Authors: Lynn Coady
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This edition published in 2011 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
The antagonist / Lynn Coady.
PS8555.O23A58 2011 C813'.54 C2011-902173-0
Jacket design: Bill Douglas
Text design and typesetting: Alysia Shewchuk
We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.
— T.S. Eliot
05/23/09, 9:42 p.m.
THERE YOU ARE
are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people. That is, afraid of being fat, and hating those who were, so fear and hating, like of a contagion, the same way homophobes — guys who are actually maybe gay or have the potential for gayness within them — are thought to be afraid of homos. So want to annihilate them, make them not exist. You said you were embarrassed by it, though, your hatred of fat people, your fear. You knew it was shallow. You knew it was wrong. You thought it was a prejudice that was beneath the enlightened likes of you. And now, with all this time gone by, here you are in the picture. Looking chubby and pompous.
When you told me that, I remember being a little awed because we were kids, we were two young guys, and we hung out every weekend and we got drunk and declared, or might have declared,
I love you man!
at some point or another, but you — You — as much as you talked you never really said much of anything, you gave none of it away, whereas I was always yanking off hanks of self-flesh and shoving them bloodily at everyone around me, it felt like, half the time —
no please, take it, take it, really.
And people would accept them, those red bleeding chunks — because what choice did they have, I was a hulking drunken wreck who might fall on top of them at any moment — averting their eyes, embarrassed for both of us, as was only right.
Not you, though. I heard an expression the other day in reference to this other tight-lipped son of a bitch, actually it was the prime minister —
He keeps his own counsel
. And I thought that’s perfect, that’s perfect, that’s Adam. The operative phrase being
, the operative concept being
Point being, you kept your own counsel most of the time. You never turned to me in the midst of one of our drunk-stoned hazes to implore: Help me, man! I’m all fucked up! The way guys sometimes do. Not you, not like I was always doing, or felt like I was. You never said boo. I thought that was very cool about you for a while. I thought your head was just too full — heaving with profundity.
It is stupid the way young men admire one another, the cluelessness of it, the non-reasons.
And then, lo! He turns to me, does sphinx-boy, in the middle of a typical beered-up weekend rock and roll show on campus. Our mutual friend Tina is ripping up the dance floor in front of us. Tina has put on some pounds, the way girls do in just a handful of months, the same way they immediately take it off the moment it becomes apparent to them that guys aren’t sniffing and circling the way they used to. Lately we’ve taken to calling Tina
behind her back. A few months ago we would have been watching Tina dance with quiet horny awe but now she just looks fat and silly and we’re embarrassed for her and disliking ourselves for thinking it because she’s a cool girl, we like her, and why shouldn’t she fucking dance if she wants to? And covering it up with asshole jokes.
And he turns to me, does sphinx-boy, face naked and craving in a way I’ve never seen. I lean in. My friend needs me!
“I think I’m prejudiced against fat people.”
I have never heard such shame, such self-loathing in Adam’s voice.
“That’s okay, man,” I reassure my friend. “Everyone hates fat people, they’re fucking fat.”
“No. I need to get over it.”
I swing an arm around your shoulders and crush you against me, happy for the opportunity to be kind and big-brotherly.
“Look at her go,” I say, gesturing to Tina out there undulating, eyes closed, jaw so slack her tongue is almost hanging out, dancing a sweat-slick frenzy. I found out later Tina was at that point well aware of her new nickname and had started taking speed to offset things.
“She’s working it out there! She’ll be back to baseline hotness in no time.” I was right about that too. But that wasn’t what you were worried about.
“I mean,” you say, once I have released you, because I can tell it is awkward for you to continue your confession crushed against my manly chest. “It’s me.”
Of course it was you, Adam.
“I’m afraid that I’ll get fat. I’m deathly afraid of it. Getting fat.”
And look at you now, say it together everybody: chubby; pompous.
What a shitty way for me to begin! After you have been so nice. After all these years. I didn’t even think you would write me back. And if you did write back, I never imagined you would say: Sure! Send me your story. I would be delighted to take a look, that’s what you said.
Take a look
, that’s very noncommittal of course, but then, that’s the Adam I remember.
Well guess what. I was being noncommittal myself. I was being noncommittal in that I was lying. That whole last email I sent was a lie.
First of all, I said
I haven’t read your book yet but am very excited to do so
. But I have read it, Adam. I’ve read it a few times now.
Second of all, I was being friendly and nice in my email, but that was in fact not a true representation of how I am actually feeling toward you. I was baiting the hook. I wasn’t sure you’d be particularly pleased to hear from me, if you would even bother to write back. So I thought I should be nice. I thought I should be all the things I knew — assuming you were still the old Adam — you would respond to: complimentary, admiring, affectionate.
Third, I said I had a story of my own. I said it was short. The first statement was the truth, but the second was a lie. I said I was trying to write and I would appreciate your help. That’s not true either — I’m writing just fine at this very moment, I don’t need your goddamn help. I said it wouldn’t take too much of your time — not true.
You said, and I’m cutting and pasting here:
Sure! I’d be delighted to take a look.
So guess what? I am taking you at your word.
Okay, I thought I’d better go get another beer to help grease the wheels and now I’m back. So here we go.
I was born in a small town, like John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Remember how we all sat around arguing that time about whether or not Springsteen was a Jew? And Wade was so appalled — he couldn’t get his head around the idea for some reason. And I got all in his face, having fun, like I was totally outraged: What are you, KKK or something? Jews can’t sing? Jews can’t be born in the U.S.A.? And he goes, No, Rank, no it just — it doesn’t line up. In my head. It was like that time you told him Freddie Mercury was gay and the two of you argued all night until finally Kyle yelled, Dude! The name of the band is
. And the next day all Wade’s Queen on vinyl mysteriously disappeared. Anyway, you said it didn’t matter what Springsteen was, what mattered was we shouldn’t say “a Jew.” You said we should say “Jewish.”
For years I went around studiously avoiding the term “Jew” because I didn’t want to offend anyone — people like you, that is. And then one summer a guy I was working construction with used it in reference to his brother-in-law. And I go, Look, man, I don’t know if you’re supposed to say that these days. And he straightens up and stares at me and goes, What’s wrong with
? And I say, Like it isn’t offensive? And he goes,
a Jew, dickweed. Am I offending you?
So thanks for that, Adam.
And — yes! What the hell! I am going all the way back and starting from day one, with my birth. I can do whatever I want, because it’s my life and it’s my story and it exists and has existed in a very specific way, despite what you have done. It is a thing that hangs in the air around me at all times, like if I didn’t wash for a couple of months, which has sometimes been approximately the case — a personal stench made up from the chemical composition of my sweat, from everything I ate, from everywhere I went, everything I sniffed on the ground in front of me, all the crap I ever laid down and rolled around in.
You know all this, or I thought you did. I gave it to you, these intermittent chunks, I pulled off bloody hank of flesh after bloody hank and just handed them over and you were so coy, you averted your eyes and pretended to be embarrassed like the rest of them when really you were squirreling the hanks away and secretly stitching them together and building Frankenstein’s monster.
Starting again. Beer the third.
I was born in a small town. That is not such a big feat in this country. You were born in a small town, John Cougar was, Springsteen the Jew, everybody was born in a small town. Whoop-de-shit. Let’s not name a specific territory. We both know they are all the fucking same.
There was a dad, there was a mom. You know this too, approximately. The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess. Gord and Sylvie.
Already this feels like a cliché, which is the fault of none other than Adam. It wouldn’t feel that way if you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be part of someone else’s fairy tale, it would just be my own nameless stench, hanging over me. The biggest pisser? The fact that the cliché of me was all you really took, you boiled an entire life, an entire human being, Adam, down into his most basic, boneheaded elements. Good mom plus bad dad hinting at the predictable Oedipal (oh give me a fucking break) background of — voilà — Danger Man! One seriously messed up dude. Not very creative of you is what I’m saying.
Okay so anyway, she died, as you know, and left me with the prick. I know back in school I was always saying how my dad was a prick but I never got specific. What I didn’t say was that he was a prick because he had Small Man Syndrome. I heard that term just a few years ago and immediately thought: Gord. Dad was about 5 ' 5 ½ " and found this intolerable his entire adult life. When I shot up at fourteen, he was delighted — it was as if he had added my height to his own.
Here’s another cliché: every guy whose dad was a prick talks about that moment where he realizes he can take his old man — how empowering it is. But I always knew. I feel like I could’ve taken him at six if I wanted. I was a thug from the moment I popped from the womb, or so rumour has it. Ten pounds, bruiser hands and feet.
is this kid?” my father is said to have hollered when the nuns brought me out from the cold storage room or the basement or wherever they stashed unwanted Catholic babies up for adoption —
But Gord was suspicious. He thought they were trying to pass a toddler off on him.
Sylvie, however, immediately held out her arms to me, bracing herself, bending a little at the knees.
“The little bastard’s old enough to
,” my dad insisted, watching as Sylvie heaved me against her shoulder into a burping position, which I made prompt good use of. Meanwhile a frost had crystallized the room. The nuns did not appreciate the B-word
Their slack faces tightened like sphincters. But what the tight-faced nuns failed to understand was that it had nothing to do with my illegitimate origins. Dad called people “bastard” as a matter of course. Anyone, really — men, women, children. Teachers, bankers, priests. Inanimate objects, even — a sweater with one arm turned inside out, a slippery fork. The nuns were just lucky he didn’t call me a cocksucker, seeing as how he used the terms interchangeably, depending on mood.
Sylvie always told the bastard part of the story reluctantly, but not Gord. He loved to recount the glory of that moment. Not the story of my arrival, but the story of the day he used the B-word in front of nuns.
He bragged about it. That, and the size of me, which — once he had satisfied himself I was an actual infant instead of a masquerading toddler — he took credit for. He felt it reflected well, somehow, on him.
That’s why the knowledge that I could take the prick never held any particular joy or pleasure for me. I didn’t want to take Gord, it would’ve tickled him to no end, he would have loved it.
Look at that wouldya, broke both my arms and legs, that’s my boy did that — bastard barely even broke a sweat!
I never wanted to take him. I just wanted to get away from him.
I had to stop for a while. I got a bit worked up after writing that and went off to drink and watch a little TV and now I am drunk. I just realized I can write you however I want — drunk or sober — and there is nothing you can do about it. Isn’t this great. The freedom of the page. I think I remember you saying something about that. Sounds like something you would say. However I am making a lot of typing mistakes and this is incoherent but I will fix everything tomorrow so you can still read it lucky Adam. Freedom of the page. I think what I take issue with is this “freedom” concept of which you speak. Who gave it to you, that’s my question. You just assume it. It’s not legally enshrined as far as I know. Freedom of speech is a thing, but what you’ve done is a lot more complicated than simply giving utterance, isn’t it. You have taken something, Adam. Let’s be specific. You have taken something that was mine and made it yours. Without even asking. Like if you had said to me, You know what I think about you, Rank? I think you are a dangerously unbalanced thug with an innate criminality nestled somewhere in your genetic soup (quoting you now — surely you recognize this “luminous wordplay”) which I assume has resulted from the early death of your sainted mother and subsequent oppression and, I’m guessing, abuse at the hands of your cartoon-villain father. If you said something like that — to my face, you know, like one man would to another — then I could say to you, Oh, hmm, I see. Well thank you for that Adam but that’s a whole buttload of assumptions you just made and holy shit have you ever put on weight since last we met.
And that would be
. I think that’s what I’m getting at.
Oh Christ I read all this over and I see I haven’t even got past the fact that I was born. I keep getting distracted. I’m going to send what I have so far because I can see it’s going to take longer than I thought to get this down. Maybe I’ll break the emails up from here on in.
Meanwhile my shoulders are all fucking bunched up from yesterday so I think I’ll just go to the gym and start fresh tomorrow — start from the beginning, don’t rant, save the insults, don’t get sidetracked, just fucking hack away at the branches and weeds until I get to the clearing you’ve already hacked out for yourself — where you’ve built a little cottage and cultivated a little garden, where you thought you might lounge and relax and dream your lying bullshit dreams forever, where you are now standing, perhaps cowering, chubby and pompous, waiting for the bleeding, vengeful, earth-quaking arrival of Reality, in the hulking persona of its raging representative, Rank.