printf ("hello, world");
I used to think I'd perfected it, this business of meeting with the world everyday, but lately, my smoothness had started to slip.
A world ago, when I was at university in montreal, I woke up one day realizing I was screwed - I wasn't going to be able to make rent for the next month. I was two days late paying tuition for that semester. Canara Bank had taken their time wiring me my loan, and the university had fined me a percentage point of my course fees. This threw my carefully budgeted finances out of time.
I had a few options in front of me - I could borrow money from one of the Dubai kids that studied with me. My roommate too was pretty well off and often offered me money. He thought nothing of spending $70 on a date, like he did the night before. On a girl I liked. $70. That’s two weeks’ dinner – 14 big macs and fries. I should have taken the bastard’s money.
I suppose I had some sense of pride.
Instead, I posted an ad on my university’s bulletin board. There were others too like mine, but I thought I came off decently in those 50 words.
“I think foreplay is huge fun. I can listen, or tell you stories and sing you songs. I will work incredibly hard to make sure your evening is a memorable one. My french is terrible, but I will love your accent. You can make fun of mine, at no extra charge.
Call 514-833-8285 so we can see if we click.”
I got 3 calls that very evening. One of the callers was a guy. I figured I had already put myself well out there, into escort land, so why start to draw lines now? He sounded like me. Genuine-ish. I decided we weren’t going to bring my sexuality into the picture just then. We met at his place two days later. I remember walking home around dawn, when the street lights, no longer needed, brought some warmth to the deadness of the city.
It wasn’t long before I gathered the courage to head to the intersection of du Parc and Laurier, Montreal’s best known business area for the fille de joies. This effectively stripped me of any euphemisms, like escort, listener, or the evening’s entertainment. I would wear a long kurta, and a wooden bracelet. I’d bring my guitar with me for effect. An adolescent misstep. The ladies on that street seemed amused. I was upset that they didn’t think me a threat. Yes, gigolos do not walk the street like hookers do, and yes, I was probably coming off rather cute for my impudence, my naïveté, but I was still there to make money. I consoled myself that it was because our markets overlapped but minimally - not enough for me to be considered competition.
It was still going to be a few weeks before I understood how god-awfully pretentious all of this was, so I began to sing for the women and the trannys. That first night, I did the only two french songs I knew. By the week after, we were doing Bengali songs, and an older lady brought a cajon to play along. By the end of each night, I was invariably the last one on the street. It was on a Tuesday during my third week there, that I was told to fuck off. It was fun they said, but I was neither cute enough for them to continue paying off the cops for me, nor serious enough about prostituting myself that they should respect me.
I wish they’d told me earlier about this business of having to pay the cops. I counted out fives, and twos and my last ten till I had $50. I stuffed the money into the palm of the one that told me to fuck off.
I was out of the street-walking business. My pride about matters financial was still intact.
During my Ph.D at a state school in the southern united states, I’d been running simulations on a computer for three nights straight. I was part of the photonics department and I’d come there to research and develop cutting edge lasers for optical data transmission. Also perhaps for cancer-cell blasting.
I got up to get myself some gummy worms from the vending machine, and as I walked past the laser laboratory, I found one of the newer lasers we’d bought pointed right at the glass entrance door. I punched in the security entrance code and walked in. This particular laser operated in the blue range of the colour spectrum. Blue is such a brilliant colour, when it concentrates itself into a ray. ‘Brilliant’, I whispered in my head. I couldn't bring myself to say it aloud but it bounced around the walls of my skull. It vibrated against my inner ear and formed a residue on my tongue that I just had to spit out.
I spent the night arranging the lasers, red, blue, violet, carefully. I pointed them at mirrors, and the mirrors at themselves. When I’d finally flip the switch, the darkened room would be awash with crisscrossing beams of light. I suppose I also knew that it would be only a moment’s spectacle, because the lasers would fry each other, the way I’d aligned them.
I was ejected from the University a week later. I imagine some of my friends in India were pleased with the news. I had now become that much easier to outpace.
This tussle between apathy and a need to fit in has helped center me. It’s held my life taut against the expectations, against my own failings.
I’ve tried to find patterns in my life to figure out what next will trigger a tumbling of my card house, but it’s been more random than my math can predict.
I’ve begun to feel a detachment from myself. This is where I’ve probably been headed all along. This prime spectator's view. No longer simply the actor, now I was becoming the ghost that straddled the end of the stage, loosening the rivets from my actor’s body and coalescing into the seats, front and center.
I started a business of my own not long after. It doesn’t really matter, the chronology.
I sold large Indian double doors in Kampala, real estate in Toronto and sushi in Bangalore. The idea was to seal vacuums as soon as I spotted them.
Once, on the mysore-ooty highway, in the dead of night, the headlights of our car caught a flash of ivory in the distance, off to the side of the road. I don’t think my friend who was driving had seen it. I had though. I left the conversation and turned to watch this movie play out in slo-mo. The pitch of voices and laughter and music and beer dropped low. I saw the elephant move toward the road. I didn’t want to miss a moment. So it was especially infuriating that I needed to blink right then. My eyelids never felt more unresponsive. They closed like the shutters of a Bengali sweet shop at noon, slowly, but with clarity of intent. Then, for what seemed an hour, the shopkeeper had his little siesta, and finally opened the eyelids again. By now, the elephant, moving drunkenly, had stepped onto the road.
Our car was Bharat IV certified. Very quiet, save the idiots inside the soundproof, a/c-ed cabin.
It wasn’t like I thought it would be. We simply glanced the tusker’s right front foot. Somewhere above the knee. The car slowly careened off to the side of the road. I was happy to see the speedometer at a 110, on this narrow road, where the signpost clearly said 70. If we were going through with this, it wouldn’t do to underachieve.
Anyway, we glanced his foot. I turned my neck to watch him through successive windows. He stood there staring into the night, his face like a taxi with doors open. Then his hindlegs buckled. I could’ve sworn he let out a trumpet before he hit the ground. But I left that part out of the police report. It would have sounded facetious. My friend, the driver also died. The other two were taken to a hospital. Naturally, I went too. It wouldn’t do to walk out erect from the crash after we’d just felled an elephant.
Sometimes, when I’m done writing, or thinking, which is usually late evening, I pour myself a rum and diet coke. I often wish I was sophisticated; perhaps a drinker of scotch or some fine liqueur, but one’s unpalatable and the other’s spelt liqueur.
It’s usually the time that my neighbours come home too. All of them, the one across the street with the benz, the one to the right with the pool, and the one on the left without. They work for an IT company. They tell me they are important people at work. They take a bus home, and it drops them at the gate of our compound. They carry briefcases, and their shoes make a feminine clickety-clack sound on the pavement. I suppose they are important people.
They are men of sophistication. I can see them through their windows, and over my headphones, and if needed, on my laptop. They discuss the mundane with their wives, and tend to their children. They also tend to drink. When drunk, they meet at my house. Here, they discuss swapping wives, but only in jest. Their wives would beat the living crap out of them. My house is a safe place.
I’ve learnt how to make small talk. When I meet people, I’ll quickly ask them about their happiness quotient on a scale of 10. The question will disarm. And because it is so personal, but short of prying, they will start up their mental abacus, moving beads in response to the flashes of memories of recent events. They will typically go back up to a week, take stock of everything good that’s happened (+1), check if anything terrible has happened (-1, or -2), and divide by some number that represents the general pall of gloom/ray of sunshine at work or home.
Once they’ve told me the number though, they’re more exposed than they thought they’d be. Now, I could use the opportunity to give them my own HQ, but I prefer to right things. So the conversation still remains about them. Initially abstract hypotheses about why that low score quickly funnel into detailed conversations about the bad performance review at work, or that half-wit of a husband.
I enjoy righting things.
I had devised ways to charm. Such as listening intently. Speaking first when a silence got too awkward – This attempt at lightening mood is never polished, but still appreciated for effort.
Detachment before I seemed too interested. Callbacks to a previous minute detail you thought I missed when you’d mentioned it.
I also did self-deprecation. Jokes about my social awkwardness, weight, ethnicity. I did, however, make note of those in the crowd that laughed loudest.
Lately though, my smoothness had started to slip.