Black Water and Bad Shots
In a bar outside Rome, foamy, black water crashed down the corridors of my mind. As thoughts rose like bubbles emerging from the submerged floors, the malignant waters surged around them, collapsing them with ease. My mind felt paralysed and numb, with a permeating feeling of inadequacy.
I swivelled my stool toward the bartender, away from the awkward silence between me and the two girls occupying the stools to my right. Trying to revive the conversation felt like resuscitating someone, and breaking their sternum in the process. I ordered my second expensive, cheap-tasting beer. I knew I was spending money I didn’t have, but goddamn, I had to do something with myself.
I scanned the bar behind me and spotted a pool table across the red, dimly lit sea of teenage heads, bobbing up and down like buoys on the vast ocean dance floor. Within a minute I was inhaling European cologne as I waded through chic European girls and pretty European boys who put more thought into their hair and clothes than the American girls I knew back home. God, I missed the stink and slovenliness of sweaty Americans in a bar.
The pool table was in a corner of the room on an elevated wooden platform. Green table felt shone through another blanket of red light lying on pool balls, cues, stools, and two dozen drink-in-hand French teens.
I struck a nonchalant lean against a pillar and watched two of the guys in the group stumble around the pool table having a grand time trying to pocket the eight ball. Minutes passed. Doing nothing was much worse than doing something – the weight of the black water was bearing down on me.
Finally, the eight ball dropped in a pocket. I immediately turned around and asked a French teen with kind eyes who didn’t know what to do with his non-beer holding hand, “You want to play?”
He picked up a pool cue and within a shot revealed he fucking sucked. Which was great, because I fucking sucked. On my third stroke, I missed the ball completely. Sweet. I shot a sheepish grin at him and endured the merciless, black deluge that swamped the halls and corridors. Every other shot I took was a bad shot. People were watching. I had to fight against the stabs of insecurity, the sloshing, heavy water pounding against the walls.
We had only been playing a few minutes when I heard someone from behind walk up the steps with a drunken holler to someone across the pool table. The holler couldn’t be defined, but it didn’t need to be. Any human knew what it meant. It was a declaration: I am King of the Jungle.
I didn’t like that primal declaration the second I heard it, nor him when he sauntered past. I didn’t like how the sides of his head were completely shaved while on top sprouted long, jet black hair, shining with pomade, flopping to one side of his head like a flaccid penis. I didn’t like how his shirt was so tight it revealed every contour of his body chiseled from a religious devotion to the Iron Gods.
I didn’t like how he took his shirt off and chest bumped people around him. I didn’t like how he challenged smaller guys to arm wrestle. And I didn’t like how he got real close to a scantily clad blonde girl who clearly didn’t think she could fight back, and muttered at her while slapping her on the face.
I once heard that every guy thinks he is a natural at two aspects of life: fucking and fighting. I discarded the first delusion with the condom I used on the night of my senior prom. But I still held the latter, and believed that when the time came, all 5-feet-4 inches of me was an invincible, badass motherfucker.
So when the scantily clad blonde girl fled past me and he pursued, with a primitive anticipation I threw my shoulder. This was something I could do. Even if I shouldn’t, it was something I knew how to do. Grates materialised along the edges of my halls, draining the black water.
He tottered a few steps off balance, his eyes racing about before meeting mine. He came toward me, speaking French in an incredulous tone. He stopped an inch shy of my face, noses almost touching, and drilled his eyes into mine. This macho man move left him vulnerable, but he counted on me, the short guy riddled with anxiety, to back down. I wasn’t going anywhere; I was enjoying myself too much. I felt light and alive. I wanted to wiggle my fingers and toes. But I wasn’t a big enough of a douchebag to throw the first punch.
So I pushed him. I put my hands on his admirable pecs and gave a good shove. He fell back a few steps. He came tottering forward like a little He-Man toy unwinding, rapidly spitting French fire. He pushed the mano-a-mano envelope further. Now the tips of our noses were actually touching. I could have eskimo kissed him. I should have eskimo kissed him. Instead, I pushed again.
He came back yelling, grinding his nose into mine, our lips almost touching. One of his friends put a restraining hand on his shoulder, which seemed to piss him off more than anything I did. He violently swatted the hand away and bore his almond brown eyes back into mine. It could have been romantic in another context.
Our chance at love was cut short. More of his friends got between us and pulled him back. The more they yelled and wrapped their arms around his torso, the more he found courage, throwing himself toward me, arms bulging, neck veins popping, flaccid hair flopping.
As his friends managed to drag him away the grates of my halls melted back into the floors. I felt black drips drop from the ceilings and black puddles pool on the floors. I started to play pool again. A few minutes later he passed by me, flanked by his entourage, without so much as looking at me, and I kept on playing pool, kept on making bad shots, and kept on mopping up the black water that came with them.
It’s funny how in the mundane moments of others, the moments that the eight ball makes an early jump into the pocket, my corridors are so violently flooded with darkness. And then, in the moments when an average person would find the most confronting, my mind is drained of the water that laps through the hallways. This is my version of the black comedy called anxiety.
Cover by Shannon