A Sugary, Fluorescent Smog
“STORM IS A REALLY GREAT GUY. I THINK IT’S A SHAME THAT HE DOESN’T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND,” lamented an amplified voice on the television, through the locked door. “SO, ONE OF THE GIRLS FROM THE CLUB THAT I MANAGE…” The door-to-door Christian paused in the corridor outside. As these insincere words drifted away, a jaunty comedy jingle played, a little mockingly, and in this moment she knocked on the thin door, and knocked on the thin door again. On the other side she could hear some other voices, much quieter and apparently startled at the prospect of anyone knocking at the door, and without thinking she slipped one of her hands into her large raincoat pocket, slid her fingers across a concise library of pamphlets and settled upon one in particular. Benjamin slightly opened the door to the apartment, confused.
“Whatever are you watching in there?” she asked with a smile.
Benjamin did not wish to open the door particularly wide at all, and so he did not. However, he enjoyed their pleasant small talk nonetheless and the Evangelist, in turn, enjoyed peering into what little she could see of the apartment – clean, with a couple of never-opened art magazines on the dining table, a soft foam yoga roller resting against the bottom of one of two second-hand sofas, fragments of phone chargers everywhere – and swiftly and accurately assessing the psychic condition of its inhabitants. From her pocket she pulled a pamphlet, nonchalantly, like there were no other sorts of pamphlets in that pocket, though really there were many, so many – one for every sort of lost soul. “Well, Benjamin, it was lovely to speak with you, and if it’s okay I’ll leave this here, and hopefully you’ll have a chance to read it,” she said, drawing the door to a close, having not once mentioned the Lord.
With care, Benjamin placed the pamphlet in a drawer and lit a cigarette. At some point in the proceedings, his roommate Takuhito had stopped streaming the American staged-reality show they were watching, as though it was of no interest to them, which it wasn’t, really.
“Who let her into the building?”
“I think she could tell that you’re lonely,” suggested Taku.
He opened the drawer, only a little, and observed the pamphlet therein. On its cover was a photograph of a young (ish), metropolitan professional type emerging from a glassy office on his own, and beneath him, beautifully typeset, the question, “Why do I feel so lonely?” On the inside, where Benjamin would never look, were other questions that he would also have found compelling, such as, “Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘There must be more to life than this?’” Benjamin shut the drawer and tossed his cigarette out of the window. He watched its embers drift slowly towards the frosted ground and imagined, idly, that they were him and his roommate.
Now, the walls of their apartment were hollow and thin, and often Benjamin would lie awake in his bed listening to the sounds of sex and laughter seeping through them. This made him feel pathetic, frustrated, or curious, or sometimes aroused and imaginative, depending really upon his mood and the direction from which the thudding, cackling noise was arising. And he would just lie there, listening.
One day, Takuhito invited him to a party inside somebody’s house.
“Who will be there? Will Angelica be there?” Benjamin asked.
Fairly civilised, if somewhat seedy, rituals were occurring throughout the living room and up and around the spiral staircase of somebody’s house somewhere in Islington on the night of the 17th, as everybody queued up to take their middling narcotics completely alone in the toilets, and gathered around a laptop in the living room, intending to stop whatever song might have been playing and subsequently drown out any howls of disappointment by playing their own favoured song in its place, although often, on the spot, they forgot whatever it was that they wanted to hear.
Two boys, dancing shambolically around the table in the swaying manner of ancient Druids, appeared to be warding off unwelcome spirits. Across the room, Benjamin saw always sweet-looking Karim, who was from Persia but wasn’t particularly devout or anything. They hugged for a long time, and asked one another how they had been.
“Oh, recently we’ve been really pushing things, really making the most of things, Benjamin, I have to tell you…”
“Karim,” his mate interrupted, “I’m not sure we should be telling everybody…”
“No, it’s cool. It’s so cool. Benjamin’s totally down with…”
Benjamin wondered what they were talking about.
“Like, the other night,” Karim eventually explained, “I had three strangers ejaculating over me in a public place.”
“Oh, all over me….” he paused. “Also, everybody at this party is trying to sodomise me.”
“I suppose so,” responded Karim unsurely and with a wistful air.
But Benjamin did not notice the uncertainty and wistfulness because he was jealous of the sex lives of certain of his acquaintances – essentially, of Karim, who just seemed so free with whatever activities he wished to perform in his spare time, and nothing appeared to intimidate him nor make him anxious. It was all so contemporary. While Benjamin, well, he was 30 years old and had never come in a girl’s hair (not that he was aware of, in any case), even though he profoundly wanted to, and often he felt an astronomical weight of shame because of those circumstances. But, according to Benjamin’s interpretation, Karim need never worry about apprehension or dinner reservations or anything like that, as he could stroll into any landscaped space after dusk and strangers would just be waiting there to long after him and perhaps spread their seed across him like raspberry jam. Every tree or lawn must simply be brimming with possibility.
In the early hours, Angelica turned up to the party in a bad mood and sat alongside Benjamin on a sofa in the corner, complaining about the music and the partygoers, and he was absolutely over the moon.
“I’m so sick of everybody that I know, Benjamin. I just cannot abide them. Like that arsehole Abigail over there; she summoned me to the Delaunay for an early breakfast meeting and then, halfway through our eggs Benedict, she told me that she had nothing to talk about, that she only wanted to ‘catch up’ with everybody she had ever worked with, that maintaining professional friendships was very important. And I just sat there eating an English muffin and thinking, ‘Has she lost her fucking mind?!’ Oh, everybody is so dreadful and useless, and we all feel it but none of us, actually, ever does anything about it, do we?! I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this, Benjamin. I think I’m just drunk and really bored.”
And they spoke like this a long while, slowly moving closer and closer together. Her touch was warm, as though she had been holding a hot cup of coffee in the cold January night, and then suddenly had touched his face with that same hand. They kissed for a while, and she whispered to him, “I have to go to another party” and disappeared into the night.
In the morning, Takuhito was really happy for Benjamin and sprang up onto his mattress like a housebound goat, but also he was a little worried.
“I sort of heard Angelica was committed to a psychiatric hospital recently. Because she was acting really erratically.”
“Not sure. I think, like, hiring way too many interns at the gallery, eating Happy Meals at her desk, wearing lots of black, listening to disco. Just acting really erratically. I heard she keeps on turning up on the doorsteps of house parties with loads and loads of bottles of peach schnapps.”
“But, I don’t think you can be committed to a psychiatric hospital for turning up on the doorsteps of house parties with loads and loads of bottles of peach schnapps?”
Later in the week, Benjamin was walking along the Highbury & Islington overground platform while the sun was setting and the platform announcer, usually such a cheerful old man, boomed through his loudspeaker, “Have you ever felt so lovesick that your stomach actually hurts, so that you feel physically sick, like you have drunk too much milk or something like that?” Above him, the sky was turning these preposterous sherbet, Victoria’s Secret shades of pink and orange, and Benjamin thought of how they say that the skies are pink because of pollution, that it’s a sugary, fluorescent smog created by our dismantling of the atmosphere. He asked himself, isn’t really all the colour and radiance in the cosmos a form of pollution? Doesn’t everything sublime come out of a horror or cruelty, one way or another? Isn’t that, actually, why we tremble before beauty, because of what it might mask? Or was this just a ridiculous way of thinking? He wished the door-to-door Evangelist was around so that he could ask her where the beautiful things came from. But soon, the oranges and the pinks had fallen from the sky, which turned as black as the eyes of those black-eyed children that had, according to certain newspapers, been haunting much of the countryside this winter.
He strolled through these shadows and as he looked around, he had a sensation that the lights on the shop fronts were so colourful and bright that they could hardly be real, that he was floating up into the air, away from the awkwardly cemented paving stones. “Wait,” he told the empty street, “I think I might be in love with Angelica.” Benjamin, looked around and thought about his days as a lackadaisical, weed-addled student of the history of art, of his year abroad in Manhattan, and how on his very first morning there, the tutor had taken the class to the Museum of Modern Art and asked them to choose one work to symbolise the whole collection. The only mature student in the class, a soft and timid Japanese lady who had never had a job, pointed to The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and explained why she wanted that one in vague and faltering English, and all the other students (most of them American girls so attractive it made Benjamin’s innards want to explode) very elegantly ignored her and her painting, as though they were not actually present in the room. There she was, this old Japanese lady, completely alone and in the early stages of failing her history of art course and she seemed sad, but also sort of hopeful, and she adored the brushwork on that rural French nocturne. One of the most attractive students chose another painting, something very obscure, and a few days later the class presented a slideshow about it in the lecture hall and, like, anybody could care less.
Benjamin was walking along as if floating in the air and noticing how all of the lights on the street were shaking and all of the colours of the evening were glowing from within, and it was completely overwhelming – as though he was mad, delirious, as though he had travelled some years back through his personal history and then stepped through the walls of the MoMA and found himself inside this painting of the night sky, where every smear of paint was charged with magic, where every leaf wanted to live forever. He felt that lightness of walking through an illuminated place within three or four days of having begun to fall in love.
Illustration by Zane Reynolds