When I connect my phone to my laptop it boots iPhoto and pictures of my children appear on the screen, so I quit it as fast as I’m able. I don’t watch anything on the plane related to children or families, because it makes me cry. I start watching Warrior. It’s a terrible film. Nick Nolte’s the father of two men, one an ex-marine fallen into alcoholism and the other a physics teacher facing default on his mortgage. There’s a scene in a bank, in which the teacher tries to convince the manager to help him, but he won’t. He gives him 90 days to catch up with payments on his house or he’s going to repossess it. The teacher has two little girls. I have to stop watching.
My boys seem older than when I left. They show me tattoos on their arms and tell me what they did that day, or the day before, and I make them laugh by showing the camera my open mouth or by walking round the room with the laptop or by showing them the street outside. That’s America, I tell them, and they say yes, daddy, that’s America. Will you bring me a present? I want a car with big wheels so I can roll it.
I don’t really understand much. I have confusing meetings in which I nod my head and look serious, in which someone else always asks the right question, but not me. I see people I haven’t seen for a great deal of time, and the conversation always dries quickly. There’s looking at the floor, or the wall, or another person, and we shake hands and leave to do other things, except I do little apart from moving to the next stilted hello. There are some I’m pleased to spend time with, but few. I stare at things. When I’m standing in a lift I face forwards and I know the doors are moving and the car is rising or falling, but it’s a different part of me that knows and cares about it, the auto-me that stops me walking in front of buses and gets me through the day-to-day motions of checking in and out, paying people money and eating. The me part of me sees a mess, someone else’s reality blended to geometry and colour. The strangeness of my wakefulness is percolating into the other me, and both sides know nothing will stop the rotting of the membrane. It’s just a matter of time.
A homeless person stands on the sidewalk with his arms outstretched as I walk along with a man who’s just paid my breakfast bill. We both ate steak and eggs. The beggar smiles broadly. A super-size soda cup rattles in his hand. He says hey like the Fonz, as if doing this will make us give him some money. There is a block and some noise, and on the road behind him are moving blocks and to the left is some blue. The rattling man is behind us now, and I shake my meeting’s hand. It was good to see him. Now he’s gone.
There’s a film I’ve been meaning to see for some time. We have a little horror discussion club on Twitter and Facebook, and someone dropboxes me an AVI I manage to get down on the hotel’s free Wi-Fi instead of going to a party. I sit in my empty room and watch the film on my computer. I refresh Twitter as a couple are tortured to death in a dungeon by a man dressed in medical clothes. He straps them both to frames and masturbates them to orgasm in front of each other, starting with the woman. It doesn’t make much sense. She squirts onto his hand. When he ejaculates, he covers her midriff with semen from six feet away. Later, he nails the man’s testicles to a table and severs his penis with a kitchen knife before cutting off the woman’s nipples with a pair of scissors. In the middle of the film we get an earthquake, a 4.3. Mirrors rattle for seconds after a thump, and it feels to me as though there’s a fat person rolling a beer barrel down the hall outside my room. I don’t know what’s happened until I see people tweeting about it. The jailer kills the young man by strapping his intestines to a hook and inviting him to crawl across a floor to grab a pair of scissors so he can cut his love free. I’m looking at my own chin in the mirror as the credits roll. It wasn’t a very good film.
We have two types of blade. He knows what I want as a result of me saying I need a pack of safety. After the word safety the blurred me stops, and the rest of the action fails to transfer to motor-me. I stop talking and look at him. It's pointless trying to explain what's happened, so I don't. Gillette and something else I don’t catch. Disappointment pinches his bespectacled blue eyes and picks at the folds of his beautifully shaved skin. Gillette are sharper, he says, and I say that’s fine. I want two boxes. They come in packs of five, he says. They keep them in the cabinet behind the tills, leaving only brushes, gift boxes and tubs of lather on display in the main part of the shop. While he bends down I look over a glass cabinet full of cut-throats, from old styles to modern builds milled from single blocks. Through a door in the back of the shop is a chair spinning slowly next to a large man. A royal shave costs fifty five dollars. Here you go, says the man. He charges me thirteen dollars and I leave.
Hot link. You want more coffee? No thank you, I say. I wanted to sit at a table, but the man made me sit at the counter. The grill in front of me is staffed by two men, one doing the eggs and one cooking meat and hashbrowns. The egg man has five frying pans and can make omelettes and fried eggs as easily as he can breathe. He uses a ladle to fetch oil from a great, reused bain-marie pot at the back of the hob next to the wall. The other man uses another ladle to cover his griddle with watery oil, then picks up a plastic bag of shredded potato and tips pounds of it into the corner of the plate. Then he pours more oil on top of it and shovels it against a black metal wall at the side of the grill. He uses weights with wooden handles to press bacon and burgers into the fat. Sausages are deep-fried. Do you need the change, sir? No. I don’t.
Do you have another card? This one’s been refused. Yes, hang on. There. No, this one’s been refused as well. Can you put it through manually? No. Is there an ATM in here? There’s an ATM right there. Could you please just hold onto the bag for me for a second? Sure. He pulls away the brown paper bag containing the two toy trucks and a pair of binoculars for my daughter. I walk over to the ATM and my card works. When I return to the counter he has to scan everything again because a woman went to the same till after me to buy a banana.
Pull me to try me. The exhaust pipes on the trucks move forwards to trigger honking and engine noises. I try them both in turn, touching only the exhaust pipes and no other part of the packaging. The thought of the boys doing the same makes me happy. The excitement of the noise will last for maybe a week. In the back of each truck is a ball, presumably for loading. I'm unsure as yet as to whether or not I'll buy them, so I step aside from the shelf and stand at the intersection to two aisles. Most of the toys in the chemist are branded Disney, and I don't like that. I stand in the aisle with my arms by my side and look at some nuts. I'm not looking at anything. Lines wash up to the ceiling. I relax my hands and my lips pop open.
My name is Michael. How are you today? Michael is holding his hand out to me. I’m fine, thank you, I say, shaking it. Is there anything I can help you with today? No. I’m waiting to get on a plane and I’m bored. He doesn’t smile. Right, so you’re thinking of picking one of these up before you fly home? He gestures at the MacBook Pro. I already have one. I don’t need two. I’m just bored. Right. Well if you have any questions at all, I’m right here. Thank you, I say. That’s reassuring.
I arrive at the airport four hours early because I have nothing else to do. The town car driver tries to talk to me at first, but I’m monosyllabic and he gives up after chuckling his way through a story of how he took a day off yesterday to ride his motorbike but was thwarted by some fog. Buildings then sea, blurred by window tint. People speak French in the queue for the baggage drop-off. I buy a root beer and walk down to the gate to find an empty seating area. I sit next to a plug. Another man, an older man, sits next to me in a room of a hundred empty seats, takes out the same laptop as mine and plugs it into the same socket as me. He puts on earphones and watches a film. His presence is a white bulge on the left side of my vision, as if an albino person has forced his fist into my eye and is refusing to remove it. A woman walks down to our part of the gate area looking for a socket. Neither of us acknowledge her and she goes away again.