It was a warm day when this happened. I say that because, frankly, it’s weird enough having a warm day in this country in winter—and, put on top of the events of which you’ll read below, it was a doubly weird day. Doubleweird, if Orwell had written it.
The Drunkard and I sat outside of the café near Woolf College. We watched people as they walked past—generally in groups of languages and nationalities (if you’d want to think of people as representatives of their cultures), but occasionally, you’d see the lone person, hunched over, a universe unto themselves with massive headphones blocking them off from the rest of the people on the pavement. The Drunkard looked the hardest at these people. If there was a sad enough specimen (usually the type to bury themselves in massive coats and glare at the ground as if it had wronged them in some special way), The Drunkard would grunt.
We didn’t talk for a while. I sat there, sipping from my rapidly cooling ceramic cup of Americano, watching the people and, generally, wondering if they, unlike myself, had had enough to eat for lunch. “Fuck,” said The Drunkard. The versatile word wasn’t used in pain, or anger, more like you’d expect someone to go “oy vey” after a catastrophe.
I turned and said, “What’s up?”
The Drunkard grunted and took a sip from his beer.
I checked my watch and noted that it was half past twelve. Now, I understand that England is a country in which drinking at lunch is normal, but I’d never quite gotten into drinking before one. It seemed wrong. Like I was about to hurdle over a cliff. I wondered, right then, what exactly made The Drunkard call me half an hour ago and see if I wanted to go sit in silence outside the café. “You okay?”
It was a minute or so before he answered, and I assumed he hadn’t heard me. “You know Michael Chabon?”
“I’m Jewish-American with a background in literature. Of course I know Michael Chabon.”
“You read his book of essays? Manhood Something or Other.”
“Can’t say I did.”
“There’s a bit in there that goes like—and this is paraphrasing: The art of being a man is to flood everyone around you with a great, radiant arc of bullshit. To give the appearance that you’re keeping your head, when, deep inside, the truest part of you is going ‘Oh shit!’”
We lapsed back into silence for a moment or two. “You don’t really give off the feeling of keeping your head.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
I tossed up my hands. “Hey man, you’re the one who took four flasks of absinthe to Oxford.”
The Drunkard answered with another grunt.
“I tell you I’ve been going to lunches with a Chabad rabbi?”
“The fuck? Seriously?”
The Drunkard nodded, shivered, took a sip from his beer. “I miss having a community. I’m fuckin lonely man.”
“You’ve got us.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know. But, really, you guys—and you’re great, all of you except for Stalker and Writer—aren’t what I’m looking for.”
“You’ve got Julie, don’t you?”
The Drunkard snorted. “You shitting me? Man, she passes herself around the flat like a communal spoon. Downside of collectivism, I guess. After I found that out before we went to Oxford, I haven’t spoken to her. Didn’t expect to have any sort of relationship—really—I just…”
“Wanted something exclusive.”
The Drunkard nodded.
A pair of undergrads—both tall, the girl with rosy cheeks and the guy with that infuriating bird-crest hair—walked by hand and hand. The Dunkard slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “Go fuck yourselves!”
The two glanced over and hurried over towards the library.
The Drunkard, pleased, grunted again. “I haven’t had a community in years. Going to fucking Eldritch for school. What the fuck is wrong with me?”
I took a sip from the frigid drink and let him rant. Sometimes that’s what people need: another person around so they’re not talking to themselves.
“You know how many Jews there were in that school?” he asked. “Five. Counting me. The other four were even more secular than I am. You try getting an über-secular Jew to meet up for Passover? Fucking impossible. Forget dates. Forget em. Three times I went out with this one girl, thinking, each time, that maybe I got her wrong. But no, every time we went out it inevitably led to her ranting about how she had Christ in her heart and yadda yadda.
“Going out with a Jewish girl? Forget that. Went out with one one time. Know what she said when I told her my mom wasn’t Jewish? ‘Well, that makes you a goy.’ Makes me a shagitz. Fuck that. I didn’t spend my entire life getting Bar Mitzvahed, confirmed, teaching Hebrew School—I tell you I did that? I did. First grade. I didn’t spend the first part of my life—before college—to get told by some Jewish-American Princess that I’m not a Jew because my Mom wasn’t brought up in shul.
“And so I get here, maybe things are gonna be different. Nope. Fucking French collectivists. You want heartache, you think about smelly fucks shtupping the person you think of as your significant other. That, my friend, is the blues.” He drank from his glass. “Kroenenburg,” he said, after watching me watch. “Sweet lager. Only kind I drink.”
“I’m not a fan of sweet stuff.”
“You need it, sometimes. Women got their ice cream fixation. Me? It’s sweet lager and kosher wine. Kosher wine’s nothing but sugar with grape juice allowed to ferment. You’re doing Fiddler. You know the lyric, ‘God would like us to be joyful/ Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.’”
“Course I do.”
“Well, it’s like that. I’m not sure about God. Don’t know if I ever will be. But, I figure, there’s wisdom in it all. There’s wisdom anywhere you want to look for it, really. I drink that Palwin stuff and think that, maybe, life has its redeeming qualities. There’s not enough bad stuff in the world to squish out the good. All the shit that happens in Israel. All the racism on both sides, all the bombings, all the warfare, and still. Some kibbutz manages to make a bottle of sweet wine that finds its way all the way to fucking Canterbury, only to be bought and consumed by yours truly.” He held up the glass to the sunlight. “I look through this glass, I take a sip,” he took a sip, “I think the same thing. For all the shit that gets shoveled your way, you gotta remember the sweet things in life. A hug. Your dog. Sitting around, getting drunk and playing Mario Kart. A glass of wine. Your job, which entails tending to grapes in a vineyard. Something. You can’t ever lose sight of what makes it worth the trouble to get out of bed in the morning. You do that, and why even bother doing anything in life?”
He stopped talking for a moment, watched people walk by. I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and there was a vein popping out of his forehead. His left hand drummed the wooden table while his right clutched the pint glass.
I thought about a lot in that time where he sat, drumming. None of it was really joined up with a preceding thought, but it was all relevant one way or another. “All this because of a woman?” I asked.
He nodded. “All this because of a woman.”
“All this because of one woman.”