Fiction: High, Definition
By John Higgins
“Mine has been a life of much shame. I can't even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.”— Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human
I didn’t want to admit to skagging, so when we entered the hotel room, I made straight for the toilet and started to dry-heave.
Rachel tried the bathroom door. I’d locked it behind me.
―Don’t come in, I said, a tinge of the death-bed in my voice. I looked down at the placid water. To try and convince myself of my sickness, I spat into the toilet.
―Are you OK? she asked. I could hear her opening her suitcase. Setting things on the bed.
―Yeah, I whimpered, ―I’m fine.
―You don’t have to come with me, she said. I imitated a cat coughing up a furball, flushed the toilet, unlocked the door. I made sure she could see me: red-rimmed eyes, hugging the toilet, looking up at her, as she topped up her make-up.
―No—no, it’s—it’s OK. I—I’ll come.
She tutted. ―Would you stop? Stay here for yourself. I’ll be back as soon as I can.
She crouched down on the tiles. She kissed my cheek. I tried to give her my mouth but she wrinkled her nose. I remembered the ostensible vomit and smiled, sheepishly, ensuring that my lips twitched with faintness. She tried to take my temperature, reaching out a hand to touch my forehead, but I stuck my head into the toilet and hacked up the phlegm that rattled around in my chest.
I waited ten minutes on the cold floor of the toilet. I listened to the sounds of accommodation trolleys rolling up and down the carpeted halls.
When I was certain Rachel wouldn’t be returning, I got up and lay on the bed, phone in hand. I unbuttoned my jeans and got myself hard as I scrolled down a list of explicit thumbnails and barely coherent titles.
I chose a video entitled: College slut fucks through life. The title was a tad misleading. I expected some nymphomaniac co-ed, the kind I fantasised about meeting. The video was actually about a jobless woman forced to suck cock in order to secure employment. Something about her vagina being feasted upon by this suited, bald-headed hiring manager rubbed me up the wrong way. I tried to pump my penis back into life, but it just drooped over my fingers like some kind of sad, deflated balloon-animal.
I ran a bath. I sank into it. I’d never tried having a bath to reduce or completely eliminate the effects of a skag. My usual method was just to ignore it.
The ‘hangover’ from MDMA isn’t like the hangover from drink. There’s no real cure. Domino’s and a can of Coke don’t alleviate the skag. You can’t just fill yourself up with junk food and junk TV in an attempt to fill the void the drugs have created within you. The skag grips you, controls you, and there’s nothing to do but ride the wave―or whatever the diametric opposite of a wave is, plunging beneath the sea and giving you the bends.
I watched the soapy water’s reflection shimmer on the ceiling. I tried to ignore the water touching my body. I tried not to look down at the raspberry-ripple stretchmarks streaking across my chest.
Snatches of the video I’d watched came into my head. I shook them out. I tried to think of other things. Not pleasant things. I sought out the memories and impressions sure to depress me.
I thought of the bastard playing music loudly on the bus that morning; I thought of Rachel’s incessant need to chat at 7am as we waited for our bus to pull in; I thought of the streetsweepers and high-vis-clad construction workers seeing me walk along Eglington Street and then across Eyre Square, assuming certain things about me because of my age, my countenance, my gait, my clothes.
I thought of being refused entry into a nightclub last night; I thought of having to wait patiently while one of the lads doled out bombs—crushed MDMA wrapped in cigarette paper—with the smug glee of a milk monitor. I thought of old arguments I’d had, old taunts I’d never had the nerve nor the wit to respond to on the playground. I obsessed, to be frank, opening the trunk of the old hurts I’d locked away at various points during my 23-year stint on earth, but none of it worked.
Flashes in my mind: some office, leased by Naughty America or Brazzers; some bald, toned man in a too-small suit lingering over a handshake; Rachel, most decidedly not in the clothes she’d left in, sitting on the edge of a chair, legs crossed.
And the most intense of fucking. Excruciating close-ups of Rachel’s face as this bald stud held one of her legs in the air. The sounds of high-pitched, dog-whistle screaming intruding upon the lapping serenity that was supposed to be my bath.
I climbed out. Mugs of water fell from my body. I grabbed a yellowed towel from the heated rack and wrapped myself in it.
I tried to keep myself busy. That is, I lay on the bed, in my towel, flipping through the TV channels. Rolling news coverage of terrorist attacks and the televisual equivalent of a glossy mag ran back and forth before my eyes, snatches of one filtering insidiously into the other until I truly believed that London was under siege and the Middle-East was being attacked by a Doberman that could open doors.
I rolled cigarettes and promised myself I’d go down and smoke them. Rachel believed I’d quit smoking—and I had—but the night before, I’d ended up buying a pouch of Amberleaf in the 24-hour Gala on Prospect Hill. I hadn’t quite managed to smoke it all before meeting her that morning, so it had sat in the front of my schoolbag, along with a Ziploc bag containing our toothbrushes.
I paced until my legs couldn’t take it anymore. Spasms of pain rippled through my shins. The pulsing of some subdermal scarab.
I tried to think of anything other than Rachel, riding the Luas out to the suburbs, by herself. I tried to think of anything other than this situation, as I knew my selfishness would doubtlessly spring to her mind in the coming months—or perhaps weeks—before she broke up with me.
Romcoms have ruined me. They’ve instilled this sense of gravity in the mundane. The individual acts that can make or break the person. I am paralysed by the idea that the entirety of a relationship, of shared experience, can be reduced down to one isolated moment, that the solitary encapsulates the absolute. That my unwillingness to go along with her to some job interview, or the fact that I went out the night before said interview, would radically drive her idea of our time together, that it would in fact overshadow all the good times. All the times I’d acted selflessly―and I’m sure there have been plenty―would become null in the face of my one moment of selfishness.
I dressed and left the hotel. I crossed the lobby and walked out onto the street.
After some left turns, I ended up on O’ Connell Street. I hate O’ Connell Street. And Grafton Street. And Shop Street. I hate shops, and I hate the sight of people walking around with brown bags, and I hate the homogenisation, and I hate the general cluelessness on the faces of the shoppers.
I walked past casinos, past franchise coffee-shops. I patted my pocket for my rollies and couldn’t find them. I’d left them back in the hotel, on my bedside locker. I had come too far to turn back. The thought of walking back past that statue of Joyce, the plinth covered in spit, as well as all the Mexican restaurants promising ‘authentic’ cuisine nauseated me. I decided to soldier on.
I couldn’t stop myself patting the arse pocket of my jeans, to ensure my wallet was still there. It was exhausting, to be sure, this level of paranoia that comes with both being skagged and being in Dublin.
I smelt fries. Salty, crispy fries. I stopped outside one of two McDonald’s on O’ Connell Street.
I ordered too much food and ate too quickly. I sat there, stuffed, slowly deflating with one long, hissed belch. A couple had a murmured row at the next table; their two children played with Happy Meal toys. Under the table was a nest of brown bags, crumpled in on themselves: Penney’s, River Island.
I found a straggler, one last fry hidden by a napkin. I dipped it into sour cream & chive dip, stood up, left.
Honesty is usually the best policy in romcoms. The protagonist professes how they really feel, why they really acted in such an inexplicable way that made them appear as though they didn’t care. Misunderstandings are cleared up.
I, however, had to lie. I couldn’t very well tell Rachel that I faked the whole thing, that I was really too skagged to be bothered leaving the hotel and traipsing across Dublin with her, practicing interview questions for the millionth time. I would lie.
I would tell her that I felt better, yes, but I would say it weakly, I wouldn’t look her in the eye. I would tell her I felt better and wanted dearly to support her. She would rush me and embrace me, call me ‘sweet’ or ‘cute’ or some other synonym for the impression I desired to give, and then all would be well. I would be honest the next time.
I was breaking out in sweat. I could feel it, all over my face and my body. Snaking down in rivers between my arms, appearing on my face like microscopic clusters of shiny gems. I kept my head down as pretty women approached.
I looked up. A woman was walking towards me. She was looking dead ahead. Her face seemed frozen in a manner not unlike that of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. A stroke victim, I reasoned, or maybe with some kind of facial abnormality. I tried to look away, not wishing to make a spectacle of her on this busy street, but then, as she got closer, I started to see what looked like millions of skin tags, peppering her face, making her skin appear corroded.
Her eyes flicked towards me as we passed. Only for a second, but enough to make me look like a voyeur desperate for a freakshow. I wanted to push through the crowd, turn her around, let her know that I wasn’t looking at her in fascinated disgust, which she was probably accustomed to amongst the superficialities of O’ Connell Street, but rather with pity. I was extending sympathy by looking at her, the difficulties she faced in life―no sexual contact, problems landing a job―acknowledged by me.
Of course, by the time I had thought all this, I’d arrived at the turn for Abbey Street, and she had disappeared into the bodies of Dublin.
Sick and skagged, I decided to take the Luas to Fatima. Rachel’s interview was around there somewhere, I vaguely recalled her saying; the name stuck in my head only because it stood out. Very exotic; on the Red Line to Tallaght.
I worked the machine expertly. A lot better than many Dubliners, I would imagine. I pressed the touchscreen without needing to read the instructions, I tapped my card off the reader instead of uncertainly inserting it and fiddling around with a PIN.
I heard the dull clunk of a slot opening, of my Luas ticket being printed. I looked down at the slot in the machine, the slitty mouth. No ticket. Frustrated, I gave the box a light slap, hoping it would knock some mechanism into gear, much in the same way you see old hats at a job confidently hitting the vending machine in just the right place to facilitate the purchase of your Twix or your Ballygowan water.
Nothing. I was about to try again when a small woman opened a hatch I hadn’t spotted in the bottom of the machine and pulled my ticket out. I tried to explain, as she walked away, that I had been blinded by the slot, thus I had missed the hatch at the bottom of the machine, but she had rejoined her group and I was left to stand on the platform, like wide-eyed Sanshirō newly-arrived to Tokyo.
The Luas pulled in. I climbed on. The food was affecting my stomach at this point. I wanted to sit down but I dared not take the only available seat, for fear of being scolded for failing some kind of urban test, transgressing some unwritten Dublin rule that only the worthy denizens were privy to.
I stood, one hand on the lemon-yellow rail. The Luas was a smooth ride, but its abrupt stops at red-lights sent mashed-up chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks lurching around in my stomach. I kept my body still as possible, but it was difficult, as I had to keep stepping aside for muttering men and drunken women who would have caused trouble if I did not relinquish ground.
I looked at the empty seat and could imagine Rachel sitting there, staring out the window at the overcast sky. A montage of our relationship flickering through her head. I could imagine her looking at an empty seat beside her, devoid of the presence of a supportive Other, as she trundled towards Fatima.
I pushed the guilt out of my head. After all, I’d been sick. I’d spent my morning in Dublin hugging a toilet. Wasn’t I entitled to some consideration?
Besides, I was making the effort now, wasn’t I? The constantly supportive guys always get dumped. It’s the fickle ones, the ones that pull through at the last minute, that get the girl. This was it, my frantic third-act dash to the airport.
The electronic voice bilingually announced Heuston Station. A surge of people got off, fewer got on. I locked eyes with a man in paint-splattered clothes, standing further down the body of the tram. He had a dark beard, heavy bags under his eyes. A gearbag hung from his shoulder.
I could feel the thoughts rolling through his head, like tickertape. He saw me and thought I was just another South Dublin 23-year-old, itching to check Instagram, splurging Mummy & Daddy’s money on Tommy Hilfiger clothes. He saw yet another college student, skagged perhaps off designer drugs, and then his gaze passed over, bored already. I wanted to approach him, to tell him that I was more than his perception of me, but that wouldn’t have been strictly true. All I am is other peoples’ perception of me.
I got off at Fatima.
Dogwalkers passed the front of the apartment blocks opposite. I walked in one direction then, second-guessing myself, walked in another. I moved like a pendulum up and down the street. After fifteen minutes of walking, I don’t think I ventured further than spitting distance from the Luas line.
I couldn’t quite remember the name of the building in which Rachel’s interview was to take place. She’d told me, but it was the kind of extraneous information I hadn’t felt I would need. St. something.
I walked, following the wide road as it narrowed. It became a one-way street, became an alleyway of back doors, oozing binbags.
Whenever I heard movement, I followed it. Whether it was a car starting, or high heels clopping off the pavement, or just the clack of a lighter, I walked towards the noise, hoping to see Rachel standing apart from some group, a satellite moon drifting around a planet, a Phobos awaiting her Deimos.
Nothing. All the time, nothing. Just a middle-aged middle-management guy climbing into his Audi, or a coffee-touting woman back from lunch, or trackie-clad young lads smoking up their Dads’ cigarettes.
The images of Rachel in my mind were no longer as stark, as detailed. I didn’t see the inner-workings of her mind anymore, nor―thank God―did I see the Johnny Sins lookalike working her innards. Everything was a blur, as I sweated on the Rialto street.
I stopped into a working man’s café, the kind that caters to construction workers and not college students. The kind of unbranded, unfranchised, sausage & chips kind of place I wanted to find.
I went in and ordered a coffee. I was given it in a Styrofoam cup and I sat at a table by the window. I started to wish I’d brought a book with me, but not Ulysses or anything touristy. Something a little more eclectic: something by Kenzaburō Ōe, or anything by Burroughs that wasn’t Naked Lunch.
A prop, essentially, to make me look like something else in the eyes of the old woman manning the counter. Something to confound her interpretation of my existence, her understanding of my positions: past, present, and future.
With nothing to read and the coffee slowly cooling on the table before me, I looked out the window. Cars and pedestrians flitted by.
I sipped my too-hot coffee, feeling the scrutiny of the other patrons―working men & women―on me as they tucked into lasagne and chips, pork chops and chips, beans and toast and chips. I just wanted to get the coffee into me, to get back to walking again, aimless but at least alone, my impression on other people fleeting enough that they would give it no thought.
I reckoned I could have taken the coffee for takeaway, but I didn’t want to risk a scene, no matter how mild. I sat by the window, blowing and sipping, one hand at all times on my cup.
I finished my coffee and, after a long walk past rundown pizza parlours, past a women’s hospital, past the usual cadre of dry cleaners, post offices, Spars, I found myself back at the Luas line again, back at Fatima station.
My stomach cramped in a horrible way, nearly doubling me over with the pure pain of it. For a moment, before the obvious answer came to me, I wondered had I been cursed with some kind of sympathy period as recompense for last night’s hedonistic selfishness. For the lying.
It wasn’t fair, I thought, as I sat at the station, hearing the Luas tinkle its way towards me. I had been sick, after all; obliquely sick. With my hands, I followed the pain along my belly, and then I realised what the problem was.
The food and the coffee pulsed in my stomach and then, further down, against my bowels. I felt pressure, and I felt air pushing itself silently out through my anus. A smell followed me as I dashed from the platform and into the park opposite. I lingered by a tree as a woman walked past, a child in tow, slashing at the grass with a stick he’d torn off a tree.
Once I was certain that no one was in sight―at least not immediately, which was really all I cared about, preferring to be caught after rather than in the preliminary stages―I hid myself away in the corner of the park, leaning my back against the knobby wall, my pants around my ankles.
There was very little pushing involved. Truth be told, it was more about clamping my anus shut at appropriate intervals. The forcefulness of it felt wrong somehow, a kind of instantaneous luxury I really didn’t deserve.
A wave of relief set in once I had been there long enough. Relief that overshadowed the feeling of coldness in my thighs, the pins and needles in my feet. One last void, and I knew I would be safe to leave. To continue my hunt.
The Luas went past. I watched the tracks light up. I hadn’t thought about the view from the Luas while I’d searched for a place to shit. I had been more concerned with the now matters―the dogwalkers, the strollers, the schoolchildren on their way home―to think about the trajectory of the tram. I tried not to look, hoping that if I didn’t see them they didn’t see me, but natural curiosity got in the way. I looked up, and saw Rachel, sitting, staring out the window.
As the Luas passed, her eyes gently strafed and then locked onto me. Her face changed, imperceptibly at first and then a whole host of emotions broke in on her placid expression. Then the Luas was gone and closure was a long way away.
I was sick, I’d tell her, as I pulled up my pants and ran after the Luas, my legs apart to ensure no shit stuck to my underwear. I was very sick.
John Higgins is an Irish writer. His work has been featured in New Pop Lit, Crannog, Honest Ulsterman and more. He has been shortlisted for the 2019 Scribble Short Fiction Prize and the 2020 Mairtin Crawford Short Story Award.