Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
16. A strong boy like you
June (part one)
This is chapter sixteen. If you’re new, it’ll make a bit more sense if you read from the start.
1993. You’re out running laps of the local cricket pitch. You like to run in the summer, when the air is warm and the grass is cut and the midgeshang in the air like clouds. You like to run to see how far you can go. You’re not so fast, but you can run far. The local cricket pitch is vast, one of the biggest in the county, with a stone wall down one side and an eight-foot fence along the back edge, which ends at the river bank lined with sycamores. The whole field is bordered with long grass and wildflowers and nettles, a graveyard for cricket balls. There’s a dirt road round one half for the green keepers. You come here to run laps, as many as you can. As you round the field a man pulls alongside in a battered Ford Sierra. He asks if you want to learn to box. A strong boy like you, he says. You should learn how to fight. You shake your head and keep running. You don’t like the way he called you strong. You don’t like the way he’s looking at you. You don’t think you’ve been regarded before. Gazed at. I think I know your dad, he says. What’s his name? You have the unfamiliar sense that you’re being considered. He’s measuring, weighing, sizing you up. You think of a name and say it fast. He tells you they went to school together, him and the dad you just made up. You keep running. Your dad didn’t even grow up around here. Ask him if he knows Steve, he says. Go on. The dirt road ends, and he runs his Ford Sierra through the grass next to you, the ankle high stuff beyond the boundary of the cricket pitch, where spectators place their camping chairs and coolers on match days. He’s keeping pace, and you’re trying to stay calm. You sure you never boxed? he asks. Strong boy like you. Instead of rounding the field you aim for the fence. He has to slow down or the Sierra will go into the long grass. No telling what’s in there. Balls, bricks, bodies. The fence is made of railway sleepers stood on end and driven into the dirt, joined with iron spikes. The sleepers have sagged and separated in places. You’re betting he doesn’t know about the fence. That you use it as a shortcut. The gaps are slight, hard to see. And a grown man would never fit. But a boy, in a nine-year-old body. A boy in shorts and vest. A strong boy. A boy who knows which sleeper to aim for. He can fit. He can slip through and barely break his stride. He can keep running. He can run far, through woods and fields where cars can’t follow. A boy like that can make it home in time for tea. You’re nine-years-old. When you tell this story, thirty years from now, it’ll scare the shit out of you.
1998. You’re offered an England trial for the U15 basketball team. You’ve trained for this for years. Five-hours-a day most days. It shows. You play well, bag a few threes, some steals. You make a good account of yourself. When the session ends, you’re told you’ve been cut. Too short, the coach says. It’s the first time he’s seen you play. Later your high school coach will tell you he made up his mind when you walked in the gym. Didn’t like the look of you, he says. He fills the team with players he already knows. The next year you grow a six full inches. You’re never offered another shot.
1996. You’re on a school trip to London. The hotel is a jailhouse riot, twelve-year-olds ruling roost over teachers who don’t get paid enough for this shit. You’re getting changed after a shower when the maths teacher, a famous grouch who drinks at lunch, barges in without knocking. She’s heard you’ve got some beers, because you have. You snuck some out of the fridge at home the night before the trip. Someone snitched. You race to cover yourself with a towel and shout at her for not knocking. She laughs and points at your hastily draped midsection. I have no interest in that, she says. It’s quite ridiculous, I can assure you. You hand over the beers and she gets on her way.
1999. You’re at a seaside resort, the kind of place where families come back season after season and the kids all know each other. There’s a new girl this year. She’s here with her friend, from one of the regular families. You meet her at the beach. You’re the same age but she seems older. She fills her swimsuit in ways you can’t help but stare at, as you map a mental image for the shower later. And she likes you. Your friend Dave is a year older than you. He’s taller, funnier. He likes her, he says. And yet she likes you. She lays her towel by yours and follows you into the water and laughs a lot. She tells her friend to tell you she fancies you. But out of loyalty to Dave, out of fear, you do nothing. A few days later she tells her friend to tell you that she thinks about you when she masturbates with one of those slim cans of deodorant, the kind that fit in purses. You don’t know what to do with this information. You’re turned on and terrified. You’re shy about your body. You’re not as far along with the whole adolescence thing as you’d like. You’re fifteen and it feels like you’re miles behind. Still a boy. You’re sure if she saw you naked she’d laugh. So, you do nothing. At the rec centre one night, Dave catches wind of her affections and decides to play matchmaker. He invites you outside, grabs the back of your head and pushes you at her, puppetting one of your hands and trying to make you paw at her chest. You don’t want her this way. You’re shouting no, get off, and in your rage you end up breaking his grip and pushing her away. She runs off, humiliated. You go home. You don’t go to the rec centre after that. And you never see her again. But you’re told that she hooked up with Dave for the rest of the summer.
Present day. You’re lying on the pristine white floor of the attic at your brother’s house. Everything is accounted for. Your mattress. The clothes rail. Your laptop. But instead of walls, the floor extends beyond the horizon. You’re lying in a vast expanse of nothing. A gleaming void. A white abyss. There’s a ticking coming from somewhere. It’s the watch on your wrist. It appears to be counting down. You’re not sure to what. The display on the face cycles through random combinations of numbers. You sit up and see you’re no longer alone. A man sits in a chair a short distance away. You ask him if knows what time it is. Good, he says. Very good! You’re awake! He leaps to his feet like a human exclamation mark. It’s whatever day it was, and every day it has been. It’s all the days! You recognise him immediately from his YouTube videos. Dr. Michael Hoffmann. Head of the LSD study. Inventor of the Acid Watch. He looks like 1980s Max Von Sydow, back when he still had red hair. He offers you his hand and pulls you to your feet. The experiment is going quite well! Don’t you think?
2014. You’re signing the divorce papers. It lasted a little over a year. You just turned thirty. You’re not sure how to tell anyone. What is the proper way to express failure? Do you send cards? Apologise? Offer to reimburse those who attended the service? You opt instead to say nothing and hope that people figure it out on their own.
2006. You’re travelling for the summer, bumming around youth hostels, when a modelling agent spots you on Venice Beach. He gives you a card and offers to take you on. He’s flash, older but very slick, with a Porsche and beach house in Venice. There is a brass plaque with his name on pinned to the booth at the steak house he takes you to in Malibu. He shows you a list of contacts in his phone. He knows a lot of people. Studio bosses, music moguls, power players. At least according to the names in his cell. He wants you to audition for a horror film his friend is producing. Some nudity, he says. But nothing hardcore. His spiel is as polished as his veneers. This booth has seen some traffic. He takes my hesitation in stride and changes tack. He knows literary agents. He can get your book published. Whatever you want, he says. You wonder how many boys fresh off the bus are taken in. How many see stars and sign up on the spot. He can sense you’re not buying it. You’re biding your time, waiting for the catch. Listen, he says. I’ll level with you. I can get you modelling work, sure. But the real money is in massage. Those names in my phone, they’re all clients. They like having handsome boys like you around. He takes a swig of red wine. And they know how to tip. He’s chewing his steak in a way so that’s so off putting you can’t finish yours. He laughs to himself. The boys I bring here are normally grateful, he says. A waiter regards you with fleeting pity. Or is it jealousy. It’s hard to tell in LA. The agent takes a moment to recompose himself. Look, you’ve got to start somewhere. Everyone’s done it. Your favourite actor, I bet. I mean, what’s a few blow jobs when you’re driving a BMW making six-figures? On the ride home, he puts his hand on your leg and you flinch so hard he nearly crashes. You get out at the next light. Years later you’ll read an expose detailing the abuse he and his friends inflicted on dozens of young men. You’ll start crying on the third paragraph. Not because of the close call, but because you’d always been too ashamed to talk about it. You were twenty-two years old. You blamed yourself for having dreams.
1984. Your dad is leaving. He packs a bag and goes to live with someone else. This isn’t sitcom dad. He arrived later. This is your biological dad. You don’t know this is happening. You won’t know about it for years. You aren’t even born yet. But your mum knows. She’s pregnant with you and your brother. She feels it, so you feel it.
2022. You’re lying on the floor of your flat. The one with the stoop outside. A few months from now you’ll refer to this as the Bad January. Other people will call it an attempt. You’ll say it was only a plan. A plan you called off, last minute. You changed your mind, brought in the cavalry instead. There wouldn’t have been an attempt. There would have been an action. A conclusion. In the flat you listen to The National and pack a bag. You curse your brain, your ex, her timing. You curse gods you invented to curse. Wait for your brother to come get you. You’re thirty-eight-years-old and you’ve never felt so alone. When he arrives you ask him, What is left for me now? He picks up your bag and says you can choose the music for the drive back.
Present day. There’s an alarm ringing. Dr. Hoffmann has removed your acid watch and is tinkering with it. He talks without looking at you. One of the technicians flagged this episode, he says. He compelled me to check on you! I said you were fine. He disagreed. Alas, here I am, checking in! He leans closer and pauses for effect. Tell me, what do you know about experience machines?
Refers to any species of small fly that isn’t a mosquito. See also: Gnats. No-see-ums. Chironomids.