Hello stranger and welcome to this secret page, I’m glad to see you here. I’d rather tell you this story over a bonfire with some whiskey and a mellow blues band playing the background but well… this is our life now, stuck to these damn phones the whole fucking day.
So let’s do something instead, take your time and whenever you feel like, here I’ll be for you to read. The medium is irrelevant after all, as long as we can share the passions, feelings and ideas that make this life worth living. So as I promised, here is my story:
To the wanderers
who don’t ask the questions
but go seek the answers.
1. THE END
There were four of us. Young, beautiful and successful individuals amongst a crowd of many. It was another grey morning in another old rooftop converted into another trendy restaurant in East London. A reservation was needed to get a table, and the location was kept “secret” and only revealed the day before to create a feeling of exclusivity, which entitled the owners to charge immoral prices for breakfast and watered-down cocktails.
“What else can we ask for?” Chris said as he squeezed a lemon over an oyster with one hand, and the thigh of his newly acquired girlfriend, Nastia, with the other. His broad smile made me raise my glass like an automaton. An empathic reflex, if you might.
“Cheers!” I said, and we all toasted.
“Life is good,” he reassured me. I nodded while sipping the tasteless Bloody Mary, pumping some fuel into my tired body to endure another Sunday brunch. The rusty metallic railing on my left separated me from a five-story drop and I wondered if the fall would be enough to kill me. It looked like it. Just a little courage and I’d paint the cobbled road below with the dirty colours I carried within. My soul, if any, would merge with the fumes of the city and the wheel would keep spinning, undisturbed.
Even on the weekend, heavy cars and vans moved their cargo in a frantic procession, with their orchestra of claxons and engines in full swing. Towers loomed above and around us as the greatest creations of our era. Mechanical temples built to worship the banks and the brands, to please the CEOs and stockholders and remind us all of the bigger faith we belonged to.
I grabbed hold of the railing, scared by the sudden desire to jump and the seamless ease of it. My girlfriend, Sophia, reached out to the bartender that passed by and asked him to take a photo of the four of us. She posed as I brought my arm over her shoulder and smiled for the camera, trying to guess who would she date after I died and how long would it take her. Once the moment was captured, I excused myself and headed for the bathroom as Nastia and Sophia agreed on a filter before uploading it to the cloud so everyone could know we had a #refreshing #brunch with #cocktails and #greatfriends who #workhardplayhard.
I ran into a skinny, bearded bartender.
“Hey, where’s the bathroom?” I asked.
“That way, buddy.” He was a hipster, with those big holes in the ears done with a rounded piercing. I wanted to rip one off and say ‘Thanks, buddy,’ as he bled out and screamed, but I didn’t. I hurried into the small cabin where people shit and do drugs, pushed my back against the tiling and slid down to the floor into a squatting position. My heart was trying to bounce out of my chest and I felt exhausted. Just relax, it will pass, you aren’t going to die in a bathroom, I thought, but sweating increased and fear took over. It doesn’t make sense; I’m all right. This is just mental. It’s all in my head, like the other times. Exhale… I covered my face with my hands and smelled the rust of the railing that was embedded in my left palm, then combed my hair back and noticed how the right corner of my blazer had absorbed the pee it was resting onto. The liquid penetrated the fabric and made its way up into the woollen maze, merging the molecules of someone else’s water and toxins with the ones of my expensive attire. It’s all stardust, in the end, I acknowledged as I rose to sit on the toilet instead.
The mere distraction gave me a window of time to think straight. I took out my phone and ordered a cab, exhaling in relief when I saw that Govinda P. had accepted my request and would come to save me in an estimated time of three minutes. I ran back to our table and threw some money at it.
“Hey, sorry, I’m going home, gotta go now.” I stuttered.
Sophia looked up. “What? What are you saying? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, you stay, it’s fine, but I really have to go. Sorry, guys.” I glanced at them, then headed for the stairs that would take me out of that dreadful place.
“Luca, wait,” I heard Sophia behind me. “Are you sick?”
“I’m so sorry, I’ll call you later,” I said over my shoulder.
I made my way past the maître d and the line of people who waited for their turn to eat, obediently standing like dominoes along the metallic staircase. My ghostly getaway, followed by the rattling of Sophia’s heels in the steps probably gave them a good topic to spice up their brunches. She tried to get hold of me, but I was taking two and even three steps at a time until I reached the ground floor and opened the gate to reveal a beautiful sight. There he was, my Pakistani knight in his shining Toyota Prius. I dived into the backseat and Sophia followed.
“Mr Luca?” the driver asked.
“Yes, Ennismore Gardens, thank you,” I said. The car joined the traffic as I sunk my head into Sophia’s belly. “I don’t know what’s happening,” I mumbled. She caressed my wet hair with her delicate fingers and her nails scraped my scalp.
“Don’t worry; you’ll be fine.” She kissed my ear in a motherly way that made me shiver. My breathing slowed down as we made our way home.
I woke up around six after a long nap. The pillows were covered in sweat. I reached for the bedside table and rolled a joint as I sat in my underwear, recapping the life decisions that had brought me there. I put on some pants and a hoodie and went to the kitchen to get a little fruit juice with a straw attached to it. Sophia was watching some TV show in the living room.
“Are you awake? How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m better. Going for a run. See you in a while, okay? I need to clear my head.”
“Okay, but don’t overwork yourself,” she said.
The main reason we were paying almost three thousand pounds a month for a one-bedroom flat, was to have Hyde Park just a few meters away, a much-needed oasis in the midst of an overpopulated junkyard. I headed out and walked eagerly towards the welcoming colours of nature. June was ending but the weather was still shit, so the park was almost empty.
The first step from the paved road onto the grass felt good, as always, marking a transition from the complex world of greys to the simple one of greens. I threw the juice in a bin, then lit up my smoke and walked into the woods, towards my trees. I had found my trees almost two years ago, in my first month in London, and since then they had become my best friends.
They were a group of three, equidistant to each other and far enough from the main roads, forming a perfect triangle in which no cars could be heard and peace could be found. They had grown in a respectful competition over the years, surpassing each other’s new branch with a higher one and even interlacing until they formed a beautiful canopy under which one could disappear for awhile. They didn’t say much, but they always gave me the answers I needed. When I arrived, I took a puff and humbled myself before their wise and solemn presence, pacing around them as I used to, making sure they were all right. Then, I called Chris on the phone and he answered straight away.
“How are you? Feeling better?” He said.
“Hey, yeah… I don’t know. Sorry about this morning, but I was feeling like shit.” I said.
“I know, Sophia told us. Don’t worry. It’s all the stress, isn’t it? I can understand.”
“Yeah… but, no,” I sighed. “I think this is more serious. It’s been going on for a while, like panic attacks.”
“Did you go to the doctor?”
“Nah, doctors won’t help. This is a mental thing. You know how I’m always so negative about everything? I think I just can’t do this anymore,” I said.
“You mean the job? You want to quit?” It was hard for a man like Chris to conceive how could someone walk away from such an easy, well-paid job.
“Yes. It’s the only way,” I replied in relief.
“Is it because you didn’t get the raise? You’ll get it soon, just wait a bit more. We all know you deserved it more than Greg, but the game is the game,” he said.
“Fuck the raise, man,” I said. “I have enough money already.”
“Yeah, but we are designed to always want more,” he replied, probably smiling.
“But more for what? This game we play is an illusion, Chris, a sugar-coated turd that we swallow every morning,” I leaned against the tree and scratched off a piece of bark to examine it, feeling its texture with my fingers. Despite all the time I had spent with these trees I still didn’t know which species they were, which made me sad since I could name thousands of brands just by their logo. I put the piece of bark in my pocket.
“I get it, you’re mad, but what are you going to do? We all have to do something anyways,” he said.
“Do we?” I asked. “Why do we have to chase the carrot? Why am I a failure if I don’t waste my life selling shit?”
Chris paused as though looking for an answer, but I dove in before he found one. “I’m 28. I should be happy. I shouldn’t be anxious and depressed about getting a fucking raise and selling more makeup to teenagers.”
“Ah, you’re angry about next week? I know the briefing isn’t the most exciting—”
“—It’s not next week, Chris. It’s every week, and you know it. If it’s not that, we are getting kids addicted to sugar or convincing some idiots to buy a new pair of sneakers with Bluetooth. Don’t you see that we are the problem? Who the fuck needs Bluetooth on a shoe?!” I was shouting, and the trees remained silent. I lit back the blunt to calm down.
“You are over exaggerating, Luca,” Chris said. “First of all, that will happen anyways. We are not those brands. And second, if we don’t do it, someone else will. You know how many people would kill to have our jobs?” I knew he was going say that. He always said that. He was a pragmatist, I was a dreamer, and this was our weekly argument to try to put some sense into each other.
“That’s not the point, man. You can’t just say, ‘hey I’m destroying the planet and creating misery, but everyone else is doing it too, so I guess it’s fine! Let’s go have cocktails!’” I was getting angry again, but Chris remained calm as he was used to being shouted at by our clients.
“We’ve talked about this many times… all we do is tell stories. Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he had a way with people. I sat in between two roots of the tree that stood out and spread my legs, tired of fighting.
“Okay, Chris, I know you got a mortgage to pay and you’ll tell yourself whatever it takes to make you sleep better and I don’t judge you for it, honestly. I wish I could do the same and be okay with all of this like everyone else seems to be. But I can’t, and it’s killing me.”
“So, what are you going to do?” he said.
“I told you, I have to quit.”
“Tomorrow seems like a good day.”
“Okay, take it easy. Have you even thought this through? What are you going to do? Give it a week at least; it will pass.”
“I have been thinking about it for a long time. I have enough savings to travel and try to be happy again. I’m just going to buy myself some time to think and relax. No rush,” I had no idea about what would I do next, but I couldn’t wait to do it.
Chris chuckled, and I knew that for that moment he dared to dream about it too. “What about Sophia? Does she know?”
“Not yet, but kind of. We both know that something is wrong and I guess we are just trying to avoid talking about it. It’s not just work, it’s also us, we don’t work either,” I didn’t want to start explaining that as well. “Anyways, see you tomorrow, I’ll let you know what’s up.”
“Wait—” he said as I hung up.
Chris was a great guy and my only real friend in London. Despite our differences, we found common ground in the simple pleasures of life: Football, PlayStation, meat and whiskey. His lack of morals allowed him to enjoy every vice without second thinking, and my lack of purpose led me to follow him into his hedonistic affairs. We also shared an ambition that got us to work together as partners in one of the best creative advertising firms in the world.
My career had begun a dozen years ago when I ran away from home in Spain and started making an income patrolling the streets with a handful of flyers to lure people into bars. Now, I lured millions of them into the gardens of the brands that paid for my lifestyle. Respected and wanted, I had been accepted into capitalism’s promised land, trained and protected by the masters of the game who had turned me into a circus lion. There was no need to hunt anymore, but neither was there a challenge. I roared when I was told to and got fed for it. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough, and it felt odd to feast on the elixirs of paradise while the earthly world was burning.
I looked around and smiled, thankful for my solitude in nature, enjoying the joint as I reassured myself that I no longer wanted to taste the cocktail of success. A drink that was topped with the foam of the rising stars and exotic, rich flavours, giving it a sweet first taste that left you thirsty for more. It was mixed with three-quarters of soda for the base, where all the mediocre fought to become one of those bubbles that floated their way up to the top, and finished with the heavy tears of the losers that sank to the bottom, giving it a bitter last note.
Some of those around me drank it with thirst, chugging it and asking for another round without even stopping to think what had been put into the making. Others knew but tried to ignore it. They sipped with measure and quietly left the cocktail on the counter before tasting that pungent bit that remained at the base, aware that all the ingredients were needed to make the cocktail of success. Glory needed misery, and many had to lose for others to win. But what if they didn’t? What if there was another recipe? That was what tormented me while I sat at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. I had the girl, the job, the status, and it wasn’t enough. I lacked the meaning in my life, if there was to be some, and to find that I had to ask myself all the uncomfortable questions. What had once been my pride was now my agony. A shaming guilt that chased me obsessively until it brought me to that point, hiding in a park from panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
I sat motionless in the grass for almost an hour, chewing on those thoughts while trying to meditate, feeling the breeze on my skin as my vitals slowed down. Meditation had been my latest discovery on a desperate search for life hacks to fix my head. I’d sit and listen to a guru from an app who guided me into a counterfeit feeling of wisdom. “The Sun is always shining in the sky even if there are clouds that block it from you. See yourself from afar and don’t judge, just acknowledge. Focus on your breath…” those were some of the palliative cues and metaphors he had for all of us, wretched souls, who just wanted to be normal again. Whether it worked or not, it was one of those activities that felt like the right thing to do to get my shit together, similar to eating a salad or waking up early in the weekend.
My mind was too agitated to find the focus that my guru was talking about, so I stood up and put him back in my pocket. I walked around one of my trees and looked upwards to its majestic top. What are we doing to you? During the lifetime of the tree, we had embarked in two world wars, exterminated millions of species and speeded up considerably on our race towards self-annihilation, yet he could do nothing but bear silent witness to it all, shaking its branches in disagreement from time to time. I decided to head back home, and just before leaving the park I received a message from Chris:
Ten reasons why you can’t leave me:
- The bathtub with the champagne in Vegas.
- Our improvisation skills at meetings.
- The MILFs from the lounge in Dubai.
- The polish girl of New York.
- The night we almost died in Moscow.
- The Lebanese adventure. Yalla yalla!
- The 200£ company paid dinners.
- The polish girl of New York again, and her friend.
- The plane we missed when we were hungover.
- And of course, Thai & Fifa Sundays. I’ll let you win next time.
I laughed and remembered with nostalgia. Summed up like that it didn’t look so bad. If they had told me when I was eighteen that this would be my life ten years later I would have cried with joy, a golden cage to spend my days in. But shallow nights of cheating and mornings full of lies couldn’t last forever.
It all built up in the inside, generating more and more pressure within the skull up to the point that I feared that one day my head would explode and splatter around all my secrets. I wanted to stop, but there was always another brand who needed a new advertising campaign and another girl who wanted to have a drink, so I did what I had been trained to and fulfilled the cravings of my self-esteem, losing my reason at the bottom of a bottle. Dionysus would walk away with the first morning light and leave me all alone with that scary stain that was creeping up my soul. A dirty, sad and ugly stain. I’d return home and shower, scrubbing myself hard, but it wouldn’t wash off, so I’d hide it under a clean shirt and masked its rancid smell with eau de toilette. Sophia knew, and I couldn’t bear facing her as she tried to believe my lies. I’d blame everything on stress and fought to fall asleep with the guilt of not making her as happy as I had promised her I would. This wasn’t an age of honour.
y body wasn’t oblivious to it either and punished me with the panic attacks. My hands shook often, I felt adrenaline rushes and shivered at random moments. Alcohol and weed helped to cover it, but, like makeup on a beaten up wife, they wouldn’t fix the problem. I had to quit my life. It was the only way and there wasn’t a single reason to keep postponing it.
The wind was howling and it was getting colder, so I rushed home. When I entered the lobby, I stopped for a moment to reassure myself. Okay, I talked the talk, now let’s walk the walk. I went into the elevator and pushed the button for the 4th floor. The elevator ride ended too soon. I needed more time to think. Didn’t I? Fuck it. Alea Iacta Est. I reached for the doorknob and introduced the key, listening to it slide through the lock until it clicked. Upon turning it there was no way back. I would walk in and put an end to a life with the woman I had thought I would marry.
2. LIKE A STONE
The door creaked open and a warm smell came to welcome me. I followed it to the kitchen where Sophia waited as a Moussaka cooked in the oven. She hadn’t heard me coming so I stood by the doorframe contemplating her beauty. The light golden brown hair rested gracefully on her back as she leant on the kitchen counter, looking through the window at the darkening sky that announced the death of another week. Her delicate arm was bent at a straight angle and held a glass of white wine. The bottle was half empty, and the ashtray was half full. A light blue top and white pyjama shorts covered a perfect figure and revealed her slim, long legs. The beauty was inherited from her mother Olga, a German ex-model, and the diligence from her father, a Swiss businessman who loved nothing but his status. Such combination had created an overly ambitious sex machine. My sex machine. I kept admiring that wonderful creature and decided that the talk could wait.
I sneaked behind her and held her waist, leaning over her back.
“How was it?” She asked with a soft broken voice as if she had been crying.
“Shhh” I kissed her long neck. She let the glass down as my lips reached for her earlobe and bit it, playing with her earring. Sophia gasped and brought her hand to the back of my head, tangling her fingers in my hair, waiting for a sign. I held her tighter with my arms and pushed my dick against her, she pulled my hair and we became animals. Our bodies loved each other to death.
I grabbed her by the neck and pulled down her pants. She was already wet and bent over to welcome me. I went in and rammed her as I pushed her head against the counter with my palm, going as hard and deep as I could. She grabbed the faucet of the sink and moaned, begging me to go harder. I pulled out and slapped her. She jumped into my arms bit my neck along the way as I carried her to the L-shaped sofa in the living room, only to let go when I threw her on the cushions. We were a great team when it came to fucking.
Our eyes met briefly for the first time as I took her shirt off and made my way down to her pussy. I ate her with lust while she kept pushing her thighs against my head and pulling my hair harder which got me furious. I broke free from the grip of her legs and slapped her face as I went inside her again. Her blue eyes lit like gas in combustion and glowed with tears as she embraced me.
“Fuck me harder” She commanded. I let go of any constraints and pumped in and out while her nails clawed my skin and turned my back into a bloody pattern. We kept going to the limit of our bodies, pouring out all our anger and frustration. Sweat, blood and tears danced off in a frenzy that our hearts strived to keep up with. Electricity shook her legs that contracted as she came. A few grunts later I poured my sperm inside her, collapsing onto her body at the edge of exhaustion and for that brief moment life was simple again. A primal bliss reigned until the brain got back its blood flow to start rationalising again. Those were the instants we lived for, where the ego was suppressed and we felt fulfilled, with our molecules vibrating on the same frequency as the music of the universe.
The moment of enlightenment shattered when Sophia pushed me aside and went to the bathroom to get rid of my little minions and shower. I wasn’t ready to burst my bubble yet so I rolled another joint, and I wasn’t ready for drama either so I looked for an easy movie to watch.
Sophia brought the Moussaka and I poured us more wine. We sat on the carpet chewing our food and stared at a predictable romantic comedy, following two silly characters and their politically correct adventures in Manhattan. I even laughed when the clumsy guy poured coffee on the new dress of the girl and awkwardly tried to clean it, doing my best to get lost in stupidity and avoid the dreaded talk that we so much postponed.
According to social media, Sophia was everything that a man could want. She had a good job in a PR firm, travelled, partied and did pilates. Her looks, smile and fluency in English, French and German opened her every door in the Western world. Too many doors for my taste. According to her psychologist, she had depression. She lived in fear of not being as perfect as she was expected to and the constant need for approval of everyone around her didn’t allow her to be free. Her life was an act of ballet and she had to perform every move with a mastered technique. Obsessed by the inquisitive eyes that scrutinised her from a never satisfied audience.
We had met at a house party in Chamonix four years ago. The Alps were my holy mountains and no matter the budget or dates I managed to pay them a visit at least once every year to worship their beauty. That time, I had gone with a friend, Marc, and through an acquaintance of his we ended up in the party of someone’s parent’s chalet, a much better plan than eating pasta and drinking beers in the tiny flat we had rented for the week.
There was a big crowd at the party, but I noticed Sophia as soon as we walked into the wooden residence. She was beautiful and she knew it, which gave her the confidence to be fun and outgoing. My friend had gone out to smoke and talk to some people he knew, so I poured myself a drink and walked around the living room appreciating the oddities of the luxury life. Sophia scanned her surroundings as well to remain in control of the situation until she spotted me. She could tell straightaway that I didn’t belong there as I was the only one who didn’t gather around the table when some dude called for everyone’s attention before opening a giant bottle of Champagne. Instead, I had walked to the other end of the room, where the head of a deer hung dead in the middle of the wall. It stared at the party with a blank expression as if failing to comprehend why the fuck its head had been turned into a decoration. I laughed of such ill fate and reached out to touch its antlers, aware that Sophia had seen me and was approaching us.
“You’re a charmer, are you guys going to make out?” she said.
“Oh, him? Nah! We are just friends, in fact, I was using him to make you jealous,” I replied.
“And why do you think you could make me jealous?”
“Because I know you find me interesting because I’m not like them,” I pointed at the group who was celebrating the milestone of drinking from an oversized bottle.
“I see. Who are you then?” She smiled.
“Your future boyfriend,” I said.
She laughed so much she almost choked. Two drinks and a shot later we locked ourselves in one of the bedrooms of the house. It was a kid’s room. I put her to bed and read her a children’s book I found that was in German, which I didn’t speak, and somehow that led to sex. Since that first time, our bodies had matched like two pieces of a puzzle and orgasm after orgasm we had built a relationship founded on the physical pleasure we gave each other, as we had nothing else in common.
I snatched back to reality and paused the shitty movie.
“Hey babe, we have to talk.”
“What do you want to talk about?” she said with a numb tone as if she had been waiting for it.
“Well, you know, us,” I said.
“What about us?”
“I’m not happy, and I’m not making you happy either.”
“So?” She said undisturbed as if that was the norm.
“So, what are we going to do about it?”
“I think you should grow up and accept it, life isn’t a fairytale Luca,” her gaze was lost in the still frame of the TV.
I knew that such a cold answer was only a mechanism to hide her insecurities, but I used it for my goal of triggering a fight. “That’s what you want then? A grey life, just doing what’s expected of you? Living afraid of what others might say? You are the one who has to grow the fuck up and lead your own life, Sophia.”
“Have you ever thought that this is the life I want? That not everyone is so deep and profound and miserable like you? You want to see yourself as someone special in a constant fight with the world, but no one cares about your fight, Luca, you are a toxic person, even my friends say it, if this is so bad go cry somewhere else and leave us alone,” she stared at me, increasing the tone with every word.
“Oh, I will, and this time it’s for real Sophia…”
“Then go away, I’m tired of this,” she stood up teary eyed and left to the room. Usually, I would run after her, apologise and tell her that everything would be okay, that I loved her and that I’d make her happy. I wasn’t in love with her but, despite my wrongdoings, she was the person I cared for the most in this world, so we would always work things out for a few days until another fight broke out and the cycle of suffering started again. Buddhists called it Samsara, for them, life is pain and upon dying you are born again to go over a new life of hardships and so on in a cycle that repeats until infinity. The only way to get out of Samsara is by sacrifice, leaving all the material things and leading a simple life of learning and compassion in search for enlightenment. I liked to picture myself as a modern Buddha, and like the prince Siddharta Gautama, I’d leave my world of riches behind and embark on a journey to kill my ego.
Yeah, that would be nice, I thought as I stared at the ceiling while I laid on the sofa. It wouldn’t be easy, but it had to be done. Sophia cried in the room. I put on my headphones and kept staring upwards, but I could still hear the notes of her broken coming from the room like a mermaid’s chant, trying to tempt me back into Samsara. I turned up the volume and closed my eyes, reassuring myself that this would all make sense someday.
* * *
I woke up on the sofa with my drool all over the pillow. Sophia had already left for work, which made the morning easier. I put on music and showered while singing to Led Zeppelin. It felt good to do what had to be done. My reflection in the mirror winked back at me. Despite my lifestyle, I was in a decent shape, as for the past few months I had begun going to the gym every now and then. I did it to reduce stress, but it was proving effective in the physical aspect too. I might be losing my mind, but at least I don’t look like shit, I thought while flexing my arms and hardening my abs. My face was taking the toll, though, as two dark circles had become companions of my blue eyes. I rehearsed the conversation I’d have with my boss, Michael, and got excited when I got to the part where I told him I was quitting.
I gelled my hair back, sprayed cologne on the neck and wrists, two puffs on each and applied some eye cream. Put on the black jeans, shiny black shoes, the Ray-Bans, the Rolex, light blue shirt and a dark blue blazer. Took the laptop, keys, phone, headphones and wallet, and closed the door of the apartment behind me, finishing another perfect execution of my morning douchebag choreography.
Soon this nonsense will be over; soon I will be free, I thought. The jungle welcomed me with the same breeze that brought me home the day before and the piercing sounds of drilling and never ending construction reminded me that the week had just begun. I took a moment to stretch and joined the grim parade of workers that marched to the tube with faces as grey as the clouds. The homeless man from the corner observed us. Wrapped in his blankets, enjoying the show with a grin, like every day. Chilling as we all bumped into each other to get to our cubicles. That fucker.
It was rush hour and a big crowd queued in the street to enter the tube station. Seeing such a gathering of people from afar would make you think that there was something extremely important going on but there wasn’t. We were just modern farmers on our morning commute to harvest more money. However, there was something fun about it, and that was the uncomfortable meeting of individualism and collectivism.
Businessmen and businesswomen from all tiers waited impatiently for the person in front of them to move a tiny step forward that would allow them to do the same and little by little, get closer to the entrance of South Kensington tube station. The city was so overpopulated that not even money could buy a faster passage through its bowels, so it was rewarding to see how both the investment banker, who wore with pride his tailor-made cashmere uniform, and the intern, who awkwardly fit into a Primark suit, had to share the same space and abide by the same rules at least for a while.
My good mood vanished as soon as I shouldered my way into the queue. We all hated each other in that tragedy we had bought into, the endless pursuit of happiness, yet we were all stuck in it together. It always reminded me of those scenes from Titanic where all the desperate people squeezed their way through the corridors trying to make it out of the sinking ship. I could smell the fragrance on the woman in front of me and the sweat of the person behind me, a large fat man with a briefcase. As we descended the stairs, the fat man pushed me with his stomach and I tilted towards the row on my left, that of those who stoically tried to go upstairs against the current of suits and ties that was falling upon them. I looked over my shoulder and cursed but the fat man was at the same time being pushed by many others, resistance was futile.
I played “Porcelain” by Moby in my headphones, closed my eyes, and like a rape victim who pretends to be somewhere else, I let it happen. I glided through narrow corridors and steep staircases carried by the big man’s stomach and his followers, glancing at the commercial posters that used every available space to convince us of something as we passed by.
“Eat more chocolate snacks; you deserve it!”
“Take your girl to a horse race and feel important!”
“Be smart, give us your savings!”
And finally made it to the platform where many others waited already. The sign marked one minute for the next train to arrive. Sixty seconds in which, once again, all it took was a small effort to die and get over with it. One step forward with the right timing and my innards would ruin everyone’s clothes. However, I decided I wouldn’t die that day, in fact, I would outlive all of those morons.
The train arrived already full. Three people got out and a dozen of us pushed ourselves into the car. The doors closed and almost beheaded an old man who knew exactly until which centimetre he could unbend his neck to enjoy the luxury of having some more space to breathe. I was taller than average, so I could breathe too, but I noticed a short Indian guy next to me who was having a hard time. His hazel eyes looked above for mercy, walled by black and grey shoulders. He looked like a good guy. I pretended to fall and pushed the man in front of him, which gave him a bit more space, then politely apologized and rejoiced on my good deed.
No one talked during the ride. Each person had a task, and, like tiny cells who were part of a much bigger organism, we all travelled across its veins in capsules, stopping by at our designated organs where we performed our required duties, then travelled back to rest for the night and woke up to do it all over again, spending our lives to keep the monster alive. If there was to be a future, it’d see our history as a crime.
I looked around, thinking about how many of the travellers shared the same thoughts with me and took off my sunglasses to seek for complicity, trying to spot a companion who would approve of my cynical observations, but everyone in that crowd wanted to be alone and looked away whenever their eyes met someone else’s.
I peeked over the shoulder of the man to my left. Suited, in his 50’s, bald, married, nice watch. He seemed okay with things as they were and played a game on his phone to get his morning dose of Soma. The game consisted of doing lines of candy. Whenever he matched a few by colour with the swipes of his index finger, these would explode. Every now and then a big word appeared on the screen saying things like “Delicious!”, “Sweet!”, and similar puns that rewarded the man for his clever strategy lining up the digital candy.
Evolution had brought us to that, with adults wanting to be kids and kids wanting to be adults. It wasn’t for me to decide if he was stupid or a genius, but if nihilists were right, it made sense to indulge one’s self with every pleasure and instant reward to enjoy the ride at least. Maybe it was a matter of age, and he had just given up after having had his dreams and ideas crushed at an earlier age, or maybe he was just normal and I was the one with a mental problem. Whatever it was, I knew I didn’t want to become him. I didn’t want to be a slave in a uniform, commuting every morning covered in sweat with elbows piercing against my ageing flesh, trying to keep myself busy at every moment so as not to have an instant to think and realise how shit my life was until I was on my deathbed. I wanted freedom and I would risk all that I had achieved to get it.
The recorded voice announced my stop, Leicester Square. I squeezed myself out of the wagon and rushed outside to take a deep breath. I’m doing it; I’ll step out of the easy paved way and wander the less travelled roads of life, I got excited. The air from the street that filled my lungs felt even refreshing despite the high levels of pollution. I took a detour on my walk to the office and went through Chinatown where I hadn’t been in a while. I needed a few more minutes to put together my thoughts. I couldn’t wait to have the talk with my boss and quit, but like the day before with Sophia, I felt that knot in my stomach. Am I really doing this? The excitement decreased the closer I got to the office and I finally stopped and sat down against a wall.
The street was buzzing with life. Some men unloaded heavy crates from a truck, a woman handed coupons to uninterested people, a courier zig-zagged the traffic with his bike to deliver some food… Chris is right, my job is not so bad after all… maybe if I relocate and get out of this shithole, would that be enough?After all, who was I without the career that had taken me so many years to build? I bought some gyozas from a stand and went to the office without having a clue on what to do.
The old red brick facade of the building was misleading. Inside it, the minimalist combination of steel, polished white surfaces and glass made it feel as if you had just walked into a spaceship or a bathroom from the future. The term we used to describe it to our clients was “Laboratory of ideas,” and our formula was simple: Cultural trend + Bullshit + Brand name = Creative solution. I cleared security and walked in late as usual and said good morning to Agnia, the receptionist, who looked at me with bitter silence as I passed, arching her left eyebrow in disapproval. No gyoza for you then, bitch, I thought as I smiled at her.
The masterpiece at the lobby was a stark shelf that stood out from the blank walls and displayed all the industry awards that recognised our excellence in advertising and creativity. A bunch of scrap metals coated in fake gold which served as our credentials and valuated us against the other firms, helping us catch the big fish in the industry.
Advertising people were not like bankers, for example, and wouldn’t admit being driven by greed and pride, instead, they liked to see themselves as thinkers and artists whose destiny was to enlighten the world with their vision. There was even a role called art director. An art director was neither an artist nor a director but someone in charge of making ads less ugly, using the right colours, compositions and typographies to make a shoe look nice in a banner. It wasn’t a pleasant task, so they compensated that with a fine job title that made them think they were in charge of something, art fucking director, because advertising was all about feeding the ego.
So that was what all of the awards in the shelf were for as well. Trophies that tried to glorify a rotting profession and give us something to be proud of. It wasn’t even a serious thing as no one in the world besides advertising people knew about those awards, but thousands of them were given every year to congratulate the best commercials around the world and give everyone a taste of glory, so that we kept competing for more in a pointless race.
If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, most of the ads that won these awards were created just for the competitions and didn’t even run as the real ads that people were exposed to on their day to day bombardments. In other words, you had agencies from all around the world making fake ads to compete on who was more creative at making fake ads that mostly sold unnecessary stuff. Because if a product was as useful as we used to claim it was, it wouldn’t need that much advertising in the first place.
Such love for attention had turned the award shows into money making festivals that lasted for days, where all the industry leaders would meet and boast together about their important role in changing the world through the magic power of advertising. This artificial feeling of status and success created an attractive atmosphere that had lured in all the misfits like me. The failed writers and frustrated painters, the misunderstood philosophers and the business people who tried to be hip… We all found a place in the advertising industry, which gave us a second chance to prove ourselves worthy.
It was an easy deal; they’d shower us with money in exchange for us to create consumer needs. Most of my coworkers felt no shame in it and truly believed that they weren’t part of the problem. Some even were social justice warriors who liked to save the world every now and then, by tweeting from their cocktail bar stools. “Are the oceans getting polluted? We must do something about this! #Savetheoceans #Takeaction”, “Did I just hear that Indonesian workers are being exploited by the rich countries? No fucking way! #WeareIndonesia #Savethechildren.” Their peers would comment and congratulate each other for being so aware and morally conscious and then they all got back to work on the new product that needed to be sold.
We worked long hours, sometimes even weekends, and did all it took to launch each advertising campaign. And all of that work, all those meetings and emails and hours spent had just one single mission which was to increase inequality in the world, making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer, serving the 1% of the 1%. Because the bigger a brand was, the better it was for our paychecks and the more budget we’d have to create the commercials that would show off our creativity. Hence why, everyone wanted to work for the sports brands that built their apparel in sweatshops in Asia, the trashy fast food chains that turned people into monstrous blobs of fat, the unhealthy beverages that filled our veins with sugar, the petrol cars that offered old men a getaway to the nature while expelling more Carbon monoxide to the atmosphere… and all of those other unique and amazing products.
We created the need and demand for these things, saying what was cool and what not, and shortening their life cycle in a race for obsolescence. When we launched a campaign advertising new “things”, the previous “things” became forgotten and died. They died but their artificial carcasses laid there to remind those who cared that this wasn’t the way. We didn’t want to be reminded, so we threw them away. Some “things” were given a funeral, piled in bags with their brothers and sisters and thrown into dumpsters where they were cremated. We hoped to cleanse our sins with fire, but their souls rose to the skies and darkened them with pollution. Other “things”, were just thrown away at any given spot and added a touch of decay to our landscapes.
One of these carcasses had been sailing the sea for months, and not even the fiercest storms nor the unforgiving rays of the sun had managed to destroy it, until one day the tides washed it ashore on a beautiful beach in Bali, together with a cluster of garbage. I was there on vacation and had gone for a swim. When I went back to the towels where Sophia suntanned I saw the pile of trash and recognised the carcass straight away, it was a green can. I picked it up from the sand and turned it to find in horror that the slogan on its surface could still be read. “Splash your thirst,” it said. The three words I had written for that brand a couple of years ago.
Every time I saw those trophies in the lobby I remembered that hideous green can, so you could say that my mornings weren’t very cheerful. I went to my desk to find that my team was gone and only one of the new interns remained, a scrawny looking guy with a queer voice.
“Hey, where’s everyone?” I asked.
“They’re in the meeting room, for the Lipstick briefing”, he said without removing his eyes from the three screens that surrounded him.
“And the others?”
“They went to the Innovation Forum,” he replied.
Poor guy. He would be staring at those screens for the next three months while everyone else went to shitty conferences and got drunk. Crunching numbers ten hours a day, looking for obvious patterns in consumer behavior, only to get a pat on the back and a couple of sentences to add to his CV. I felt bad.
“Oh shit, true, I forgot about the forum. Want some?” I handed him the gyozas.
“Do they have meat?” He said.
“Well, if you can call this meat I guess they do, it’s probably cat.”
“Thanks, I’m vegetarian.”
I bent my arm back in disappointment and went to the meeting room. Chris was there, together with a planner and an account manager. Meetings with such variety of profiles always led to nowhere. He was presenting some slides as I sat down.
“Good morning sunshine,” he gave me a complicit smile.
“Hello people, I got Chinese stuff,” I replied.
“Good job!” My teammates celebrated and the meeting went on as they enjoyed the treat.
“All right, let’s do this! Adnovation workshop for Lipstick Glossy Super Shine,” Chris exclaimed, faking some enthusiasm.
Our boss, Michael, had coined the term “Adnovation” in a boast of creativity by mixing the words advertising and innovation. To go along with that, Chris’s role was called Data Scientist and mine was Creative Catalyst. As stupid as it sounded, it worked and made people think we knew something they didn’t. In reality, Chris made up pie charts and graphs with numbers that defined our target audience, and I stole ideas that brands had done in other countries and presented them as our creative solutions. To wrap things up, the account managers brought in the smile and the handshake and the planners, well, I never really knew what planners did but they all had a tablet.
We spent the next hour discussing the meaning of makeup for millennials and ended up watching videos of an internet dude who ate lipstick to entertain his audience. The gyozas were doing some damage so I excused myself and went to take a shit. I liked to hide in the bathroom and wait for days to be gone faster. The following week, we would go to the client’s office to conduct the Adnovation workshop and present the strategy to make the Lipstick Glossy Super Shine irresistible for the younger demographic. Chris and I called these presentations “The monkey dance.”
It always went the same way. First, he would present some data to sound scientific, 90% was obvious stuff and fill up material, marketing jargon he had to talk about over and over with credible excitement. We would rant about the fantastic opportunity we had to do something groundbreaking with such an innovative product that would be a game changer for the industry and in this case, revolutionise the makeup world and make girls feel more confident and genuine and bla bla bla. Then, we would explain them the problem they knew they had but using different words and going slowly over each point. This made them feel we understood them. Every now and then he liked to shout out some buzzwords: “Programmatic!”, “Machine learning!”, “The Internet of things!”, “The next Billion Users!”, which woke them up to take some notes in fear of missing out on the latest new thing. After the lesson, we would come up with a solution to the problem all together in a brainstorming session. In these sessions, we wrote lots of post-it notes with ideas and praised the clients on how good their ideas were, like when a kid makes a shitty drawing and parents have to put it in the fridge and pretend to like it. In the end, through some group dynamics, we would push our ideas making them think they were theirs and we all agreed on a new creative campaign to sell more Lipstick Glossy Super Shine so that more kids could look like little whores and everyone in that room could put some more money in their pockets. We packed our stuff, smiled politely and went home with the bittersweet feeling of being well-paid prostitutes.
The prospect of having to do another monkey dance gave me the chills and reminded me why I had to quit. I wiped my ass and went out to look for Michael. If things went as planned, it would be my last gig. I didn’t find him in his office so I went to ask Agnia at the reception.
“Hey, do you know where’s Michael? I haven’t seen him today.”
“He’s in Dublin; he will be back tomorrow, what do you want?”
She replied in her condescending tone.
“I want to talk to him.”
“Well, he is in Dublin.”
“Yes, I know that, thanks.”
“Okay, bye then.”
Fucking bitch. She was a bitter, lonely woman in her forties who hated me since the very beginning and generally anyone who was younger than her. No kids, no boyfriend, not even a cat, just a poor bonsai that lived by her desk unable to escape. Her despise for humans was in contradiction with her passion for knowing all of our affairs. She knew every gossip and such knowledge gave her an illusion of power which her position as a receptionist didn’t. Ironically, the biggest gossip in the office had her as the protagonist, and it was the reason she hated us all, because we knew.
A few years ago she had had a relationship with an account manager from the firm. The guy was an arrogant jock who came from a wealthy family and a good university whilst she had humble origins and had fought for every chance. She wasn’t in love with the man, but with the prospect of stepping up in the social ladder. Conveniently for both, they got engaged and had just moved in together. One Friday, she was flying to Tallinn to visit her brothers during a bank holiday and on the way to Heathrow airport she realized she had left her passport at their apartment. She came back in a rush, opened the door and found a hard to describe situation. Her husband-to-be, a chubby and pale wobbly figure, laid naked in their expensive sofa, legs spread up with hands behind his knees and his belly button pointing at the stars, offering his asshole to a darker, younger and stronger man who kneeled down and worked on it with his tongue.
They didn’t notice Agnia coming in so she stared at the scene for a few seconds, with her footsteps cloaked by the techno music that played loudly. Coldblooded, she walked to the room and took the passport, then walked back out only to throw one last glance at the bizarre scene to reassure that it was actually happening. Her fiancée noticed her this time. The skin of his face wrinkled in panic and his little eyes trembled behind the lenses of his glasses, which were covered with fog due to the heat of the moment. He let go of the grip on his legs, which fell on the back of his man-friend with a thump and tried to sit up, but before he could begin explaining, Agnia was already gone with the slam of the door. When she returned to London a few days after it was him who had disappeared. He never went back to the office and rumour was he had moved to Istanbul with his lover. I had never met the guy but we had a framed photo of him in the room where we used to brainstorm. We called him Mr Clean.
As sad as the story was for Agnia, and hilarious for everyone else, it wasn’t a reason to hate us for the rest of her life. I wouldn’t miss her. Back at my desk, I messaged Michael.
“When can we talk? It’s important,” I said, and his reply followed straight away.
“Work important or life important?” He knew me too well.
“Dinner tomorrow, 8 pm at the Harpo.” The Harpo was a private club in Soho where he liked to take us on special occasions.
That was it, one more day and I’d be free. I couldn’t back off from my decision so I spent the day ignoring Chris as he was the only one capable of talking me out of it. I put on my headphones to look busy, read the sports news and engaged in a time wasting marathon for the following hours, the highlight of it being the YouTube channel of a man who built stuff using only his hands and resources he found in nature. First, he built a pretty decent hut with just mud and some branches, then a bow and arrows to hunt, a furnace to heat up materials, some baskets and cups… It was enviable to watch a craftsman being able to create all of this in an age where most of us wouldn’t survive more than a couple of days if left alone in a forest.
Afterwards, I searched for survival tips and scanned through a few survival books but didn’t buy them, then read some articles on Wikipedia about the stone age and ended up scrolling through the biography of Nicola Tesla, feeling bad about the fact that I had never invented anything. The day was almost over and I went home earlier to avoid rush hour.
Sophia hadn’t arrived yet when I got to the flat. I made myself a tuna sandwich and went to the living room to play some video games. When I heard her arrive it was already dark, and I was in the middle of a fight with a big boss that had already killed me five times. It was a monstrous demon tree with long arms and legs that had some egg-shaped tumours sprouting from them. I had to approach him with my knight and dodge his attacks, then slash those eggs with my sword until they exploded to kill him. If this wasn’t hard enough, a legion of zombies chased me while the fight was going on.
“So, you are not going to talk to me?” She leant on the doorframe, visibly drunk, probably after a session of bitching and counselling with her friends.
“What?” I said.
“Is this how you solve problems? Ignoring me the whole day and playing video games?”
“What the fuck! You haven’t talked to me either, you can go get drunk and come back whenever you want and I don’t say shit, but I can’t play a game? We have to talk when you decide?” I almost had the demon tree; his health bar was two-thirds down, I had killed most of the zombies and still had two potions.
“Oh so now I can’t go out with my friends? Who are you to tell me what I can do?”
“What? Do what you want! I don’t care where you go! I’m not saying anything!”
“Oh really? Is that what you want? You want me to do whatever I want? Fine!”
“What do you want me to say?” I yelled, annoyed by the lack of sense.
“Nothing! Don’t even pause your stupid game, because it’s more important than me!”
“One second!” The tree kicked me with his massive leg and almost killed me, but I took a potion. There was just one more tumorous egg to slash and he’d be dead. It sprouted from his back; I had to dodge his attack then roll and go behind him and boom. I was about to do it when something hit my face.
“What the fuck!” I yelled at Sophia while bringing a hand to my eye that wept from the impact. Meanwhile, the monstrous tree smashed my knight with both fists together and killed him. “Fuck you!” I said, grabbing the shoe she had thrown at me.
“No, Fuck you, Luca!”
That night, I camped in the sofa again, and after a few more tries I killed the demon tree and got a better sword. When I woke up Sophia was gone and I decided to work from home since I didn’t have much to do that day. Just a video call with a client and then wait until the dinner with Michael. Working from home was easy, all you had to do was send a couple of emails throughout the day to your team so that it looked like you were working. I would always send an email in the morning, replying to an existing email thread about a project, saying something like “Great job #nameoftheperson, amazing contribution, I really like what you did there!” And another one, later on, sharing some interesting piece of news to inspire people. I’d write it in the morning too but scheduled it to be sent at 6 pm, closing the day like a pro.
Everyone else in my office did the same; it was just part of the game we played, bullshitters bullshitting bullshitters. I wrote the emails with a smile, feeling that they were the last ones of that sort, then put on a jacket over my bare chest and went outside in my pyjama pants to the Lebanese place down the street to get my lamb wrap with lemon, the breakfast of champions. The streets were full of people who walked worriless. I was working from home but what were they doing? Why didn’t they work? I couldn’t wait to be them. I got my fix of suspicious meat and awesomeness, bought some beers in the supermarket and headed back up to my meeting.
I gelled my hair and put on a shirt, then took the laptop to the living room. I chugged half of the beer, left my wrap on the table and opened the video call that had just started. The farce looked great on the webcam’s frame. Slick hair, nice shirt, plain white walls, good lighting. Same as with the emails, in meetings you only had to make an effect at the beginning and the end since no one cared about the actual content, so I began by making a good point and a joke that made the client chuckle and handed the call to my colleague, then switched off my webcam and muted my microphone. I still was listening, but now I could eat my wrap and roll a joint. To make the filters I always used business cards, it was my little gesture of rebellion, tearing them up by the part where the name was. That morning, I was going to smoke Paul Adams, Business Development Director of a Telecom company.
very now and then, I would unmute the microphone while someone was talking and said things like “Aham”, “Yeah”, “Alright”, “That makes a lot of sense”, and then went back to eating. As expected, no progress was made and after an hour the meeting ended with the agreement to follow up with another meeting. I closed the laptop and finished smoking Paul Adams.
When I managed to get up from the sofa again, I surveyed the flat and began making an inventory of my belongings, checking what was truly essential and what not, as I had accumulated lots of shit during the last years. The worst were the clothes I barely wore, the gadgets that had become obsolete within months and a pair of rollerblades I had used only once. I wanted to travel and be mobile so I’d have to fit my life in a suitcase. All I needed were some basic clothes for every occasion and the notebooks I had filled in with my thoughts and short stories. Everything else was disposable. I’d bring the rest of the clothes to charity and sell the electronics in some second-hand website.
The only thing I didn’t know what to do with was my precious collection of books of more than sixty titles that I had acquired and dragged from country to country. I browsed through some of my favourites, sliding my finger across their spines as I remembered their essence. There were the voices of discomfort from Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Rimbaud and Hunter S. Thompson, who had shaped my personality in my early years. The sensitive works of Baudelaire, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Bukowski and Jose Leon Sanchez, who had shown me to find the beauty in everything. The tales of Jose Saramago, George R.R. Martin, Chekhov and James Hilton who made me devour every page and keep asking for more. And finally, the teachings of Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Lobsang Rampa and Dostoevski, who made me look into myself and question what kind of person I was and what kind of person did I want to become. It’d be tough to get rid of them.
I wanted to clear my head before my encounter with Michael so I went for a walk to Hyde Park. I was concerned about disappointing him as I held him in great esteem. Same with Sophia, I didn’t want to hurt her but I wanted the best for her and that meant disappearing from her life. On my end, I already knew who I wanted to see after London.
3. AUTO PILOT
It was 19:48 pm when I arrived. While every other restaurant in the street had neon signs and all sorts of claims to bring people in, the Harpo had a dark grey facade and kept the windows shut and covered with blinds, trying to remain a well-kept secret. I walked through the small door and gave Michael’s name to the hostess, who escorted me to the bar. The place was unique, a safe haven for the arts & media people, born in response and against the classic gentlemen’s clubs where businessmen and lawyers smoked cigars and let out their evil laughter. I asked for an Old Fashioned and noticed how my right hand was shaking. The barman fixed my drink under the orange glow of the bar and the jazz music set the mood. Once he handed me the glass, I took a big sip and decided that that night would mark the beginning of my healing process.
The Harpo was the second oasis I had found in London after my sacred trees in the park, with the difference that I could only go with Michael as I wasn’t a member. Paying a yearly fee of 12.000£ just to be able to enter into a place ensured that the people inside knew how to behave. Celebrities walked around undisturbed, phones were not allowed, and everything flowed with a delicate tranquility that I tried to absorb. I was looking at one of the paintings that decorated the walls when Michael surprised me.
“Here you are, lad,” he tapped me on the shoulder and smiled. He was a broad-shouldered, tall Irishman who had come from Dublin in the early 80’s to pursue a career in advertising. He hadn’t done badly at all, having founded a couple of agencies that he afterwards sold to bigger firms during the 90’s, the golden age of capitalism. He blamed the luck of the Irish for his good life, but I blamed it on his persistence and good judgment. He was the managing director of our current firm, and I didn’t understand why he kept working with all the money he had.
“Hello, sir! How was the trip?”
“Ah not too bad, but I’m starving, shall we?” He replied in a humorous tone, his Irish accent had persisted through the years. I took my drink and the maître d escorted us to our table, Michael asked her for a beer.
“So, how’s the week going?” He said.
“All good, busy now with the Lipstick stuff you know, nothing thrilling, what were you up to in Dublin?”
“Ah, family matters, I was visiting my cousins and the distillery.”
“They have a distillery?”
“We do!” He said, excited.
“Oh, you never told me! I thought you had cattle over there, wow, are you doing whiskey?”
“Yes, my friend, single pot still, triple distilled Irish Whiskey,” he remarked.
“That’s amazing! Why didn’t you tell?”
“Oh well, it’s been years in the making, but now we are close to releasing our first batch, it’s a nice surprise, isn’t it? I didn’t want to tell before it happened.” His eyes sparkled with pride.
“That is truly remarkable. Already thinking about the slogan for it? Good things come to those who wait. Or anything of that sort?”
“Ah, to hell with advertising,” he laughed.
“Cheers to that,” I said and we raised our glasses. “What do you want? Whiskey?” I asked him as I signed the waiter to come.
“Enough of that, I’d rather do wine, is red good?” He said.
“But don’t worry, soon you will try it, I think it will be a nice Christmas present.” We had a tradition gifting each other whiskey bottles when we had something to celebrate.
“I hope you ship overseas, then,” I said with a nervous smile.
“Oh God, here we go… what is it, boy?”
“Can we order first?”
“Yes.” We both went for the sirloin steak and got a shrimp cocktail and tuna tartare for starters. I closed the menu and slid my finger across the rim of the glass, then looked at Michael in the eyes. Goodbye career.
“Okay, so I think I’m quitting.” The weight fell off my shoulders as the words came out.
“You think, or you are?” He said, unimpressed.
“I am, I think. No, I am, I am” I stuttered. He stared at me in silence, trying to analyse me as in a poker game and call my bluff.
“This is about the raise, right? You want to twist my arm?” He finally said.
“Not at all, it’s true that if I had gotten it, I probably wouldn’t have questioned things for a little longer, so I’m happy I didn’t get it, this is about something else,” I explained.
“Oh well, that’s good, I was worried you would be like all those other greedy cunts,” he laughed.
“Well, that’s the thing Michael, I’m trying to avoid becoming one of those.” I began explaining my existential crisis and concerns about our bad impact in the world, to which he nodded with paternal comprehension, giving me a feeling of warmth and understanding. I even opened myself and told him about the shaking and panic attacks.
“Alright, let me cut you here because I totally understand you.” “You do?”
“Things were different when I was your age, you know? When I arrived here the world was booming, everything was progress and money was growing on trees, you just had to go and take it, it was that easy. It wasn’t that easy back in Dublin but what I mean is, if you had some initiative and worked hard you could do really well. But I agree with you; we didn’t know what we were doing. There was no contamination, or global warming or overpopulation you know? It was all about business and business and making more money, and that was fine, it was good to be ambitious,” he explained.
“So why do you still do it?”
“Well I’m not a teenager like you, this has been my life for the past forty years. The truth is, I wanted to quit a few times, but they kept offering me more money. I have a family and as you might have noticed this city is fucking expensive. But as I said, I understand you; I had a burnout around your age too”.
“Really? What happened?”
“Didn’t I tell you this one already? I worked in a newspaper for a few years, covering stories, writing articles and that sort and oh god did I hate it. The editorial line of the paper mattered more than the truth and we all had to abide by it. I was sick of it and considered myself a fraud for lying to our readers… Anyways, things boiled to the point that one morning I told my editor to go fuck himself and walked out.” He had a fun way of telling stories.
“What happened?” I laughed.
“Nothing big, he was just making me change an article I had written like many other times, but that day I was just pissed. Anyways, what I really wanted to do was become a movie director, so I took my savings and bought a camera. It was a Bosch KCK 40, the video quality was worse than that of the phone in your pocket, but back then it was top notch, trust me. I took it, packed a bag and came to London.”
“Well, I didn’t reach stardom as you can see, I hung out with some artists and we shot a movie, it was good craic but the movie was shit.”
“I’d love to see it,” I laughed.
“Oh that you never will my friend, it’s deep down in the Irish Sea,” he said while dipping a shrimp in the pink sauce.
“Come on; it can’t be that bad, I’ve seen some of your old commercials, they were good.”
“No, I’m not shitting you, it really is down in the sea, I threw the tape one night from the ferry, I was quite drunk I must say,” he reclined back in the chair with nostalgia. I pictured him as a twenty-something-year-old with his long golden hair, full of hopes and dreams and felt more respect towards him.
“Alright then, so you failed at being the Irish Ford Coppola…” I continued, hungry for more.
“Exactly, well my biggest inspiration was Kubrick back then, but I ended up filming boxes of cereal instead,” he chuckled.
“So you have known this is a farce all along.”
“And who doesn’t? You thought you were the only mastermind to figure things out? It’s just a job, get over with it, oh here comes the meat, finally! Isn’t it marvellous?” He said and the meat melt under the light touch of his knife. I’d miss these meals.
“Yeah it’s great, but back to my point, I don’t know. I see all these people in the office that just love it, you know? We launch a new advertising campaign and they go celebrate, they get excited about the meetings and see it as an achievement when we make a digital experience to sell pizzas. Who cares about that so much?”
“Well, who are those people? Think about it, for example; there’s Laura, Candice, Greg and mmm… this guy, Jacek. What else can they do? They stay at work until night because they have nothing else to do, there is no one waiting for them to come home, this is their life, so they better enjoy it. They’re miserable, but let the bloody cunts be miserable!” He laughed.
“I see your point.”
“What matters is the people around you, your family and friends. Work is just a way of providing, but you are young and have time to figure things out.” He made a pause. We emptied our glasses and stared at each other in silence, he saw himself in me and I wanted to see myself in him, the concept of family was something I only had known through movies and advertising but my dream was to form one someday and give my kids what I didn’t have. Finally, he asked with a solemn voice.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I want to travel, I’d like to backpack for a while in Asia, but first I want to visit some friends in Europe and say goodbye to this beautiful continent, and then I don’t know, but I want to do something meaningful and good for the world, that’s for sure”.
“And the money?”
“Well, I have been saving all these years, I’ll have to stop going to fancy restaurants like this, but I’ll be alright.” I excused myself and went to the loo as he sat there figuring me out. When I got to the toilet the door opened and Matt Bellamy came out, I stepped back to let him pass and took a moment to realise it was him, then took a piss and washed my hands. Back at the table, the glasses had been refilled and Michael remained lost in his thoughts.
“I love this place, I just saw Matt Bellamy,” I said.
“The singer and guitar player from Muse!”
“Well it’s like Bono but from now.”
“Alright, listen, I was thinking, you are a mess and you have no idea about what you are doing,” his expression had gone serious.
“Well—” I wanted to explain.
“—Shut up and listen, kid, this is what we are going to do, you can take a sabbatical leave, three months, can do even six, unpaid leave and go wherever you want with your backpack, grow a beard, become a Buddhist, eat cockroaches and all the bollocks you have to do now and when you are fed up, you come back, alright?”
“But what if I don’t want to come back? It’s the whole thing with advertising; I don’t want to keep selling stuff.”
“You will come back. What have you done all these years? What else can you do? This is just a job and you’re damn good at it.”
I didn’t know if it was him or the wine talking but his authoritarian tone upset me. On the other hand, it was a generous offer, I needed a safety net and he had just handed me one. What was I going to do otherwise? What was I useful for besides thinking of clever ways to sell products?
“Okay… when can I leave?”
“Well, now you are busy with the makeup right? Finish that and you are free to go.”
“Already? But that’s next week,” I said, surprised by how easy things were turning out to be.
“I’ll fix things with HR for the paperwork, don’t worry about that, but I want you back and fresh in January, is that enough time?”
“No, that’s… great actually, I thought you needed me for at least another month.”
“Ah don’t worry, we will survive without you but you will be missed, that’s for sure.”
“Thanks, Michael, I really appreciate this. This and all I have learnt from you these years.”
“Ah, enough with that, let’s get more wine, shall we?”
We kept discussing others matters while we finished the bottle. Michael told me that his plan was to retire in two years and move back to Dublin to focus entirely on his whiskey label with his cousins, which promised to be an exciting enterprise. They wanted to call it Donkey’s Pride. I didn’t see that working out so well.
I took a cab home and stared out of the window as we crossed Oxford-street. Even at night, people walked around with shopping bags like tired zombies, roaming back home after a long day of consuming, lightened by the logos that shone brightly above them from every shop. The deal with Michael was something I hadn’t thought of, and in this age of crisis and uncertainty it was smart to have a backup plan, but then if I came back, would that be a defeat? Would I spend the next forty years of my life creating more of these zombies and waiting to retire to do what I truly loved? What if I died before retiring? I had no commitments like he did, no family to take care of and support, nor a home to go to in Christmas. It was now or never.
I reclined back in the seat of the cab and smiled, after all, it was happening. There was some sadness, of course, but it wasn’t a Greek tragedy. Everyone would keep going with their lives and be fine without me. I was expendable, but weren’t we all? The Western culture fostered individualism since we were in the cradle, marking our innocent souls with hot irons like cattle, imprinting a bar code that identified us as special snowflakes. “Just follow your dreams and you will become whoever you want to be”, they said, and we grew up accordingly, feeling essential to the world and unique.
Some researchers did a social experiment in which they asked people to evaluate themselves on a certain set of attributes that were known to be desirable: Smart, responsible, funny, thoughtful, loyal, etc… Participants had to rank themselves on each of these from one to ten, being five the average of society. What the study showed, with no surprise, was that everyone ranked themselves way above average, genuinely convinced that they were better than everyone else.
That was us, self-entitled bags of flesh and blood that wandered around obeying the commands of our subconscious minds. We acted in response to electric stimulus from our brains, that tried to keep us alive and desirable so that we managed to spread our genes into a future generation, and then we worked to keep those small versions of us alive too so that one day they could reproduce as well. The meaning that we tried to adhere to all of these banal cycles of self-replication was nothing more than storytelling narrated by our rational minds, that had deliriums of grandeur due to our social conditioning, as if life itself wasn’t magical enough.
So it was a hard job for the rational mind when it had to cope with the frustration and disappointment from all those special snowflakes who couldn’t understand why they ended up filling spreadsheets instead of signing autographs. Their brains had to convince them that it was not their fault and that they were still unique, that things were just unfair and unlucky and it probably was a mistake, like when poor parents have to explain to their kids why Santa forgot to come to their house.
This fight with the mind had taken me to a crossroad. The subconscious was telling me to settle down, put the autopilot on and don’t ask any questions, mix my DNA with Sophia’s and produce gorgeous little creatures to be raised in private schools. But I, like all those fools from the study, considered myself way above average, with the difference that I actually was, of course, and so, I’d chase my dreams and live happily ever after. Even though I was completely aware of how biased and wrong this last perception of reality was I still had to give it a go. I’d cross my fingers and scratch my lottery card.
When I entered the flat I could see some light coming from the living room. I had expected Sophia to be asleep, but she was waiting for me. I hung my jacket and reached for the wall of the dark corridor, sliding my hand across it as I advanced. I looked for support on its surface, but the cold touch made me realise that I was on my own. A scared man walking the green mile, growing smaller with each step.
Three candle flames flickered and gave the ambience a dim lighting. Sophia had been drinking too and smiled when she saw me. She signed me to come by tapping the spot next to her in the couch, looking gorgeous in a black dress. My stomach shrank as I approached her and sat. She brought her hand to my hair and began apologising for having thrown the shoe at me, for fighting, for yelling, for everything. Her lips caressed my face, breathing out the words, “I’m sorry”, in between every kiss. I hadn’t decided on how to react yet when she sat on my lap and embraced me.
“Are you still mad?” She whispered, with puppy eyes. This time I had to resist. It was my last test before freedom.
“Of course not, baby, but I’m sorry too,” I held her closer and struggled to articulate the words that were caught in the midst of my throat, reluctant to go out. “I just quit my job and…” I started sobbing and sank my face into her shoulder. “I’m leaving London… I think it will be better for us.”
“What?” Her voice shattered. She tried to break free from my arms, but I couldn’t bear to look at her eyes and hugged her tighter towards me.
“I know I can’t make you happy and deep down you know it too.”
She kept fighting me until she burst into tears and gave up, accepting that the house of cards was falling. I kissed her head and caressed her hair. No words could save us any longer. Our bodies tangled into one as we cried together and I foolishly promised myself that I’d never go through that again.
We remained silent for the rest of the night, coming to terms with reality as we tried to smoke ourselves asleep under the spell of Massive Attack, but the sun rose faster.
The following days were like a marathon, full of countless steps that had to be taken to reach the so desired goal. As I had planned, I managed to squeeze my life into a suitcase. It had four wheels that rolled with ease to smooth my transition into the unknown. I wrapped up my job and finished all the paperwork, put my finances in order and started planning my trip. The unlimited range of choices I had in front of me was overwhelming, but I was sure about my first stop, I’d visit Jacques. I hadn’t seen him for more than three years, but he was my best friend, or at least, I still liked to think so. He had moved to Berlin and I promised I would visit but I never did, as over the last years, our paths had grown apart. I had been busy climbing the corporate ladder while he led a lazy, worry-free life. Due to this, I feared there would be some tension between us as if we had disappointed each other with our life choices, but my doubts dissipated as soon as he picked up the phone and I heard the genuine excitement in his voice.
“Mr Jacques? this is Luca, the man with the plan!”
“Oh my lord, Luca the British, to what do I owe this honour?”
“I want to visit you man, this time for real!”
“For real? I won’t believe that until you have your ass here. You know the other day I thought about you?”
We spoke for an hour as naturally as if we had seen each other the day before and I booked my flight straight after the call. I had offered to get a place, but that was not an option for the great Jacques, who insisted that I should crash at his flat for as long as I wanted. In a week I’d be in Berlin, starting a new life.
During the days I stayed until late at the office, as every night I’d get home to Sophia and we would go through a swirl of emotions that left us exhausted. From denial to anger, at moments we thought about finding solutions, like moving together to Asia for a fresh start, but then we would admit that it wouldn’t work and got depressed and mad at each other, then have sex, argue more and start over. In the end, we agreed that I would pay my rent for the next month and she would live there while looking for another flat. I assumed she would fuck a few guys during that time in the bed I was paying for, or at least half of it, but that was the cost of freedom.
I did my last monkey dance with Chris in the best way I could and we sold the new campaign to the lipstick guys, who rubbed their hands with pleasure. We had farewell lunch in a place he knew in Marylebone and then walked together back home.
“So this is it,” Chris said as we approached Baker Street, where our ways would part.
“This is it, but it’s not an end, just a beginning,” I replied, patting him on the back.
“You know, I was a bit mad these days with you for leaving, for abandoning us, but the truth is, I envy you,” he said.
“Oh, I envy you too, my friend.” Much more than you can imagine.
The 7th of July came and Sophia walked me out to say goodbye with a courtesy hug, like the kind you give to faraway relatives in a funeral.
I didn’t know if she has hiding her broken heart or she was truly relieved to get rid of me, but everything had been said so I didn’t ask for more. She went back to the flat, I helped the driver put the suitcase in the trunk and we set off to Heathrow airport. My flight was delayed, so I waited in a bar at the terminal and after two pints I decided to do one last call. My finger shook as I tapped the screen of the phone.
“Hi Michael, I’m about to leave to Berlin and just wanted to be honest with you. I’m not going to come back, so please start looking for a replacement, it wouldn’t be fair to keep the door halfway open” I said.
“Don’t worry; I knew you would say this.”
“Goodbye then, and thanks again.”
“Farewell, Luca.” I exhaled relieved. I have done it.
A few minutes later I was sitting on the plane with my seatbelt fastened, impatient for it to take me out of there. The engines rumbled and we were airborne. The evil towers and steel giants seemed harmless from the increasing distance. The egos and the frenzy, the shallowness and pity, they all got lost in the fog. Goodbye, mad world. We crossed the clouds and there it was, just like the meditation guru said, a majestic sun that shone above everything else.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The end… of part one.
This was just a taster, the first three chapters out of eighteen. Now it’s when the real journey begins, so if you liked it so far I encourage you to purchase “Time on Earth” the full novel, it’s available on e-book and paperback format in Amazon.
Sorry for luring you in like this and I hope you forgive me for pulling such a marketing stunt, but it’s the last time, I promise. I’m an independent writer and I have to use low-budget, smart ways of reaching out people like you. Otherwise we wouldn’t have met, and that would be a pity, wouldn’t it?