The indigenous peoples of the Karipuna tribe are known throughout the Amazon Rainforest for their expertise in extracting the hallucinogenic poison from Psychoactive Toads. Milking, the process is called. So I felt particularly at ease when The Chief handed me my first sharp-shoot laced with the serum to pierce a protruding vein in my upper left forearm. It was a short, near painless prick that, initially, left me in a state of catatonic bliss. What came next however, was a wholly different experience.
I’ve always known what I wanted out of life. Or at least I thought I did, until very recently. Things aren’t so clear right now. For a lot of my friends growing up, life-trajectory was always a taboo topic, and any talk of it was sidelined for talk of girls and parties and motor aspirations. When an adult would bring it up at some congregated event, say, in the sports hall at a parent-teacher evening, or at a community cook-out, the guys would either squirm around, avoid eye contact, or instead stay entirely silent. What are you gonna do with your life? It was the one subject no one could bear speak into existence, at least not then, at peak adolescence, when there was already so much life to be lived in those eternal summers, in the desperate and temporary romances with first and final loves, in the perennial ebb and flow of gossip – the SMS engine that carried us through high school, in the barbeques, in the smoking corner, in the shedding of virginity. For the guys, this is what life was, and any talk of college or professional aspiration was an unnecessary distraction from what they knew, truly, to be the meaning of life. Not me though. If you asked a 15-year-old Robert Giraud what he wanted out of life then he’d have told you exactly the same thing as 26-year-old Robert. I wanted to be a teacher. I’m 27 now.
You see, that’s the thing about destiny, we’re all so sure we’re so consummately in control of our own respective one, that we disregard its sometimes capricious brutality. Straight A students with scholarship potential scanning and packing at Costco. Ivy League graduates and their myriad of unrequited job applications. ‘Budding NYC-based actor’ is actually synonymous for downtown cocktail bartender. To say fate doesn’t exist would be wrong. However abstract, she is a force potent and thriving and deliberate.
Those who know my story might say that I myself took destiny into my own hands, but those people would be wrong. I don’t often ruminate on these things, but I’m in a strange mood today.
CONTEXT: I spent the first 12 or so years of my life in French-speaking Quebec with my mom and dad, speaking French and attending a French school and eating French food and stuff. To say life was simpler in those days would be a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. Three weeks before my thirteenth birthday, and four before my scheduled bar mitzvah, my mom announced her blood was too warm for another winter in eastern Canada and so we all moved south, deep south to her home city of San Antonio, Texas. Dad continued his work as a pediatrician, and Mom continued her’s as secretary in the office of his surgery. It was exactly the same set-up we’d had in Canada except the weather was different and the food was different and the language was different, and in part, the people were different too. But it was all more-or-less the same though. We lived in a suburb in Alamo Heights – a carbon-copy, purpose-built suburb, and one identical to every suburb up-and-down and all throughout middle-class America. We were happy. And I made new friends relatively easy. The most difficult part I guess was the transition to using English as my primary language in school, which is funny now looking back on it seeing as I went on to teach English and speak it better than most Americans do, especially in the South.
Growing up I enjoyed all the trappings of typical middle-class life in suburbia. I was privately educated in an above average school just beyond the city’s limits, and after that went on to study literature at the University of San Antonio. That’s where I met Jan. University was great. Once I’d graduated I trained up as a teacher and eventually got a job at South San Antonio High School, marking papers and analysing Of Mice And Men with year after year of impassive teenager. Life was as all I’d ever wanted it.
I found early adulthood easy. I’d wake up everyday around 7am, fall out of bed and get up and alert myself with a splash of water to the face. I’d always had difficulty physically sitting up in bed on account of a (back problem), so when I’d actually woken up, I’d have lock my whole body dead-straight, pin-like, and literally roll out landing in feline posture on my hands and feet. So, after a cognitively remedial splash of very cold water my faculties would well be well on their way to functioning at full capacity. I’d shower, then shave (if necessary) and apply antiperspirant to the relevant areas; moisturising cream to my face and forearms. Once sufficiently prepped I’d lay out several combinations of suit pants, jackets, ties and dress shirts, psychically piecing together several compositions varying from stuffy geography teacher to ostentatious art-class assistant. I’d always land quarter of the way between the two with a grey or navy blue suit, an eggshell white or light pastel coloured shirt, completed with a patterned tie. Black brogues. Once dressed I’d venture downstairs to the kitchen and enjoy a freshly made bowl of oatmeal with sugar and a black coffee with none. The bitter to balance out the sweet. Jan and I would talk about the upcoming day and after an obligatory fives minutes of chat I’d then read the Washington Post app on my phone. I didn’t read local news and always made sure I got my current events from the North-East of the country. For obvious reasons. After all that I’d get in my car and drive to work and once there I’d greet June or May or Ophelia at the reception desk and then move on to the teacher’s lounge for my second coffee of the day. During all that I’d engage in some light chat with various members of the faculty and we’d all collectively dread the bad kids from lower income backgrounds. After that I’d catch up with Virgil on the events of the night before which usually involved a scouring of his regular subreddits. Once the first bell tolled it was time for first period, where I’d stand up in front of the class and talk for thirty minutes to a group of distantly floating teenagers – followed by another thirty of quiet reading and/or writing. After the next bell it was either back to the teacher’s lounge for more coffee, or break duty where I’d monitor the halls, the yard and the male bathrooms. Next bell and it was back to class and repeat until hometime, which for me would mean marking papers after the kids had gone until around 5pm. At the end of my work day I’d drive home, filling up on gas if necessary and grabbing the supplementary groceries Jan may have missed on her trip to the store. Then I’d get home. Jan would usually be in the living room taking some necessary respite from her equally packed day – she was a teacher too, but tutored English language online to kids and adults in Beijing or Seoul or sometimes Riyadh. We’d debrief on the events of the day and I’d mentally weigh it up against our initial expectations from our morning chat earlier on. She’d tell me about a funny gaffe one of her students had made previously and I’d have nothing to exchange from mine. I’d ask about dinner – which was usually a new innovation from the Food Network or Yumly – and with that I’d then nod and saunter off to the bookshelf for some light reading, or turn on the television for some light tv. The evening was always a lax affair with dinner followed by whatever Netflix series we were currently watching. Do teeth. And then bed. Repeat.
My days were choreographed to an habitual perfection in which the encroachments of spontaneity rarely intruded. They were neat and IKEA flat-packed, with all the parts ready for daily assembly and deconstruction. Structure. Organisation. Programme. Schema. These sacred elements are the fundamental components that hold civilised Society together. They are the rebar steel foundations of the Western world. They keep the lights on and the global economy omnipotent. They ensure wifi in Starbucks and next-day delivery from Amazon. They keep our smartphones charged and our avocados piously smashed. We all know this to be true, viscerally, irrefutably, in the depths of our collective soul. So with heads held high and chests pumped out we march on, as weekday working warriors of a higher cause.
October 15th 2016 was the 26th birthday of Janice Giraud-Parker, my wife. She’d spent weeks batting party ideas back-and-forth in a private Facebook group, debating potential events with friends she had from high school and from work and even one local student she’d tutored privately. And so of course, as is the usual way with these things, it was an orgy of indecision and shot down plans. Several failures to launch included a day-out in one of those puzzle escape rooms, a Gatsby-themed party at the speakeasy cocktail bar in central, ping-pong at a newly opened hipster-venue that serves 100 different beers and only in copper tankards, or simply drinks at the Esquire Tavern downtown. I remained decidedly out of the decision making process, which I was just fine with. I was happy with whatever we did. In the end we landed on a backyard BBQ – bring your own booze and beef-style thing – at the home of her best friend, Emma.
We got there around midday to help with the setup and after the usual hysterical birthday pleasantries at the door, Hal and I got to hanging decorations and setting up shop in the kitchen. The wives went off to the yard. When the coast was clear, Hal took me off to show me his extensive library of vintage vinyl records. He’d catalogued them first in accordance to genre and then respective to that, chronologically. He sermonized to me at great length the importance of first categorizing your record collection by genre, and only then, by release date. He said “organising by alphabet is bullshit, Bob. Only with my system do you get the temporal context of a genre’s progression. In the escalation, you can almost feel the thing breathing, you know? Growing. Incubated. Nurtured in time’s own archive. From early Sex Pistols to late Minor Threat. It’s a force within its own, you know?” I nodded in agreement. Only Hal called me Bob. I never knew why.
A couple hours passed and most of the guests had arrived. Emma captained the BBQ while Hal prepped salad and gumbo stew in the kitchen. It was his own modified recipe that he prepped at every household occasion, and was something he’d considered a specialty of his. No one at the party would go on to eat it, except me. I missed out on the hamburger round for my sacrifices.
The day went on and Janice was celebrated as minor royalty in a gala of her own making, opening presents, catching up with old friends and drinking mid-range prosecco. I stood around with beer in hand, exchanging sporadic conversation with friends-of-friends. It was something of an affair.
We were stood in a circle, six of us, trading in biographical information, us mutually uninitiated in each others lives. Pete was an IT guy from Alamo Heights “It’s just a normal nine-to-five I guess. I get up, go to work and help the office guys with their computers. I thought about developing phone software a while back. A hook-up app that connected disfigured people, be it through accident or birth defect. Tinder for amputees and uglies, that was the USP. Bottom fell out of it pretty quickly though.” Pete had a scar above his top lip, a closed cleft palate I’d noted. Everyone nodded.
“What was the problem?” Asked Rachel, a local journalist for the San Antonio Post.
“Lack of demand I guess.” We took a collective sip of beer. “What do you do?” Pete responded.
“I write for the Post. I mostly cover stuff at city hall. Only real excitement comes at a Mid-Term or a General. Then I freelance as local correspondent for NBC.” Everyone nodded.
Another voice, masculine “Hi, I’m Richard, labourer of various local construction projects in and around the San Antonio area. My people have been doing it for generations. My dad did it. His dad did it. My kid will do it. It’s in the bloodline. I work 40 hour weeks, breaking my back and sweating buckets, all to get that project finished on time. It’s gratifying work though, you know? Feels like I’m part of something bigger. When I finish my work day, there’s always that sure sense of accomplishment. I had a hand in the building of the new complex for the Edgewood Fine Arts Academy.” We all nodded.
A mild brown haired woman in muted tones who’d introduced herself as Karen made an offering to the circle “I’m joint-CEO of Nutrasip. I started it up a decade back with my college dorm buddy at Berkeley. We’d both found the idea of slaving our asses off for someone else’s dollar anathema. So we made a pact to do our own thing once we’d graduated from university. The product had kicked off before our tenure there was even up, so we dropped out together. We’ve worked like crazy ever since that day. We pour every waking hour into it. But it’s a labour of love and I make my own money.”
“I drink Nutrasip – to supplement my daily vitamin intake. It’s a great product.” We all nodded and agreed.
A face of one I was already familiar with piped up. It was Terry, the janitor at South San Antonio High School, the place of my work. “I keep the floors, hallways and bathrooms clean at one of the local high schools. Robert knows. I been doin it for all my working life. I’m 72 this year. Thought about retirement. Wouldn’t be right. What else would I do?” We all nodded.
Rachel asked “what about you, Robert?”
“I’m a teacher.”
Everyone nodded, except me.
The party went on and it was getting dark and Jan was saying goodbye to the guests, thanking them for coming, hugging and promising to see them again soon. We started with the clear up and after nearly an hour we were sat by the pool, drinking the remaining beer, holding hands and stargazing. She looked over to me, her auburn hair falling softly over those pale, bare shoulders. Her eyes, adriatic blue, glimmering through the early nighttime twilight. She said to me “It’s been six years, Robby.” When we first got together I told her I could swim around in those eyes for days, that I’d happily drown down there, my body intact and floating forever in an aquamarine nirvana. I said “It has been six years.” We held each other’s eyes, pupil in pupil, with a delicate and perfect tenacity. We held them for a few fleeting moments more before she said finally “Do you remember when we first started dating? Remember I really wanted to begin taking my acting seriously. All those auditions. All those classes.”
“I do remember.”
“It’s only been six years but it feels like an eternity since then. I didn’t even get one call back.”
“You can still do it, babe. You have the time.”
“Yeah.” She looked to the grass, green and porcupine, almost too perfect. She said “I’m only 26 and it all feels like that’s already past me, you know? It’s just like, you accumulate all these dreams and aspirations. You let them percolate, foment in the very depths of your identity. They start to become you. You begin introducing yourself as ‘Jan, the actress’, but then after a few years you’re suddenly ‘Jan, the English teacher’. You build the idea of who you are, fundamentally, around these dreams, but in the end, they betray you.”
“But not for you, right, babe? You’ve always wanted to do what you do. You’ve always wanted to teach. I can respect that.”
She squeezed my hand briefly and got up and wandered off to the lit kitchen where Emma and Hal were washing the dishes. I looked to the night sky again. All the stars were cloaked now in sparse clouds with only the faintest glimmer to be made out amongst the murk of midnight overcast. I thought back to the my conversation earlier with the friends-of-friends. That confessional circle of strangers. I thought about all of their lives, the gradations of success, in terms of what we all deem to be successful. I thought about the journalist, the CEO, the labourer, the janitor and the IT guy. The pay grades, where they grocery shopped, who their friends were, where they ate out and drank out and who they made love to. I realised then that the nuances of their lives were all so very different, but in so many ways just the same. Despite the specifics of their respective callings – the news scoops covered, the deals made, buildings built and toilets scrubbed – they were all doomed then to perpetuate the paradigms of working life until fated retirement took them. I thought about their lives a little more. Then I began to think about my own.
Friday 23rd November is always a special day in the American calendar, and its significance resonates for each and every citizen all throughout that great and free nation, America. It’s a day in which all come together in cathartic sigh, late-Fall, united in collective relief that the season of umbar leaves is nearly over. Or maybe it’s just a dry run for the coming of the fated Christmas season. I’m talking about Black Friday.
We were both stood where we usually were on the morning of that day every year – squashed up amongst a horde of febrile consumers, chanting and baying for deals. There were rumbles throughout the crowd, rumours of secret sale items to come. Some cursed the time, the ten minutes remaining was all too much. Others buzzed up-and-down in a raw excitement, frantic at the prospect of landing an Xbox One at near wholesale cost. Some remained completely still, deep in meditation. An old Irish-looking woman twisted rosary beads. I thought for a moment about the staff inside. This must be the worst day of the year for them. Five minutes remaining. They would be gathered now, each in the teams of their own respective stores. Their managers were pep-talking them, speaking of group cohesion and strategies for dealing with aggressive customers. They would close their oratories with something vague about having a great day or this is what we do this for. Deaf ears. The staff would be exchanging worried glances amongst themselves, almost hand-in-hand in a pact of mutual suicide. What was to come, was too much to bear. One minute remaining. The horde was growing even more restless. One man cracked his head up against the glass of the entrance door and continued to headbutt thereafter. Another screamed to open up already. People wanted to know what the fucking hold up was. I didn’t care. I was just there hoping to get a new set of speakers for the living room sound system, but I wasn’t really bothered if I didn’t. It was more about the tradition. “What is the hold up though?” Asked Jan as we held hands in line.
“Yeah.” I responded, as I feigned a tip-toed glance to see what was going on.
“Oh look!” someone shouted from the crowd.
A dumpy young girl, barely out of adolescence, waddled tentatively with a set of keys inside the mall and towards the doors of the main entrance. As she drew closer the mob cheered and laughed and hugged. The headbutting man stopped, smiled and then cheered also. Slowly she slotted the key into the lock and a took a long moment to pause before that fateful and final twist. One last exhale. Go.
Bodies piled on bodies and bodies flung over shelving racks and a great mass of Patagonia jackets and worn baseball caps of all colours half hanging off heads and on the floor, estranged from their true owners. Middle-aged men and women screaming, grappling over symbolic hollow boxes, empty of their intended LCD computer screen monitor, gaming console or DAB radio alarm clock. We were in the (electronics store) in the North Star Mall, and I’d given up all hope of finding a set of new speakers for my living room set up. So instead we called it off and agreed grab a bite in the food court before subjecting ourselves to deadlock traffic on the way home. The deadlock here would have to be navigated first though. We talked tactics on getting through the crowd, a route through the bloodletting of unabated consumerism.
“I could pretend to pass-out or something? Gimme your sweater, I’ll make out I’m pregnant.”
“Yeah sure. It’ll be like parting the Red Sea. People’ll do anything for a pregnant chick.”
“I’m not sure the same rules apply today, babe.” I said and looked down at her, stood half a foot shorter than me. Her eyes so wide and honest and charged with teenage adventure.
I tore off my sweater and fashioned our counterfeit child from a ball of knitted Lacoste. She hoisted it up and under her jacket and threw her arm around my left shoulder, buckled one knee and let out a loud and piercing pregnancy scream. We took a moment to observe the response. No reaction. Not even a curious turned head. It was lost somewhere, floating unchecked in the ceremonial melee. She shouted “I’m pregnant!”
“My wife is pregnant!”
Our new was announcement stark and sobering, took a moment to settle in, but then washed over the crowd like the lowest frequency of some divine ancient voice. There was a momentary gasp in the mayhem, a missed beat in the chaotic palpitations of the room. Some soon resumed their carnage but were quickly quelled again by the new and holy reverence exhibited in their peers. As Jan had predicted, the monsoon sea of shoppers began to part before Moses and his sweater-pregnant wife. We hobbled through an open crowd of awestruck faces, some beaming in deference, others with eyes wild with curious glee. “You go girl.” a woman called to our passing backs as Jan feigned Oscar-nominated contractions. Once we were through, the sea closed again and the carnage resumed like it had never stopped. Five minutes later we were eating noodles and dim sum from the Chinese Gourmet Express.
In the car after, we were caught up in the quagmire of ritual way-home traffic. Jan was chilled though, resting her head on the pane of the passenger side window and scanning her Iphone. It was a migration of inches on the ramp leading up to the freeway, which gave me time to acquire useless intelligence from my deadlocked peers. Regiments of cars soundproofed with black cardboard boxes donning silver logo decals, boxes promising full HD and surround sound and pixels ad infinitum. Children not arguing but instead lost somewhere, traveressing lithium-powered solar systems on their Samsung Galaxy smartphones. The intermittent flash of a bluetooth headset. The angel light auras of next generation tablet computers. Handheld Rosetta Stones. There was a serenity in the deadlock on the freeway, something truly communal, an old and pagan reverence to this new ritual of modernity. They didn’t sing or chant as such, but together hummed a song of silent frequencies. This was the supranational anthem of the 21st century. A symphony of ones and zeros.
I looked back to my wife. She was noiseless soprano amongst a billion others, scrolling her Instafeed and attributing arbitrary likes to friends’ sepia-filtered pictures of their own faces. “Hey” I said, looking to steal her a moment from the datastream.
“Hey” she responded, without looking back.
And that was it.
After ten minutes or so the traffic filtered away and the acolytes drove home to install new hardware into the day-to-day running of their lives. Their prizes would feel novel and precious for a week or so, but it wouldn’t last. They’d take extra care wiping down, checking for dust and scratches, calibrating and re-calibrating the settings to optimised perfection, but inevitably, the novelty would fade and the objects would be resigned to dreaded functionality only. Like new shoes you take care not scuff in those honeymoon first days. But it’s all pointless really. We punctuate our lives with the purchase of material things, all and only for those ephemeral flickers of meaning that wane moribund as the week goes on. I looked to my wife again, “Hey”