I planned on spending the night laying in bed and readingthe stack of Philip Roth novels by my bedside. American Pastoral, The Plot Against America, and Portnoy’s Complaint had all been assigned for the Ranting in Literature course. Todd’s intro to them, via e-mail, read:
There’s something about Jewish-American literature that lends itself to ranting. Maybe it’s because all the authors wanted to be comedians. I don’t know.
Anyway, you take a look at Philip Roth, here, and you find a rare example of self-hatred, and rants against the self and the author’s community. Roth, it should be noted, was raised by a charicature, and few things he has to say go beyond paranoid delusions. (Ha ha.) Seriously, though, he’s churned out some of the best contemporary literature around, and then he’s turned out some things that just suck.
Have a read of one of the books listed above – or all if you don’t have a life – and we’ll talk about them next week.
And so, since I was in one of my moods where I didn’t want to see anyone or spend any money (moods in which I am capable of writing scathing dark indictments of the modern existential hell, which are then deleted as I get out of the slump, read them, and think, “needs more space ships”), I readied my room for optimum readingness.
That meant turning on the desk light, turning off the main lights, throwing on the Beethoven String Quartets box set I’d borrowed and subsequently ripped from Nashville’s Public Library, and body-slamming the mattress while grabbing the first book on the pile.
The Plot Against America, if you don’t know, is an alternate-history novel. Remember that. It may be an important work in that it’s an author’s introspective look into what the American Jewish experience is by way of looking at what it could be, but at the same time, it’s an alternate-history novel, a genre which is usually relegated to the ghettos of the Science Fiction section in bookstores, frequented only by overweight tech guys in thick glasses and bad sweaters.
Anyway, it’s a book that wonders what would have happened if the possibly pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh might have been elected President of the United States instead of FDR, right before the onset of World War II. (Relax, it SPOILER turns out the Nazis were blackmailing Lindbergh the entire time END SPOILER.)
So there I was, opening the book right as the quartets started when the phone buzzed on the window sill. I dove over to reach it before it fell out – since the window was the only place I could get reception in my room – answered it, and heard The Drunkard slurring out what was probably meant to be a sentence. There was some fumbling with the phone, and The Student said, “Hello. The Drunkard is quite drunk. He bought a bottle of Jack from the corner shop on campus and, well, yes.”
I squinted my eyes. “You don’t sound so sober yourself.”
“I may have perhaps been drinking a little bit in the past, yes.”
A “Woo!” sounded in the background, and then a crash. “The Drunkard,” said The Student, “may have just broken the closet in my room.
“Anyway,” he continued, “so The Drunkard said that you need to come out instead of reading.”
Screaming from the background.
“Sorry. Instead of being a fucking pussy. That’s what he said. Anyway, I think he’s at the point where he’d try to break in if you didn’t come of your own initiative, so it’s really just a matter of showing up in the courtyard in a bit and ensuring that no one has to break in to your block’s front door.”
I grunted. “This isn’t something I want to do, Student. I have books to read.”
“No, no that won’t do. You can read tomorrow. We’ll be outside.”
The phone clicked off.
I sighed. Rubbed my temples, and walked out of my room and down the hall to Giannis’s room. I knocked and, once again, the sound of heavy metal subsided and he shouted, “Yes?”
“Come in,” he said.
I opened the door and saw a massive, at-home laboratory. Chemicals bubbled in various glass containers connected by tubes and wires. Strangely-colored steam piped its way out of his window by way of a clear, plastic tube. At the base of it all, various USB cords connected the contraption to his laptop, upon which there was a rapidly-updating spreadsheet and, playing in the background, what I recognized as Iced Earth’s “Violate.”
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“This?” Giannis asked. He was wearing a white lab coat, thick goggles, and gloves. “This is my weekly assignment. Please, wear gloves at least. The gas, it, ah, melts you if it touches you.” He laughed.
I looked to the left and picked up a pair of gloves from the bed and put them on.
“So,” he said, “what’s up my friend?”
“Well, I was going to ask if you wanted to head to the Venue tonight, but...”
“Yes,” he said, sadly nodding his head and gesturing at the chemical lab that had been set up on his desk. “I cannot, I think. If I leave this alone, it will...” he made an explosion sound and grinned.
“So what is it?”
“It is a way to see how the skin samples will react to the drops of iodine.”
“Yes. I have some from you, some from Chacko, some from Stasia, and—”
“Wait, what? I didn’t give you skin samples.”
“Oh, yes, I rubbed them off of you with the wire sponge when you were asleep in the kitchen one day.”
I rubbed my cheek. I’d remembered waking up with more pain than was usual one morning and wondering what was up, and it would appear that I had a mad scientist right down the hall. “That’s...”
“I’m kidding,” he said. He laughed. “I did that to Chacko. Would you like to give me skin? All I have to do is slice off a tiny, tiny bit.”
“Violate” by Iced Earth popped on his playlist and through his speakers. My opinion of the Greeks plummeted from “super cool people” to “cannibals.” “What?”
Giannis laughed. “I joke. I won’t need skin for a while, and it will only be a tiny bit of rubbing. Maybe with wire sponge, maybe not. But no, I cannot go out.”
A puff of flame formed in one of the beakers in the chemistry set, and a smell not entirely dissimilar to burning rubber filled the room. Giannis sniffed the air, looked over at a spherical container with purple liquid and said several curse words in both Greek and English. He rushed over to the computer, typed violently at the keyboard, and I chose to leave.
A little while later, we were in the thumping, low-lit, sweaty confines of The Venue. Up on the raised section of the floor, there was a reedy-looking guy with huge headphones standing behind a DJ set. Something I’d noticed was that there was no such thing as a turntable, which made a certain amount of sense. Why bring in a case of vinyls when you could just pop on an iTunes playlist and toy around with the knobs on a soundboard?
People danced on the floor in front of the platform. A different song, that sounded much like the first one, blared out from the speakers, and my ear drums throbbed, my brain felt like it was trying to collapse in on itself to hide, and my liver cried out for death. The Drunkard, drunk enough to be tripping over himself, blinked and muttered, “Dear God, look at all of this.”
“I know,” said The Student. His face had turned pallid, sweat beads started forming at his hairline. His nose twitched. “All of these people, contorting themselves in a mass, writhing. They could be out there changing the world, creating new ways to look at it, but they’re—”
“Fucking hot!” shouted The Drunkard, pointing at a tall blond who seemed to be wearing not a skirt, but more a ribbon around her waist, and another, slightly thicker, ribbon around her chest. He dashed at her like he was Wile E Coyote and she was the Road Runner.
The Student and I were left waiting on the sidelines, watching as he hurdled to the girl in ribbons. In seconds, she turned around, slapped him, and kept dancing. The Drunkard, showing less in the way of ego bruising I could ever hope to see, shrugged and walked back to us. “Drinks! On me!”
We went to the bar, ordered, and stood there, clutching our whiskeys and looking out at the sea of people in the unnatural blue and red lights. I thought about how much of a neurotic anxiety attack this would spark in Philip Roth, maybe followed by a discussion in long paragraph prose about how his mother smothered him when he was a child, and how that turned him into the self-hating man he is today, and took another sip. Sometimes, I thought, I was entirely too introspective.
The Drunkard pointed at another girl – brunette this time – who also seemed to only be wearing ribbons, and said, “Student, go.”
“What?” The Student took off his glasses, wiped them against his shirt, and looked out again. “What do you mean, ‘go.’”
“Go to her,” said The Drunkard, swaying a bit, “go to her, young Padawan, and she shall take you up and—”
“Fine, Jesus, just shut up.” The Student slammed down his whiskey. “You couldn’t sound poetic if Yeats had possessed you. Stick to jaded journalism, it suits you better.” He cracked his neck and walked off towards the girl.
I turned to The Drunkard. “How’re things with the French?”
He gritted his teeth. “They’re bad enough to make me want to switch places with The Student.”
“Woah,” I said. “You can—”
“She called me a fatass Yank and then punched me in the gut.”
I turned. The Student stood next to us, sighing mightily and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I hate clubs,” he said. “I hate them so much. They’re loud, they attract the worst class of human being imaginable—”
“I go to clubs,” said The Drunkard.
“Exactly, and you are, by most definitions of the word, a terrible human being. I mean look at this, no one would ever, in polite society, tell someone they’re a fatass—and I’m not fat, look—” he gripped his torso “—I mean, I could lose a few, but, shit, look at that girl out there. She outclasses me by a good fifty pounds.”
I squinted. “I think I’ve seen her in one of the karaoke nights...”
“Who the fuck does that? Who the fuck thinks it’s a good idea to tell someone to fuck off? This is how fights get started.”
“Whatever,” said The Drunkard. He drank his whiskey and headed back into the crowd.
The Student and I meandered off to one side of the club, which I assumed was the ‘chill’ side, because it had couches that were slightly less stained than the couches on the other side of The Venue. People were draped across them in various stages of drunkenness and undress, and the music continued to thump at everyone from speakers that hadn’t been updated for, it seemed, twenty years.
We stopped in our tracks. “This isn’t a good place,” I said. “We should leave.” Against one of the walls was the paratrooper and Rebecca. They were bonding in a way that The Student would never have felt comfortable doing in public.
I looked over. His upper lip was spasming, and his eyes flashed between rage, shock, and despair. I shifted him 180 degrees and pushed him in the direction of the bar.
By the time we reached the bar, he’d recovered the ability to speak, and The Drunkard had stumbled out of the mass of humanity in the center just as the DJ up front hit pause on his iTunes and a massive whirl of obscenities went up from the clubbers before the music resumed.
“Well,” said The Drunkard, “that was a bummer. Fuckin chicks, man, they don’t know good when it comes and grinds against them.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“What? It’s the club, man,” said The Drunkard. He grinded with the air. It was not a pleasant sight, and it has since haunted my dreams. “You gotta do it if you wanna get the bitches, man.”
I said nothing. There was nothing to say. The Student made a disapproving sound that was similar to the hideous screeches put out by the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Drunkard recoiled a little bit.
At this point, an incredibly drunk girl with mascara running down her face, who was just a little shorter than I am with long brown hair, black top, and a black skirt came stumbling up to me with a very strange grin on her face. I’ve been told since then – by both The Drunkard and The Student – that this is the I’m-attracted-to-you grin, but it’s so alien to me that I don’t suppose I’d recognize it again.
She said something, and I suppose it was English – for there were English words in what she said – but the words were so mangled and jumbled, and in such a thick accent typical of God-Knows-Where, that I could not understand anything she said. She stood right in front of me, and I said, “What?”
She then pressed up against me and took a picture of the two of us. I was still confused, so I backed away and said, “Who are you?”
Then she got annoyed – I think – and wandered back into the crowd.
I shrugged. The Drunkard stared at me with a gaping mouth. “What the green Hell is wrong with you?” he asked.
“What?” I asked.
He pointed after the girl, who was now doing the same thing with another guy. “That. That girl. She was all over you. Why, I don’t know, but she was. And what the fuck do you do? Sit there, looking at her as if she’s a person.”
“I say!” said The Student.
“No!” shouted the Drunkard. “Both of you in here, you don’t understand the dynamic. People aren’t people. Everyone you see in here didn’t come in here for a fucking conversation, or to make a long-standing connection with another person. They came in here to fuck.”
“I didn’t,” I said, “I came in here to establish a long-standing connection with another human being and, also, for a fucking conversation.”
The Drunkard scowled at me. “Well, you came into the wrong place, didn’t you?”
“I was perfectly happy staying in tonight reading my Philip Roth novels and exposing myself to a surely-encroaching existential hell. You’re the one who forced The Student to call me and drag me here with threats of being called a pussy.”
“Whoa,” said The Student, “leave me out of this. I’m just... here.”
“You’re here,” said The Drunkard, “to get your mind off of the girl who ditched you to boink some greasy paratrooper.”
The Student gestured over to the corner from whence we’d run.
The Drunkard looked over there and, presumably, saw the paratrooper and Rebecca, still apparently trying to eat one anothers’ face of. “Ah,” he said. “Well, that sort of backfired then, didn’t it. Wanna go to another club?”
“Drunkard, what makes you think a club is the best way to handle the situation?” I asked.
“Because, God damn it, that is the way to handle it. You’re laden with adrenaline, and you have to hatefuck somebody! Trust me on this,” he said, grabbing The Student by the shoulders and belching, “this is the way it has to be. This is the way you get over a woman who looked into your heart and stuck it on a goddamn spit and sent it straight to Hell!”
At that, he let loose a roar and dashed into the mass of people just as some very fast, very bassy song popped up over the stereo. “Think we’ll be seeing him again?” I asked.
The Student was still glaring at the paratrooper.
I looked over and saw that they’d progressed from heartily making out to nearly schtupping on a couch. “Aaaaaall right,” I said, pushing The Student towards the exit doors. “I think it’s about time that we mosey on out of here.”
The Student started growling as we left, but shortly after we hit the fresh air outside, he calmed down. “That was less than pleasant,” he said.
“Indeed.”We returned to Woolf in relative silence. When we reached his block, he took a respirator out of his jacket pocket, fixed it over his nose and mouth, nodded to me, and went upstairs. I dug my hands in my jeans, headed to my block, and cracked open The Plot Against of America and immediately went to sleep after the first note of the First String Quartet piped through my speakers.