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Keep Smiling

It's that time of day when morning is spelt with a 'u' and sunlight just gives you skin cancer and the only good your last lecture did was practice your ability to take notes you don't understand for when you become a secretary and you can't see any future for yourself and you don't know how you'll make it through the morning to the future you can't see yourself having and your girl is hundreds of miles away and there're only bills in the mail and you're actively hoping for armageddon because that'd get you out of the next lecture and your sentences are just rambling messes that you have to remember not to grumble.

You step out into the street and start walking. People pass you by. You think it must be clear to them that you're bluffing.

Things to remember:
1) You are just a bit of meat that thinks it's thinking. Some dancing dust and ashes with delusions of grandeur.

Jewish proverb: Every man should have a coat with two pockets and in each pocket a piece of paper. On one should be written 'I am but dust and ashes'. On the other, 'For my sake the world was created', and he should dip into each pocket according to his needs.

Things to do:
- buy some milk
- get that project finished
- write back to those of your friends who still write to you
- learn Spanish, write stunning debut novel, fight for world peace
- make it through to lunch

Your hand was always a handful of nothing.
Keep smiling. It's going to be a glorious day.

*    *    *

The lecture starts well. You're sitting near the front, alert and ready. You reckon you've got a handle on this course. The lecturer comes late (phnar, phnar) and wears a hideous striped jumper in a shade you decide to christen 'neon beige'. He's also sporting a ring through one ear which doesn't work at all. You find this very reassuring. He starts, and it's basic stuff, stuff you can do with your eyes closed.
In fact, that doesn't sound like too bad an idea. You've been pulling quite a few late nights lately. A quick doze might be just the thing, leave you refreshed for an afternoon of work.

Some time later you are woken up by a pain in your mouth. You're tired and woozy and it takes you a while to locate it. It seems to be coming from one of your front teeth. You try to ignore it and focus on the lecture. To everyone else, it probably looks like you're grimacing. The lecture has moved on it seems, because now you can't understand two consecutive words. Your brain objects at being recalled to active service in this way and he might as well be lecturing in chinese, except the row in front of you are studiously taking notes. You look for clues on the blackboard, but it doesn't make any sense to you either. You realise there's nothing you can do but sit through the rest of the hour. Someone will lend you their notes later. There are only twenty five minutes left, but they stretch ahead of you like a marathon.

The tooth ache gradually passes. You realise you haven't bothered to see a dentist in ages, and make a mental note to make an appointment later today.

You look down at your watch. There are still twenty minutes to go.

*    *    *

You sit down to write a letter to Rachel. The desk is a mess of scraps of paper and floppy disks. There are also some photos and a pair of sunglasses jutting out of the clutter. Somewhere in all this is your application for a PhD in America. It's probably fossilized by now. After a little rummaging, one of the draws yields up a pad of A4 and you dig a pen out of your pocket. This is going to be an upbeat letter, you decide. Sharp & funny yet caring. A letter to make her wish she was here, because you're afraid you're losing her (she's been a little distant on the phone lately). You start writing:

                                                    Out There
                                                    The ever expanding present
     Dear R,
     How's it going?

You stop writing. You really don't have anything interesting to tell her. It's just the same old same old, as the blues songs put it. Oh, you've been going to parties and drinking with the lads, but none of that seems worth putting down on paper; you don't want to sound shallow. You stare at the virtually empty page for a while, then toss the pad aside for later.
"Want a cup of tea?" comes a voice from the corridor.
"Sure," you yell back, then get up and open the door. Your neighbour & fellow student Teymour is standing outside with two steaming mugs.
"Thought you would." he says, handing you one.
Teymour is crumpled like a well worn jumper. You've been friends since the first year. He hardly drinks and won't touch drugs, but you like him anyway. He still cares; these days it's almost rebellious. He wanders in and collapses into a chair facing yours. You compare how far behind with work each of you is (you win easily on missed lectures) and bemoan the local football team's continued plummet through the league. The tea flows...

"Going to Martin's party tonight? Should be a class A night." you ask him.
"I have so much work to do," he replies shaking his head, "I'm not even going to the toilet tonight." With a resigned shrug, he heads back to his room and his essay.

Several teabreaks later...
"Smile." you tell him.
"Why?" he asks.
You shrug; he has a point. After all, it causes wrinkles.

The phone ring startles you. It's early evening now.
"Hello, this is Manchester calling, will you accept a collect call from Rachel Broers?"
"Hello. It's me. I'm afraid it's over."
Your mind reels, torn between denying you heard what she just said, screaming impotently, or just hiding behind the mental sofa and pretending to be out.
"I'm - I'm leaving you. It's the best thing for both of us, really."
"We never really loved each other. We needed each other for a while, and that's different."

"I'm sorry."

Things to remember:
2)Anytime you think you understand, you've missed the point.

At least you have something to do tonight, to take your mind off things, to ward off pauses like that (this space left blank for silent meditation). Stepping outside the cold air wraps you up immediately. An unfriendly wind blows across the courtyard, and you turn into it, opening your coat to let it flow around you. Looking up you see the weather is sulking and the stars are completely hidden. You are just a bit of meat that thinks it's sinking. You shiver and head on to the party.

*    *    *

Martin's front door is wide open and sounds of boozing and dancing spill out into the front yard. You hesitate at the door and think about going home. The party now seems like a heavy ordeal. So does heading home though. You know you won't be able to sleep tonight, and if you tell Teymour about Rachel, he'll be sympathetic, and you don't think you could face sympathy right now. So set your smile to stun and enter the house.

Jake is leaning against a table charming some little blond girl.
"Hey, my man, How's it hanging?"
You reflect that very few white british people can talk that way without sounding ridiculous, but Jake is one of the few. A party perennial, he's never seen without a cigarette a drink or a girl. "Me? I'm still living in the fast lane; just driving the wr-r-rong waay."
He pulls out and waves in front of you a little packet of white powder. You step into the bathroom with him.
You tell him about Rachel. He shrugs; such things are water of a duck's back to him. Jake Brook; shallow and sparkling by name as by nature, as he likes to say himself. He tells you it's for the best; you can have much more fun being single, whatd'ya want with being tied down at our age? You should get out there and pull tonight. Some beautiful babies out there.
Damn right, you think. You're feeling good; you've got the looks, you've got the lines (one up each nostril, ha ha, wahey); you're feeling pretty damn smooth.

You talk. You drink. You dance.

Sometime later you're standing in front of a girl. She's talking about modern music. You nod, she talks. You smile airily at the world. A name comes to you through the flow of music videos, NME rumours and Thom Yorke's personal life; Suzy. The name bobs round your mind for a bit. Somewhere in the deeps of memory, details stir and rise up towards the bait. Meanwhile your eyes wander over her body, all crisp and clean beneath a silk blouse and velvet hotpants. Suzy... Suzy; Martin's little sister. Sweet Fifteen year old Susan, staying up with Big Brother. God they mature fast; must be all the oestrogen in the water supply. Ilegal thoughts drift across your mind, but you haven't sunk that low yet.

Another drink later and you have. It's not much of a pass. He bungled it Brian. Sloppy footwork there. Just generally sloppy actually. Of course the player was water-logged. Shouldn't have been on the pitch, Brian. Let's see that again:

You see things happenning as if from a distance:
Your hand stroking her cheek.
Her hand slapping you but without any strength.
Your hand on her leg (somewhere in the room, a voice is raised).
Her look of utter disgust.

You recall a conversation from earlier in the evening. Some girl was tequila slamming in the kitchen. You thought she was pretty at the time but you can't remember what she looked like now.
"Tequila? That's what you drink when you can't afford decent meths." you'd said, all smiles and sarcasm, "If you're going to drink you have to pay the price, and with Tequila you may avoid it in the shop, but you generally pay the next day."
So of course you'd ended up drinking more of it than her.

You recall the saying 'you are what you eat'. If that's so, you are currently nothing. What you ate just splashed down on the floor between you and Suzy.
Of course, the saying is really a long term statement, and it may be right; certainly right now you feel like a mashed up pulp of starch and junk.

Things to remember:
3)Except for going to bed, everything you do after 3am will be wrong.

Someone leads you off to a toilet. You notice Martin looking furious as you go. You're sobering up fast. Splashing water on your face, you look up at the mirror and fail to recognise yourself. You didn't expect to be looking your best, but the face that stares back at you is hideous. Your upper lip and surrounding face has swollen up. It must be the toothache, must be some sort of gum infection. It alters your whole profile, making you look like a cross between Mick Jagger and the missing link. Gingerly, you prod the distended flesh. It hurts in a non-trivial way.
"Are you alright?" the person who helped you in asks. You don't think they're anyone you know.
You take a deep breath, then step out of the toilet. The party's still going on in some of the more distant parts of the house, but not in this room. Martin is there waiting for you with an expression that suggests he isn't about to give you his blessing. His sister has vanished, as have several guests. Those still there stand around like spectators at a car crash.
It's going to be bad. You can't change that now. Hell, it's already bad. You shouldn't have to go through this as well. You smile wanly, then run for it. You see jaws dropping, Martin's finger pointing accusatively. You keep going. Fortunately the front door is still propped open for the party.
*    *    *

Teymour's still awake when you get back. Music - some old big-band jazz - drifts out of his room, shortly followed by Teymour.
"What happenned to your face?" he asks and he sounds sincere.
"Toothache." you explain.
He looks at you and can't restrain a smile. You can tell he's trying not to laugh, but he isn't quite making it. The laugh's going to slip out in a second. Hell, you don't blame him; you look about as ridiculous as you feel right now.
It does. He guffaws. You find yourself sniggering in return. It hurts. The act of smiling distorts the wrong parts of your mouth, which send back flashes of pain. This, you find truly funny and laugh louder. Teymour breaks into his own deep laugh. For maybe five minutes, both of you just stand there and laugh. It feels good.


© Daniel Winterstein 1998-2008

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