Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
20. Is this a cry for help?
July (part two)
This is chapter twenty. Chapter one is here.
I’ve never retrieved an emotion before. Being that the first one I have decided to try and get back is joy, and that I already jumped in the sea, I soon find myself at a loss as to what else I like to do besides wanking and sleeping.
In an attempt at feeling good about myself I post a selfie on Instagram with the caption under renovation. I’m smiling in the picture, something I’ve tried not to do in photos since a disastrous set of school pictures when I was sixteen. But this is a good picture, I think. It expresses how I felt in the moment. Somewhere south of joy but a good distance north of despair. When women post selfies, their friends comment things like queen and marry me and you’re so beautiful I’m going to kill myself. The comments I get are lol so vain and is this a cry for help? I take the picture down then delete the app entirely, which turns out to be far more joyful than using it.
Something that happens a lot in Seagate is when you try to greet people in the street, people you know, they’ll pretend they haven’t seen you. I call this the Seagate hello.
Joy is proving elusive. It’s hard to track down. Hard to hold on to. The problem is that I was never taught how to feel. None of us were. We weren’t taught to value emotions. We were taught to bottle them up, to push them down, to ignore and to avoid them. The worst thing you could do as a young man was to express a strong feeling. Being visibly and audibly excited about something would only encourage the bullies. Smiling and looking happy was practically grounds for a beating. Taunts were to be absorbed, not reacted to. Punishment was accepted as silently as possible. You could never tell. And you could never, ever cry. I never learned to express the way I felt. I never gave joy the time of day. I never learned how to access it let alone how to be grateful for it. How to validate it. How to recognise it and encourage it in others. It’s no wonder they all shut down. Like an astronaut returning after a months-long space mission, unable to walk, their muscles atrophied from lack of use, my emotions withered away. But I was born feeling. I just need to learn how to walk again, so to speak. Baby steps.
I had this fantasy as a kid that someone would be passing through my village and see me doing something. Anything. Running, rollerblading, playing basketball. They’d see me doing this thing and they’d say wow, you’re really good. I’ve been driving all around looking for someone like you, you’re the best at this particular activity that I’ve seen, and I need you to come with me. I wanted to be the best at something. I wanted to be discovered. I thought that if I could just get someone’s attention maybe they’d give me an opportunity. So I practised and practised. Before and after school. At lunch times. At the weekend. Whatever it was that I was doing I tried my best. And eventually, when I did leave, I realised the thing I’d been practising the whole time was escaping. That’s the thing I ended up best at. And along the way those things I loved doing, those things I practised and practised, the things I longed to be best at, they got left behind. And in their place, I took on new things. Grown-up things. A job I needed to be the best at. A career I needed to excel in. Some version of success to chase. I reached for more and more and got further and further from myself. From what I actually enjoyed. Perhaps that’s the answer. To find joy I need to look back. To ask what did I do when no-one was asking me to do it. What I spent my time on when it didn’t help me pay rent. I write a note to myself in marker and stick it on the fridge: What would little you do?
The first shot rolls through the air and finds nothing else until it hits the tarmac. Airball. I missed the basket by quite a margin. The kids at the park try to stifle laughter, but not very hard. One of them does me the kindness of passing me back the errant ball. I’ve had a basketball in my closet for most of the last decade. I got it with the idea that on the weekends I’d go to the park near my flat in London. I bought the ball and walked up to the park, but it was so packed with people that I lost my nerve. It was loud and everyone was good and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But you can’t avoid embarrassment forever. I thank the kid for passing the ball back. Now that shot is out of the way, I roll the ball in my hands, breathe, try to relax. My hands remember. I take a step closer. Then another. In hindsight a three-pointer was a little ambitious for a first attempt. The next shot clanks off the rim and bounces back in my direction. It’s an ugly sound. The dead reverb of solid steel. But I’ll take it. The sound of air alone is much worse. The shame of silence. That shot was a rangefinder. I plant my feet, roll the ball in my hands, and raise my arm above my head, releasing the ball with a flick of my wrist. My hands remember. This time the ball drops through the hoop. Swish. Nothing but net. The same kid makes a huh sort of face and bounces the ball back my way, with a little less pity this time. He’s somewhere south of the other kids at the court. Not quite a teenager, not a boy. He watches me move around the paint, make another couple of shots, miss a couple more. Can you dunk? he asks, passing me the ball yet again. He’s not much more than five-feet-tall and I’m well over six feet. I can see him doing the maths. Once upon a time, I say. He looks disappointed. There’s a woman on the sideline I notice now. She’s younger than me, probably late-twenties. She has a baby in a pram. She’s watching us talk, sizing me up in a slightly different way. The kid shrugs and shoots a few buckets of his own. He’s good. He waits a few minutes more before he asks if I want to play HORSE. It’s a game I haven’t played in years. How it works is you take it in turns choosing a spot to shoot from. If you miss your shot and the other person scores, you get a letter. H, then O, and so on. First player to spell out H-O-R-S-E loses. I look at the woman on the sidelines, his mum, I assume, and ask if it’s okay. She nods. Go easy on him, she says to her son. I thank her for the gesture but expect to be roundly trounced and after three shots I already have three letters. So far so good. I should probably try and get one point. Save some face. For my next shot I step back behind the three point line. He’d seen my first attempt and can’t hide his smile. He’s not worried. He knows I’ll miss. So when I lob up a very ugly shot that clangs against the backboard, he looks very pleased with himself. But the ball isn’t done. It hits the inside of the rim and bounces back up, then hits the backboard again, rolls around a little, and drops through the net. He punches the air. Oh come on! he shouts. I shrug this time. No-one said it had to be pretty, I say. Now he has to match it, or he gets a letter. I let him have a running start. He gives it a good effort, but the ball doesn’t threaten the basket. He looks sore. He gets over it pretty quickly when I miss my next shot. In the end I lose by quite a margin. He whoops and leaps up and shouts I won, I won! His mum gives a cheer. Wow, I say. You’re really good. I thank him for the game and agree to come back so he can beat me again. I walk away with my ball under my arm and a big grin on my face. Joy is trying your best and still losing badly to a diminutive eleven-year-old in front of his mum.
I remember once Kobe Bryant1 came out to warm up for a game and missed all his shots. He stood in front of a sold-out crowd in an arena filled with lights and cameras and missed every attempt. He missed layups, free throws, jump shots. He threw up outlandish shots. Junk shots. Bricks. When a reporter asked what he was doing, he said he was getting all his misses out of the way.
My friend V has been radio silent for several weeks which is par for, and usually means it’s festival season or she’s shacked up with a new beau. I text to ask how she is, and dots bounce under my message immediately. Turns out it’s both. Sorry, she says, been catching average dick from an emotionally avoidant man. Standard week really! We exchange an appropriate amount of cry-laughing emojis, which is three each. She asks what I’ve been up to. Humbling myself in public forums, for the most part, I say. I add an appropriate amount of brick emojis. Just getting my misses out of the way.
When we were ten or eleven, my brother and I rented The Goonies from the local video store every Saturday night for an entire year – a streak so legendary, in our household at least, that I feel it should be the subject of a podcast. The film has just appeared in the recommendations on my local streaming platform, and so I set up my projector and tell my brother to cue it up. You have to show Lily, I say. He agrees, and we agree to meet back here, virtually, in an hour. At the allotted time we count down via text and hit play together. It wasn’t an entire year, he says. It was a couple of months at most. Like eight times, max. I tell him a year sounds better. He tells me I have troubling relationship with the truth. In the opening sequence, a family of bank robbers have sprung one of their kin from jail and are racing through a small Oregon town, police cars in hot pursuit. As the chase speeds down side streets and through stop lights, we are introduced to each of the main characters in a series of short vignettes, a group of latchkey kids each with an endearing quirk or gimmick. It’s a masterpiece of the form. Storytelling at its most economical and thrilling. We’re only a few minutes in, but we know these characters. They are us. Our friends. Our neighbours. It’s sublime stuff. Three dots bounce in the chat. Lily’s bored, my brother says. Doesn’t like old films. Her words. I exclaim and explete and ask if he’s sure she’s related. Don’t worry, he says. She’s going to sit here and watch every second or I’m not paying for uni.
After the incident, I sent my Acid Watch back to the study with a note apologising for breaking it. In the post this morning they have sent me a cheap LCD wristwatch, the kind we all used to wear as kids in the 80s, with a note that says: Perhaps you should start with one of these until you can prove you’re responsible enough for a big boy watch! Best, Dr. Hoffmann. On the back of the note paper, Hoffmann continues. PS: You took somewhere in the region of twelve full doses of LSD! You should probably see a doctor! Or go into business as a spiritual medium! But maybe don’t operate any heavy machinery for the rest of the decade!
I’m going on a summer break! I won’t be sending chapters at the usual dates for the next few weeks. The August chapters will arrive towards the end of the month. The usual schedule will resume from September. Until then, Chapter 21 arrives July 21.
Thank you for your support. Please leave a comment with a line you liked this chapter.
I think it was Kobe Bryant. And if I’m wrong and it wasn’t Kobe Bryant, I hope I can be forgiven. It sure sounds like him.