Born Under The Lily, I Grow Under The Rose

A nattily dressed Indian heart surgeon enters a dimly lit, run down East London flat, walks into the kitchen, opens the ancient-looking refrigerator (empty of all shelves and contents), steps in, and shuts the door behind him: “A funny thing has happened to me recently and it has to do with London, said Dr. Venkata Lakkaraju to the sold out audience in attendance for his keynote speech at the 32nd Annual Meeting of Indian Cardiothoracic Surgeons, held at the Park Plaza Westminster Hotel. If two weeks pass and I don’t visit London, that is, if I don’t physically put myself inside of the city, not just bide my time during a layover at Heathrow, I have these very vivid and quite uncomfortable dreams where the city itself – anthropomorphized into various denizens of all different races and sexes -harangues me, humiliates me, and then brutalizes me. I won’t bother you with any more details from these dreams, but I will tell you that when I wake up from these dreams I’m in a most foul mood, one that lingers with me throughout the day, whether I’m performing surgery or not. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of surgery and I’ll be thinking that I have to get back to London, right now, but I can’t, because, obviously I’m in the middle of surgery, and I’m not going to say I lose focus or become absent-minded, but I definitely become short with those around me, or uncommunicative and sullen, which are not the best frames of mind to be in when you’re performing a transmyocardial revascularization. London is home to my favorite French restaurant, my favorite Spanish restaurant, and my favorite German restaurant. London also happens to be the only city I can get away with not wearing my glasses. In London, for some reason, I can see. What I miss most about London when I’m not there, however, is the French-Canadian Quarter, also known as New Montreal, which is little known and almost impossible to find, as it is not on any map. Ask a cab driver to take you to the French-Canadian Quarter, if you dare. While I cannot divulge the exact location of New Montreal, I will say that it is located somewhere underneath Dalston. Access is invitation only. How do you procure an invitation? I can’t tell you that either, as one is simply sent to you. How do they decide who they want to invite? Again, I’ll have to plead ignorance. It is magnificent, though, this city under the city, which is really nothing more than an immense artificial biosphere, complete with historic landmarks and ports, all fashioned in a surreal tribute to the city’s unique heritage. I have been to Montreal and I prefer this simulacrum to the real thing. The moment I step out of the elevator I feel at home. I have, for lack of a better word, incredible chemistry with the French-Canadian immigrants of London, so much so that it makes me wonder if in my past life I was not a Quebecois myself. There are so many wonderful little touches that I won’t be able to catalog them all during the scant amount of time I’ve been given to speak. Let’s see, there’s the flying canoe that whisks across the skyline at noon and midnight at the sound of the Clock Tower’s chiming bells; the skating rink at the Old Port of Montreal where you can watch skates – sans skaters – doing half-axels and toeless lutzs; the Jean Béliveau impersonator whom you can visit at his home and watch as he answers his fan mail; and the reenactments of the Battle of the Thousand Islands, just to name a few. Why am I telling all of you this? Because, as I found out during my last visit to New Montreal, a disproportionate number of its citizens are suffering from a type of heart disease I do not recognize, and which is lethal if not treated immediately. Therefore, I am moving to New Montreal, in order to help in any way I can. Some of you, because of this epidemic, will be invited to join as well, although I cannot say who. To those who do make the journey New Montreal, however, I ask one thing and one thing only: if you see me, please do not address me by my given name. I will no longer answer to Venkata. As of Monday morning my new name is Guy. Guy Penfield. If you do not use this name I will not answer you. I will pretend as if the me you are addressing no longer exists. Je me souviens, que né sous le lys, Je croîs sous la rose. ”

No Surface All Feeling

A young Japanese man wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie walks into a church, opens an empty coffin, lays down, and closes the lid: “After being told that he had inoperable anaplastic thyroid cancer Shinji looked back on his short life and decided that he had not lived it to the fullest. He immediately made plans to do all the things he wanted to do, like mug a Sony executive; have sex with ten prostitutes in one night; punch his father in the stomach as hard as he could and not apologize (and not only not apologize, but after punching him in the stomach calmly sitting down for a bowl of ramen while his father was still writhing in pain and/or gasping for breath); do the dash and dine at Hatsusaka’s, the city’s most expensive sushi restaurant; surreptitiously replace a Warhol in the National Museum of Modern Art with a painting of his own; and sing Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s cover of ‘Blinded by the Light’ (which he vastly preferred to the original Bruce Springsteen version, something he would have never admitted were it not for his death sentence) verbatim and note for note at his favorite karaoke parlor. That he accomplished all these things was astounding to his friends and co-workers, who gathered at Shinji’s wake to first speak in hushed tones about their former colleague’s dedication and passion and then to loudly and drunkenly vow to do the same with their own lives, whether they lived under the cloud of a terminal diagnosis or not. That none of them retained their convictions going forward was to be expected, although Shinji’s cousin did attempt to make good on his promise to himself by grabbing cotton candy out of little girl’s hand and rubbing it into her face, an act he immediately regretted and spent the rest of his life trying to forget, to no avail, as the sound of her incoherent bleating would haunt him and ring in his ears until the day he died.”

A Minor Architect

A man in a grey overcoat, having been thrown out of his apartment by his exasperated wife, is walking alongside the section of the Berlin Wall that oversees his neighborhood when he sees a large crack in the Wall, and, upon further inspection, notices that the crack opens up just enough for him to slide through to the other side, and so, with undue haste, the man looks around, puts his hands in his jacket pockets, and quickly steps through the opening, only to find that he has just stepped into East Berlin, not out of it, and watches as the crack quickly starts to disappear, taking the view of West Berlin with it: “After being told this story by his friend Gunther, Konrad decided to take the long way home and visit the site of the story’s setting. Arriving at the spot he found a small peephole carved into the Wall with the word ‘Look Here’ scrawled above. Konrad put his eye to the peephole and saw another eye staring back at him. Konrad blinked and so did the other eye. When he got home his wife asked him where he had been. Konrad took off his coat, sat down at the kitchen table, took out his pipe, filled it with tobacco, took a few puffs, exhaled and announced that he had seen the other side and that it looked no different than their own and now that he was privy to this information he felt as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He told his wife that he had never felt freer in his life and that it was as if he had just gotten back from travelling around the world at the speed of light. Konrad’s wife waved away the cloud of smoke encircling her and asked him if he had been drinking again. Konrad told his wife that he may or may have not had one or two drinks, which, as a man, a working man no less, was more than his prerogative, it was his right. Konrad’s wife then asked him to please take out the trash when he got a chance, a request he refused, prompting his wife to tell him to leave the apartment immediately, which he did, but only after putting on his jacket as slowly and theatrically as possible. Once outside, Konrad decided to take a walk along the Wall.”

We All Love Peanut Butter

A white van with a cartoon peanut painted on its side drives slowly down a crowded street at night, stop, reverses, and parallel parks between a red compact car and a blue four-door sedan: “I’ll try your new peanut butter but I want you to know right now that as soon as we start walking that way towards the place you say you have the peanut butter I’m trying some new peanut butter whether this is one of those pranks or stunts or not. Do you hear me? If we start walking over there and you tell me that you’re filming all of this and that this is some kind of prank where you walk around asking random men if they would like to try a new brand of peanut butter just so you can see how many men will say yes then that’s your problem and not mine because as far as I’m concerned you came up to me and asked me if I would like to try your peanut butter and I asked you if you were serious and you said yes and then I asked you if you were serious again and again you said yes, so as far as I’m concerned you are serious about me trying your new peanut butter, so if we start walking over there and you tell me you were joking I’m just telling you right now that I will not accept the fact that you are joking and I will try your new peanut butter anyway, whether you like it or not, whether there are cameras following you around or not, okay, they can watch or try to help you, that’s their business, my business right now is that you walked up to me when I was minding my own business and you asked me if I wanted to try this new peanut butter and you’re wearing a shirt with some kind of logo for a peanut butter I’ve never seen before and I said yes because of course I do, because I love peanut butter, and there’s not a man on this street who would say no and if there is I want to know who they are because that wouldn’t make any sense when someone like you, wearing some kind of official peanut butter shirt, walks up to a man and asks him if he wants to try a new brand of peanut butter. I don’t know any man who would turn that down, which is why if this is some kind of prank or stunt or you are just curious to see how many men would say yes to trying some new peanut butter then the joke is one you because you don’t need to go out and ask me what is, really if you think about it, a stupid question, because of course the answer is going to be yes. I can’t imagine many men who would say no except for a few, and the men who would say no are probably just nervous that they have an allergy to peanut butter and they just don’t know about it or they’re nervous they’re going to follow you and you’re going to take them somewhere and throw them in a van and have your buddies kick the shit out of them. So I understand why some men would say no but what I don’t understand is why you would go out in public and ask men if they want to try some new peanut butter when you already know the answer, so I’m going to assume that you’re being on the level right now and that you really do want me to try this new peanut butter because you saw me and I struck you as the type of man who liked peanut butter and that’s all this is, because I’m telling you this again, right now, that if this is some kind of joke then the joke is going to be on you because I’m trying some new peanut butter whether there’s a new peanut butter to try or not, because you asked me if I wanted to and I said yes and I asked you twice if you were serious and you said yes, so now I’m going to try some new peanut butter one way or another and I don’t care if there’s a camera crew with you. Like I said, they can watch or they can try and help, but either way this is happening and it’s about to all happen right now, so I really want you to think about what you’re doing, because the moment we start walking in that direction there’s no going back, and no, I’m not stopping, not until I’m done with my peanut butter, and if that means you have to go buy some peanuts and mash them up until you’ve created your own new peanut butter then so be it, that’s what’s going to happen, I’m trying your new peanut butter just like I said.”

Olde English

A bearded man wearing a brown cardigan sweater watches as a Mexican woman in a maid’s uniform carries a small boy in her arms; watches as she changes the boy’s diapers; watches as she places a plate of scrambled eggs in front of the boy; watches as she gives the boy a bath; and watches as she leaves the house and takes the boy for a walk in his stroller: “Mary had been dead for only a year and a half and no one was talking about her, and Robin doubted if her memory would have much staying power. Mary, his wife, the mother of his son, was not someone who demanded attention; indeed, it seemed enough to merely say her name to get the full import of how ephemeral she truly was and always had been. Her relevance lied purely in the precise and schematic way she had gotten pregnant, given birth, and then died shortly after. He knew that his son would slowly progress towards complete identification with him (achieving this, of course, only with the help of a therapist who would provide the boy with the means of accepting the natural hierarchy in the least subversive manner possible) and then, when the time was right, how he would acquire a girl of his own, preferably one similar to his mother. Without a mother (the very concept seemed redundant and wholly inconvenient) Robin and the boy would be able to enjoy their lives to the fullest, all leading up to the day when the boy would start to separate, a complacent set of distancing actions which Robin would facilitate and which the boy would see through as futile, setting up their ultimate reconciliation. Nothing would trouble or challenge Robin except for the infrequent flashes of his deceased wife’s face in his memory, her expression one of refusal and bewilderment that she should have been rendered superfluous to the very being she helped create and usher into the world. Robin would see to it that there would be no disturbances in the boy’s absorption of his established values and dominant assumptions. What Robin hoped for was that the boy would find a girl who would support him unconditionally and who had no visible life of her own, or, if she did, kept it completely to herself. He also hoped that the boy would never see through the illusory process by which his life acquired such plenty or subject the foundations on which the whole paternal edifice rested to anything more than a cursory analysis.”

Listen, The Snow Is Falling

A naked man sits on the edge of a bed and smokes a cigarette and stares into space while a clothed woman lies with her head on a pillow and stares at the man: “The problem is that I’m a better driver then you are and I’m tired of pretending that I’m not just to make you feel better about yourself. Every time we get in the car I have to sit in the passenger seat. Why is that? It’s not your car. It’s my car. We’re not equal when it comes to my car and you don’t get to decide when I get to drive my car. I get to decide when I’m going to drive my car and I get to decide how I want to drive it and what I want to listen to on the radio and how fast I want to drive and which way I want to take in order to get somewhere. If driving my car is one of those things that makes you feel like a real man then I guess you’re going to have to seriously reconsider how much of a real man you’re willing to be. Because I’m tired of helping you get it up. I’m done. If being with me is contingent upon me reinforcing these fakakta ideas you have then maybe we shouldn’t be together anymore. What? Don’t give me that shit, Tim. This has nothing to do with Shulasmith Firestone and you know it. This has to do with your retrograde bullshit machismo. All I did was ask if I could please drive, that’s it, and I don’t even understand why I have to ask you in the first place. You know why? Because you’re a shitty driver that’s why. You tailgate everyone and you don’t use your blinkers and you’re always looking everywhere but the road and you got the freaking Pogues cranked up so loud I can’t even hear myself talk to you. Is that what you want? You want to drive by yourself? That’s fine. Then get your own car. Because that’s not your car. That’s my car. That’s right. I bought it with my money, Tim. I’m castrating you? You have no idea what castrating even means if you think I’m castrating you right now. And you know what, you know what, so what if I was castrating you? So what? What are you going to do about it? Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. You know what, Tim, I’m just standing up for myself right now, that’s all. I don’t like being treated like my opinion doesn’t matter, especially when it comes to something like this. No, it doesn’t. My opinion doesn’t matter. Because you’re the man with the big swinging dick and you get to set the rules and it’s just so corny, you know? Then you’re with the wrong woman. That’s all I can tell you. You’re with the wrong woman. You’re with a woman who’s not conforming to what you think a woman should be, which is docile and forgiving and solely interested in making sure that you feel like a man. Listen, pal, it’s not my job to make you feel like man, don’t you get that? It’s your job to make yourself feel like a man. Then go find someone who does. There are plenty of them around, trust me. It won’t take long. As a matter of fact, I see one right now jogging up the street. You want me to flag her down? I’ll tell her that she can have her very own Tim, just as long as she follows these simple rules: always let him drive; always laugh at his jokes; always wear short little dresses that show your legs off. What? What does that have to do with anything? Real men like legs? What? What are you talking about? Oh, oh, oh, well congratulations. I didn’t know that. Little boys like boobs but real men like legs. Did you come up with that one on your own or is that something you heard from your dad? That’s very deep, Tim. And what happens when my legs go? Oh, they’re going to go, they’re already going, soon I’m going to have varicose veins and cellulite, the whole kit and caboodle, and then what? But I’m not going to do that. You do that. You go under the knife. Because you have a gobbler. Yes you do. You have a gobbler, Tim. Gobble, gobble.  What does that book have to do with anything? But you didn’t buy me that book. I bought it. Yes, I did. I went to the bookstore and bought the book because it’s something I’m interested in. These are things I’ve always been interested in. The book just confirmed what I’d been thinking about. So, what, you think the only reason I’m interested in these things is because of you? Boy, you are out of your mind. Are you high right now? This isn’t about feminism, Tim. This is about liberation. I don’t want to be your equal, because being your equal means you get to decide the terms of exactly what being equal means. I want to be liberated. From you, that’s who. From all of you. I’m not here to be your life support system. That’s not my job. I’m not some scatter-brained waitress who desperately needs a man and you’re not some enlightened cowboy who knows how to treat a woman the way a woman wants to be treated. This isn’t the movies, okay? I don’t need you. It would be nice to have you, but I don’t need you. Do you understand that? I’m fine on my own. I have a job and a house and my own money and, more importantly, my own car, a car that, for some reason, you won’t let me drive, even though I’m the one who taught you how to drive stick shift and you still suck at it. That’s right, you suck. Every time I let you drive you burn the clutch. Because you don’t know how to drive stick, that’s why, and God forbid you listen to a woman and let her show you how it’s done. Yeah, you’re a real man, a real man who doesn’t even know how to drive stick but refuses to admit it because if you do you won’t be able to get it up later on. That’s right. You heard me. Oh, yeah? Well, bring it on, then. I’ll be waiting right here for you. And when you get here I’m going to kick your ass.”

Eastern Comma

Vladimir Nabokov is sitting at the back of a school bus holding a pencil and a notebook and listening intently to the fantastic cadences and blunt locutions of the girls when one of the girls gets up out of her seat, walks to the back, sits down next to him, and says, You’re cute, mister, prompting him to look away from her and towards the front of the bus, where he catches the bus driver’s shifty eyes looking at him in the rear-view mirror: “Later that night at the Little Vagabond Motel Gus asks Barbara what she said to the old Commie sitting at the back of the bus. None of your beeswax, Barbara says. Gus smiles and then backhands Barbara across the face, inadvertently popping a few of the pimples on her chin. While she’s lying on the floor of the motel room Gus bends down and tells her how disgusting she is. He tells her that she needs to take better care of herself, wash her face more often, stop drinking so much soda and lay off the greasy foods. Barbara, who thinks Gus hits about as hard as her mom, tells him that if he wants to shack up with a fifteen year old then he’s going to have to put up with some pimples, which only serves to further enrage him. For the next three hours Gus proceeds to lecture Barbara about the evils of communism, after which he breaks down in tears, apologizes for striking her, and rambles on about how she’s going to leave him for a boy closer to her own age; how he’ll grow old by himself; how he’ll spend all his waking hours thinking about the times they spent in motel rooms; how the grief will be too much for him to bear, causing him to lose his job and slowly isolate himself; how the memories will sustain him for a long time, but not long enough; how it will be impossible for him to stop thinking about her since every time he gets a whiff of stale smoke it will remind him of her; how impossible it is to go anywhere and not catch a whiff of stale smoke; and how all of this will either drive him to kill himself, kill someone who looks just like him, or start writing detective novels about a down-on-his-luck Private Eye who drinks too much and only takes cases involving missing young girls. Barbara listens to Gus’ bathetic spiel, tells him she had no idea he could even read, let alone write, and then proceeds, with her chewing gum, to blow the biggest bubble Gus has ever seen in his life, a bubble Barbara pops voluntarily, with a devilish gleam in her eye and a laugh Gus will later describe to the authorities as the sound of pure evil, like a slinky quickly moving down a flight of metal stairs.”