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The Doldrums


Sébastien Bernard

Artwork by Claudette Schreuders


The more I write, the more I find myself performing an offensive, macabre dance. The lights are off and I am entertaining the goon squad with my flatulent figure skating. I make grotesque faces at the moon. I poke a stick into a dirty ice cream salesman. I talk shit about Moonlight, about basic human decency. I ask to be crucified and raped. I mean everything halfheartedly. I demand to be injected with morphine. I slur my speech. I make inappropriate remarks about the women's bodies, kick the men in their pants. The tiny, offensive, flaccid members of the goon squad. I speak like a drunk everyone wants to secretly murder and dump in a river, after a bit of torture . . . A smelly alcoholic who talks half-truths. I have no respect for the law. I wish painful death upon idiots.
    My name is Antoine Flateau, budding author of the European continent. I began my career by studying English Literature in the United States, in Boston of all places. A waste of time. Here I am, back in New York. It’s the summer of 2015, and I have begun to despise my life again.
I thought I’d spice things up by coming here, to the city that’s all gears: gears and sex. If you disagree, prove it . . . I don’t think you can. Is the writer here anything but gear? Her tattoos industrial, her habitation post-industrial. Her hair Manchester pink, without the pain; t-shirt punk, without the pain. Don’t tell me what NY is.
    No American city escapes the Myth, and that’s what America is: the Myth to end them all. LA is more beautiful, by that logic: there, at least, ironically, there is no illusion. LA accepts that its denizens trade on image. NY does not, and it makes her uglier. No harm with a bit of truth every which way . . .
    I thought my life was bound to change when I got here, sick as I was for some form of action, any. It didn’t. I saw the world sink into a cesspool of narcissism and lies, the greatest amount of general ignorance I’ve seen, all planted in the heart of the ‘free world.’ I hated everyone. It wasn’t hard, because they all hated each other, even though they sometimes smiled. All their actions and feelings were governed by the shadenfreude of having to win their daily bread, the little space they had to live in, at the expense of everyone else in the world. That’s what the American is so well taught. Here the whole system is built on mutual dislike, so that all you care about is money. It’s a platitude and it’s true. It’s how one dreams. How the machine keeps rolling. Stepping on everything that lives, blasting Time, History, Love, and Care, to hell from the four corners of the earth . . .

"Maybe you’re smarter than I assumed, and see how this completely misses the point. Maybe you’ve realized that ISIS does not so much hate the US as envy it its unrestrained cruelty, its monopoly on the entertainment value of violence. Bravo! You’ve cracked the universe."

A few days after my arrival, I was woken by shouting outside my window at 1 a.m. I looked out (driven by the universal force of voyeurism) to see two men: one exploding with rage at another. At first I thought this man had been beaten to his parking spot, but it had to be something graver. A small ‘crash’? But his car showed no sign of damage. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, like these two were simply materialized there to teach me a crash-course in the cultural nuances of conflict. The angry man, who had lost all life-honed civility, was bulky, white, and nervous in the face. The other (and ostensible culprit) was a handsome, nicely built Asian man who looked to be at least five years younger. Almost like in a comic book cartoon, the first hurled his red face against the other by short of an inch. The other was shockingly calm, and simply stood there with an expression of stone, looking down at his phone whenever he got the chance, likely to extricate himself from the whole thing.
    Here was what the first man said: “I have not gotten into a fight since middle school, but suddenly I’m filled with the urge to punch you!” He moved away from the man, and seconds later came back into the same position. “I’m not touching you, see, not touching you . . .” His face trembled lightly as he said this.
    Ladies and boars, have you seen a better show of western empiricism?
    If ISIS knew what they were doing, they would simply hire a young artist such as yourself—kind, educated, thinking reader with creative propensities—to snatch this rosy-cheeked Santa au naturel. It would be easier than the pyrotechnics of the torture clip, surely, and wiser, more levelheaded as recruitment strategy . . . But maybe you’re smarter than I assumed, and see how this completely misses the point. Maybe you’ve realized that ISIS does not so much hate the US as envy it its unrestrained cruelty, its monopoly on the entertainment value of violence. Bravo! You’ve cracked the universe. Thus the video would say (ironically): “Physics the American way! . . . The way we all desperately need it! . . . To adapt to the times! . . . To move irrevocably into Progress! . . . To murder all the half-baked Muslims of the world . . .”
    Have I gone too far? You understand that this is satire. Brahms String Quartet, something pertinent out of the mouth of Muhammad himself, and there you have it: mac-and-cheese for radical Islamic terrorism.
I plugged in Gould’s 1980 recording of Bach’s Goldbergs—why listen to anything else, once you’ve discovered this peaceful frenzy?—and downed a bit of that pretty vodka that was sitting on Don’s shelf. Don was the extremely scrupulous white Airbnb host from whom I’d rented the place. For what other reason would he ask me to pay, in a passive-aggressive email a few weeks hence, for this very amount of vodka? He had to keep a ruler handy, divide the bottle’s price, charge extra for his toils, the ice in the fridge . . . I didn’t pay. I have my morals. Who’s laughing now? The tide has turned against all Dons of the universe.
    I walked out into the crisp nonsense. A few streets down, and I was at the carnival they call St Mark’s. What a shit-show! Two homeless drunks were passed out near a bunch of trash bags, pizza slices splayed from their dish—as though they’d fallen there in formation, letting go of their dinner as they did. How tough and vulnerable someone’s head looks, bare and bending from shoulder to concrete, how saintly in some way. I had scarce the opportunity to take this in, when a large monster of a car (German or American) came in and nearly crushed one of the sleepers’ arms, who perked up and awoke and stared about. That’s when I realized this was likely a she, though what remains of gender? They had short hair and freckles and bluish eyes, and rested back right next to where the car had stopped. I looked at the man behind the wheel, who wore a suit and sunglasses, which must have been why he hadn’t seen a thing, or exactly why. Looking at his face, I remembered how hungry I was.
    “Got a dollar?” the velvet voice passed behind me into the pizza shop that smelled of lubricating oil. I looked back and its owner, a toned, tall, and sharp-boned black man in a white t-shirt and denim cutoffs, was standing at the counter, smiling and gesturing me to come in. I did.
    “Weak night,” he said. “Fewer and fewer want to fuck on weekdays around here, let alone pay for it, and if they do they’re weirdos—believe me—sometimes weirder than the closet boys in the Financial District.”
    I waited a moment to take this in.
    “I’m done with that.” He laughed, a really beautiful laugh that showed all thirty-two teeth. “Want a slice of pizza? Not usually my jive, but I’m hungry and it’s late. Normally it’s just a dollar, but here there’s inflation.” He winked.
    “Thanks,” I said. “I’m okay.” He got his slice, and we went back outside.
    “You’re too sensitive. You’re pretty but I can tell it wears you out.” He gave me a sweet smile.
    “Ruben here. It’s okay that you want to be private. Most places in the world people are private, right? Here we feel impelled to pump you full of our lives the moment we meet you—or a neat story of it anyway.” He let out a beautiful, round laugh. “You’re from Europe?”
    “Sort of.”
    “See how I guessed? I see your tourists: they always look so serious, as though any question could disarm them. Even though here it’s all lying . . . Everybody’s chauffeuring some rich dude’s ride, which they better say they’re loving or they could end up on the street, like these two. They gotta be dramatic always, and they say we’re dramatic, white folks, when their whole lives are based on how excited they can get about their new promotion, their new food, their new iPhone . . . It’s like Friends or Sex and the City. You gotta look happy if you’re gonna look productive: advertising whatever you do with your life. When black folks laugh it means we’re laughing; otherwise we’d be doing it at our own expense, if you know what I mean. When white folks laugh it means they’re playing the game, or being ‘ironic’ about it coz they can. That’s the world they’ve given us—pretty slice of pie, isn’t it? The best of us turn mad. If we’re lucky, in a way we can use, like artists. And then if we’re lucky enough to get credit for it. The best of theirs are born lucky, find luck, or drift away on their choice of painkiller. All of a sudden that’s a problem, coz white folks are getting out of jobs too, out of mind. And the rich guy wants us all to pay for it: gut our rights, our healthcare, our food stamps. While suddenly whites are dying faster than us. Maybe we’ve learned the meaningless lesson: show them you mean to live.”
    I wasn’t expecting the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t get me wrong; I did think I was in a dump.
    “Well, why would I lie? For me all that is over.” He lit his cigarette now and took a drag.
    “You might ask me whether this isn’t a lie, what I do?”
    “I could have gotten into slinging were I not so sensitive. I knew the right people; I could have done it. But that’s another world: full of men and their bullshit. Here I am partly at home. In sex men can be rough to a better end. Being a rent boy, pardon my French, is hard enough, especially when you’re black. Some of these guys think they can do anything they want, like your blackness is the currency to their fantasies. And boy you can rest assured: I get my fix out of it. There are the men who come to me like penitents, and the men who just want to be blown away by what I have, marvel at it like their lives were complete. It’s quite a sight.” He laughed. “They want me to stretch them as far as they’ll go, until I can’t feel a thing and neither can they. But that’s what they want, to be numbed. I hope I’m not upsetting you.”
    “Try me.”
    “A kid with imagination! Well, I’ve found your type harder to shock than the more experienced. Experience on its own doesn’t do much for the mind. It’s a commodity like anything else.”
    “How do you know I’m not experienced?”
    “I tend to see these things, honey. I’m a Pisces.”
    We started walking. He kept talking, and I kept listening.
    Page 5: "He told me he’d been with an officer, a junkie. As to his color I had to guess. But who else could be in the police force, an alcoholic, and a faggot? You’ve still gotta be white for that sort of thing.
    Too soon I see through people’s itches: the cosmic hive that is always so justified. I’ve met black men before who wanted instantly to marry me. Usually I have to say very little. I think I’m made of alabaster or something. Ruben tried to glean what I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for anything. And even if I were, I wouldn’t have known how to phrase it. We parted at my subway station—we’d happened to walk a good six blocks, and I had no intention of walking back. He gave me his number, and I noted it, even though I knew I‘d never call. I smiled. “It was really nice to meet you,” I thought, but didn’t say it. “Goodbye handsome.”
    “Goodbye.” I sped down the stairs. The hot air blasted against my face, and I heard my train screech by. I slowed down instinctively, until I almost stopped. I’m a good person, I said into the empty subway platform.


Fast-forward a couple of months . . . Whatever has happened in the meantime will be worth turning back to, if it acquires meaning. As it is, it’s meaningless.
    Elias and I meet for lunch. I haven’t seen him in four years, but he hasn’t changed a bit. He tells me his problems. I listen. He gets very psychological, which forces me to think too much. Elias is extremely resourceful at plucking drama out of thin air—he exaggerates his problems, puts a poetic spin on them, draws them out like yarn, convinces himself that they are utterly unique . . . Moreover, after working through them intensively, he concludes that they seem ineluctable. Then why try solving them? And what is more, why enlist me? I play around in my fourteen-dollar salad and think: how privileged do you have to be to not realize that literally all your problems stem from privilege? Of course, I keep my mouth shut.
    In his own way, he’s a rebel, this Elias, coming as he does from a line of teachers and doctors: rational Scandinavians with their heads screwed on tight. He, however, is convinced that dancing will save the world. Among artists, none are harder to take seriously than the overzealous dancer. Then why is he my friend? A human distraction is worth a pill or two. According to my doctor, pills don’t become me.
    So I’m in it, there’s no way out. Elias sits me down, forces me to deal with his elaborate chess game of quandaries, which he is handing to me already with an air of victory—and I have no choice but to play along with him. I look him in the eye while I make my moves, to reassure him that I have no evil intentions. Because if he’s one thing, this Elias, it’s vigilant and intolerant of easy answers.
    Sex is difficult for him. Furthermore, he can’t commit, because he just always finds something. If it’s not their attitude toward life, it’s their smell. Their smell? Where does he find them? Dating apps. “That’s Russian roulette for the soul,” I tell him, feeling very clever. I couldn’t care less, but I do it anyway; I help him figure things out, or give him the illusion that they will be fine. I act as the coolheaded haven I’m so good at.
    The truth is that I’ve been primed for this as a child. My parents would tear each other apart around me—fling dishes, hurl death threats, promise suicide—and I was the one who had to comfort them. Mostly my mother. My father was impregnable: a real cucumber of emotions; and when it came to voicing whatever he had in that vegetable heart with a steady voice, a calm demeanor, bone dry . . . Since then my only response to emotional turbulence has been to bury things six feet deep. A tip to the curious: it doesn’t work. They come bubbling up. You spend your early adulthood in fits of rage because no one understands you, because you haven’t the slightest clue how to make them understand.
    It’s useless. We believe that our problems are interesting, that they are meaningful somehow, when all it comes down to is that we haven’t taught ourselves to speak, haven’t had enough sleep or mindless sex. Yes! He needs to just do it, poor Elias: a few moments of regret is well worth days of being an unrepentant moaner. The options go on: maybe we haven’t gotten blind drunk over the weekend, haven’t worked hard enough, feel empty. You don’t need a psychoanalyst to figure it out. Just go sleep, in Jesus’s name! Masturbate, see a shit movie, write a novel: whatever floats your boat. But don’t come crying to me. I have no emerald insights. I’m empty, just like you.

"It’s my duty as a whitish twenty-something in close quarters to not look as though I’m about to take holy vengeance on everyone. My responsibility to the tired and the poor of the J train, who are this close to being home, to look fucking chill. I used to pride myself on my assassin looks. But the stats are in: we’re the ones everyone should run from."

On the subway home I feel tired as hell, and what’s happening to my face is what happens when I am tired. It’s taking a lot of effort to maintain a neutral expression. It’s my duty as a whitish twenty-something in close quarters to not look as though I’m about to take holy vengeance on everyone. My responsibility to the tired and the poor of the J train, who are this close to being home, to look fucking chill. The last thing honest working people need is the specter of an angry white kid between themselves and rest: a kid who feels more entitled to his pain than everyone else—and looks like he could prove it right there and then. I’ve honed this neutrality, which is something I used to never think about before. I used to pride myself on my assassin looks. But I rarely do that anymore. What a pity! And it’s exclusively the likes of myself I fear in public. The stats are in: we’re the ones everyone should run from.
    Some kid across from me is reading Kafka with shades on. He’s a heartbreaker. I’d like to fuck him right there and then, I think. Pound him relentlessly against the subway door in a risky ritual that would allow us both to transcend this mortal coil for a few minutes; feel the whole car’s astonishment, goading, and rage on our bodies. He gets up and leaves with the book facing down, thinks before heading one way or the other, and goes off to the left with his shades still on. Excellent choice, Kafka!
    I engage in these types of things as fantasies. I would regardless only enjoy them as such. Sex with a complete stranger is almost impossible to me. Plus I have a boyfriend who looks like Leslie Cheung, only with a beauty that’s miles deeper. Though my taste in sex (aside from love) has rarely had anything to do with beauty as such, more with qualities along the spectrum of beastly and oblivious. Moreover, my boyfriend is raw and earnest as a bird, if birds were made of tender caresses. He has the eyes of a bird, the kind that is sneaking a look at you desirously, because maybe it wants the meat inside your stomach, but in a loving way, so that it can feed the truth inside of love. He teaches art at a high school, and is the son of Taiwanese immigrants. He is tall, slim, and has the intelligence of the Turing bombe with four thousand volts through it. I know, you thought I was all bitter tears! Modern reader, some things are sacred . . .
But I don’t get home to him. I get home alright. I have a lot of work to do, but the fates are against me. The all-American corporate boy upstairs has finished yelling at his wife, who just slammed the door and left with her wheezing Shih Tzu. He’s sat down at the piano and is trying to play ”Für Elise.“ He’s been practicing for months, but it’s all in vain: he has no pitch, no understanding of tonal complexity, and—but you’ve already guessed this—no soul. ”Für Elise” of all things . . . Last week he tried his hand at some ragtime, to mix things up, and it sounded like a mule with the clap throwing up onto a rainbow . . . But after this I lose all respect for the boy. I hear his half-formed chords sound through the bathroom ceiling. Is his piano even tuned? What is that clang, dancing like the devil in each phrase? No, this won’t do at all. I hatch a plan.
    Nothing is more terrifying than someone with the most rudimentary knowledge of what the layman calls ”classical music,“ someone who got it all from Chopin (let’s come out and say it: the plumber Pole of romanticism) than the massive gravity of Bach’s Fugues. The Fugues are enough to send any novice through their chimney, tear the sense out of anyone who’s complacent about anything. You know this too well: harmony is useless without counterpoint, and, well, raving contortion and multiplication. No one feels or understands anything of music who thinks Mozart is the end. Mozart is a kind of soft kill. Beethoven a partial, syphilitic revival. And Stravinsky or Shostakovich, some wispy Russian inanity, the overextended death throes . . . Glenn Gould is the resurrection, and the bottomless well of gratitude. I turn the Fugues on full volume. Music has never sounded this raucous, this tortured in rolling and grumbling its nipped and struggling chords. It connects absolutely, but just as quickly flees into a tangent, so that when it does it sends chills down your spine, makes you regret your whole life that you will never be able to hit those notes—wedged, stretched, dropped, transited, trembling, but always precise as hell . . . The boy upstairs stops. There’s silence. Is he weeping? I hope so. That’s the only point.
My baby gets home. He drops his backpack on the couch. He says something about the air. It’s stifling. It is stifling, I agree. He tells me about a movie he wants to see, a Korean film about an heiress, an erotic double-crossing, and the end of the world. I say that sounds great. We fuck. It’s been a week. I jerked off in the morning so the pressure wouldn’t be so high. It’s miraculous. Every inch of it is pure excitement and pleasure. And when I come I can’t stop shaking into him, my eyes roll out of my head . . .
    I read in a self-help book that intimacy and sex are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Sex has to do with oxytocin and wanting to be desired. It turns fear and everything else into a frisky game; makes a theater of the humors. But intimacy is what’s truly terrifying, and the dialectical utopia of intimate sex (however ridiculous that sounds). Feeling your emotions next to someone else, feeling theirs, and needing to figure out what to do about that. It has to do with leaping into tender caresses without looking back. How does tenderness get transformed into sex, which is for the most part an act of possession (for any and all involved)? That’s what they don’t teach you. They teach you that sex is brutal, angular, and extreme: pure thrusting, moaning, and screaming. All the positions out of Kama Sutra for Texas Chainsaw. They’re fun if you’re trying. But if you’re in love, they’re fervent as they are real: cruel and slavish in equal measure, without your choice.
    It’s sad to imagine young gays trying to look and fuck like those bodies. Porn has given us impossible standards. Scrolling for the next best thing—the next half-conversation and exotic escapade. After that they’re bored. The other is never interesting when you’re not. So they don’t learn what intimacy is until they’re old, and even then they tease it out of some young boy who only wants what they used to want; looks up to their daddy wits, but ultimately goes running for the virile standard.
    And yet they’re not exactly opposites, sex and intimacy: Eros and Anteros. They’re incredibly hot cousins, an incestuous duo of filial warmth and pure, endless, bottomless modulations of deeply felt pleasure. Only a couple knows the recesses, nooks, and exact points of each other, and they can tease them till kingdom come—because new ones will keep appearing: different positions, ones that haven’t been dreamt of. Couple sex is tantric, and possibly the most intense ecstasy available to us.
    Sex and intimacy, then, are like an instrument stretched between two poles. It may take some time to learn how to play; but once you do, unnatural falsettos crack over earthly timbres. It’s like your favorite movie, or what you do when you sit down to write. Speed may have overtaken our time, but joy is still with the calm-hearted.

"How do I know he’s crazy? The smile on his face that is at once wide-eyed and omniscient. He is smiling at a world of his making, over which in solitude he has full control."



Now it’s the weekend. I leave my house in a hurry to catch the sun, before it’s too late. I’ve worn a long jacket, because it’s cold in the shade, and it’s all I have. But the sun reflecting off my long jacket, which is dark blue and sleek, makes me almost want to throw up. I stop in front of my reflection. There’s no helping it: I look like a sophisticated pervert.
    I make my way downtown to American Apparel. Apparently, American Apparel is bankrupt. This is not surprising to me. But still I am a millennial, so the fact upsets me vaguely. There’s a massive sale. Sixty percent off everything. I take off my coat and start sifting through the shirts. I’m sweating even more. People are looking at me as if I’ve gone insane: young Americans who are the image of snobbish normalcy. They are smiling to themselves. My torturers! Their type have taken everything from me! Starting with my compassion for the world, which is in their image . . . Whatever you want to say about the matter, the world as we know it—from Beijing to Timbuktu—is in the image of white men. Holiday your hippie ass in Bhutan all you want! Especially for you, there is little escape.
    The sweat is almost rolling off my face. I have to get out. I don’t. I keep looking. I get out. On the street I’m cursing to myself. Some homeless man looks up at me, and smiles with a smile stolen from his oppressors. I wish I could smash his face in. I go into the Duane Read on the corner. I need things from there, and it’s cool inside.
    I almost run into this crazy man while I’m muttering to myself through the cosmetics aisle. How do I know he’s crazy? The smile on his face that is at once wide-eyed and omniscient. He is smiling at a world of his making, over which in solitude he has full control. He’s Black and is wearing long dreads in a messy bun, dark velour sweatpants, a denim jacket, and paisley-patterned scarf. Beats any of these stiffs in SoHo! My self-esteem is so low, I know instinctively, like I always do with the mad, that this is the person who could save me. He’d respect my space and still manage to talk my head off, because he’d smell that I wanted to listen. He’d crack a joke about the stick up my ass, but for my benefit, and we’d bond over that. He’d give me the Talk, because he’d see I was nervous and ready—flinching like Lazarus in his grave-clothes, unsure.
    But he slips me by. He’s too fast. They almost always are. Like asteroids. He speeds by smiling to himself, and his smile could be the end of the world, if only it was curious, brave enough, logical enough . . . It’s not quite human—as though raining from a body where all is strange lightness—yet deeply cognizant of suffering. And even more so of pathos, which is deeper, sadder, more complicated than suffering . . .
    I see him again at checkout. I want to chat, but he’s too far up the line and already busy talking to the sales clerk: he’s giving him the Talk! The kid has no idea what’s going on. Put on some humor, old kid! Take the cotton out of your ears! He’s even shyer than I am: a hopeless case.
    When I get up to the counter, I ask him with a smile: “What was he telling you about?” He laughs uncomfortably. I can see he’s just trying to do his job. I say: “He looks like a character”—a meaningless statement however you look at it. Then lightly persistent: “Does he come here often?” Now all he does is give me a forced smile. I feel like a creep, asking after a crazy man . . . Then I remember it: my raincoat. That’s it! He probably thinks I’m crazy myself, or worse: a serial killer who’s after the mad.
    Or have I come across as a stiff? Put on some humor, old kid! I tumble out. I want to throw my body at a speeding cab, the one that seems lightly intent on eradicating something. But I don’t. I get lunch.