He staged a hesitation to the spry cheap labour peering out from under the cash register; “maybe we’ll eat after the coffee”. As if the waitstaff would be hovering attentively after the coffee service! I remembered this incident with singularity, his ability to upgrade any experience by projecting himself on it. His status had made him a minority in human experience. He hocked into a thick wad of serviettes sandwiched into his half-closed palm and open-handedly ejected them into the trash with a flick upwards. He navigated the protrusions in the surroundings, avoiding contact with the cheap furniture while at the same time greasing himself all over. He slid across the tiles, his white underbelly gathering crumbs and the corners of sugar packets, his green scales winking under the clinical lights. I spit my order at her, without pausing for the ceremonial prompts.
In the privacy of my fish bowl, I enjoyed ceremonies of my own creation. Recently, I had been moulding activities formerly exploited by two back into solo activities. Re-sizing my elasticated existence; snapping back after the plug had been pulled. I took care to infuse extravagance: I laid the pepper mill out on the table, I elongated my limbs across both cushions, I ironed my shirts out of self-love. I exorcised a toothbrush and a hand towel and began to diffuse throughout my space again. I plunged my spoon down, submerging it in a tidal wave of sweet milk, drew the silver up level to my lips and devoured a single loop. I swiped the splashed milk with my left cuff, rolled up the soggy sleeve and wore it until it stank.
Fish bowl glass is susceptible to being warped, depending on the climate inside. Someone steps over the rim, crouches between the streamers of algae and imposes themselves, stooping low on your creaking miniaturised furniture with their knees folded up against the table. Some encroachments are to be expected from the outset, things you were informed that you would be obligated to endure at some point in your life. Like the frailty of an ageing parent. I wasn’t sure a step-parent fell into that category, at least I felt less obligated.
People assumed I loved him? A frankly ridiculous and embarrassing assumption. Do you love the portly neighbour who installs themselves within your line of sight and rolls out his routine in parallel? I mean, he was endearingly simple and jig-sawed neatly into the carpool. But it was an implicit understanding that he was an additive. I cautiously guarded my exclusive familial traits, like my wide forehead. It was piteous, even our mother’s pekingese blended more harmoniously into the family collage having inherited her upturned snout. We continued to be very consciously related to one another; consciousness spikes when you have to knock twice in the mornings.
Once the order was put in motion, my sister’s frown ricocheted around the trolley and each jaw slackened finally realising that tangible consequences did actually follow definitive choices. Everyone suddenly became very self-aware; we were intently observing each other
observing him. Each affecting a blank benevolent expression passing for all-knowing compassion. I felt impatient for the moment to pass. I could feel my fingernails growing from my nail bed, the skin itched above the cuticle.
It irked me that he would now assume the omnipresence of someone who is irreparably absent. Wasn’t that worse? He could no longer be written out of the scene by choice. For similar reasons, I had always preferred to scorn exes and scorch the earth. Other people appeared disfigured, barnacled by undesirable ex-limpets sucking on their prime flesh. Well, at least I could relegate him to a shelf under the sink and only have him visit upon me during pleasantries with his daughters at the holidays. Or, if I was rudely reminded about fly-fishing. Suddenly, he jolted forwarded, dislodged some phlegm and slumped back for yet another few days. On that Friday, the new whites of my nails chimed against the trolley rails and dug into my balled up fists.
My sister officiated the family tragedy. “You look worn”, she ventured “has the upheaval set you off?” Her face looked reasonably well for its age, it had only started to dribble off the canvas under the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were two bright trembling yolks in greyish whites. On a warm day, however, her face was betrayed by her creamy firm limbs. It seemed to suit her that she hadn’t had any decisive input in the events. It enabled her to fully and overtly revel in the grief, as at least one of us should. Our mother had relieved herself of the obligation to return from pre-planned social trip abroad to his trolley-side on the basis that she was a country away (but on closer reflection, a 45 minutes ferry crossing). I guess, she had long since abdicated her responsibilities and, even if she was selfish, no one cared enough to call her out on it anymore. No one felt indignant enough on his behalf to have to put the obvious into words.
Our father wasn’t surprised about my sister’s success. “She would be a writer, she’s disingenuous like that.” Her confidence, appropriately peppered with humility, abounded subsequently. I admired that she had been able to strain some value out of this experience. Before, she had harboured a fear of being exposed as a fraud peddling clichéd humanism. She now acquired a depth of character, an ordeal which she could point to as evidence that she was relatable. I, for my part, couldn’t string two compassionate words together. My grocery lists dripped with disdain for my dietary requirements. She read the draft eulogy, “it’s a bit acidic”. I enjoyed the thought of licking the length of her cheek with my acid tongue and melting her flesh off its frame into a gloop.
As we weren’t a close-knit family, it was a bit uncomfortable to be privy to the inner workings of her mind in print. To the knowing reader, she was always implicitly confirming her own character and writing about herself. It was a little more bearable being that she engaged with outlandish dramas, it left some mystery as to her daily life. Sometimes, there were undeniable marked similarities. I enquired about it once. Whatever, I thought. I didn’t have to read it, it was one column in one paper. I could gorge myself on the dramas of other people laid bare to any other agony aunt, if I felt the perversion.
And I was a pervert. I wanted to see the mince inside someone’s skull — just not someone who I had to encounter on a semi-regular basis as a matter of obligation. Take that silver spoon,
plunge and scoop up their wriggling custardy warm thoughts into my mouth. I wondered, how on earth did people allow these things to happen to them? Nothing unexpected really ever happened to me, everything was more or less in contemplation. The last unexpected event that happened was flipping my car off the road on black ice a few winters ago. Still, the cause and effect of the sequence of events was comprehensible. I also, though I’m not entirely sure, heard a voice when I sunk behind the wheel whispering to me to drive faster than prudent.
If my sister was going to edit her life and regurgitate a happy fiction: I would not criticise her. She could, of course, do it more discreetly. Then again, she needed to tout her version of reality to the witnesses. If a tree falls in the woods, and all that. I turned off the tap. Stopped reading. “Do you ever get creeps like that writing to you?” Pause. She cocked her head, looking at me through one eye, “You aren’t following my column?”
I eyed the wooden wardrobes lining the outermost aisle as the service droned. Children in the pews began to manifest their parent’s agitation. I had a tap, tap, tap in my right foot that I couldn’t shake out. My perversion tingled again. What was said in there? Was it whispered or spoken aloud? “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been twenty-seven years since my last empathetic episode.” I’d practice empathy more often if it didn’t have such all consuming consequences for the host. But really, conventional empathy requires a level of imagination beyond me. And probably beyond all psychoactive drugs. There is actually only one kind of practicable empathy — accepting the unverified accounts of another as to what their fingerprint view of the world looks like from the inside of their fishbowl.
“You will have something to eat, won’t you?”, I swivelled around to theatrically yoo-hoo at the imaginary waitstaff. He paused and rested the carton cup mid-air, clearly bewildered as to what I was referring. “You don’t have to be… I appreciate you being direct, not rude”. Oh, fuck off, I thought. I had gotten very used to pretending to appreciating things. It was part of being an adult. It was being tolerant to things held in esteem by others, complimenting them for enjoying whatever they enjoyed. In order to convey true appreciation, you had to veer respectably close to exhibiting jealousy. It was polite and civilised.
This convention caused me some confusion, however. I vacuously appreciated it all, but I wasn’t sure whether I genuinely coveted any of it. Because that was also part of being an adult, coveting judiciously. You could be criticised for having sub-par jealousies. It became even more confusing still when you began to understand that people enjoyed what they had in their fishbowl out of lack of choice rather than any sort of superiority of lifestyle or taste. It then seemed even more important to be explicitly jealous of these persons to reinforce your appreciation of the things which afflicted them. A sort of extension to practicable empathy. The convention could be subverted when reversed. Like, as a means to highlight your worst features. “You’re the image of your sister!” Or, “he was a gentle old soul, lucky you had each other all these years.” You appreciate me being direct: do you want to zip up my skin and be me or highlight my immutable features?
I offered my excuses to a sympathetic chump. He put a plate of sweaty jelly in my hand. Stop touching me, I winced. When my mother first brought him home, I had found him
exhilarating. All of the privilege he had enjoyed in his life and yet, he still had some disappointing primordial ordinariness about him. Especially, his proclivity for abject abnegation. He was a sample-set for the rest of humanity: no matter how much his environment had distinguished him, he was most markedly different from me. His yellow custardy innards oozed out of his orifices like everyone else. At least, he allowed me some respite now.