I met my friend from Zagreb a few days ago – fifteen years in the offing – and he didn’t hold back one second. He asked me a thousand questions off the bat – hardly let me speak – one after the other, a floodgate unto himself – Lui this, Lui that, remember bleeh, remember blah – and he laughed with his arms and feet like he used. I had to rein in my friend and remind him that I had questions too, like why he had a scar down the side of his face, why his hands looked like worn gloves, and why the glint in his eye I used to count on to lift me up was now replaced by the gloss of melancholy.
We sat in a cafe on Rienößlgasse in the fourth. The air was smoky. He motioned to a woman in the corner and said she looked like my mother on a good day – a staple joke of ours – and I punched him in the arm. Then we drank from our coffees, smoked and finally, briefly, we were both quiet.
My friend survived the war in Bosnia. By a hair. He fought for a year and lived in a cellar on his own another two. Pointing at his face – not his scar – he said he left something behind over there… in the ground. Something – pointing at the floor between his feet – he will never retrieve. And then the gloss in his eye shimmered and his voice broke.
The more I looked at him, the more I thought of Brendan doing push-ups and benches presses insistently and continually back in Amsterdam – I don’t know why, maybe I just couldn’t fathom what my friend was talking about. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought of me and where I was going at this strange and irregular speed, on this strange course, as if strapped to the back of a wild animal…
… take now: It’s 9 PM. I’m on a train to Paris. A night train. The beds are up. Across from me there’s a woman – a school teacher – grading papers. A moment ago I saw her scrawl de la merde on one of them and then erase it with the rubber on the back of her pencil. She saw I saw and turned red on the spot, pursing her lips in a way only the French know how. I gave her my bunk – the bottom bunk – which was better than hers and I smiled to let her know that it’s OK – a 100% OK – that some things are truly shit and there’s no need to apologize for that. But she didn’t get it. I wanted to pen it with my finger across the misted window – DE LA MERDE – in big fat block letters – DE LA GROSSE MERDE – then I imagined these letters carved into the nose of the Great Sphinx, etched into the Coliseum, drilled across Fifth Avenue. C’EST DE LA MERDE, a city-wide exclamation! Unavoidable and unapologetic. And when I had everyone’s attention – heads of state, congressmen, mayors, chief magistrates – and all people below them – clerks, orderlies, “underlies” – I would laid it out straight and hard: Give my friend back what he lost! NOW! Or these are the only words you will ever read until the end of time.
Then I thought of my friend laughing with his hands and feet, and I smiled from my top bunk and patted the wild animal beneath me.