comes from the Italian for “shore”. Originally referring to a pool adjacent to a beach or body of water, it also refers to outdoor swimming pools purpose built in many UK cities during the leisure boom of the 1930s. Though most fell into disrepair, there are several famous examples still in use across London. It’s apparently pronounced lee-doe. Smoking is not allowed.