Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
3. A fruit machine you can't win
January (part three)
In want of a brain, you’ve been letting your phone think for you. You download an app that tells you to drink water, and one that rewards you for dressing yourself. In want of distractions, you download an app that uses AI to test if you’re human. A reverse Turing test. A bizarro Voigt-Kampf. You score somewhere in the low fifties (turns out you’re not a real boy). When these leave you low on dopamine you download a dating app and swipe around some. You get a match from a woman who looks like the computer-generated models they employ to convince you there are women on the app: Generically pretty, pretty vacant. She wants someone to make her laugh. Know any good second-hand stores? you ask. She doesn’t reply. It’s hard to masturbate to the CGI bikini shots on her profile, but you give it a good go. The effort leaves you with even less dopamine and you delete the app. Your phone is a fruit machine you can’t win.
You’re in the kitchen consulting the list of parts you’ve lost when your sister-in-law walks in. Her name is Heather, though she looks like a Kate. You get along well enough, or you did, until you lived here for too long. Until she saw you bollock naked. She walks over to the kitchen counter and perches, gripping her mug like a microphone. Lily told me about the pool, she says. How upset she got. Not your fault, of course. You’re very good with her. She loves you. She takes a sip of coffee and pulls open a drawer next to her, the one everyone has with the cables and instruction manuals for things they no longer own, along with a screwdriver or two, some foreign currency and a ball of rubber bands. She pulls out a Tesco bag1 and hands it to you. You peer inside. It’s your brain. Your being. The sum of all you know and are. It looks like week-old tripe. Wasn’t sure you were ready for it back, she says. But then I saw that. She nods to the list. I’d say good luck, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. She moves to leave then pauses. Break her heart, she says. And I’ll kill you myself.
Still no reply from your ex re: your heart, but you do get a reply from the LSD micro-dose study to ask you if you’re joking and to remind you that you’re already in the program and that if you’ve lost your device, they can, with your consent, turn on the GPS and tell you where it is. When you reply to ask what that they are talking about, they send an email that is just forty-seven exclamation points followed by an email that says we’re talking about your Acid Watch, which sounds so cool you absolutely consent to them telling you where it is.
At the girl’s school one of the teachers checks a list to see if you’re an approved adult. It’s no small validation to learn that you are. Ah, the uncle, the teacher says. Lily tells us you’re staying with her for a little while. You attempt a smile but bail out halfway. A little while longer than her dad might prefer, you say. She laughs too loud at this. And you’re a writer? She stares straight at you in the style of someone having a stroke. Only when it can’t be avoided, you say. The girl is gripping your hand. The silence swells. Crows gather in nearby trees. Church bells chime in the distance. All the typical portents. I’m something of a writer myself, the teacher says, and you want to walk into traffic, but you settle for putting the conversation out of its misery. Have to go, you say. Nowhere to be, just don’t want to stay. At this, her software seems to crash. Some people just aren’t cut out for small talk. You and the girl leave for the lido, practising silly walks. Are you going to swim today? the girl asks, skipping along next to you. You move in a crouched shuffle, snapping your fingers like a lesser Jet in West Side Story. Depends on the Sharks, you say.
Now you’ve got your brain back, you’ve been trying with limited success to decipher what’s wrong with it. On a bus between where you were and where you’re going you pull it out of your Tesco bag to take a look. You removed it in the first place because it wasn’t working, and because you suspected it of plotting against you — a charge you’ve been unable to prove. And now it won’t turn on. You spin it over. The source of all your pain. A torment of lobes. A tapestry of cells. A hundred billion of them. As many as there are stars in the galaxy. Except they’re all extinguished. When it works, lightning crackles across your synapses in a spectacle of thought and feeling and memory. And now not a spark in sight. Neither fizzle nor flicker. A dormant storm. A sleeping squall. The dark grey of it reminds you of the skies in January: It’s not always raining, it just always looks like it might.
The Earth is closest to the sun in January, not that it’s helping with your swim. You haven’t set off yet. Haven’t logged a single lap. You’re suffering from a lack of arms, which is something of a handicap. It would also take three thousand years of swimming, sans breather, to crawl that kind of distance, give or take five hundred years. You really should get going. You squat low and brace back against the tile, testing your weight on a neon pink floatie. A journey of ninety-three million miles begins with a single stroke. You’re about to go when someone dives in over you. You eff and blind and rod him off, even though he’s halfway down the lane. The lifeguard, assuming it was you who dived in (frowned on) and seeing you give him the finger (just plain hurtful), tells you to get out. Everyone turns to look. Scowls turn to smiles. People are always making you the villain when you wear an eyepatch. Also, when you’re an awful person. You tell the girl to take her time and that you’ll meet her outside.
You’re in your attic room, rolling your brain around like a Rubik’s cube, trying various configurations. It remains latent, docile, dim. She showed you her brain once, in the early days. It lit up like a plasma ball, flashing at your fingertips where you held it. She suggested that you swap, that you fuck like that. You with her brain. Her with yours. A dangerous thing to try. And highly addictive. You can end up enmeshed, entangled, entwined. So co-dependent you can’t function without each other. It’s also the most intense pleasure you’ve ever experienced. Her orgasms felt like you were being crushed into dust and reformed in sound and colour, escalating in intensity as she came in chains that crescendoed in your own orgasm, a one and done which knocked her out for twenty minutes. That was back in the Januaries you shared, when you both bit hard and bruised easily. The ones that left you both broken. She got her brain working again. You’d ask how but you’re afraid of the answer. New job, new boyfriend, new life. Something changed and she got better. For now, you need to focus on you. On your brain. You poke it with a paperclip, hoping to push a reset button it doesn’t have. You look up the instructions, but they don’t really help: No bright light. Don't get it wet. Never feed it after midnight. Frustrated, you place it on your nightstand where you can’t forget about it. Speaking of latent, your phone hasn’t lit up either. Nothing from her. It’s a familiar feeling, waiting on messages she’ll never send. You’re sure of that much. And of this: Her heart you never held. Maybe she worried you’d break that, too.
You wake up to your brother cracking the skylight window in your room. Came to apologise, he says. About what Lily overheard. I shouldn’t have said that. But fuck me. You smelly bastard. He marches off after letting you know that showers exist, only with more swearing. Not that you don’t know what he means. Between lido visits you’ve been conducting experiments in personal fermentation. What you’ve discovered is that you can cultivate some captivating scents after a few days stewing in your own brine. And now your brother has discovered it too. He is less enthused.
With special permission from her parents, and because you are barred from pretty much every lido in London, you and the girl are on a train. You’re heading to the coast to see the sea. Between losing games of Uno, you place your Tesco bag on the table and ask the girl if she knows anything about brains. She glances it over. Needs charging, she says. You laugh and slap the table. Kids seem to better understand what these things need. She places it by the window so the sun can recharge the cells. When you arrive at the coast you’re already losing light. You get a cab down to the tidal pool. Are you sure, she says. You say you are. It’s time. Besides, if you manage one lap, she has promised you a hot chocolate. As long as you pay. You strip off, shivering in your swim shorts. There are no lifeguards here. No scowls. Most people have the good sense to be indoors. You stand at the edge of the pool, windswept and freezing in the fading light. You notice your brain noticing things: White cresting waves chopping and churning. Seagulls vying for scraps in the sand. You hand your clothes to the girl and leap. For a moment you’re between land and water. Then the agony arrives. You gasp as the water grabs you. You can feel again, and what you feel is pain. Your brain is flooded with it from every nerve. You curse gods you don’t believe in and words you do. You thrash and flail. But you’re alive. The pain says as much. You watch the girl stride along the edge of the pool, dancing through the wind without care or caution. Her name is Lily. She’s fearless. Maybe January is something that happens to you when you get older. You hope it never happens to her. You smile despite the tears, because of them. She’s already at the other side, waving you on. The sun is sitting on the horizon, setting on January. It’s almost within reach. You take a lungful of sea air and let go.
There’s been a confrontation brewing with your brother, which you decide to sacrifice your evening to. You shower twice for good measure and put on something freshly laundered. You find your brother watching football. Okay, you say. I’ll get some help. You stand there as the seconds pass, waiting, watching. Without saying a word, he scooches over. Moves a stray cushion. Leaves you space. You take the seat and sit with him in silence, no sorrys or thank yous or soul searching needed. Just a beer to sip and a late goal to beg for.
You wake up to a text. Your ex. She had her baby. There’s a picture attached. Tiny and pink, all parts accounted for. You did good, you say. You ask what they named her. Three dots bounce under your message, then disappear. A familiar feeling. A few seconds later your phone lights up. January, she says. She adds a sideways smiley.
Tesco is the largest supermarket chain in the UK. Their grocery bags are white plastic with red letters and blue stripes. When I was a kid they were a very thin, flimsy plastic, more translucent than white, the kind of bag carried by the sad man on the bus.