‘You must beware… of turgid speeches masking commonplace passions’—Gustave Flaubert.
He doesn’t give a flying fuck.
The breathless rattle of techno shakes the walls and floors, shakes me awake. I can hear him humming along tunelessly.
The screech of the shower comes to my attention only as it stops. I hear him moving about in the bathroom.
I hear his footsteps in the hall, the music coming closer. He raps on the door. He always does this, and it doesn’t matter how I try to pretend to be asleep, or pretend to be masturbating, or really masturbate, he just keeps knocking.
I lean out of bed and unlock the door. He comes in and pushes the pile of dirty clothes off the desk chair. He sits, turns down the music blaring from his phone.
He always comes in wearing a towel, the two edges tucked into themselves to stay up, just below his chest. Water slides down his body, drips onto the floor. I feel he does this on purpose, attempting somehow to make me feel ashamed of my pudginess, my post-sleep sweatiness, contrasting his gym-bought body with my own. I wrap the blue duvet tight around myself, unwilling to have any part of my naked body except my head on display for the world.
He sits with his body hunched. There isn’t a single roll of fat on him. Water snakes its way through the troughs in his blonde hair, falls into his eyes, splashes over his eyes like some nature scene.
I know what he’s here for, and I hate that I can’t do anything about it.
—Good night last night? I ask. He leans back, puts his hands behind his head, interlocking his fingers. His towel always seems duct-taped to him, or held by prayer, never in danger of falling off.
I usually get dressed in the bathroom, slipping into clothes damp from steam rather than risking the slip of my towel as I cross the hall.
He shakes his head, laughs. Even his teeth are perfect, an even row of Tic-Tacs. My own mouth resembles a Wild West graveyard.
—Get the ride?
I ask this because he wants me to skirt around it. The direct approach takes the wind out of his sails. Only slightly, but it’s the little victories.
—Yeah, yeah. I’m only back about an hour. Running on three hours’ sleep.
He yawns, but it seems theatrical. His face crumples, an innate ugliness swimming to the surface, and then his mouth closes. The ugliness has gone.
I tune out as much as I can while he recounts, with excruciating detail, his night out, from pre-drinks to the club to the inevitable girl’s house.
Fragments reach me. If one-and-a-half years in college has taught me anything, it’s how to zone out completely while simultaneously appearing enraptured.
He fact-checks his soliloquy, estimating to the nearest millilitre how much he drank all night, using his phone’s GPS history to check when his cadre left pre-drinks to stand in line for the nightclub, going through his online banking history and running down a list of last night’s purchases. I use these breaks in the monologue to check my phone. God, it’s only 9.30 in the morning. My first – and only – Thursday lecture doesn’t begin until 2.
Andrew wants to brag and – because our other two housemates have seminars together every morning – all he has is myself, and we’re not even friends. We take lunch breaks between lectures together, order takeaways together, chat, but the social strata between us is a clear dividing line.
I sometimes wonder at the emptiness within him. What could compel someone to shamelessly take an intimate, tender moment with another person and reduce it down to mere titillation? No pun intended.
Does this void even get temporarily filled for him, or does he leave each sexual encounter craving another?
I’m so wrapped up in my own thoughts, idly nodding and peppering his story with bland ‘oh yeah’s and ‘that’s crazy’s, that I nearly don’t notice the hesitation in him. I snap out of my reverie, get him to repeat himself.
—It was just a bit weird, he shrugs, and goes to leave. The chair creaks beneath him, the only noise in the room.
—No, no, go on, I’m interested now.
I say it in a flurry, one hand shooting out from beneath the duvet, waving him back down.
While I know Andrew, he also knows me. He knows if I want to know something, I will pester until the will to live has slowly been drained from the subject. It’s annoying, sometimes makes me feel like a child, but it gets results.
—Alright, alright, Andrew says, sitting down gently. He usually looks me right in the eye, but right now, he’s got his hands pressed together and he’s looking down at them, into them.
—It was just a bit weird, no big deal.
—What happened? My excitement is almost priapic. I don’t understand it.
—She asked me to stop. Like halfway through. I was already in and the whole lot.
The world explodes outwards like the birth of the universe. The image in my head – of this young girl, the make-up and tan and eyelashes dropping from her features to reveal a chubby, childlike face, scared, looking up at the grunting hulk above her turns everything― our dynamic, his early-morning stories, my life― on its head.
His stories, after all, are merely conduits through which he scorns my lifestyle― relatively ascetic, preferring to concentrate on art― in comparison with his: hedonistic, drug-fuelled, unsafe, generally exploitative.
He takes a sadistic delight in recounting for my virginal ears’ pleasure the breathless exultations, the kinky idiosyncrasies, and building for me a portrait of the world I can never – on account of my moral scruples – be a part of.
Not that I’d want to be. How did Proust term being devoted purely to pleasure? ‘A formless stream of water running down whatever slope it finds.’ There are far better – purer – things in life than drugs, sex, all appetite devoid of emotion.
—What did you do? I ask, once reality surges back, the tinny din of Lewis Fautzi and the smell of the room’s flatulence anchoring me.
—Well, I was already in, he shrugs.
I’m breathless, speechless.
—And she didn’t say it again, so I just kept going.
A blade of light comes through the drawn curtains, slices across him. He’s dry now. This is great, the way his face deflates like a balloon left over after a child’s birthday party.
—I’d best get ready for college, he says, standing. He holds the towel to him. Standing over me, I feel it, a wave of empathy, imagining how this nameless, faceless victim of his must have felt: intimidated, scared, unsure of how her protestations against his violent entry would be received. He goes, though he leaves the swagger he strolled in with behind.
Mark has a very antiquated notion of morality.
I’ve tried explaining it to him before, that what he calls morality is just a series of frameworks, developed through consensus, and doesn’t actually exist in the sense he believes it does.
The only real morality, I told him, comes from within, altered by individual experience. The baker and the thief who steals the loaf of bread both have their perspectives, and we cannot base morality purely on need.
We, the individual, are patchwork quilts more than tapestries. We are the morality of our parents, our religions, our cultural leanings, our governments. We are comic-book ethos, Aesop’s fables, the Ten Commandments, folk songs.
Everything is justifiable in the eye of the individual. Adultery, murder, theft, genocide, all of these things are processed in the mind of the perpetrator, justified in their hierarchy of values. Hence, as morality stems purely from the self, nothing is ‘wrong’.
Mark wasn’t happy with this. His view of morality is more arborescent whilst mine is decidedly rhizomatic.
—But he raped someone, he kept saying. He doesn’t understand. Or, rather, I think he’s being wilfully ignorant, preferring to chastise Andrew out of pure jealousy rather than admit the truth. That everything is permitted.
Further to this, if the law only exists as an artificial, social construct, who is to say what laws are ‘right’ and which are ‘wrong’? Hanging was legal in the UK as recently as ’64, though the majority of people would blanch at the notion of sending someone to death in today’s ‘enlightened’ society.
—Yeah, but this girl is out there, probably too scared of retribution to come forward.
But we don’t know that, do we? At the end of the day, the human condition is confounding in its unknowability. For all we know (I, learning of the situation through third-hand information, and Mark, clouded by envy) the rape never occurred, that the ‘stop’ Andrew heard was a manifestation of some inner-guilt, or perhaps a command from the girl to stop and allow her to get into a more comfortable position, or a myriad of things.
—All I know is, the Emperor’s clothes are off.
Mark is a virgin, though he doesn’t want anyone to know this. He confided in me during a night out early into college, before the ‘incident’ scared him off appearing in a nightclub again.
—And some girl is out there, afraid to trust men again after an experience with one bad apple.
I believe Mark is covering up his failure (socially, sexually) by denigrating Andrew’s success, the vitriol he routinely expresses towards his housemate (and, ostensibly, friend) going some way towards anesthetizing himself from the inadequacy he doubtlessly feels. It’s far easier, after all, to hate than to admit longing or envy.
—I mean, these guys just use women, tally up scores, and why? I think because they have nothing to contribute save the wealth of their sexual experience. They have sex because they have nothing to talk to a girl about.
Here, I know without him saying it explicitly, he’s referring to the self-proclaimed seshmoths of Galway, a group of people Mark is fond of denigrating purely because their way of living doesn’t match up with the societal standards he has tricked himself into following.
It would be truly interesting to see how Mark’s notions of morality would fade away if he were to be gifted the ring of Gyges.
Mark is irate, and out of breath.
—And they try to make me feel guilty, because I’m not into MDMA, and I don’t go to the bathroom every ten minutes to top myself up on cocaine.
I can practically imagine his face on the other side of the phone: red, sweat squeezing through the pores on his forehead.
—That’s what these seshmoths need, actually, a good shake-up, quench the fires of arrogance within them. Like, they’re all in on it, they’re all aware of what’s going on.
Perhaps he came from the country, a background of closed-mindedness, and expected to be hailed as some kind of literary Messiah. He needs to read Sanshirō.
—Something to make them look inward, fill the abyss within themselves, the ones they load up with sex, drugs, alcohol, buying. Though I highly doubt they’re capable of introspection. They’re purely surface-level.
The implication here, of course, being that Mark is better than those men, and thus more deserving of sexual contact.
However, at the end of the day, your right hand is someone else’s left. What Mark may believe to be his qualities and Andrew’s (and, consequently, the rest of Galway’s social stratosphere) faults may be precisely the reason women are repelled by Mark and drawn to Andrew.
—Why can’t these girls just find a nice guy, like me?
The main point of my thesis is that, if morality isn’t absolute (and it isn’t) then it’s nothing. If morality was absolute and a priori (and not contingent purely on social constructs indigenous to this or that region of the world) then there would be no such thing as second-class citizens, female genital mutilation: any number of things that we, as arbiters of the largest worldwide social code, find abhorrent.
Because there is no absolute morality, just the individual, and though it sounds solipsistic, it’s unfortunately true. There are no absolutes.
–aw him today. Coming across the concourse. Big entourage with him. I don’t know how to fee–
I hate how nothing has been done.
It’s been six weeks. Nothing. Every day, I come back from college expecting to see a squad car outside, two officers leading Andrew down the garden path, a room bare except for a mattress.
No chance. He’s gotten away with it. The swagger quickly returned, and he’s even started mentioning his latest exploits whenever we grab coffee or lunch – though, thankfully, the early-morning visits have ceased entirely.
It’s terrible, how someone can do something reprehensible and get away with it, carrying no outward signs of guilt, while I commit a minor transgression, a small faux-pas, and I end up shaking in bed for days like Raskolnikov.
A spit. A singular, drunken spit. I mean, how can you even compare spitting on someone with rape, the most heinous crime imaginable? And I feel guiltier after six-odd months than Andrew has exhibited after only six weeks.
It wasn’t even spit, to be honest. I just drank some of my vodka-and-coke and didn’t swallow, sprayed it all over her. I’ve seen far worse things occur in nightclubs and pubs: men pawing at women, slapping them as they climb the stairs.
I was drunk, too, so surely that goes some way towards absolving me. You’re a different person drunk, I know that. I wouldn’t dream of spitting on a girl – or a man – while sober. It’s inhumane, demeaning, and that self-awareness shows that I surely couldn’t have done it while in a right frame of mind.
He’s brought a girl home, which is a first. Andrew tends to go back to theirs, ostensibly because his bed is too small. I think it’s because he gets to do a stride of pride on his way home, letting all the road sweepers, milkmen, dogwalkers know he got the ride last night. Everything with him is an act.
I keep my ears peeled, listening for the slightest hint of trepidation, waiting for her moans to turn to screams.
I’m sitting up in bed, the door cracked, the noise floating down the hall towards me, my duty turning my stomach. Her yips and groans seem to mock me.
And this girl, who’s probably got some really interesting things to say, a complex inner life of her own, is squandering it all, throwing away her uniqueness just to trace the lines of Andrew’s six-pack. Demeaning herself, really, more than any glob of spit could do. Making herself a number, a statistic, when she could be enjoying unfettered respect from me.
They don’t want it, though. Not really. They desire the attention their bodies get, even it means it eclipses their mind, their heart, the soul. They look at guys like me – who want to hear what they have to say – and they react with disdain.
The world is a mess, and people like Andrew are only perpetuating it.
Nothing yet. I wonder what I’ll do if I hear anything.
Forget everything I said earlier. It’s all bullshit. Abstraction for the sake of abstraction.
I can’t believe I was so apathetic. Because that’s all it was, apathy. Isolating the individual further from others by taking away the one thing that unites us all: morality.
Who am I to denigrate it?
Laura, her name was. She’s the girl Andrew raped. I’ve been thinking about it all day. Mark is on the way over now.
Laura didn’t want to talk about it at first. She kind of hinted at it but shrugged her shoulders, shook her head, changed the subject, nodded along to the music playing in the gaff.
Then the pill I’d given her kicked in, and it all came out.
She told me the story, how she was scared to say it again.
Stop, a monosyllable that somehow became (for her) as difficult to repeat as obsequious or disestablishmentarianism.
She called it damage control. She actually used those words, as though she was talking about a falling knife she was scared to catch. Keep quiet and let it happen, he’ll be gone come morning, she reasoned.
She didn’t cry or anything, didn’t break down, but the pain was there. Real pain inflicted upon the individual by another, and it’s disgusting.
She said she wasn’t going to call the police or anything, that too much time had gone by with nothing done and she’d feel like a muckraker. I understand. Poor Laura is suffering, probably even now, due to the inequitable of the statute of limitations of the soul.
Something about her reminds me of Mark. The way she adopts a persona to avoid rocking the boat. Although in the case of Mark, I don’t mean it as a compliment, or as a sign of resilience.
Mark has put a façade of neurotic harmlessness over an essentially rotten human being. A misanthropic, envious person who delights in the misfortune of others.
I wish I could have somehow bottled the emotions Laura was feeling, confront him with the human element of his childish delight over another’s misfortune.
I don’t feel comfortable keeping his secrets anymore, lightly referring to his actions as ‘the incident’, trying to cover up the malice of the act with this coquettish innuendo: ‘the incident’.
It was one of his first nights out in Galway, also one of his last. He had been drinking heavily and hadn’t yet suffered the rejections that were to become ubiquitous for young country men newly arrived to the city.
We were out in the smoking-area. We had only just met, really, a few shared lectures before Mark dropped Philosophy for Sociology.
Mark had been swaying left to right, one hand gripping the table in the centre of the smoking-area, the other on his drink. Something happened, like a switch went off in his head, and he sauntered towards this brunette girl in the corner, who had her back to him, trying to light a cigarette against the wind. He tapped her on the shoulder.
I didn’t hear what happened, obviously, over the dance music, the remixes of ‘80s classics, I just remember seeing the girl shaking her head, Mark taking a step back, and spitting a huge, yellow glob of saliva into her face.
Against my better judgement, I’d hurried him away. A snap decision I am truly ashamed of.
Whereas I dip in and out of Galway’s social scene, going months without lifting a beer to my lips and then ending up at an after-session (like last night, for example), Mark has put a blanket ban over his nocturnal activities in this city. Because he fears the consequences of his actions.
What he did was disgusting, and I’m ashamed of my part in it. I’ve protected him, after he violated someone else’s personal space, violated their right to be.
Because of this system of opacity, there’s nothing to protect girls like Laura. Everyone turns a blind eye, and the victim sinks into this state of isolation. No one is doing anything, so she feels lost.
Well, I’m done with it, and I won’t perpetuate the cycle of silence that’s existed far too long, almost hegemonically implanted within us to act as ironic and detached towards a situation as possible.
And to return, for a moment, to the essence of moral relativism. What is the use of philosophizing in order to make excuses for reprehensible behaviour? After all, did Aristotle himself not once say: ‘I have gained this from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law’? Why devote oneself to the study of higher thought if one is unwilling, too paralysed by abstraction, to act upon one’s moral impulses?
When Mark comes over, we’re going to have a little chat. I’m doing it for Laura and all like her, the defenceless.
About The Author
John Higgins is an Irish writer. His work has appeared in Crannog, Honest Ulsterman, New Pop Lit & more. ‘On Coming to Despise a Literary Idol’ was previously shortlisted for the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award.
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