It’s the routine that gets me down. The stagnant order of things, the passive hours, the sequentiality of my motives. It’s the fixedness of next week, next month, next year, those wearing daily schedules, the weekly confinements, the commitments to the calendar, that ruin me.
It seemed I had spent a long time peddling a schedule to myself, practicing time distribution. Months piling up in my memory like those useless single socks in my drawer. Memories I was reluctant to recount. Time I was ashamed of, not because of the things I had done, but the things I had not done.
Looking forward to masturbating, or the occasional fuck which, although inevitably anti-climactic, was my only relapse into spontaneity. Those minutes of escapism that would, post orgasm, entitle me to a forlorn state of self pity and remorse.
But I needed those minutes, I needed the grunts, and the ejaculations that followed them, because without them, I thought I might just slip away. It was only the enterprise of sexuality, the boner in my pants, the other’s hand on my cock, that gave life to my dreary state.
There was always a seemingly unavoidable melancholy that canvassed the rare good moments when they happened, something that would stab me in the back each time I laughed, each time I relaxed, a warning, a reminder, that something just wasn’t right.
Wake up, consider the day ahead, try not to consider the day ahead, try not to ask myself the same self-absorbed questions I’ve been asking myself for years. Am I sick, am I depressed, am I anxious, I’m going to die? A symbolical note: the wardrobe is turning black. Look at your hair, look at your room, everything reeks of abandonment. You can’t be arsed phoning friends, you want to drink all the time, you take refuge in hangovers and comedowns because at least then you have something to blame, something to survive. Tell yourself repeatedly that ‘people have it much worse’, try and grasp poverty, other people’s sad, violent, horrible lives, people who’ve ‘never had the opportunities you did’. It doesn’t work. You’re bored of your own voice, the clichés that float to the surface of your thoughts, you’re tired of words and the way that you use them. You are fatter, and your throat is always sore. Why is your throat always sore? Look at the internet until it leads you to the inevitable: online death.
That was my position, and what was most debilitating was that it was anguish without any real value, without a proper history. Programmed in me, for what reasons I was unsure of, was a foreboding fear of non-existence, meanwhile the crux of my existence, was my life. I was so scared of dying I couldn’t live, I was so obsessively distrustful of my immunity to disease, despair, discouragement, that I made myself continuously ill. One logical solution to this predicament was naturally, suicide, though even in my darkest hours life was never sufficiently untenable to convince me to take that route. Alcohol, drugs, and orgasmic distractions were always available anyway, not to lift my spirits, but avoid them. I needed a change, a self-reinvention. I needed to be picked apart, scoured, purified. I had to disentangle myself from the diabolical safety net that I’d created. I had to escape.
One morning while I was looking for jobs on the internet, I saw an ad for two months of summer camp in Taiwan. I made the decision to apply. Once the application was posted, a confirmation of employment and contract was sent to me a week later. I sent them a mostly made up synopsis of the duties I had performed as a working adult and the vague responsibilities inflicted on me in those jobs. I was diligent, I was amiable, I was even polyvalent. They returned this gesture of truth with their own adjectives: fun, exciting, rewarding. We had struck a deal.
A package arrived some time before I was to set off to Taiwan. A teacher’s manual, four VCD’s and the rules I would have to adhere to while working on the camp. The only rule that was typed in bold and capitalized was ‘NO SMOKING AND NO DRINKING ON CAMP’. I skirted around that bold text as if it were anathema.
The downside of the camp, which happens to be the downside of most jobs, was the work itself. Something I hadn’t contemplated until I had watched the VCDs that came with the package. Throughout the four discs I did not encounter anything that remotely resembled teaching a foreign language. There were eight chicken dance routines we would have to learn, and a plethora of chants to memorize: class chant, camp chant, happy chant, wake up chant, and one called Bob’s chant. I hadn’t ever written a chant, performed a chant, or for that matter heard many chants. There were videos of young American teachers singing and dancing to Westlife, with what I considered a lack of dignity, while Taiwanese kids laughed at their desks. One female teacher looked no older than 18. I doubted her qualifications as a linguist. She sang Britney Spears, moving slowly from one side of the room towards the camera, pouting, amorously staring into the lens. She delivered the last line, her lips gaped, an allusion to fellatio, only inches from the camera. In spite of the creepiness of the VCD’s short films, and in spite of my own dignity, I reflected on the reasons I was going to Taiwan. A chicken dance in front of a hundred people might be a curative exercise, either that, or it would send me over the edge. Abasement might or might not prove valuable.
I was met at Taipei airport by a man who would drive me to the camp. It took around two hours to get there. We drove in the abstract night and Taiwan could have been any place. It could have been England, or Sweden, it could have been the place I had just left. He took me through tunnels and over bridges, street lights studded the night, and then we’d be in darkness again and I wondered if I ever wanted the journey to stop, this stranger and me, driving into the unknown. I wasn’t quite sure whether I should have attempted to be friendly, or amusing, or teacherly, as he could have been affiliated with the camp and not just a taxi driver. I opted to blank him, and this proved to be the right decision. He was just a taxi driver. When we reached the camp – the catalogue had stated we’d be staying in dormitories – I was pleasantly surprised to see that I would be staying at a beach resort. I could hear the ocean in the distance, and a band was playing in the hotel garden. That night I was allocated a room, and offered a buffet meal with the rest of the teachers and TA’s (teacher assistants). I tried my best to make conversation, though I blushed a lot. Dinner tables have been throughout my life difficult places. I have often left them feeling I’d said the wrong thing – not because of recollections of things I’d said, but because of an awareness of the other people’s discomfort, and their relief once I stood up to leave. One of my friends used to ask me before I ate dinner with his family if I had remembered to bring my adapter. He’d say, without sounding critical, “Don’t forget to bring your adapter tonight.”
I’ve never been able to locate an adapter, and I had a strong sense I would need one over the following weeks.
One of the teachers was smoking in my room when I entered. He blew the smoke out of the window and then flushed the butt down the toilet. He would become a friend, and thankfully, my roommate for the camp. His name was Justin. He was Canadian. After flushing the butt end he walked over to me and shook my hand, then introduced himself in what you could describe as in a minimalist fashion. “I’m Justin,” he said unsmiling, and then he turned around and flopped down on his bed. He made no apology for smoking nor did he ask me anything about myself. I realized I’d been fortunate getting him as a roommate. He said nothing else to me that night while he lay on his bed reading, then around midnight he asked, “Can you turn off the light?” I admired his austerity, and obligingly I followed his command.
There were five groups of students, classes 1-5 assorted by age. I was to teach Class1, whose students were the youngest on the camp. My class consisted of 7-9 years olds. I hadn’t talked to kids this old since I was a kid. I stood in front of them crippled in speech and they looked at me waiting for me to do something. This felt like a stand-off, and even though I knew that it was up to me to make a move I didn’t know what to do or say. Children, I realized then, I had hardly known still existed outside of my memories. Now I was confronted by those memories and the real thing. I asked them their names, their age, and regrettably, what music they liked. They made me feel awkward and sad. One of the children said to me, “Teacher, you eye, funny.” He pulled on the sides of his eyebrows and mimicked my sullen expression. At that point I told my TA I was going to the toilet, which I then did, to figure out how I might make those small people happy.
For my class chant I took the melody from an old Mercury Rev song called Coney Island Cyclone. I became endeared to them hearing them chanting to a tune that had once been a personal anthem in my late teens. I realized then that the kids would probably do anything that I asked, and I began to feel better. The master/slave complex was reversed. It said in the manual that I should teach my students the chicken dance first. I had been hoping that somehow I might get out of this. But it was a camp decree, the camp’s pièce de résistance. This is part of the transformation I told myself, this is what you must do. My reserved assistant hardly assisted and I had to do the dance by myself; the kids enjoyed watching me act like a chicken, and I wondered if they could discern my embarrassment, and to some extent, already understand some weaknesses in my character. I flapped my arms and pecked with my hands, I felt abased, ridiculous, insecure, and they laughed. It was a trade off, their happiness for my embittered success. But the more they mocked me and giggled the more chicken-like I felt, and the easier it became. In character, I thought, maybe I could endure anything. Later in the day there would be a chicken dance competition; a chicken dance-off if you like. I filled in the time with more songs I found in the manual until the competition. They wanted to sing ‘If you’re happy and you know it’, but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to know how it would make me feel. Yet, watching the kids enjoy themselves so much was a very decent anodyne to my feelings of displacement. You shouldn’t, I told myself, take advantage of their happiness, you shouldn’t milk it.
In front of the whole camp my class performed Mercury Rev:
Hey wait babe, wait up now
Hey babe, wait up now
If we could find a space [clap, clap, clap]
Where we could both stretch out [clap, clap, clap]
Roll like Coney Island Cyclones
No, I won’t chicken out
No, I won’t chicken out
Earlier we had come last in the chicken dance competition, and neither did we impress in the chanting which, even though was not subject to the vote, did encourage a certain amount of measured clapping. As for all the other class’s chants, they were all sport’s chants and marching songs. “Who, who, who are you! You’re no good, we are best. Class 2, class 2, class 2.” Unimpressive, I thought. We didn’t stand a chance with Coney Island Cyclone, and I realized I’d been a little bit selfish.
I think the kids resented me somewhat for making them do a chant that sounded nothing like the other class’s chants. I was reminded of my parents telling me that having a weird middle name wasn’t so bad: “One day you’ll appreciate it,” my mother told me. Originality is not attractive to children, which is a pity, because it’s all but a lost cause in adults.
We finished late in the evening and didn’t have time to go to the beach or swim in the pool. Justin asked me if I wanted to go get a beer, and I was relieved. Across from the hotel there was a main road that ran back to Taipei, and some way down, there was the only shop in the vicinity of the hotel. For punitive reasons we couldn’t buy alcohol in the resort. As we were walking down the road we passed a shop front with a large glass window, where a woman was sitting on a high stool knitting or doing crotchet. Her legs were about head height to passers by outside, and as she was sitting with her legs open, her underwear was revealed to us. It seemed a non sequitur to the day’s activities, and guiltily I became aware of another part of me, a part I’d shelved for the day.
“Did you see that?” I asked Justin.
“What, the betel nut store?”
“Fuck no, the woman with her legs open, you could see up her skirt.”
“I didn’t see… they sell betel nuts to passing truckers, loads of the Taiwanese eat betel nuts, it’s addictive. It’s usually women in the shops.”
“Why were her legs open?”
“I don’t know.”
Betel nuts are addictive Justin told me, they make you high. They stain the addict’s mouths and rot their teeth. It looks like blood, a mouthful of blood.
“Do you think you can shag them?”
“Those women selling the nuts.”
“I don’t know.”
It irked me that he seemed disinterested. I’d thought little about anything but illness, death and fucking for a long time. I had wanked or fucked to forget about death every day since the spectre of death and illness had possessed me. Masturbation was my antidote to death. But Justin, he didn’t seem interested at all, he hardly gave her a glance, while I was fascinated, I was shocked, I was moved. I’d seen her underwear, and I felt a lurid bond with her, I needed her. I was frantic, doggish, I saw the image of her knickers in Justin’s face.
“Why don’t you go in and ask?” Justin laughed. But I was serious. What I had seen was serious. His nonchalance was an affront to my sexuality, my normality. He made me feel abnormal.
The shot of her clothed snatch I saved, I gave it precedence in the dormitory of my memories. The next morning in the shower I fantasized about fucking the betel nut seller. It was a working class wank, a stoic fuck, a teeth grinder, hard but not creative in the least, means to an end sex. I walk past the shop and she flashes me. I go inside and ask for directions, but she knows what I am up to. She smiles and tells me she ‘No speak English’. I notice a back door and when I look at her meaningfully she gesticulates as if to say, ‘do you want to go in?’ She shuts up shop and pulls the blinds over the window (blinds were an addition) and we go inside the darkened room where there’s an old barber’s chair. She bends over it, hikes up her skirt and invites me to rip down her underwear. We can’t fuck though. I don’t have any condoms, and they don’t provide them, so she just sucks me off. I come in her mouth and go back to the hotel.
Teaching the kids after wanking in the shower over a betel nut girl seemed wrong, and I couldn’t help but feeling poisonous all day. I left a trail of sleaze behind me when I walked into the classroom, like a slug, my intentions were marked with my secretion, I was obvious. I felt sure the kids knew I’d done something bad.
Over the 10 days on the camp I formed a relationship with my class I had thought not possible during the first few days. I felt revivified out of my depth, lowering myself to chicken dance routines and silly songs. A metamorphosis was taking place, I had conquered melancholy, I was getting over death. I was being reborn. When I had them sing Radiohead’s Karma Police as their final presentation for the whole camp and the parents – that had come to pick up the kids – I almost cried.
“This is what you get, this is what you get, when you messssss with us,” was haunting, as children’s voices often are. It was sublime. They transformed the song, denuding it of fear, rendering it a parody of fear. They weren’t interested it its meaning, only the melody, and in the melody, there was levity. I’d always been possessed by the meaning.
There was nothing to fear.
I stopped worrying about bacteria. I felt certain I had been a hypochondriac. I’d been saved by an intervention, an intervention consisting of children. I thought about the future. I had missed the future.
The following camp was different. The students were older, 17, 18, and they weren’t keen on chicken dancing. Neither was I in front of nubile girls, so for most of the time we listened to music and played games with participles. One of my students had large breasts that I think she was only shallowly aware of, and thus she supplanted the betel nut girl as my masturbatory fantasy. Her tits pervaded my thoughts night and day. On the last night of the camp we had a camp fire. We were asked to perform the hokey pokey in a large circle around the fire. The teachers and students had to link hands, except each person had to crisscross their arms so you were holding the next but one person’s hand. As the students were all quite short, and as I had furtively positioned myself next to the girl with the large breasts; I was doing the hokey pokey whilst rubbing the girl’s boobs with my forearms. I am a reprobate, I thought, I am a disgrace to teaching, to language, to thought. But my faux scruples were powerless against my virility. And that’s what it’s all about, I agreed.
Justin and I were getting along well in our hardly verbose interactions. We smoked cigarettes, we drank the occasional beer together, but I knew from experience that allowing him into the murky world of my sexual fantasies would be a mistake. He seemed to be overcoming nothing, and was definitely unmoved by my regretful maneuvers into talking about emotions or critical analyses of the camp and its aggressively nice staff. This of course engaged me to judge myself, to hold myself in contempt. How could he be so unbothered by everything, I wondered? How could a man manage life without ever seemingly reproaching himself or others? If my life was an uphill battle, his was riding a constant plateau. I might have been envious had he not infused me with calm so often. I tried to see through a façade, but it seemed there was no façade to speak of, he was microscopically unchangeable, emitting, to my – always acute – senses, no intimations of falsity at all.
I was glad to see the back of that camp as I was beginning feel exhausted toiling with sexual ethics. For the next five days we had some dancing respite as a typhoon was about to hit Taipei, purportedly it would cause much destruction over Taiwan. I had never witnessed a typhoon, I envisioned cars tumbling down the street, dogs impaled on street signs and the young teachers crying into their cell phones. I was looking forward to it. But it never came, and I was disappointed. It was just a storm, a pathetic storm, replete with all the banal rumblings of a windy day in England. We drunk a lot of alcohol during our sequestration in the hotel throughout the typhoon, playing drinking games I had not played since I was in my early twenties. I was the oldest on the group by a few years.
Until Dave arrived.
Dave was Scottish. He was two years older than me. I knew on meeting him that he was volatile. The equilibrium I had begun to nurture quite fastidiously was at risk. The affinity we enjoyed was dangerous. He’d lived in New Zealand for the past seventeen years, which gave him a peculiar accent. He called everyone mate, and when he was referring to someone else he’d say, “Did you see old mate when you went to the shop?” He also used the word ‘cunt’ with abandon. “Faik oef yer c’nt, what kinda c’nt daz that?” “Look c’nt, don’t tell me old mate’s smashing the TA.” Smashing was a term he used for fucking. He had obviously been appropriating the word ‘smash’ as a sexual term for a long time. He used it well. I thought it was amusing. It didn’t come as any surprise when he told me he’d been ostracized on his last camp for loudly vilifying one of the young female teachers in the canteen for eating fish when she was a proclaimed vegetarian. “The c’nt had ‘er own faiking veggie menu and then she eats faiking fish.” I could empathize with Dave for denouncing her. I too was suspicious of a vegetarian’s hierarchy of species.
After the redundant typhoon had passed about fifteen teachers were sent to work at the Boy’s Catholic school in Tainan, close to Taipei. We were told that the boys, aged twelve to fifteen, had already been studying English for quite some time and that their English language acumen was impressive. This was not true. When they did try and speak English it would only be to ask if we had an LP, which stood for Long Penis. “Teacher, teacher, you LP?” And the class would roar with laughter, I had no idea what they were talking about until my TA intrepidly informed me it meant well endowed. Taiwanese boys mythologized the western phallus. They were in awe of white men. They were sick with penis envy. At times they’d try and touch my LP. Whenever I wasn’t looking they’d sneak up behind me and try to grab my crotch. They would fondle each other, too, or mock sodomise each other over a desk. I surmised that seclusion from females at such a hormonally critical stage in life had made them much more sexually frustrated than I had been as a child. To stop unprovoked attacks and keep the boys in check Dave created the Elephant Game, whereby he would choose a particularly aggressive kid from his class and tightly wrap sticky tape around the boy’s upper arm and head while the arm was held aloft at the side of his face. As the boy struggled with his other arm to free himself it gave the impression his fastened arm was a trunk, the kids looked like elephants in distress. They screamed and cried too. It might have been cruel had the circumstances not demanded such avant-garde measures.
Perhaps I had milked my first camp, my feelings of contentment were dwindling. I was coming down. I felt guilty when I tried to make my new set of boys laugh, I understood the selfishness in my actions too well. These feelings of guilt alienated me, my insecurity repelled me and I think it repelled my students. Something was missing and I felt a strong urge to abandon all hopes of transformation. Strings I thought I’d severed were tugging on my feet, the spectacle I’d been showed itself in the toilet mirror when I went for a piss. The impulse to drink got the better of me and with each sip I felt I’d let myself down.
During most nights Dave, Justin, a Belgian man called George, and myself, would buy a few cans of Taiwanese beer and talk a lot about who we were and where we came from. We pressed our identities on each other until we were content the others grasped our character. George was dull, a man of forty-six, who evidently thought he was interesting. He tried hard to make us like him, but he was unsuccessful. His stories were exaggerated anecdotes, that lacked depth and emotional range. He hardly ever made eye contact because he lied so frequently. He’d sit down on the bed pulling on his smoke and watch the glow at the tip of his cigarette while lying to us about the things he’d done in his life. What was most unbearable about him was the fact that every time one of us tried to tell a story, he would cut in, requisitioning the airspace, and tell a story of his own, close to the other person’s, but better in some way, and thereby belittling the other story. Whatever we’d done, wherever we’d been, he’d excelled us. We survived his company by giving him the sobriquet ‘Top Trump’, or TT as he later became. After we’d given him this title it became a matter of comedy whenever he spoke, every time he trumped one of our stories, we smiled conspiratorially. One time I thought he might transgress with his trumping after Dave while drunk, told us a story.
When Dave was in his early twenties, he had been driving with his best friend and his girlfriend to a party, his girlfriend in the passenger seat and his mate in the back. He told us he was sober and not on any drugs; I didn’t doubt him at all. He said that after a momentary lapse of attention he had hit an oncoming car head on. In the other car there were five occupants, a family of three young boys and the parents. All of them died at the scene. His girlfriend’s legs were crushed, she would never use them again, and his friend died. Dave only incurred cosmetic injuries in what he said, ironically, must have been divine intervention.
“Look, yer can laugh mate,” he told me.
This response to my silence unnerved me.
He’d told us this story with an affectation of levity, as if it really didn’t concern him anymore. But I didn’t buy his nonchalance, and I felt sorry for him. I felt incredibly sorry for him.
“Mate, it was a long time ago.”
“So what happened to you?” I asked.
“Mate, I must be the luckiest cunt in the world the amount of shit that has happened to me and to still be alive. I lost my license of course, and they locked me up for a bit, too. But there was nothing to prove, I wasn’t on anything. A lawyer proved that the bend in the road might have turned the wheel of its own accord, if he had been close to the middle, and I was too, then we just hit and that was all. The fucking relatives of the family wanted blood though, and it wasn’t an easy time for me.”
“I bet it wasn’t.”
Top trump had walked in to catch half of this story. I hoped he wouldn’t attempt to trump Dave. He didn’t, I think because he couldn’t, and so he left the room.
“You see mate, that’s why I find it so fucking hard to take anything seriously. When I see people crying over stupid shit, like that girl on the last camp, ‘cos of that vegetarian thing, I just can’t feel anything. I mean, I can’t feel sympathy, I just felt angry that she was so fucking pathetic. When you’ve killed five people you didn’t know, your best friend, and more or less chopped off your girlfriend’s legs, then there’s nothing that gets to you. All I know is that I have been lucky, and that I have to enjoy my life.”
“It wasn’t your fault though, was it.”
“How the fuck do I know if it was my fault, I can’t remember a thing, I just don’t know what happened.”
I thought about how I might feel if that had happened to me, how I might deal with that. How, if it was me driving that car, I would unbuckle myself from the misery of it all. Just what kind of error do you have to make in this world so that you must devote all your life to suffering. Was sustained sadness just a self-indulgent fantasy anyway? Was it possible that nothing at all was exempt from insouciance? Could we move on from any transgression? Surely it was just a decision, to not succumb to your conscience. You could still be moral and not care. Guilt was not moral. Suffering shouldn’t be obligatory, it’s poison. Was that why Dave said I could laugh?
But I didn’t believe he was rehabilitated, I thought his levity – in spite of my musings – was an act. It was a crusade, a crusade that might vanquish his conscience. That’s what I thought. Dave was overwhelming, he had character, he was bullish, cruel, strong, foul-mouthed, funny and surprisingly – given his mode of verbal expression – sensitive and intelligent. He was wise, but I’m not sure that sat easily with him. When he laughed I laughed, he was infectious.
The boy’s school was Dave’s last camp, I still had one more to do. On the final day we organized to go to a club some miles out of Tainan. Justin knew a guy, apparently a speed addict, who would let us stay over at his place and maybe sort us out with some hash. We’d go to a club, drink, and stay the night at this guy’s house.
“I’m not doing any fucking speed,” I told Dave and Justin. They also had no intention of doing any speed, but we did feel like going out and getting wasted on booze and hash.
The speed addict was from England. He was called Darren. He’d been teaching at a primary school for a few years just outside of Tainan. It wasn’t actually speed he was addicted to, the speed I knew of anyway, it was crystal meth.
I knew Dave had been into drugs before we’d talked about drugs. There is a certain humility you notice in someone who has taken a lot of LSD, melancholy seems to perpetually hold sway over former smack heads, franticness infests anyone who has been heavily into amphetamines. Dave gave the impression of the latter kind of drug abuser. Though when he told me on the way to Darren’s house that he had been sectioned for two years, after the car crash, a result of psychosis brought on by crystal meth abuse, it was an addition to his story I hadn’t expected. “Two years in the nuthouse,” he said, laughing. It was a portentous laugh in the face of what I was now thinking might be my naivety. It seemed to me that he had waited until we were safely fastened on to this one way track to tell me about his years in the nuthouse.
The train pounded the rails beneath us, taking us into another night, and while Dave listened to his headphones I thought how peculiar it is that we brush passed people every day of our lives and never make a connection. Though sometimes you touch and a stranger might undo, transform, the itinerary of your life. This unpredictability can be galvanic, it should be enough salvation for any self-confessed trapped animal, though I couldn’t help think that there was something ominously deterministic about my odd journey towards Tainan with Justin and Dave. In a moment of clouded judgment I considered sharing my musings with Justin – who was sat with an almost cadaverous stiffness looking out of the window at nothing but blackness. I sat back in my seat and looked into the lights attached to the roof and tried in vain to blank my mind.
Darren told us after a short intermission that followed some introductions, “I can get a shit load of the stuff for about three thousand Taiwanese dollars. That’s about a hundred American.” Darren said he’d whacked up smack, but nothing at all came close to doing meth. Drugs had brought us all together I was sure, besides Justin that is, like most Canadians I had met, he had not ever been lost enough to take serious drugs seriously.
The decision to do meth was hardly cognitive, it was hardly agreed upon; we must have known we were going to do it as soon as we saw Darren’s works. We were moths to the fire, reckless, but harmonious, in tune with the only function we’d both ever really fully realized, the function to self destruct. I was aware this regression was not exactly conducive to my transition, but in that room I felt committed to a character I would surely never slip. There we were, sitting on that delinquent bed, nestled against dirty cushions and the necessary equipment to destroy all equanimity, and we could barely restrain ourselves from laughing out loud at the sinisterly recognition that that was what we wanted, it was always what we had wanted. Butterflies trapped in the pits of our stomachs, uncoolly animated, talking about things that didn’t matter, the usual extraneous preambles before heavy drugs are abused.
Darren’s apartment reeked of addiction, it had been untidy no doubt for months, years; a stack of porn VCDs were laying around unaudaciously, mountainous ashtrays depicted a tawdry isolated history at the side of broken lighters, the stale smell of smoke clung to curtains that looked as though they’d been pulled shut for years. Darren was emaciated, he looked about as unwell as people can look and still be able to cook for themselves. He had a scar on his leg and some of the flesh was missing. He told me how before he had come to Taiwan he had been a beach bum in Cape Town and ridden fast motorbikes. His injury was the result of a crash. Another crash victim, I thought.
He was frenzied, jittery, outlandish, and loud in spurts. Around his eyes were dark charcoal rings, rings of sleepless nights that might have told you exactly how many years he’d been an addict if you’d have dared to go close enough to inspect them. He told me he was going back to Cape Town to “come off”. His jaw was mechanical, like the forks of a crane, when he spoke, it looked as though his cheeks might split and his skull would push through. I imagined he could hear his own jaw ache and grind like industrial machinery. He was hardly human.
“I whack up this shite now, I didn’t used to, but . . . I ‘ave a pipe if you want to smoke it. Whacking is a different buzz altogether though,” he informed us coquettishly, soliciting the idea of mainlining.
Justin had taken few drugs and seemed put off by the idea of watching us taking meth. He wanted some hash. The sight of hypodermic needles made him restless, it wasn’t his scene. He hadn’t known Darren was so heavily into meth. It actually turned out that he only knew Darren from a camp they’d done together in the past.
After a few cans of beer, which we drank while Darren was scoring more meth, we got out the pipe. It looked like something you might use in a chemistry experiment, glass tubes and a straw with a bong shaped end where the smoke settled. Dave took first hit and told me how to smoke it. “Don’t hold it in,” he said, “it’s fucking toxic.” The initial feeling was good, not too strong, which surprised me after Darren’s glorification of meth. I felt a subtle euphoria, probably hampered a little by the booze, which I considered more of an opiate high than a speed high.
Darren brought out his works when he returned with the gear.
He took a hit, then stood up, and his face reddened. He pouted, he rambled, then he froze. Exposing his mouth full of decaying teeth, he said, “Oh yeah, that’s it you fucker, oh fucking yes, oh shit lads, you have to try this.”
And that was it, he didn’t need any more rhetoric, we could see it worked. Dave, because of his past psychotic illness had told me he wasn’t going to shoot it. But that was before we stated drinking spirits, before Darren had explicitly, and somewhat orgasmically, acted out an impressive routine he had no doubt practiced many times to himself in front of his bathroom mirror.
“I only have one clean needle, you’ll have to share.”
All of us were high, except Justin, babbling about drugs and scoring and misadventures. Dave was up for it, I was too. “You don’t have AIDS, do you?” Dave asked. I told him the truth, “Maybe.” Justin said no way, he wasn’t going to do any.
You didn’t have to cook up the meth. It just dissolved in water, which I thought quite expedient. But it took a while to find my vein.
When you inject a drug you can almost feel it make its way through your body. It climbed though the network of my veins in my arm and into my head, then it fell through my body and into my stomach, and settled in my heart. I was very high, but it wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be. Dave and I breathed heavily as if we were preparing to spend a long time under water.
“So what’s it like, are you fucked or what, is that not the best fucking feeling you’ve ever had?” Darren asked us.
It was nothing new for Dave. We both agreed it was strong, yet we weren’t in that promised land that Darren had extolled. You could see he was disappointed. As high as he was, he was let down, crestfallen. This was his addiction, it had been his life for three years, so he wasn’t content with us feeling just alright.
“You’ll have to do a bit more to get to where I am,” Darren told us.
We had earlier dropped both hypodermics on the floor and now didn’t know which one was Darren’s and which one was ours.
“I’m not fucking risking sharing with you two,” Darren said and grinned, but he meant it.
“Fuck it,” Dave said, “there’s that hospital we passed down the road, I’ll just say my bird has diabetes. I’ve done it before.”
He left the house. I thought him quite courageous.
Darren kept asking me whether it was cool; wasn’t it the best fucking drug? I almost wanted to be wasted just to make him feel better. I understood his predicament, his loss of face.
No sooner had Dave left the house it seemed, magically, he was back again. Darren sorted out the gear. “A monster shot,” he said, “this’ll fuck you up. This’ll really fuck you up.”
My vision was already blurry but I was sure he’d put far more meth into this shot. I didn’t, of course, mind. I felt meth weathered already. What else could happen?
Surprisingly, Justin agreed to do a shot, but a smaller one than us. I think he’d just gotten bored watching us, and the drink may have relieved him of his anxiety, or ethics about which drugs are good and bad. He went first. I wondered why he just didn’t just smoke it.
He reeled away from us after the shot. He fell back, looking at us as if we were coconspirators. He wasn’t enjoying it.
“Fuck, what is this stuff, fuck fuck fuck.”
And then I went again, without falter, too impetuous to care about Justin’s expletives.
Darren was so high now he couldn’t find the vein. I could see clearly that he was missing, digging straight into my arm, then pulling out again, laughing, sneering even, and then going back in. He tried the other arm, missing again, sweat pouring off him, shaking. Blood ran down both my arms. But he got me eventually.
Dave went after me.
And that was it.
That was the transition. That’s what it took to fully implement the metamorphosis. I was a moth.
Immediately Dave and I stood erect, like pillars, but as if an anti-gravitational force were trying to pull us out of the ground. My breathing was erratic. Justin and Dave were the same, both of them stood next to Darren’s bed saying nothing, just focusing on their labored breathing. I clung to myself. I felt consciousness receding, the walls moved away, and I imagined that any second I’d be in total darkness. You’re going, you’re going, you’re going, this is it, this is it, this is it. The moth flying towards extinction, into the fire. I could barely see the others, they were blurred, quivering images.
“Feel your cock!” Dave shouted.
I felt it. It was hard, charged like it had never been before. As if my entire libido was all stacked in there, a lifetime’s virility, throbbing and pulsating, my parting gesture to temporality. I couldn’t let go of it. Drums were thumping in my head; and I was slipping, slipping out of that life I was living five minutes ago. I was going to die. I felt I would explode. My hands would split open, I’d bleed from my eyes, my cock would rip itself off and writhe madly on the ground like a loose electrical live wire. The death throes of the dismembered, the most important part of me, reluctant to give up its life.
Dave was biting the edge of the door. “Bite this, fucking hell, bite this.”
And I did. Getting my teeth into the side of the door was a slight relief and I almost thought I’d ejaculate in my pants. “Have you ever been this fucking high?”Dave said. His body was flushing itself of its liquid. He was dripping. We had to shout, above our own fears, above the internal decibels of our madness. “This is fucking insane,” Dave screamed, and I tried to look like I was having a good time for his sake. Blood had reached my hands now from the piercings in my arm that Darren had made. It looked like stigmata. Dave was saying something to me. I could hardly hear him, it was as if he were shouting into a strong wind.
“I can’t fucking speak mate, I am so fucked, I have never been this fucked. Is this right?”
Even though I was attached to that door, the perfect prop for the circumstance, it again came on stronger, exponentially, a force that I could not contend with, something more powerful than my body could deal with. It was a bad dream, a death scene, I saw swollen heads, popping veins, my heart thumped; I heard screaming, I heard crying. Dave laughed. I felt like someone was stamping on my chest.
Fear toppled any residual euphoria, pain outweighed any hope I’d had of ever enjoying the experience. I was wrecked, spastic, time wouldn’t save me I was sure. It would only get worse. Dave and I stripped to our underwear, I don’t know why. A headache eclipsed my heart beat, heart was now ancillary to brain. But it was more important than vision. The three of us kept hold of the door, intermittently sinking our teeth into it.
My headache became intensely painful. It almost brought me to the ground. Dave asked me to lie down on the bed, I’d feel better. But he was wrong, he couldn’t contemplate the pain I was feeling. I could not stay still with the drug rushing through my body as it was. I tried to kneel down but it made the pain worse. My face full of blood, threatening to bleed through my pores, I had to keep standing. Though in the midst of this anxiety and pain, a part of my brain, some mocking conduit of rationality, remained lucid. Talking to me as if it knew I were going to die. What have you done? You silly man. You shouldn’t have done that? I’m not sure there’s anything you can do about it now…
My heart, my head, they had had it, it was closing time. I was overloaded. I put my hands in the air and this seemed to lessen the pain. I said to myself, You can’t fucking die here, you can’t finish now. Not in this house where no one cares.
It took all my strength not to pass out, to keep standing. I felt I had some control, at least enough not to die. If I tried hard, I might not submit to the darkness. Speechless, my hands out stretched to the ceiling, like an absolution seeker, moving slowly from bedroom to living room. I looked in a mirror. Dave took a photo, he seemed to be enjoying himself, in the way a schizophrenic laughs wildly at his own visions. And it was after about two hours, I am guessing, as time was hardly an issue that night, that Justin had some kind of a breakdown. I wanted to be taken to the hospital, but couldn’t bring myself to ask. We’d have probably been arrested, jailed or deported. I’d die, but I wouldn’t cause a fuss. But Justin could not take any more, he was done with us and the house.
I remember vaguely, him shouting. “What is this, what have you given me? You’ve got to get this shit out of me!”
Justin was always relaxed, phlegmatic. He seemed indifferent to other people’s noise, he seemed at ease with himself. It was as if he had just met his counter-character within himself. What could I do? I couldn’t even lower my arms for fear of aneurism. I couldn’t help him.
It was a phantasmagoria. Justin shouting for help, Dave bouncing around, biting doors, taking photos, me with my hands in the air, praying to a God I didn’t believe in to bring all of us down. Justin’s terrified face looking at me through the cacophony of mental noise. I couldn’t do anything for him.
I looked at my roommate, my smoke collaborator, my opiate and comfort blanket, he looked at my distraught expression and said, “Something is wrong, I’ve gotta go, I don’t know what is happening.” He looked disastrously sincere, he looked perfectly terrified. He ran out of the front door.
At the time Dave and I were too fucked to think about the reason he fled. Compassion was unfortunately unavailable to us that night.
Later that morning I puked over Dave’s back, I didn’t feel it coming, vomit without warning. He looked at me, teeth clenched, his speech stammered. “Man, shit man, I think you just puked on my back.” He didn’t even wash it off, I don’t think he could wash it off.
“Sorry, I don’t know why I did that.”
We crawled around and made animal noises. Dave tried to change the music. I couldn’t even hold a CD when he asked me to. My hands wouldn’t clasp. The CD dropped on the floor and Dave smiled and said “You’ll be alright mate.”
Daylight arrived and the drug subsided a bit, I was still fearing death. But I could sit down and rest my arms. Finally I could lower my hands. We could talk again.
“What the fuck happened to Justin?”
“I don’t know, I think he freaked and went back to the hotel.”
Darren had been out at a disco, I thought he was in the apartment the whole time. He’d been away for hours and we hadn’t noticed.
“Fuck man,” Darren said when he returned, “I thought you were all gonna OD. That was some fucking shot.”
I feigned calm and timorously told him that everything was ok. He seemed to reject any notion that he might have been to blame for what had happened. “Fuck, you were gone, I mean totally fucking gone. Do you even remember?”
“Justin better not have done anything stupid and told someone what we’ve been doing,” Darren said.
“I doubt it,” I said. “he’s alright,” echoing Dave’s chilling earlier sentiment. I was beginning to feel bad about Justin.
Dave said he needed a shag and would try and find a hooker. I put on some porn in the living room as I thought it would take my mind off dying. I beat off while Dave and Darren attempted to use his computer. Later the three of us collectively tried to send an email to one of Dave’s friends. Between us we couldn’t manage it.
It always seems behind trauma and anguish there is some furtive joke ready to burst the gnarled bubble. Levity is always available to those brave enough to embrace it. I wasn’t brave enough. The sneaky wank, the five knuckle shuffle, one hand on cock, the other hand on heart, and why does it take three English teachers to send an email? But I didn’t find it amusing.
Dave asked me if I wanted to get a hooker, he would pay. A ruthless question to a man ready to die, I couldn’t believe he didn’t understand the gravity of my situation.
We left the house and got a taxi so Dave could try and find a brothel.
The taxi driver asked Dave where he came from. I thought he was only being prudent when he told the driver that we were tourists. We had being doing a Class A drug, punishable by a lot of prison time in Taiwan. When we arrived at the brothel, which looked more like someone’s garage, Dave turned to me and said, “Mate, I don’t like this, do you think this guy’s trying to fuck us up? Mate, what do you think?”
But I was too anxious to be paranoid and I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by ‘fuck us up’.
Dave told the taxi driver to take us back to the same area. I could tell, even in my deathly state, that he was seriously agitated. Every question asked by the taxi driver seemed to put him on edge. The driver asked if he knew the local western guy. Dave, now quite aggressively, maintained that we didn’t come from around here and were tourists on a trip to Keelung. In hindsight, we couldn’t have looked like tourists.
“There’s something going on here, mate, I don’t fucking like this at all.” His face, ingloriously candid, put me on edge too. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said and told the driver to take us to the station, not back to near Darren’s house.
We paid for the cab at the train station and bought the tickets for Tainan. As we had to wait a while for the train I told him I needed to go to a pharmacy, I thought if I could get some Inderal and Valium I might slow down my heart rate and quell the anxiety.
“You can’t fucking go to a chemist,” he told me angrily. “No fucking way. They’ll know what we’ve been doing.”
“Will they fuck…Who’s they anyway?”
“You’re not going.”
“Dave” I whined, “I need some fucking Valium and beta blockers, I’m gonna have a heart attack.
“Your heart’s alright mate, you’re just freaking. Look, I don’t know if I’m freaking, but I think we’re being followed. If you go to a chemist and buy Valium, we’re fucked mate, you’ll be alright.”
“Are we fuck being followed… we don’t have any gear on us anyway.”
“Mate, they can test our blood, you can still get locked up for that.”
Dave’s fiction rivalled my own. I believed mine. I could not suspend belief enough to be concerned about his. He kept turning to me and nervously singing lines of popular songs. “Do you know this one?” He’d sing an oldie. I knew it, but didn’t answer him. I just held onto my chest, intimidated by the people around me, intimidated by my body. “What about this one? Mate, what about this one?” And he kept on singing. The station was full of Taiwanese. This was the end of my world and Dave was making it difficult. “Look mate I’m sorry, but I have to ask you, what about this one?” He sang more songs until the train arrived.
On the train Dave sat next to a girl and I had to stand. It really took all my energy not to just allow myself to collapse. As we set off a voice in my head asked, What are you gonna do if it happens here on the train, and you can’t get off? The sound of the chugging engine repeating those words. You can’t get off, you can’t get off, you can’t get off.
Dave talked to a girl sitting next to him while I wobbled on my feet trying not to fall on the old man below me, who I was sure knew I was fucked up, knew I was dying, knew I would fall.
As we walked out from the station, Dave quickened his pace to almost a run, and I couldn’t keep up with him. “Come on man, come on.”
“What the fuck, slow down.”
He turned to me, his sunglasses black and bulbous like the eyes of a reptile. “That fucking girl on the train said she was from Keelung, I told the driver we were from Keelung, she was one of them!”
I didn’t bother to try and argue with him. His paranoia was selfish and absurd. I’d be better on my own.
I slipped into a chemist and Dave said as I entered, “Look man, if they see you buying pills we’re fucked.”
I stood in the doorway and told him, “Dave, I need some pills.”
I found some beta blockers and some elbow supports for my bruised arms. At first the chemist wouldn’t sell me Valium until I told him I was having a panic attack. My eyes must have been extremely dilated. All this took an Olympic effort. My arms were black and blue, so around the corner I took off my jacket and put on the elbow supports.
At the hotel I took two Inderal and a Valium and tried, in vain, to sleep. Justin’s clothes and backpack had not been moved.
I couldn’t sleep. For two days I lay in that bed hallucinating. When I closed my eyes, sometimes I saw monochrome scenes where human figures moved around ominously, at times their faces moving right up to the lens of my mental vision. When the Valium wore off and I again started to panic my mind filled with colours, kaleidoscopic explosions went off under my eye lids until I took another pill. Electronic music and drum machines played relentlessly, auditory hallucinations that I tried hard to ignore. When I opened my eyes during some hallucinations the room was alive with my thoughts, luminous bugs zipped through the air, clouds of colours formed above me and then burst falling down to my face like electronic rain. Insects hatched in the corners of the room, they melded with the flowers I also saw, then the flowers wrinkled and died and the insects dissolved into the darkness. A constant dance of life and death took place internally and externally, the consummate nightmare, one that exists in both worlds. Formation and destruction, panic and its constant rebirth, in Technicolor. And the depressive site of Justin’s belongings, unmoved, bitter, things I dare not touch. I was petrified, but I felt I deserved it.
Justin didn’t collect his things. When I left the hotel I put his bags in the lobby. I never did hear from him again, but I also never heard anything about him again, and so I believed he had survived his ordeal but maybe thought better of trying to get in touch.
I was sent to work at another hotel to teach the staff this time. I had to wear a long-sleeved shirt to hide all the bruises on my arms. The elbow supports looked conspicuous. Darren must have missed my veins a number of times. The whole week I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting for something to happen. I made sure to take Inderal before every class.
You can’t properly articulate a panic attack, it’s unfathomable, it’s ineffable. Anxiety grows like bacteria, it takes refuge in the ducts of your mind and evolves there until it becomes part of your reality. Until it is so adept at imperceptibly infiltrating your thoughts you don’t know what is real and what is unreal. And it keeps evolving, never allowing its host an unequivocal detection.
A liquid trickled out of my right ear one night during the last camp. I lay in bed and rubbed my fingers against my cheek as the liquid ran down my face, warm and oily. Had a part of my brain liquefied? Had I been under so much mental pressure that a valve had punctured in my ear? Was it blood? I was too scared to look. When I awoke in the morning there was no stain or colouration on my face.
I bumped into another teacher who had worked on the previous camp and he told me what had happened to Dave. According to the teacher, who like all the others, didn’t know anything about that night of meth, Dave had invited Top Trump into his room and then locked him in. Top Trump later told the teachers how he thought Dave had gone mad. He said that Dave had told him he thought the mirrors in the bathroom were two-way and ordered him not to go into the bathroom. In the morning, someone knocked at the door. It was a Taiwanese guy who had got the wrong room. Top Trump, having been told to open the door, saw his chance and ran. Dave left the hotel shortly after with all his bags. When asked where he was going he said the airport. The teacher asked me if I knew what had happened. Why was Dave suddenly psychotic? He used the word ‘psychotic’ figuratively, which should have been amusing. What had happened to Justin, he asked. I said I didn’t know.
The chicken dances, the kids, the chants. I felt it had been a long time since that first camp, but it had only been a few weeks. I had transformed, but how trite had my transformation been in the end. To escape myself I had only tunneled further into myself, my metamorphosis had gone full cycle. From the ruthless fire I had awoken bruised and demented. What had I gained from that?
Since that night in Tainan I have found it hard to concentrate. I forget peoples’ names. During conversation I sometimes find my mind blank midway through, not knowing what I am supposed to say. I have been to a hospital and my blood pressure is normal. My pulse is normal. I know there could easily be a mutiny in my body, but a mutiny requires a leader. Anxiety, I know, is plotting against me, evolving, preparing to subjugate me.
But I am evolving too. I think of Dave and his car crash, and I try to remember that there must be something amusing even in the most brutal of circumstances. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel able to commit to the future. Now I know why he told me the night in the hotel that I could laugh.
I’m not prepared just yet to relinquish fear. I don’t have the confidence to be comfortable. I am reborn, but like all children, I am struggling to cope with the world. I am alive.
Dave was alive. I received an email from him. He told me that having been searched that day at the airport – another comedic moment of insanity – he spent a week in Japan recovering. He wrote that on arrival in Japan he still thought that the Taiwanese were following him. Only after a few weeks did he feel he could safely leave his guesthouse. Still, he said, by no means did he feel fully recovered.
In the last part of a messy email he wrote: “Mate, was that fucking bad or what? My fucking psychosis all over again… and made in Taiwan too!” referring to a conversation we’d had one night on how all the toys we’d had as kids were made in Taiwan and the fact they were always prone to breakage.
A few days ago I went for a bicycle ride through the mountains. I rode too far and realized as I saw the sun, that was grapefruit red, dipping behind the mountain in the distance, that I might not make it back with enough light. As soon as the sun fell behind the horizon I’d be swallowed by night. I asked myself if I had the opportunity to erase Taiwan from my memory would I do so. It was slowly getting darker as I contemplated this question. And even when darkness was complete, and I was cycling blindly down a road I hardly knew, I was glad that my answer was ‘no’. I peddled on not knowing where I was going.
©James Austin Farrell 2006