Stay with me!

I recently drove down the long hill of North East 110th Street and veered a little to the middle of the road to avoid a pothole with a nasty edge. A Prius in the oncoming lane pulled off onto the shoulder of the road to let me pass. The driver was a young man who wore a mask even though he was alone in his car. He slowly shook his head at me. Somehow, these days, caution was the high ground.

Fuming about this as I drove on, I was reminded of a story I hadn’t thought of in years, one my father told about my grandfather who believed that it was best to pass oncoming traffic on dirt roads as closely as possible. This, he thought, minimised the chances of a stone being thrown up against his windscreen.

“I remember one time—,” my father said, “I must’ve been nine or ten or so—when we were driving down a long hill somewhere in the endless Karoo.”

We were ourselves driving down a long hill in the endless Karoo as my father said this, and so it wasn’t hard to imagine. All we had to do was replace tarred roads with dusty ones and we’d have the full picture.

“The road stretched to the horizon,” my father went on, “just like this one does now, down this hill and then up the next. Far away, falling from the horizon, came another car, dangling from a parachute of dust.”

“That’s nice,” I remember my mother said. “A parachute of dust.”

The N1 highway between Three Sisters and Beaufort West cleaved the barren landscape ahead of us. As if summoned by my father’s story, a car heaved into sight on the horizon and began to sink towards us.

“Your grandfather gripped the wheel,” my father said and gripped the wheel to demonstrate, “and leaned forward so that his nose was almost against the windscreen.”

He leaned a little forward as he got into the swing of things. In the back seat, my sister and I leaned a little forward to see better. The oncoming car was now a bit closer, still some way off, but close enough for us to make out that it was a yellow Beetle.

“He was a man of conviction,” my father continued. “Wrong was wrong and right was right and that was that. And the right thing to do on a dirt road was to pass very, very closely. Surely everyone knew that?”

My father steered our car to the middle of the road.

“But they didn’t. Your grandfather gritted his teeth and hissed, Sta-ay…sta-ay…stay with me-ee!

My father tightened his grip on the steering wheel as the yellow Beetle began to climb the hill we were going down and veered a little to the shoulder of the road. My sister and I gripped the edge of our seats and gave one another a quick glance.

“Stay, goddammit!” my father cried, now fully immersed in his memories of that day, and swerved even farther into the oncoming lane.

By then, the Beetle was close enough for us to see the people inside it. There were two of them and they appeared to be leaning away from us. Their little car was as far onto the shoulder as it could go.

“You yellow!” my father cried as we tore past one another and he waved a balled fist at them.

Two or three seconds later he added sheepishly, “My father did that.”

My mother lit a cigarette and opened her window a small crack. “Have you finally lost your mind?” she asked.

Now, turning off 110th Street, I recalled how they argued about my father’s past and its possible impact on our future, and how I’d ignored them to replay the moment we had sped past the yellow Beetle. Its wheels had run off the road in the last split second, making a little emergency parachute of dust. There had been a small boy too, in the back seat, like us, his terrified face pressed against the window. Next time I see a Prius, I thought, I’d know what to do.

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Dumb and dumber

Yesterday I did what my father once did (see The stupid suit)—I poured water into a sink I’d just decoupled. I had to laugh. Was getting older like this? Was I going to do every dumb thing my father had ever done? I had hoped that I’d move on to bigger and dumber things, but it looked as though I was doomed to follow in his footsteps, one by one.

Then I remembered a story my parents had told time and again, a story that always put all dumbness into proper perspective. In the sixties, we lived in Leiden, a university city on the western coast of Holland, a southern province of the Netherlands. I was too young then to now remember much of this, but apparently the citizens of Leiden were—as most of the Dutch are to this day—a socially conscientious lot. My father had once painted our apartment only to be met by an angry man on our doorstep a few days later.

“I hear you’ve painted this apartment,” the man seethed.

“Yes—” thus my father.

“But I’m a painter,” the man declared and folded his arms.

“So it seems,” my father hesitated, “am I. It wasn’t too hard. I could do it just fine.”

“But I’m a painter!” the man insisted.

As it turned out, the neighbours had alerted the painter to this theft of his opportunities. They were like this with everything, into one another’s business, pushing a near-socialist agenda in ravingly democratic Holland.

“It was always strange to me,” my mother would say, “to see the barriers they’d erect in the name of freedom.”

“Then there were old Jan and Famke,” my father would relate. “They lived just down the street, with their only son, a boy they’d had when Famke was almost fifty.”

“He was pimply and stringy,” my mother added with pursed lips.

“His name was Joop,” my father said as if to correct for how pimply and stringy he’d been. “Anyway, Jan and Famke had decided, after much thought, to buy a BMW Isetta 300.”

The Isetta was a bubble-shaped bug of a car, he explained, essentially a motorcycle surrounded by a car-like helmet. The model Jan and Famke had bought was second-hand, a three-wheel thing that would arrive from England.

“There was much excitement up and down the street, where most people walked or used buses. Jan was getting on in years—older by a decade than Famke—and it seemed about time that he could sit down to get somewhere.”

“Jan had a mole between his eyes,” my mother added and lit a cigarette. “He always looked focused.”

“Jan was a mathematician,” my father said. “He was, mostly, a smart man.”

“He had a mole.”

“So,” my father forged ahead, “Jan and Famke decided to build a little garage. For the Isetta.”

As the story went, when the neighbours found out that Jan and Famke were building a garage—a bedroom-sized appendage to their little house—all hell broke loose. Why would they do that? Wouldn’t it be better to build a room for a boarding student? When the builders broke ground, neighbours stood in the street bearing signs. At one point, fruit was hurled as there were no stones to be found in Holland.

“A few months later,” my father went on, “despite incessant demonstrations by the neighbours, the garage was finished and the Isetta arrived.”

“It was orange,” my mother remarked.

“What difference does that make?” my father asked.

“Well,” she paused, “it looked like a tortoise crossed with a Ferrari.”

“So,” my father forged ahead again in what was by then a set rhythm of their story, “Jan and Famke and Joop got into the Isetta, Joop on the little shelf in the back, his legs around his ears, while the neighbours shouted their democratic disagreement.”

“There were people among them that I didn’t recognise,” my mother said. “They’d called in reinforcements from somewhere, it seemed.”

“And so,” my father said, “Jan and Famke and Joop drove their little Isetta into its newly-built little garage. The people in the street hefted signs and shouted things about space and students and capitalism.”

He shook his head—he always did at this point of the story—and said, “And here Jan discovered two things. First, since the Isetta’s only door opened to the front, it couldn’t now be opened. And second, the Isetta didn’t have a reverse gear.”

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Pills and Piles

Today I spoke to a doctor about the blood clot in my leg (see Spider man). When the clot was discovered last December, I was put on a three-month course of blood thinners. Now, a month after not taking them anymore, we were to discuss whether I had to start again and take such pills for the rest of my life.

“Megan,” I began, for I always address doctors by their first name, “why can’t we check my leg?”

“Like another sonar?”

I get annoyed with doctors because you have to explain so many things to them.

“Yes, like another sonar. The clot was confirmed by sonar. Why can’t we check if it’s still there?”

She cleared her throat.

“By sonar,” I added.

“The haematology department doesn’t think it’s necessary.”

“And why not?

“Well,” she tried, “it doesn’t really matter.”

“It doesn’t matter that they think this, or it doesn’t help to check?”

“Uhm,” she hesitated, “there’s nothing to check.”

She had a point, I thought. “I see,” I said. “Finding a clot would falsify only one thing, namely that the pills worked. Finding no clot wouldn’t imply that I’m in the clear?”


Perhaps she didn’t have the point. “Megan,” I said, “let’s ignore sonar for now. The blood tests, I saw, showed no genetic markers for prothrombin. So the concern is based on incidence alone?”

“Yes,” she smiled, almost relieved. “You have no genetic predisposition to getting DVTs.”


“That means that your body is not—”

“I get that bit,” I interrupted. “The concern is thus, what?”

“Well, you could have a clot again.”

“Megan,” I said, perhaps a bit gruffly, “I could sprout an olive from my upper lip.”

She frowned and didn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “There’s a probability attached to everything. Sometimes it’s zero, but it’s not zero for growing a spontaneous olive from my lip.”

She looked at the papers in my folder.

I tried again. “Has this haematology department done some assessment to determine that the risk is high enough to necessitate taking these pills for the rest of time, or are they just saying this to be safe?”

“It’s up to you in the end,” she said. “All I can give you is my advice.”

“And is that to take the pills forever?”

I could see that phrases like the rest of time and forever didn’t sit well with her.

“We could start you on Xarelto again and then assess things in a few months.”

“With a sonar?”

She smiled, which I took to be the end of our exploration.

“Can I think about it?” I asked.

“Totally. It’s your call, like I said.”

She stood.

“You know why I want a sonar?” I asked on a ridiculous impulse. “Doctors always see us when we’re down and out. We had piles, say. They saw the worst of us. But now we’re better. I’d like to call you up and say, ‘Doctor, my anus has healed wonderfully, thanks to the ointment you prescribed. When can I come and show you?’”

“I didn’t see anything about haemorrhoids in your file?”

“I’ll think about the Xarelto,” I said.

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The monkeys of strategy

The same new CEO (see The new CEO) who stepped in to save what seemed to be a faltering software house I worked for in the early 2000s, also did something else worth remembering besides the briefcase-of-shit speech he made. Shortly after this speech, he called a senior staff meeting to talk about strategy. Despite my favourable view of him after the speech, I went to this meeting with some trepidation. In my experience, meetings about strategy were about as useful as campfire stories about snakes—everyone had one, and everyone thought that theirs was better. Real strategy had never been a group thing, any more than composing or poetry or insights of genius had ever been. Real strategies were decided by a single person and communicated in no uncertain terms to others. The new CEO seemed to be a very single person. And so, despite my misgivings, I hoped for the best.

At the meeting was an older woman we did not know. She sat at the far end of the long mahogany boardroom table and stared at a red platform shoe that sat on it in front of her. As we got settled in, I peeked under the table. It was indeed her shoe, not just a spare one she’d brought along as some sort of prop. The new CEO arrived but he didn’t introduce the woman and instead sat at the opposite end of the table and got down to business.

“So?” he said and beamed at us.

We turned to one another. Hadn’t he called the meeting?

“Talk to me,” he clarified.

The woman looked up from her shoe and ballooned her cheeks. There was a moment of awkward silence around the long table. She arched her eyebrows and then pouted like a sulking child and returned to staring at her shoe.

“Alison,” the new CEO pointed at the director of development. “Speak.”

Alison glanced at the woman. “Er—” she began, “—I think—”

The woman grabbed her red platform and knocked its heel sharply against the table, startling a few people. Alison stared at her and then glanced at the new CEO, but it was as though he hadn’t heard.

“—I think we should sell development as a time and materials service. Thus far, we’ve tied our contracts to deliverables.”

The woman cupped her ear and tapped the shoe against the table a few more times, less loudly now, apparently testing some acoustic quality it was rumoured to possess. She mimed a look of exaggerated disappointment and shook her head—it didn’t.

Selling time is just another way to say for prostitution,” the new CEO remarked.

At the word prostitution, the woman dropped her jaw and covered her eyes.

“Mario,” the new CEO said.

Mario was an anal guy who led QA and maintenance. “There’s room to cut costs,” he began eagerly.

The woman furrowed her brow and shook her head the way toddlers do when asked to consider broccoli. She took her hands from her eyes and inspected them, puzzled, as though they had somehow malfunctioned.

“We could—” Mario forged ahead.

She pulled a sour face and covered her ears.

“Wealth isn’t saved,” the new CEO said and folded his hands together. “Malcolm.”

Malcolm, the director in charge of our main contract work, was not going to be caught as the others had been. He paused and looked at the woman. She opened one hand, then the other, and then she held up a finger while she reached beneath the table and produced her other shoe. Then she motioned for him to continue. It was clear by then that we were not there to discuss strategy, even slightly.

“There’s no room for strategy—” Malcolm said and paused again. He looked at the woman. She inserted her hands into the shoes and nodded for him to continue. “—in how we deal with contracts that were signed as part of our founding,” he said.

At this, the woman mimed a little dance with the two shoes.

“There’s room at the bottom and there’s room at the top,” the new CEO said. “Jeff.”

He nodded at the marketing manager, an acclaimed asshole who sat next to the woman. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though the new CEO had already taken a dislike to Jeff.

“And you?” he asked.

Jeff cleared his throat and stroked his tie. The woman cocked her head until it was almost level with the table and leaned in to stare at him.

“Er—” he began.

She walked two fingers like little legs up the sleeve of his jacket.

“We could open new markets,” Jeff said while he leaned increasingly away from the woman, “if we—”

The woman sat up and covered her mouth like the last of the three wise monkeys.

“Thanks, Jeff,” the new CEO cut him short. “People,” he said, “we’re at four thousand meters. You know what that means. If my sister can distract you from strategy—”

The woman mimed a little bow.

“—then we’ll never have a strategy as long as Jeff over there has a hole in his arse.”

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The new CEO

Today I remembered—for no reason I can think of—a man whose name I now cannot recall, but who once gave me an atom of hope for the business world. I met him—it must have been in the early 2000s—while I worked for a software house that had recently split from the large insurer of which it had been the IT department. It split, I think, because it hadn’t been a very good IT department. One after the other bean counter did a stint as CEO (see this story) and we seemed to be in trouble. The newest CEO—this man I’ve now remembered—took over and made a speech. At his first all-hands meeting in the cafeteria, he turned up with his leg in a cast and told us a story about once flying with five of his colleagues in a six-seater Cessna, when one of the other guys developed a problem.

“I have to shit, he announced,” the new CEO remembered. “Now.”

The people in the cafeteria looked at one another in surprise.

“The pilot told the guy that there was nowhere to shit,” the new CEO said. “He called over his shoulder, at the top of his voice, Are you out of your fucking mind? We’re at four thousand meters. You can shit later.

But the guy insisted. “I’m gonna shit on all of you,” he warned.

The new CEO smiled to himself.

“The pilot said, If you shit in this plane, I’ll crash it into the fucking ground, I swear.

The new CEO hobbled forward on his crutches and leaned on them.

“You know what happened?” he asked. “I had to empty my briefcase so that this guy could shit in it.”

There was uncertain laughter in the cafeteria.

“I’ve seen it all,” the new CEO said. “I’ve seen a man walking across the tarmac, carrying my briefcase, full of shit.”

The new CEO edged another step forward.

“We were never very close after that,” he added.

After a short pause, he looked us over and concluded his speech. “We’re at four thousand meters, people,” he said. “You can shit later.”

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Standing ovation

My son is given to questions about extremes. What would you do if you lived forever? Would you rather drown or burn to death? What is the tallest, the furthest, the most of this or the least of that, and so on. The other day he asked me something of this sort, but slightly more salient than his usual nonsense. What was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me?

“What do you mean, happened to me?”

“Don’t get technical,” he groaned.

“I mean,” I said, “some things happen because I caused them, others not—”

“What’s the most?” he insisted.

If you know me even slightly you will know that I had a long list of things to scroll past before I could find something embarrassing that I hadn’t caused. There’s the time I mistook a basin for a urinal (see the story The toilet spray of embarrassment), various episodes that involved alcohol or laxatives, social blunders of every conceivable category, and uncountable instances of stupid things I’d done in plain view. But then I remembered something I usually forget about, perhaps because it ended well and perhaps because it was entirely my mother’s fault.

When I was fifteen, I swam for the school team. I had become rather good at breaststroke and had chalked up times during the season that qualified me for the provincial finals. I felt like an imposter because I sucked at the other strokes and couldn’t even do a tumble-turn properly. But breaststroke didn’t allow it, and my good times resulted mostly from a start I’d perfected that always put me ahead. In those days you could stay submerged for as far out as you wanted, and you weren’t penalised for any movement on the block before the starter’s gun as long as you didn’t actually take off. I’d hang around long before my race and listen to the starter’s voice to get used to his cadence. By the time I got onto the block, I could anticipate him to perfection and so make up for what I lacked in true swimming talent. I’d dive and hit the water just right, and stay under in a low arc that always gave me an edge.

The Northern Transvaal finals were held that year at the Hillcrest swimming pool, in Pretoria. I had competed there during inter-school competitions and the place was familiar. I wasn’t very worried. The day before the event, my mother insisted that I get a new Speedo.

“That looks like a pirate’s eye patch,” she said of my perfectly good old Speedo.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said.

“You look naked. You’re getting a new one.”

The new Speedo sagged like a goat’s scrotum.

“This is too big,” I complained.

“Nonsense,” my mother snapped and leaned in to fiddle with the drawstring. “You just tighten it here. See.”

The next day I wore this new Speedo and did my thing to spy on the starter. By the time the boys under sixteen breaststroke was up, I was ready. I was in lane three, with the main pavilion to my right. I remember these details vividly because of what happened next. I fell slowly forward and was off just as the pistol sounded. I dove from the block, hit the water just right, and slipped completely out of the new Speedo. It hooked on my left foot. Until that day, I hadn’t known it was possible to blush underwater. I had hated my mother on many occasions before then—as any boy does—but never as much as during the next few seconds as I pulled the new Speedo back on and remembered her claim that I’d looked naked in the old one.

Embarrassment produces adrenalin, as I found out. I swam on, wanting to die and get it over with. Turning at the far end, I had to hold on to the Speedo as I kicked away, but then I made up for some time—fueled no doubt by having been naked—and ended in fourth place.

The lady official in my lane held up four fingers and winked at me. As we got out of the water, I prayed that no one else had seen me, what with the splashing and the bubbles and all, but it wasn’t so. Everyone in the pavilion was standing and applauding.

Some years ago I asked my mother about that day.

“How come you weren’t there?”

My mother lit a cigarette. “I cannot remember now, but I’m very sorry I wasn’t.”

“You missed the only standing ovation I’ve ever had.”

“That,” she said and peered at the tip of her cigarette, “is not what I’m sorry I missed.”

She re-lit the cigarette. “I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to stand with those people and say to someone, that’s my son, the breaststroke stripper.”

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More and more these days I dream of terrible things I’ve done. Last night I lay awake after such a dream and remembered what an old man called Elei, a bird juggler I knew more than twenty years ago, once told me.

Elei told me about a San tracker whose name was Xi. Elei spoke staccato English and it took me a few hours one late afternoon to understand what he was trying to say.

Xi was from Angola. When the Cubans came in 1975, he crossed the border and volunteered himself as a tracker at the base where Elei was doing his National Service. Xi ran ahead of the patrol, with Elei, to find the bruises that fleeing guerrillas had left on the bush, sometimes for three or four days on end. For centuries his ancestors had hunted in this way, running down their prey until it collapsed from sheer exhaustion. To track with such endurance was a sacrament of manhood that survived still in the margins of a barren land. The men he hunted were the kudu and the oryx, the sacred quarry he had set himself against. They were worthy opponents, these men, and yet they all succumbed. In the end, the patrol caught up with them and cut them down. When it was over, the soldiers radioed the base and spread out to secure the area. But Xi stayed with the dead men. He squatted in the dry grass among their broken bodies and recounted the hunt. He told of their skill, of their bravery and tenacity, and of his sorrow for their blood. It is true what some say, he whispered to them—to kill is to die in a different way.

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The kiss

Today I cycled to Woodinville along the Burke-Gilman trail for the first time in months. It was a sunny day and the trail was busy. Not far from where I saw the Japanese tourists who wouldn’t smile (see The occidental weakness of smiling), beside the trail, on a bench, two men were kissing. While this isn’t something one sees frequently, it isn’t something worth writing home about either. We live in a free society—for now—and people can do whatever the hell they want to. What made me slow down was not the two men, but a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old. I had passed her family a few seconds before—a mother and a father and two toddler-sized boys on balance bikes—and she must have cycled ahead. Her little bicycle lay on its side in the grass while she stood within feet of the two men, her hands on her hips, her mouth agape.

Sometimes, timing is everything. As I cycled on, thankful for every small decision I’d made earlier that had put me there at that precise moment, I marvelled at what would unfold over the next few minutes. The men hadn’t acknowledged the little girl and were still kissing, either because they couldn’t care less, or because they couldn’t face her. One way or another, they would escape more or less intact. But everyone else would be changed forever. The parents were seconds away from questions they hadn’t thought they’d field today. And the little girl would remember this afternoon the way I can still recall the moment—I was four or five years old—when I learned that my mother and father weren’t related.

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Factory Settings

“Besides,” Michelle said, “Zoff’s coming tonight. You must be nasty to her.”

“Who’s Zoff?” I asked.

“Zoff’s a slut.” As if to clarify, Michelle added, “She knows Ivan.”

Ivan was a pot-smoking artist with whom Jack shared a house when we were all in our late twenties. They had rented the house with the mutual misunderstanding that the other one would pay the bulk of the rent. They were always in arrears and always about to be evicted. On this evening in the early spring, despite a looming threat of homelessness, Ivan had invited his friends and acquaintances to a party in their garden. Earlier that day he had climbed onto the roof of the house where he smoked a joint and then developed the belief that he could fly. Jack spent an hour standing on the lawn, talking him off the roof.

Jack fumed as he told me about this. “I live here,” he sputtered and jabbed his finger at the floor, “so that he can do that sort of thing for me.”

Now I asked, “Why is Zoff a slut?”

“She always picks out some guy and then zooms in on him,” Michelle said airily. Then she gave me a meaningful look and batted her eyelids. “That’s what sluts do.”

I couldn’t immediately see how zooming in on one guy made you a slut. Then again, all other women were sluts as far as Michelle was concerned. She liked men, even the stupid ones, but she distrusted women. I never heard her say a single good thing about another woman in all the time I knew her. By then, I had known her for a few years. We met the day Jack dislocated his jaw when he tried to eat an extremely large dagwood. At the time, Michelle worked as a nurse in the emergency room of a local hospital. Jack’s jaw had popped out of its moorings on the one side and the muscles in his cheek spasmed and bulged.

“Huck huh!” he slobbered when I tried to pry the dagwood from his hands.

At the emergency room, Michelle was the first person we met. When she saw six-foot-four Jack holding his half-eaten dagwood, she lost it. She doubled over with laughter while Jack tried to forge a smile with his lopsided mouth.

“Haht?” he drooled.

At this, Michelle flopped onto the floor.

The on-call doctor was a minuscule man in John Lennon glasses. “Nurse!” he scolded.

“Oh shut up,” she gasped.

She gathered herself but collapsed again when the doctor had to stand on a stool to wrestle with Jack’s jaw. An hour later they sent him home wearing a cage-like bandage contraption over his head, still holding his dagwood. We all met again the next day when Jack tried to eat the dagwood that he’d kept in his fridge and again dislocated his jaw. This time Michelle fell face-first onto a bed.

“He’s the tallest toddler I’ve ever seen,” she said when we met for coffee the next day. We continued to see one another and a few months later she told me that she loved me. Inexplicably, I couldn’t bring myself to love her back, despite how beautiful and wonderful she was. She had a naughty face and a tiny mole on each cheek. She wore no makeup and no perfume, and didn’t need to. She was well-read and witty and she didn’t take nonsense from gnomes. When I counted what I loved about her, she was perfect. When I summed it, she was not. I didn’t know why.

“What kind of a name is Zoff?” I asked.

Michelle batted her eyelids more rapidly. “You mustn’t let Zoff zoom in on you.”

Michelle didn’t say anything more about Zoff. We sat together under a spreading jacaranda tree at the bottom of the small garden, a few paces from everything else. We were joined by Anna, an intense woman who was doing a PhD in English. We watched as guests arrived and stood around uncertainly. From where we sat we had a perfect vantage point for competitive labelling, a game we loved to play, a game Michelle always won.

“How hideous,” she hissed and nodded at an organic woman in flip-flops. “Look at those feet.”

The woman’s heels were yellow-pink and deeply callused.

“Inflamed pecorino,” Michelle declared.

The woman’s boyfriend had a maroon, pitted nose. “Liver nose,” I said in turn.

Anna cleared her throat. “What are your thoughts on Finnegans Wake?”

We weren’t in the mood for books and wanted to insult people. “Poor Mona,” Michelle continued and lifted a single finger to indicate Lisa, a neurotic artist who was saddled with an inevitable nickname. “I bet her turds don’t flush.”

We carried on like this for a few minutes until we ran out of steam. Ivan hadn’t made an appearance yet and was said to be smoking a joint in his room. There was a large ice bucket filled with beers and a small table on which sat an incongruous boeuf tartare topped with a raw egg, but nothing else. Given that most guests were Ivan’s friends, I was surprised that they had arrived at all. Some weeks earlier, Ivan and Jack had hosted a viewing of Ivan’s latest work—a plank with many Bibles nailed to it. It was a striking piece because the plank was very long, but it was otherwise innocent of skill and visual consonance. Jack and I argued about this the next evening while Ivan surveyed us the way a benevolent uncle might watch his nephews play. Then, one of his friends arrived for the viewing, a day late.

Because Ivan was still inside, Jack had to stand in as the host. We watched as he trudged like a condemned man from group to group, saying things we mercifully couldn’t hear. There were about thirty people in the garden, some poking at the mound of boeuf tartare, some sitting in groups on bales of hay. A few minutes after Jack had finished his rounds and joined us, Ivan appeared on the patio, looking serene, wearing what had to be a bedsheet. He spread his arms in blessing.

“Master!” someone called out from the boeuf tartare. “Feed us!”

Ivan swept into the crowd like Jesus might have if the fish thing hadn’t worked.

“Is he high,” Michelle asked, “or is he stoned?”

“I’ve never understood the words we use,” I said.

We watched as Ivan swallowed the egg.

“But—” Jack protested. He and Anna had been talking quietly but now he towered clumsily over her. He had somehow taken her bait and was now entangled in a disagreement about Finnegans Wake. We didn’t know how it started but it was soon obvious that their argument was useless. Jack loved the book for reasons he could not name while Anna knew its details and hated it. It was oddly satisfying to see someone do to him what he so often did to me. They were strangers, he and this woman, as he and I sometimes were, describing the same moon seen over different landscapes.

“Here comes everybody,” Michelle groaned.

Down the patio steps, with feline poise, came a voluptuous woman in high heels and a short slip dress.


Michelle nodded slowly. “In all her flesh.”

“How old is she?” I asked.


“She looks richer than the rest of us.”

“I think she’s thirty-four or so.”


“I said she would zoom in on you,” Michelle suggested when I stood.

I waved this away and walked over to the boeuf tartare that now stood abandoned. Most guests had gathered around Zoff and I hated myself for also wanting a closer look at the heart of the party. I’ll be nasty to her, I decided, as Michelle had asked. While Zoff greeted people, hugging and pouting her lips, I pecked at what remained of the boeuf tartare and peeked at her.

“Look at you,” Zoff purred and swished her hair from side to side. She’d taken off her high heels and now held them in her one hand. This is what Michelle would do if she ever wore high heels and it annoyed me that Zoff did so too.

“No way!” she laughed and gathered her hair to one side, revealing vivid eyeshadow and glossy lipstick that were quite striking. This annoyed me even more. I didn’t like makeup and yet this honeyed excess seemed almost edible. The more I looked, the more I saw things about her that I also didn’t like—long nails, large breasts, a small waist, and fertile hips. All of it was bad for you, I knew, and yet I wanted it the way I craved candy as a boy.

“I love it,” she squealed at someone.

I forced myself to look away but then I looked again, as many other men were also doing. We couldn’t help ourselves. She fit the exaggerated ideal that nature had stamped, like factory settings, on all of us. I looked elsewhere, but I glanced again, and again. Then I tore myself away and returned to the bottom of the garden.

“And?” Michelle asked as I sat down.

“Lip gloss.”

“Slut,” thus Michelle. Then, “And what else?”

“Big breasts,” I mumbled.

“Oh, bummer.”

“You don’t get it,” I complained. “I don’t want to ogle them.”

“Yet you do.”

“It’s a default setting. Alert! Alert!—big tits at 10 o’clock. But I like smaller ones.”

“Poor you,” Michelle sighed. “You’ve been customised.”

“You knew this would happen, didn’t you?”

“Go on,” she said and made a small circle with her hand.

“If I’m wired to look at women—fine. But why can’t I choose which ones?”

“Isn’t it the same thing?”

“Why aren’t women wired to look at muscled men?”

“We are,” Michelle said, “but we don’t look. That would be stupid.” She patted my hand and motioned at me. “Under all of that, you’re just a primitive beast.”

I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t worse than things I’d already said.

“When Zoff zooms in,” Michelle added, “you can tell her all about it.”

When Zoff zoomed in, I promised myself, I wasn’t going to tell her anything. I wasn’t even going to be nasty. I would treat her with indifference and simply move on. I fetched some beers and for a few minutes, Michelle and I just studied the other guests. Saying bad things about people was something we did despite a fascination with humans and all their weirdness. Even Pecorino Heels and Liver Nose would be interesting in some way, and we knew it. We watched as Ivan lit a fire and left his apostles to multiply two steaks and five sausages for the masses. We listened as Jack and Anna negotiated a series of infinitesimal compromises that moved them from their original argument about Joyce to a wholehearted agreement about Nabokov. Zoff had finished pouting and now stood a few steps away in conversation with two men. Her sugary perfume washed past us.

“When Zoff zooms in,” I asked Michelle quietly, “what does she do?”


“Well,” I hesitated, “she’s coming this way. Just tell me.”

Michelle leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “She goes for men with girlfriends.”

“So it’s just a game then?”

“I don’t know,” Michelle said flatly.

Before I could ask again, Zoff stepped away from the two men and turned to us.

“Jack,” she said. “Michelle.”

“Zoe,” Michelle nodded. “How’ve you been?”

Jack stood and hugged her awkwardly.

“This is Zoe,” Michelle said and introduced us.

“Hello,” Zoe nodded, as stiffly as Michelle had. “Anna, nice to see you.”

They spoke for a minute or two while I stood by, unseen. I had secretly hoped that Zoe would be a certified goddess and that my appeal to factory settings would be justified, but it wasn’t so. Up close, she was as flawed as anyone else. I was relieved to see that her lipstick had smudged her teeth and that her bosom had shifted with all the hugging.

“What!?” I seethed when she’d moved away and was out of earshot. “Zoe?”

“I don’t like her,” Michelle smiled.

“So you just gave her another name?”

“Zoff is better.”

“She didn’t even look at me—”

“Maybe I was wrong,” Michelle agreed. “Maybe you’re not her type.”

“How come you all know her and I don’t?” I asked.

“I’ve met her once before,” Jack said. “Michelle knows her better. Why should she look at you?”

“I said that she would,” Michelle cut in.

“Oh,” Jack nodded as he considered this. Then he turned to talk to Anna.

Michelle and I continued to argue about the truth but it was as useless as the argument Jack and Anna had had earlier.

“Zoff, Zoe,” she said. “Who cares?”

I care,” I protested. “Plus, you said things to make me see her.”

“You would’ve seen her anyway,” Michelle countered. She gestured to include all men. “She’s your type.”

“But still—”

“Newsflash, mister. Women have a printout of your default settings.”


“How do you think some of us look like Zoe in the first place?”

As she said this, I realised that the last thing I’d want was for her to look like Zoe. With her impish grin and her tiny moles, Michelle was more beautiful than Zoe could ever be.

“I guess some have to,” I muttered.

“And the rest of us hate it,” Michelle said.

This reminded me of Miss Naudé, our busty tenth-grade geography teacher. She was in her twenties at the time and the boys in her classroom were giddy with lust. She often bent slowly across her desk to reach for something, a calculated act that we embraced with more enthusiasm than the girls in the class did. Michelle had a point. If women like Zoe could beguile all men, why could she not beguile just one of them? I had betrayed her, and I had sold out all the women I would ever truly like.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Michelle leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered, “You’re my type.”

Now, thirty years later, my impulse to do anything when prompted by factory settings has blissfully faded. I still peek at women, of course, but I know that none of them will zoom in on me now. The young ones are silly girls and the women of my age are far too smart to go around pouting or swishing their hair about, as Zoe had done that evening. Yet the end state is not without loss. While I wouldn’t want to be back in that part of my life, I would like to visit it from time to time. I would sit again under the jacaranda tree later that evening, after Zoe and many others had left, and watch Ivan as he fruitlessly fiddles with a hookah pipe. I would listen again as Jack and Anna slowly rediscover their disagreement about Joyce. Most of all, I would smell the first hints of jasmine on the cooling spring air and again watch Michelle as she falls asleep with her head in my lap.

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