And For My Next Trick, I’ll Disappear

by Toby Sharpe

Toby Sharpe is a writer from London, UK. He graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. You can find his writing in The Chestnut Review, filling station, and Adjacent Pineapple. Find him on Instagram @tesharpe.

I was sitting with Luca and Céline and willing my vodka soda to explode and cut me to pieces. Both of them were very, very blonde. We were at an oak-panelled bar in the Plateau, having a drink before heading east to see Céline’s boyfriend. They were talking about an album I still hadn’t found the energy to listen to. When I first met Luca outside Lola Rosa, I had to excuse myself to run inside and dry heave into the toilet. He looked like a saint, something holy, and that turned my stomach. Things never seemed to change.

I was too young to feel so wiped out and inglorious, but when I had said that to Luca earlier, he said that at least I had a nice smile. Even so, I could not quite understand why he had chosen me and not Céline—even though on some level, I knew his attraction to women was a theory at best, his desire for men far more pressing and urgent. I had given him a juddering blowjob shortly before we’d left our borrowed apartment, and he had finished with a groan. Or maybe it was me who groaned. Luca was smirking at Céline, and she was smirking at him. My drink had run out of bubbles. In the grease above the bar, where there had likely once been a mirror, I could see only a smudge. Everything felt on the nose.

Céline’s phone buzzed. Allons-y, she said, and we stood to go—or rather, they stood to go and I followed suit. I was wearing a paisley shirt that had once belonged to Luca’s aunt. I had recently pierced my ear, but it had gotten infected. It was now bundled up in a rat-king of plasters. I was thinner than I’d been before I’d started dating Luca, though not nearly in his league. I barely knew the city, though I’d lived there for a year at that point. My shoes, Luca had told me that day, were unfashionable, but I didn’t have the money to buy anything better. We were living off rice and beans, and plastic-wrapped goods we scrounged from bins. I would ride the back of his push-bike down the highways, clinging to him with my whole body, though once I fell and narrowly avoided death by truck.

I found myself tasting again those child-memories of wishing straight men would look at me the way they looked at women.

On our walk up through Mile End, I kept licking my chapped lips, biting off the scraps of dead skin as I watched the two of them ahead of me, their heads bobbing like buoys in the dark. Luca had such beautiful curls: I wanted to curl them around a fork. I wanted to put them to my broken lips. The two of them had both demurred from the idea of spending money on dinner out, reminding me again that “nothing tasted as good as skinny felt,” that nothing looked as good as svelte, young, fashionable. You can always be thinner, look better. They quoted that a lot, but I hadn’t seen whatever movie it was from. Luca was wearing a white blouse, white jeans, white heels. He had told me that my old walking boots made me look like his grandfather, not his friend. I thought it was weird he didn’t say boyfriend. I just started wearing his shoes, the ones he rarely wore himself. I don’t remember what Céline was wearing. Looking down at her body always made me feel inadequate. I found myself tasting again those child-memories of wishing straight men would look at me the way they looked at women. Ridiculous. I was ridiculous.

Céline had arranged for us to be met on a street corner, half-shadowed by a laundry place’s awning. Her man, Johannes, was a DJ or a club promoter or a model, it didn’t and doesn’t really matter which. He was something that made money and kept him up at strange hours and made him popular on Instagram. It gave him impressively dark shadows under his eyes. In those days, I would have been impressed by anything: his dyed white hair, the fat gauges in his ears, the stag tattooed on his bare thigh. Johannes was a broad man. He had a big nose and large hands. I had already been told that night, that his penis was large too, and curved. Céline had been quite proud of the curve—more than the heft, it seemed. Luca was suitably impressed; when Johannes the photographer or the livestreamer or the brand ambassador or whatever he was came down to the curb to find us, my eyes met his bulge, and then darted down to my own. Would Luca prefer something in a larger size? Into the depths we go, mes amis, one of them said.

Graffiti crawled around the brick exterior walls. The place had been abandoned for a few years and our new tour guide lived there as part of a scheme to keep squatters out. Young, hip people in arts industries were permitted to make a home there by the landowners, in exchange for warding off drug dealers or sex workers, for a token amount of rent. The logic of this didn’t make much sense to me, especially as our host was clearly a dealer himself, offering us blunts or something more fun only when lithe Céline encouraged him to: first quietly wheedling, then demanding. Luca accepted for both of us. He handed me half of the something from a small baggie, and watched to make sure I took it.

I was reluctant to go inside. It looked like the kind of place where you’d find a rotting animal or two if you smashed open the walls. I must have seen that in a movie. In those days, we watched a lot of films on my tiny laptop, or sometimes I would peel away from Luca and sit in the dark stomach of a movie theatre and wait for hours to pass and for a day to end. Luca liked ghost stories, haunted houses, things with teeth. I liked happy couples. We could rarely find a middle ground. His hand was on my back, pushing me in. I could feel his nails.

The old CEGEP was built around a central courtyard, which had been reclaimed by nature as the years had passed. They closed it down, something bad happened. Now we live here, guarding the emptiness, Johannes said, his accent making the words seem heavy. Large windows offered us a yellowed view. Years ago, teens must have gathered out there on the asphalt, trading gossip or glances. Triffid-like vines, some flowering, others toothsome, pressed themselves against the vast windows on all sides, trying to escape. The stairs echoed, but Luca and Céline were chattering away about their old classmates, about who had gotten engaged, who had gotten knocked up, who had chosen to leave the city. I was not invited to contribute to this stage of the evening’s conversation.

Each floor of the school was painted a different colour: sour lime, clot red, alarm pink. This is what I focused on as we climbed, keen to know how many floors I’d need to run down if I had to flee, though from what I wasn’t sure. Something smelled of burning, and I breathed too much of it in. From the upper floors, looking in through the greenery, I could see the other occupants of the guardianship scheme as wet shadows in their rooms, some cooking, some lounging, some sleeping. Yet we were not there to sleep.

Bottles were popped open, jackets were thrown off. Céline only drank cognac, which made me hate her even more. Luca explained to the room how he and I had met at Faggity Ass Friday, how I’d seemed so relaxed, so cool and casual and chill. The word “seemed” pricked me like a sour berry. Seemed. Johannes brushed his fingers against my neck, just for a second. Céline fumbled with a bong and couldn’t seem to work a lighter. Luca nodded at jokes—even mine, sometimes. Our host taught us a song he had learned at a school much like this one, and we talked about our first teachers, our earliest crushes. Just as I was beginning to explain Mr. Copeland’s creepy way of staring at my art class, Luca and Céline started a new conversation as if I hadn’t been speaking, both suddenly claiming hunger, starvation. They were famished.

We used the building’s industrial kitchen, which in the past must have churned out hundreds of meals a day, to chop vegetables and burn them with spices. The burning may or may not have been intentional. Luca’s cooking style was always fluid, exciting. Then we retired to Johannes’s chambers to smoke and sit. His room, once a chemistry lab, was now a lab of another kind. In my hand, I carried most of an eggplant, which we’d charred over a flame. What was left of the day’s light gradually died, and when I looked at my feet, they were as amber as the rest of the room. Everything was beginning to wobble in my line of sight, as something started to effervesce within me. I sat on a high desk, kicking the air, smelling weed and bleach and vodka and something old and musty that I didn’t recognize. Perhaps I was wasting my youth.

The conversation flickered between languages, and I followed my boyfriend’s voice, still marvelling over how it deepened when he was set free from English. I was the lone slack-tongued yokel, truly awful at French even after months of staring at that stupid animated owl and trying to eavesdrop in coffee shops or after listening to Luca arguing with his mother on Skype a thousand times. After those conversations, Luca would turn to me and snarl, don’t pretend you know what I was saying, how I fucking feel. I spoke better English as a baby than you speak French as an adult. I would always nod, out of my depth. I found it hard with him, found everything hard. It was like I could never give him the right answer. I phrased everything to him as a question, and he would reply with a series of statements. Instead of lecturing in English, he would sometimes snarl at me in French when I fucked something up, and though I didn’t know the meaning of the words, I also did.

I wanted to leave, but Luca was in his element. This was our way of being. I had gotten used to it. Each of them—Luca, Celine and Johannes—felt like denizens of another world and as I looked around the room, I felt as if I had transgressed into their territory, into a dimension beyond my comprehension. By the time I ate my aubergine, it had long gone cold. This was the TV show I’d always watched, when projecting my mind onto the wall of my childhood bedroom. I had always been an audience. Maybe it was something to do with the English stiff upper lip, or that I never ate my vegetables as a child, or just that I learned to speak too late, a silent toddler with eyes the size of dinner plates. Or maybe I was just born under a bad star, with a fat tongue.

What was the joke? I could not imagine a world where that story could be anything but tragic.

Céline was talking about her first time smoking weed. I was twelve, at a house party, following my sister. She had run away, running from our parents. Céline had been drunk, et j’avais peur. Pushing through the teenage throng, she’d ended up in the bathroom, where she was pulled into the shower by a much older girl, who press-ganged her into smoking her first blunt, left a sharp hickey on her neck, and jeered at her afterwards. The smoke had made her cough and howl. In our present, she giggled, simmering in her recollection. What was the joke? I could not imagine a world where that story could be anything but tragic.

I used to smoke a lot more, Johannes said, speaking in slow, slow English, perhaps for my benefit, but I kept getting bad vibes when I was here by myself. He seemed a little on edge. There was a small wet patch on his shorts. I helped him fiddle with the playlist, and when he complimented my taste in music, I saw Luca raise his eyebrows, first imperceptibly to anyone but me, and then dramatically, as if he needed everyone to see that he disagreed. I was beginning to understand that he was not a kind man. I was surprised I had not realized that before. The tendrils in my gut were unfurling, a chemical rush helping me follow the now-throbbing bassline into a dance around the room, circling the others. Everything is okay, y’all. I sounded so absurdly Anglophone, Texas meeting Oxfordshire. Everything is going to be okay! The world blurred. I danced on and on. I felt very lonely, as if I was two days old and already full of yearning. My legs faltered. I found my way to the floor and let my eyes close, just for a moment. Something called to me, behind my eyelids.

And then I needed to piss. I wasn’t sure where I was. My back was sweaty. I asked our host where I could find a bathroom, and he told me to explore. Luca didn’t look up from his spot on the couch, where he and Céline seemed to be having some kind of argument. Putting on my shoes, which at some point I must have taken off, I left our chambers, and found myself back in the hallway, which was dark aside from a thrum of fluorescent strip-lights above. Through the glass wall, I saw someone in the mass of courtyard foliage, but I could not make out their face. They seemed to be caressing the vines, whispering to a verdant underworld. I saw now that this was the ideal place to disappear.

As I wandered down the hall, smelling the armpit-scented dust, I was reminded of a children’s story my brother had teased me with, many miles away and years ago. A man with no skin would follow you to the toilet late at night and if you looked behind you, even if you just heard his footsteps, you would be done for. He would eat you up, from your head to your toes. As a little boy, I would sob to my brother: but I want to keep my toes! My brother has kids of his own these days. I don’t know if he tells them scary stories. I have never even seen their toes.

The bathroom I found was designed for young boys. It was hollow and dark and smelled of the city-smog. There must have been a hole in the wall somewhere, or a ventilation shaft open to the elements. The sinks were low, the urinals close to the floor. I missed, and then re-aimed. I thought about how many people had pissed on the tiles beneath my feet, how many had paused in here and wondered how many seconds they could waste before going back to class. I thought of my life as a young child, and my life as a young man. So little had changed, though I had moved to a new country and cut off contact with my parents and had taken up smoking cigarettes and had started talking frantically at bars about articles I’d never finished. Luca and I were a match made in heaven. There was nothing in me that was good. When I walked out of the bathroom, I saw it, but I already knew it would be there, even though I hadn’t looked back.

The figure waiting by the stairs had no toes, nor feet. As predicted, it had no skin either. It had very little form at all. It was bright and glorious, and barely there. I could only half-see it. Its scent was that of sunlight on a plum tree’s blossom, of thawing ice, and of something rotten underneath. I thought about fermentation. I thought about running away. Hello? I asked.

When I returned to the bedroom, my ear had healed up nicely. I could feel another guardian of the building upstairs changing a lightbulb, and one below us vacuuming her dirty bedroom floor. My grin felt electric. I wanted to dance more, feel alive again, but clearly something had changed while I had been out of the room. Luca was now only talking in English, and Céline with her waterfall of hair, was lying back, not speaking at all, puffing at a glass pipe. Our host was lazily playing with his hard dick through his shorts. I could smell burnt plastic. My gums ached. We all need to dance, I said, we all need to start dancing right now, and started twirling, revelling in having a body, the joy of it, the wonder of fingers and toenails and pubic hair, but when they failed to reply, I added, wait, how long was I in the bathroom? I didn’t really care. A while, our host replied in Flemish, and I nodded. It made sense to me that I understood him now, that my grasp of languages had grown to match my sense of self. I pulled him off his feet, and we spun for a moment, whirligigs together.

He was such a primal man, under all of the shimmer. It was time to go.

As we cavorted, I said to him, I could spin with you like this for hours, but there are places I have to go, things I have to see. I feel like I have been stuck in this night for decades, waiting for something new. Our host didn’t seem offended. He must have known what was really in the building, what lived within its brick and mortar, carried from the earth into a prison. I kissed his collarbone. His girlfriend coughed up some sludge in my peripheral vision. I could see the entire world resting on our host’s shoulders. Luca had a wet stain on his shirt, on his chest. I did not know where it might have come from, but I had some guesses. He was such a primal man, under all of the shimmer. It was time to go.

We found our jackets and talked inanely about whether we should take with us the food we hadn’t finished. I felt a halo around my head, electric with flame, and I marvelled at my now smooth lips, licking them like the cat who got the cream. The girl—whose name it took me a strangely long time to remember was Céline—was nearly unconscious. Her eyes were fluttering, and I wondered what it would be like to catch a hummingbird out of the air and pull its wings from its flesh. Luca said farewell as if reading from a cue card. I kissed our host on the cheek, and waved to Céline, who did not wave back. She looked like she was on the way out in a different sense.

Outside the school, the air was crisp. Free from the building, and from whoever I had been, the world seemed colder and wider than it had ever been. I was carrying someone else free with me, someone who had waited for a very long time to be brought out into the world. I felt like a father. I felt like a son. I felt like I could devour my own child. As Luca cycled us home, I let one arm clutch him, and let the other fly above me, catching the night between my fingers. There were so many hungry little stars in the sky. I felt like I could eat them all.

When we were back at the flat with its tiny bed and unwashed dishes, Luca asked me—again, for perhaps the thousandth time—if he thought it was odd that I had never managed to learn a language other than English. He said that Céline had brought it up whilst I was looking for the bathroom, and she—they—thought that it showed a certain weakness in my character, a lack of ambition or commitment, or both. The place seemed grubbier than it had that morning. I told him so, in Parisian French, and watched his expression falter for a moment, his own confidence waver. I have all of these memories, Luca, of things I haven’t done, places I’ve never seen. Then I told him that he could suck my dick and drown in my cum. And then I told him to choke on my fist. It wasn’t clear to either of us what language I was speaking now, whether it was something foreign or new or from a time without real words. I was enjoying my fat tongue now, my whole body. All the little tricks I had up my little sleeve. I was then and now, dead and alive, free and trapped. Was I a boy from England? Or something dusty and ancient, without a home? Either way: Luca looked wan and delicious, and I was famished.

When I pushed him to the bed, I took his cock in my mouth for the second time that day and wondered if I should bite it off. I could see a whole world of people like me, trapped in their own lives. My teeth felt sharper than they’d ever been. Can’t you see how hungry you have made us, I said to Luca, my voice layered with raindrops, the squeak of old pipes, we have been so hungry. I could taste something different now, something I’d never consumed before.

In the morning, I ignored the blood on the sheets and got up with a sense of dizzy enchantment. Luca was still making sounds, but they were fading. Soon, they would stop altogether. At some point in the night, I must have opened the windows, and daylight was rushing in, eons of it, centuries of sunshine. The world was an open sore, full of meat and bone.

 


Toby Sharpe is a writer from London, UK. He graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. You can find his writing in The Chestnut Review, filling station, and Adjacent Pineapple. Find him on Instagram @tesharpe.

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