"This is the dirtiest whore of a city you'll ever see," Otto said
with smoke spilling from his mouth. He was grinning. Streetlights
washed over us in a rhythm, interspersed with pockets of darkness,
repeating. We sat rocking on the wide seat of a taxi hissing over dark
streets past factories and grey stone buildings.
The cabbie yelled something through the grill at us.
I understood nothing through his thick Liverpudlian dialect. Otto said,
"Oh, right, sorry," and tossed his cigarette out the window.
Then he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his rum. He took a
slug and handed the bottle to me. It tasted vile and warm but the effect was
undeniably delicious. It had been a very long day and our appetites were
fearsome. The city unrolled around us.
Otto was crouched on the wide floor of the taxi, between
the facing benches, scuffling around to peer in all directions out the windows.
Old houses were going past, dark behind the trees. Now he had another cigarette
dangling from his lips. He lit it and took another slug from the bottle
without removing the cigarette. "Almost there," he said with childish
"This better be good," I said, taking the bottle
and the smoke from him and tasting them both. The cabbie was yelling
again. Otto said, "Right!" but kept on smoking.
"Now listen here," Otto said to me, "I'll introduce
you to my mates first off so you can get set up or whatever, but then you
probably won't see me for awhile. I've got quite a lot of business to
settle with Dede, know what I mean." I judged by his grin in the
shifting lights that his appetite was probably a little more fearsome than
"Sure, fine," I said. "Just set me up
with some sweet little bird and I'll be fine for the week."
"Tweet! Tweeeeet!" screamed Otto in my
The cabbie pounded on the grate. "Hey, shutup
back there! Jesus!" "Otto, man," I said,
lowering my voice, "just don't leave me to die or something. I mean,
don't get carried away. You gotta connect me."
"Right. Relax." He put the bottle in
my hand. "Tweet, tweet."
We pulled up in front of a great decrepit mansion
overgrown with ivy and dark behind boarded windows. We paid the cabbie in
heaps of change and then staggered across the drive to the shadowy
portal. Otto was pounding on the huge front door. Music thudded
within. A girl opened the door and immediately took Otto into her arms,
her face an oval of surprise and joy.
She smothered him with kisses and exclamations of delight. I stood
holding my bag and drinking the rum. The night was cold. We went
Otto and I had met in a youth hostel in Paris only two weeks ago. He was
a resident of the hostel because he was too lazy to look for an
apartment. I had just been thrown out by my girlfriend and was not far
from sleeping on the streets. Compared to the
mostly clean-cut travelers in the hostel, Otto and I looked like kindred brothers,
rough around the edges and permanently hungover. After our first conversation
in the smoking lounge -- some nonsense about Rimbaud and the myth of the
American west -- he had fixed me with his finger, laughing about some
ridiculous comment I'd just made, and he said, "I'm gonna write a book
about you!" We were drunker than ten men. I blurted out,
"That's just what I was going to say!" and we ended up getting kicked
out of the smoking lounge for our whooping laughter and the fact that no one
could stand either one of us when we were together and drinking. No one
likes overhearing conversations where every other word is in italics.
A week later he announced to the
smoking lounge in general that there was a party in Liverpool and would anyone
like to hitch there with him? He had a girlfriend there and friends who
could provide couches or floor space. Leaving tomorrow. He grinned at me
like it was the best idea ever. Right on the spot I said sure. I
was running out of money and I figured it would be cheaper to bum around a week
on the road than to keep forking out money for the damn hostel. I could
find an apartment when we returned, when my next unemployment check might be
in. There was no reason not to.
I wrote a postcard to my estranged
girlfriend from London when Otto and I passed through looking for the motorway
north. The postcard said something like, I've gone to Liverpool and I
might not come back. I want you to know I've always loved you. If you
come looking for me, I'll be down by the docks. It was a ridiculous
postcard to write, especially that part about the docks -- I didn't even know
if any such thing existed. After I'd mailed it in the Victoria bus
station I began to worry that she might actually show up, and who knew where
that might lead? All I wanted was a
good time, and I was hitching to Liverpool to get it.
I followed Otto and Dede through the massive door into an
envelope of heat and noise. It was a rave. Music thudded
everywhere, resounding in the guts as much as in the head. Bodies moved
through one another in a high-ceilinged room hung with dark paintings in heavy
frames. A dormant chandelier swayed overhead. Strobe lights
flickered from the corners. Smoke wafted carrying shadows. Light undulated
around everyone's edges. Dede grabbed Otto and they went lunging into the
crowd, twisting. He pinwheeled through the bodies holding his cigarette
high over his head. I watched as he moved into another room and disappeared
into an even greater mass of bodies.
At least I still had the rum. With my bag slung over my shoulder and holding
the bottle high I went into the crowd. The smell was intensely wicked:
sweat, beer, perfume, marijuana, everything else. I brushed past bare
skin, guys in sleeveless shirts, girls in bikini tops and hotpants, all that
flesh glistening in the sheen of the dance. There was a moment of supreme
claustrophobia, the heat of all theses bodies, this seething, roaring room --
and also, somehow, the enormous distance I had crossed to come here: all
of these things gripped me in the heart of the rave. My
vision went spotty, my breath short and sharp. I shoved my way through to
a wall and pressed my forehead against the plaster which was as wet and warm as
a dancer's body. I drank the rum. I needed beer, a smoke, anything.
A shirtless guy with close-clipped
hair appeared beside me tapping my shoulder. He had to yell over the
thumping beat. "You're Otto's friend, right? The French
"Come on then." He
moved back into the crowd and I squeezed after him, going through a congested
hallway to a larger room where neon signs flickered cooly from the far
wall. Here it was calmer, less crowded. There were bodies sprawled over
couches and on the floor with pillows. I realized that this was no
nightclub. It seemed to be some abandoned mansion occupied now by freaks
and lunatics, squatting. Posters covered over large sections of dark red
wallpaper. A different music played in this room, not so much rhythmic as
melodic. I recognized the song, a familiar snippet. "Ah,"
"You want a pint?" the
guy said. I followed him to the far side of the room where a bar had been
improvised out of tables and crates. The floor was soggy with beer.
Before I could fish my coins out of my pocket he handed me a plastic cup
spilling over with froth.
"It's Robert," he said,
clinking my cup with his. I wasn't sure if he meant his name or the
beer. "Otto said you may be a bit disoriented. Anyway, I guess
you'll be staying at the house?" "Oh?"
"Yeah, me and Stevie have got
a big house down above the campus, couple other mates. Otto used to live
there too, actually. It's none too pretty, but there'll be a bed or a
floor or something for you."
He led me to a group of people
occupying one corner of the room, sprawled across the floor behind a ring of
couches arranged like a barricade. Here he hollered that I was Otto's
French friend and then pointed at each of a dozen people and rattled off their
names. Otto was nowhere around. I was greeted with distracted waves
and a couple shouts of "Vive la France!"
Robert climbed over a couch and
sat on the floor among his lounging friends. I sat on the arm of a couch,
beer in one hand and rum in the other. A girl near me yelled, "Don't
worry, we don't hate frogs!" Another chimed in, "Yeah, your
country's shite, but you're alright!" This got
laughs from everyone.
I smiled. My brain
automatically started making up couplets about England and Liverpool, but they
were in French it was pointless to say them. There was still a little of
that feeling, suffocating from the heat and the strangeness of
everything. "Cheers," I said.
They didn't pay much attention to
me. You could tell this was one of those intense, close-knit groups of
friends, the kind of group I've never really been in. I understood
quickly that such a tight group was not going to take much interest in an
outsider, whether a frog or not. Otto had, of
course, told me about all the incredible girls he knew, implying that all I had
to do was show up and they would be mine, no problem. But now here they
were, sprawled before me, intertwined with their lovers and laughing with their
friends. One guy was talking intensely with someone else's girl as her
boyfriend buried his face in her belly and rubbed her thighs. It had
always seemed to me that a group of friends would deteriorate once they started
coupling off - that's why so many married people were so lonely - but there
people were tight, like one great body massaging itself, murmuring in a dozen
voices. I watched them, following bits of conversation around like
blowing leaves, gradually assembling their names and faces in my head.
That's when Otto burst into the
room. He was electric with excitement, his eyes bugging and his mouth
blabbering. His arrival caused a general uproar in the languid
gathering. Dede behind him looked mussed and sated. Otto punched me hard
in the shoulder and hollered, "Git over here!" He was waving at
everyone to gather on one long couch for a photograph.
We crawled clumsily over one
another, a heap of bodies like survivors on a raft. Otto had his camera
out and Dede had her own. Someone else pulled out a Polaroid. All
the commotion drew the attention of random partiers. The three cameras were
handed off to strangers, instructed to press the right buttons. We all
piled together. Otto was next to me, half crushing me. Somehow he
had a fresh bottle of red wine which he put to my mouth and tipped up.
The wine gushed into my mouth, sickeningly warm, and I instinctively resisted
swallowing. Otto yelled at the photographers, "Go! Go!
Go!" as the wine spilled in rivulets down my face and neck.
The wine was burning
my mouth until I realized that all I had to do was swallow and it would be
alright and this seemed like such a brilliant revelation that I gulped like a
thirsty man. The wine went down, and then another gulp and then another,
and it seemed Otto had actually forgotten that he was upending the bottle into
my mouth, and all I could do, pinned beneath the bodies, was gulp it down if
only to avoid drowning - and then, at that instant, the flashes all went off,
more brilliant even than the strobes all around, and I was at that moment twice
as drunk and three times as famous as a moment before.
We watched the Polaroid develop. Otto was a blur of motion.
My face was obscured by the upturned bottle except for one eye which glinted
out like the glossy and terrified eye of a Gericault horse. All face were
flush with ghoulish colors, blurred and shadowed. "It's a fucking
masterpiece!" howled Otto, slapping the photo against his forehead again
I resolved to talk only to the girls, afraid that the guys might be too much
like Otto. Of all the girls in Otto's group, two had the wonderful name
of Emma. The first Emma was a very tall beauty with short blonde hair combed
and parted like a boy's. She wore a silver lamé dress and silver platform
shoes. She looked like a fashion plate but she was very cordial. We were
squished together on the couch after the photo and she asked me if I liked the
music, if I liked Liverpool, if I liked Otto's friends. I invented my
responses, as all of these things were entirely foreign and a
little terrifying to me. She said she was a model and she was counting on
getting famous. I didn't say that I doubted she would - she was too
pretty to be a really famous model, because the really famous ones are fantastically
ugly aliens who are made to appear desirable through surreal photography and
make-up. But you can't suggest that to a pretty girl who wants to be a
model. She was the girlfriend, it turned out, of Robert. "Nice
guy," I said. "I owe him a beer."
The first Emma pointed out the
second Emma. She was dancing nearby and I watched her closely. She
had the most beautiful eyes of any animal I've ever seen. Her eyes were
these enormous suns, blinding in their darkness and depth, set in a childish
round face, dark hair hanging down. I watched her dance and you could see
her eyes flashing from across the sea of bodies through the smoke and
strobes. She moved with astonishing grace, navigating with her breasts
and steering with her ass, like the gait of a schoolgirl just beginning to
bloom. But she was no schoolgirl, and what seemed to be innocent
stumbling sexuality was really, I believe, a gorgeous, calculated, deadly
machination. She was a fleshy cyborg feeding off of sexual energy, a
machine made to radiate lust like sweat. I watched her, fascinated and
Emma number one watched me
watching Emma number two. Then she leaned over and said in my ear,
"There's no way you can tell me that a thing like that was made for
anything but fucking."
This got me to laughing so I could
barely breathe, not so much because I thought it was funny but because it was
definitely among the last things I expected to hear from this girl. I
wracked myself with a nervous runaway laugh. Otto met my eyes and
grinned. He was kissing Dede, and actually licking her face.
It occurred to me now that this
might be more than just a tight group of friends. This could be some kind
of bizarre sex clique, with interchangeable partners and no rules. That
would explain why all the couples were so comfortable with each other.
And Otto had delivered me into the center of it. Then I began laughing
about that until it seemed I would never stop.
A gust of energy caught up with me and I danced. I left my pack under a couch
and moved into the crowd, letting myself be threaded from room to room, sometimes
caught in knots of bodies stuck in a hallway, suffocating, then breaking
free. Every room in the house was filled with people, all of them
seemingly maniacal, gyrating to the techno thump or leaning, glassy-eyed,
against a foggy window. There was a great wide staircase where people
reclined rolling spliffs and wallowing in smoke. Upstairs the rooms were
smaller, some of the doors closed but emitting the sounds of sex or violence.
This was no party, I
realized: this was a factory of drunkenness and lust. We were all
being sent down some assembly line to the electric rhythm of the drums.
Industrial music, industrial drinking, industrial sex. I passed a couple
screwing right on the carpet in a hallway that was littered with cigarette
butts and beer bottles. I stepped over them and gazed openly at the
girl's face. I passed through her line of vision but I don't believe she
saw me. Her expression was far away, desperate. Her mouth worked
A tangible cloud of lust hovered
about me. I breathed it in and it stirred in me like a crazy heat.
I found Otto back in the room with the couches. He was nearly passed out,
curled up on the soggy carpet. I shook him. "Hey, Otto, where
do I go tonight? Is there a place for me to stay?"
"Yeah, yeah," he
murmured. "You'll find it."
"What do you mean?"
"Yeah. You'll find
I sat on the couch and closed my
eyes. Emma number two, that lovely animal, was on the opposite couch with
her head in some guy's lap. He was rubbing her hair into knots.
Then Otto sat up and took the beer that I held forgotten in my hand. He
swigged and looked at me with a smile that left his face lined with
fatigue. "Don't worry, geezer," he said, "it'll happen
"What. What'll happen
"Anything." Then he laid back down and passed out.
It was hours before I ran into Robert again. He was sitting cross-legged on
a table, rolling a cigarette. His girlfriend was passed out under the table.
"You want sleep?" he said when he saw me. I counted up the
hours in my head. Otto and I had hitched out of Paris something like 40
hours ago, with no rest since.
"Doesn't matter," I
We rode through the mist of early morning Liverpool in a stuffy taxi, me and
Robert and his girlfriend and a couple of other guys who also lived in the
house. One of them, Stevie, told me to sleep in his bed in the attic because
he was going over to his girlfriend's house. His girlfriend, I overheard,
was Emma number two, the sex cyborg. "Sure," I said. I imagined
the lust that she must have sweated into those very sheets where I would
finally lie down to sleep. Those two ideas side by side, Emma and sleep,
were so voluptuous that I nearly passed out right there from sheer, exhausted
delight. The sun winked over the jagged rooftops and smokestacks, hurting
my eyes. The taxi pulled up in front of a gray clapboard house. I
followed Stevie up to the attic where he collected a few of his things and,
incredibly, took a couple long pulls from an open bottle of whiskey on his
window will. He offered it to me but I no longer had the energy to even
lift a bottle. I laid across the double bed and closed my eyes.
When Stevie was gone I crawled under the covers and knotted myself into them,
reeling away into sleep at last.
I awoke with the girl wrapped around me. Her face was buried in my chest,
her legs entwined in mine, her arms cradling my head. It took me awhile
to understand that this was not the continuation of my claustrophobic dreams. This
was morning, the sun was in my face, and the girl was wrapped around me.
She stirred, raised her head, and we looked at each other. Her eyes were
those enormous pools of darkness. Neither of us said a word.
Somewhere in the house a phone was
ringing. It rang a long time and then fell silent. The girl
untangled her body from mine and climbed off the bed. She was still in
her clothes, as was I. She stared down at me.
"I wonder," she said
very slowly, "who you are."
The sun blazed through her tangled
hair, across her face, glinting in her sleepy eyes. I sat up, rubbed my
head. "I'm Otto's French friend. I don't believe we've
"Hmmm. Okay. I'm
"Yeah, I know."
"Do you, then?"
She walked over to the window and peered through the blinds. She seemed
to be murmuring something to herself. A full minute went by and I could
think of nothing to say. She picked up the whiskey bottle from the window
sill. "I suppose I've had enough of this already," she
said. "So, um, sorry about this, I don't really know what to say…Do you
know where Stevie is?"
"He went over to your house,
”I see. Right."
She hesitated, then turned and went out the door, down the hall. I gazed
dreamily at the slats of light falling across the floor, my head pounding and
my mouth swollen with hangover. The birds were twittering outside.
Finally I got to my feet, still wearing my shoes, and
went in searching for a bathroom.
I found Emma standing in the kitchen downstairs. She was bending over the
stove trying to light a cigarette off a burner coil. I bummed one from
her and it and we stood there in silence in the sunny kitchen, smoking.
At last she began to laugh and suddenly she was different. She covered
her face with one hand, peering at me through her fingers, still laughing, and her
laugh was like a snapshot. I could imagine her laughing that way with her
mother, or with long gone boyfriends, or with Stevie. I wonder, I thought,
who you are. And wouldn't it be interesting to find out.
"Alright," she said,
"just tell me what happened."
"Well, I don't think anything
did. I mean, I went right to sleep. I never heard you come
in. If something happened, I guess I missed it too."
She laughed. "So if you
sin in your heart and that's infidelity, then what is it when you sleep with
someone but you don't sin?"
"Hmmm," I said, watching
my cigarette ash grow. "I think that's just sleeping."
"Yeah. Doesn't have to
be a sin. But I have to say, I didn't mind, you know, finding you
We watched each other,
grinning. When the cigarettes were done, she said goodbye and went out
the front door. I made coffee and sat at the kitchen table feeling my
blood pulse, feeling the sun on my face, waiting for the day to take me again
and throw me somewhere.
Mesmerized, we walked through the leaves, Otto and I, and the sound was like a
rhythm machine, an ambient wave of shush and whish. We were in the middle
of everything. Trees stood at the fringes of the park but their leaves
were everywhere, brown and red, dusty. The whisper of our shoes threading
through the crisp leaf fall carried us across the park under a bright morning
sky like I hadn't seen in months: it had been months seen I had risen
I was acutely hungover. So
was Otto, through he seemed to carry it better than I did. It was his
natural state, as far as I could tell. He was getting a cold, he said,
and he needed to purge the germs in his veins by poisoning them with
alcohol. It seemed to be working. Instead of being sick, he was
always hungover. "You wanna get something to wake up?" he said.
I thought he was talking about
coffee. We went into a pub on a shady street facing the park and ordered
a fry-up with coffee. Then he called for two pints of bitter. The
barman brought them over.
"Do you really expect me to
drink this, Otto?"
”So what are you, a tee-totaller
all of a sudden?"
”Well, it's ten in the morning --
"Right! Time to get
He took a sip of his bitter and I
followed suit. It was warm and biting. Otto was grinning at me with an
expression he must have seen in A Clockwork Orange and taken as his own.
This insight made me grin myself, just watching him make that face.
"You know," I said,
"I think I'll just take you as an example of exaggerated destructivity and
do everything exactly opposite of you. Maybe that way I'll live to
"Impossible," he said,
lighting a smoke with the wave of a match. "I've already destroyed
"Hmmm. That's a
"So, did you get a good snog
off some old bird last night or what?"
"I woke up today with the
most beautiful girl."
"Yeah? Go on
"She was beautiful, Otto, I
have to say. I don't really remember what happened, you know, but this
morning she was all wrapped around me."
"Right on. Who was
"Christ, how could I remember
her name if I don't remember sleeping with her?"
"You could have asked her to
refresh your memory, over the cigarette. Or I forgot - you don't
smoke. There's your problem."
"Tweety," I said.
"Her name is Tweety." We clinked our glasses and drank a
"Or actually," he
continued, "your problem is not being able to hold your drink.
There's no excuse for forgetting a good shag. No excuse. Unless you
didn't even shag her. Eh?"
"Don't you think," I
said, "that we've been drinking an awful lot lately?"
"Oh, Christ, not this!
You goddamn hypocrite American puritan freaks just love to talk about your
vices while you're holding them in your hands." He clinked my pint
glass with his hard enough to spill froth on the table between us.
"Hey, I'm not saying I'm not
a hypocrite, I'm just saying that I think we're drinking an awful lot.
And here's the proof." I took another sip.
"But it's all about drinking,
geezer," he said, his voice rising like it did when he had something
particularly ironic to say.
"What's all about
He spread his arms in a broad gesture that took in the two of us,
the pub, this whole city, all the time we had spent. "This!"
Whatever that meant. Looking
out the window of the pub I saw the houses and cars, people passing by in the
street whom I would never meet, doing things unknowable and inscrutable, like snippets
of a song heard but nor recognized. We ate our fried eggs and finished
our pints down to the froth it the bottom and walked back through the shushing
and whishing park. The sky was going hazy. The world seemed smaller
than it had only an hour ago.
Otto and I parted ways in the park under the hazy sky. He had to see his girlfriend
that afternoon, and she lived a long ways across the city. We arranged a
rendez-vous for later that evening at some pool hall down by the docks. I
watched as he ran through the leaves, the sound of it, all the way to the other
side of the park where he hailed a cab and jumped in, gone. There was a
moment then, standing alone in the middle of all those fallen leaves, of pure
vertigo. It was the feeling of looking down on myself from space, seeing
myself standing in this empty place, in this city which is totally foreign to
me, in the north of England, surrounded by sea, so many hundreds of miles from
anything which I belong to or which belongs to me. It was only a
moment. It was just a feeling of dizziness or distortion, seeing myself
from that height. Then I saw Otto in my mind, spreading his arms, saying,
"This!" and it sounded like the leaves whispering.
I turned and struck out through
the day in no particular direction.