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Adagio for StringsTo Andrew O'Donnell's previous piece

'Blank Spots,' or, 'Like Penguins, Baby!'

She’d come back from the dead.
She had stopped breathing ...and now, ...somehow, she was back.

I looked at her from across the table. I rubbed my hands against the edge of the table as if sanding it smooth. I took a deep breath. I began asking the questions. I ticked them off in my mind as I went through them. She told me that her hobby was sleeping. I didn’t have the energy to explain to her that sleeping wasn’t a hobby. She smiled. She was very worried about her English. She had already told the other teachers that she wanted to be corrected on each mistake.

I wonder, now, what it’s like to stop breathing. I can’t really imagine it. Holding your breath for a long time is the closest you can get to it. Maybe the brain continues to function for a while after you lose breath- meaning you could actually feel yourself dying- listening to your heart slowing down to a stop.

The train journey to Nishiwaki took a lot longer than I thought. I still felt like a city guy and I’d always been used to seeing English on the trains. I was in no mood to decipher Kanji and so I kept a keen eye on the number of stations that passed by, hoping I’d counted them correctly.

The party had started in the afternoon and I’d already missed the food. I played the dumb foreigner at Nishiwaki station and got through by claiming that I’d lost my ticket- only paying for the last three stops. Michael and Taz picked me up an hour later. Sheila was already drunk. Taz looked tired. We stopped off at a 7 Eleven on the way and bought beer and whisky. Someone handed me a joint and I lit up in the car. I played the tape Aiko had compiled for me and hummed quietly to the music. Michael was trying to fuck Sheila on the back seat and kept tapping me on the shoulder, trying to make me watch. I was too busy listening to the music. He’d brought along the guitar and we sang ‘Always on the Run’ to my accompaniment, the headstock sticking out of the window. The marijuana, ...kicking in.

“Tequila is fucking filthy. Anyone who drinks that shit should be shot!”

We parked up and went into the party.

Sheila was warming up now. She was hitting that terrible paranoic stage where you keep plucking new topics of conversation out of the air and trying to involve people in desperate searches for profundity.

In the weeks preceding Michael had become more obsessed with the idea of documenting everything. He had an MD player in his pocket and had connected a microphone to it. We were all being recorded for future analysis.

At some point I stopped functioning. I couldn’t get it together to introduce myself so I tried to make casual conversation in a mock-tired/relaxed manner. Everyone was starting to leave- I’d caught everything too late.

In Sheila’s mind her and Michael were already an item, maybe …even though they’d only met each other three hours previously. She didn’t really act like there were any problems but you could feel the paranoia seeping through the gaps in her sentences. She kept drinking. She spent an age over at the fridge, picking through parcels and containers, hunting desperately for booze. Taz was watching her and laughing. I played ‘Can’t Always Get What You Want’ on the guitar and sang. Everyone was laughing. She carried on oblivious.

“Blood is thicker than water... y’know…” “Yeah, definitely!”
“No, I mean it! ...Is that the alcohol, d'ya think?”

S turned up late to Tokyu Hands. This was gonna be the last time I was going to see her. I was prepared. I was nicely half-drunk and played it up so she’d know that I was intent on obliterating myself before the evening was through… so I’d be able to express the sentiment- “You are killing me” without having to mutter a word. I wanted us to communicate via body language alone since there were certain language barriers already steadfastly in place.

We got sat down in a bar.

I lit a cigarette.

She said she’d been studying. She pulled out a dictionary. I immediately felt guilty. I hadn’t touched a Japanese dictionary in weeks.

“I opened with a joke. I was really articulate, you would’ve adored me!”
-Woody Allen.

Somehow we had managed to convince Sheila that I was a homosexual poet. I still don’t know how we did it. Perhaps Sheila was just plain thick or maybe any sense of rationality had been washed away with the last of the Chu-Hi and the grass. She looked at me as though she were my mother and I, her poor misguided son.

She said “Tell me about it, please ...maybe I can help” I continued the joke...
“Well, there’s not much to tell, really- y’know?”
“So, ...I mean, when did you know, for sure, I mean,”
“Well, ...when I was about eight, I suppose” I stuttered and she looked me dead in the eye,
“…But how?”
I paused dramatically.
“Well, I fucked this guy, that’s how I knew!!”
Michael was cracking up at this point and I was trying desperately to keep a straight face.
“You mean, you enjoyed it?”
“Yeah, of course, ...I mean he was a lot older than me ...34, but yeah, y’know- it was a pretty good first shag, I suppose.” Michael carried on sniggering but Sheila wasn’t listening. She was intent on probing my psyche and helping me come to terms with this awful first sexual encounter. It was hilarious.

Michael was glad since he had a genuine crazy person to record and film and I thought it was funny because …well- I don’t know... maybe just because it was so deadly serious.

I stared blankly at the classroom next to us. She was lost in thought. Finally she said that she was getting a divorce from her husband and that she presently lived alone. She talked about her asthma. I told her that she shouldn’t smoke.

Everything was spiralling out of control. Everything didn’t make sense. At each new turn of the conversation I ordered something. First it was just Gin and Tonics and then it progressed towards shots of tequila. S had become amused by the fact that we’d both ordered tequilas for each other... at the same time, from separate barmen, …without realising it…

I scowled back at her and downed the shot. I told her it was over. Kaput. Finito. The End. I told her that I was an alcoholic (‘that’s OK, my Dad’s an alcoholic’). I told her that I was sick, that I shouldn’t be smoking or drinking, that I needed a relaxed lifestyle, that I couldn’t deal with stress. We kept drinking the tequila. She started crying. I just watched her cry. I knew it was the drink that had done it to her. It had done the same to me. She asked me to hug her. I didn’t want to ...but I did.

I’m sitting in Christine’s place. We’re talking about Nick Cave. It’s hot and Christine doesn’t have any air conditioning. This doesn’t seem to bother her, though.

“It’s weird ...his songs seem so simple, as if they’ve been sung a long time ago by someone else and, yet, they seem like... brand new as well!”

I feigned indifference.

“Y’know- it goes with the territory. Write poetry, get fucked in the ass! ...I’ve no regrets about it. That’s just the way it is, y’know?”
“How can you say that!?”

I feigned sleep.

Michael came out with some absolute pearls…“Y’know, I guess homosexuality is O.K really. I mean, Michael Crichton’s homosexual! Leonard Cohen’s homosexual! Even, y’know... er ...Colon-al Sanders, the guy who invented Kentucky Fried Chicken, the old guy with the goatee? Well, he was gay as well! I mean, why else do you think he carried such a provocative cane?!”

She’s baffled but she listens to him in awe as if he’s saying the most deeply profound things. She wants to fuck him, him, even. It’s hilarious.

He continues- “We don’t need to argue about it, really- everything’s cool. It’s like what Jesus said- ‘the offerings are the highest heights of heresy, y’know? Wild Man Fisher, John Wayne… Muhammed Ali was onto the same things- ‘float like a butterfly, sing in key’’s all the same day, right? It’s like Woodstock and Generation X, Kevin Costner, right??”

I cracked up.

I payed the bill and asked S for the 4000yen she’d drank. She was still in tears. She gave me the money. I stumbled down the stairs, trying to get away from her. She followed me down the stairs. I cut round the corner and hid behind the door. The tequila had really hit me. I watched her dash out and hurry down the street, bumping into people and cursing herself. I couldn’t leave her like that. I walked after her and tried to calm her down. The rest is a blank. I remember running down Tor and hearing her scream my name from the crossroads and I remember ducking into Jammer Rag and calling Christine from there. The specifics- I don’t know.

“I feel like experimenting with this whole gay thing.”
“Waddya mean? You mean you want to watch me and him fuck?”
“Well,, I mean... I wanna do something. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable with that... but...”
“You mean you want me to watch you and him fucking?”
“Well, yeah, maybe...”
“I’m not sure if I’d feel comfortable with that.”

She said that she was always forgetting her inhaler and having fits in the street. I told her that she needed to sow it into her handbag or something.

Michael told me later that her husband commited suicide.

It seems to happen all the time.

Sometimes it’s like we are both living in the eye of a hurricane and all this whirling madness is going on around us. I’m hoping that we won’t be found spinning out into it. Maybe a gust could catch an arm or a shoulder and carry us away for good.

“How did he kill himself?”
“I think it was an overdose, I’m not sure. He was definitely serious about it though.”

The student on my left perked up for the first time and said-
“Do you mind if I ask a question?”
“Sure, ...what?”
“Why have you written Penguin on your hand?”
“Ohh, that! Well, I just like Penguins, I guess.”
“You just like Penguins? ...What do you mean?”
“Well if I like something then it makes me feel good. So, if I’m having a bad day I can just look at my hand and it makes me feel good, I suppose.”
All the students are laughing nervously.
“Do you write other things on your hand or it’s only Penguin, is it?”
“Well, I don’t usually write anything on my hand but today I thought writing Penguin would be a good idea.”
“You mean, you write name of another animal too?”
“Well, no- it can be anything. One day I wrote Tsukemono on my hand,”
They’re laughing again…
“Really, ...Tsukemono!!”

Kevin had a t-shirt on which displayed the slogan- ‘I’m a stupid American’ in Japanese. I was impressed with it. He paraded round the park hoping someone would spot the joke and laugh. No one saw it, though. They were all too busy, I suppose.
It was funny watching him walk round trying to draw people’s attention to the t-shirt, pulling it out at the nipples, making it look like he had tits.

“Did you see that shit last night man!!! You were awake, right? I fucked her in the ass, man!! ...That was so fucked up! I was just about to come, right, and the bitch pulls away from me! So, ...just to piss her off, I pulled off the jimbo and sprayed come all in her hair man! ...that was so weird!

So, anyway, I’m fucking her, right? ...and she’s got her legs spread and everything, yeah, so ...I’m fucking her from behind, ...oh, an before, yeah! That was after! Before I couldn’t even get it up because I was so pissed right? I’m trying to get her to grab my dick or something ...anything to get it hard, right?, anyway, eventually it happens an’ I’m fucking her in the ass an’ everything an’ suddenly I look up while I’m fucking her and I can see you, like, sitting up by the window smoking a cigarette!!! It was fucking funny! You’re just sitting there, smoking away, listening to us fuck an everything!! And I start trying to signal to you to look over but you’re just sitting, like, just over there! Like six feet away! Just looking out the window an’ smoking your cigarette, right?

Shit, that was funny! ...I was like moving your legs before that, when you were lying down,’ shit, ...she was, like, lying on top of your legs before that! You could’ve easily fucked her as well y’know? I reckon she would’ve been into it....

Heh... that was so funny, though... looking up an’ seeing you just sitting there all solemn an’ shit, smoking your cigarette!!”

Everybody studies my hand. I turn it over and attempt to cover the white lines that have been left from the knife marks. Someone giggles under their breath.
“So, why do you like Penguins so much?”
“Mmm, it’s a good question. Maybe err, probably because they are very strong. They live in this really cold place up in the arctic, isn’t it? Yeah, but they never get cold. They are warm even though its so cold.”
“Yeah, but maybe in a hot place they’re not so good suited, maybe.”
“Mmm, maybe ...but that’s usually in the zoo, right? I mean they are from the arctic, right, so- if the humans didn’t move them they’d never need to worry about the heat coz they wouldn’t know what it was, yeah?”

“And when she’d stopped breathing, when she was dead, she told me that she’d heard my voice and that I was calling out to her in a dream, saying that she should come back to Kobe and stay with me. I mean, I don’t even like this crazy bitch but what can you say to that? I mean, you’ve got to try and empathise and understand, right?...

She’d come back from the dead! (y’know?)
She’d stopped breathing. I mean, you can’t just leave it at that, yeah? I had to tell her something. I told her that I’d meet her the next day, that everything was OK, that she shouldn’t worry.”

I started trying out different jokes in lessons just to keep it interesting.

I found this toy phone, was like an old intercom phone and I would go into lessons pretending to be talking to someone on it. I would interrupt the person on the other end of the line and ask the students questions and then go back to the phone. Some people would think it was real and others would just be laughing at my stupidity.
Anyway- whatever, was a talking point.

I’d pretend that I wasn’t really a teacher. Especially with new students. I would pretend there was a teacher on the other end of the line telling me how to run the lesson- it was funny.

It got so bad that I was using it out of class as well. I’d pick up the phone in the teacher’s room and, as if answering a call, I’d say- “Oh, Clive, it’s for you- it’s about the shipment of dildos you ordered!?” The pretense of it became rather enjoyable. The person on the phone could be anyone. I chose different people for different occasions.

There were two favourites. The first favourite always seemed to be a girl I’d just had a one night stand with, the night before ...and I would scream “Leave me alone!!!” down the phone or start trying to make ludicrously corny excuses for not calling her. The second was God- I would get the students to ask God ten different questions and then we would discuss which one was the best ...and why.

I hold my breath and close my eyes in Christine’s room.
This is what it’s like to be dead.

I woke up while she was still sleeping. I’m not sure if I wanted to fuck her or just comfort her. I stroked her hair. Her head was down at my knees. I wonder why I stroked her hair. She was naked. She seemed to respond when I stroked her hair but I was too tired to keep stroking it that way. She was tired, anyway. I went back to sleep. I remember wondering if she really was crazy.

“Oh, this is Sheila,
...Sheila... Simon, Simon... Sheila.”

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