First published on Thought Catalog //
When he smoked cigarettes he was afraid. Where he’d hold the butt was far too close to the cherry to not burn his fingers but that was only because he didn’t want to touch his mouth. So he was afraid of both of those things happening. More afraid that it would be against his will.
He had a habit of smoking them, the cigarettes, down to his yellow-tip finger until the passing cherry impolitely reminded him that it was time to move his fingers up. This wasn’t always a comfortable moment. Rarely, if ever, if he’s being quite honest.
He would look around and see if anyone had seen him give out his small yelp of agony as the bits of young flesh sang for their mistreatment. He’d look around and see someone standing there watching him. This time presented a greasy man with an overinflated birthday balloon belly, the string dangling unapologetically from his tracksuit trousers. Grease looked at him while nonchalantly managing to smoke his little fag without hindrance, and not giving any notice to virginal or homoerotic language that kept appearing to our man in his head.
Maybe it was all the ironic gay jokes he made in grammar school, the other boys laughing nervously. Or maybe it was just the fact that the cigarette had somehow retained a weighty few hundred years of transient terminology that bore down on its faggy end until it couldn’t hold any longer.
Grease stood there waiting for something, looking back occasionally, not really knowing what he was watching while sucking on his butt.
Quiet burn: The cherry knocked on his middle finger gingerly. No yelp this time. Just a look down at his fingers.
Hello, sir. Just passing through.
Oh, sorry certainly, certainly.
Then our man would slide his gentleman fingers down, with a chivalrous thumb tilted at the filter for added comfort.
It was obvious to him that he had a thing about touching his mouth. Couldn’t be any other way. He tried to hide it but he couldn’t. It had become conscious and gnawing. There was this miniature Woody Allen housed in his brain that warned him of myriad germs and corrosive substances that would find themselves silently painted on door handles, buttons, elevator keys, drawer knobs, hands, that he could only bare to touch with his skin if no one was around looking to see his mental incapacity at work. Or was it play. Either way, he didn’t like Woody Allen.
So as we’ve noticed, our man, we’ll call him Ray, just happened to be outside by this point. Sounds like a train platform.
Grease approached him and looked him up and down, the string wriggling from under his belly swung like a pendulum counting waddled steps.
Woss wrong with you lad?
No, there’s summink wrong with you ain’t there. Why’d’you keep screamin?
I’m not screaming, sir. I’m sorry but I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Grease had turned so his hair faced Ray. It was soaked with fat. A train went by, single carriage, and Grease watched it. One carriage. Limited capacity. Ray looked back to the fat-soaked head. He felt sorry for thinking that.
Yeah I’ve heard you screamin. What is it? You a ponce or something?
Ray wasn’t surprised by the hostility, the honesty. He edged his way off as Grease looked across the platforms while awaiting a reply to his enquiry. Ray didn’t like the way things were headed at this point. He didn’t even say sorry before he walked off, which he was known to do.
Seemingly, Grease wasn’t too concerned about the situation or Ray’s exit as he looked back to see him go and let him leave without any more questions. He did say one thing, it was: Ponce.
Things were hot and cold in varying degrees all over that place. Ray liked to move a lot to be a part of something for a moment, before he got anxious and had to leave.
Sorry, he’d say. Then he would go out for a little walk, move the bone a bit, send it somewhere that it should never have been in the first place, send it out and then watch what happens. Walking silently down the road, everything else around him noisy though, he held in the whispers he usually comforted himself with when alone.
The high high buildings leaned in and told him it was alright, time was going on anyway and he didn’t have to help or cry and it wouldn’t benefit anyone if he did cry or help, it was all going to end the same way anyway.
Clanging noises were now coming at him from the scaffold above. He saw floating hard hats moving around up above him as his hands found his pockets and went on walking, getting the feeling that he was getting in the way of these gruff fellows. Perhaps a wrench would drop through the air and strike him on the head and relieve him of his brain and Woody Allen. An accident. A tragedy. Someone would find it funny though, surely.
He heard wolf-whistling behind him and his ears perked up to sniff the cause. The eyes under the hard hats were looking at him and laughing. Someone was doing the whistling. There, that tall one on the left. Alpha male.
He suddenly became conscious of his effeminate stride.
Sorry, he mumbled.
No one said anything back. They went back to their work laughing still. No one even noticed he’d said anything. The steel cacophony continued, and without him, and now his sorry was part of the windless landscape and not part of him. He noticed that but he said it again anyway.
Disturbed, he turned on his heel and went back along the road the way he came, begging the sky that the Alpha wouldn’t start whistling again. People walking with their heads fastened on straight looking ahead, brushed by him. He said it again, a couple times, a few times: to all of them, that thing that he says. He was almost away from the scene, the scaffold way back behind him now, the builders knocking iron against grey iron, the colour he could feel most.
He quickened his pace, his hands slipping out of the pockets that protected them. All he could hear were people shouting and screaming. They were demanding something, and he never could quite understand it, nor what it was they wanted him to do. What was it they thought would happen if they could only get their way? He could feel himself becoming embittered. Tasted grey.
He said the thing that he says, looking up at all of them running around to all the places they had to be at and chasing the dogs barking on leashes, dogs he sometimes smiled at that. They never had to say sorry, he thought, they couldn’t. He was sorry for them though. Punished for doing what instinct told them, and even for what it didn’t. Ray had no instincts so his sympathy was just that. He couldn’t feign empathy.
He would soon be inside and away from all of the noise, all those people and all those flying shoulders, away from those things happening out in the mess. He looked at a poster: “Sometimes it’s good to be a sheep”, it read. He understood those words. He understood but he didn’t like it.
A boy went by singing like a bird, to the annoyance of his mother. That bird would be shot down eventually, Ray thought. With that, he could empathise.
“Make money fast” a smaller one said, further along the wall. Success, he thought, so he wouldn’t have to say sorry anymore. He didn’t even want money, he didn’t want to hear those annoying voices, the voices that said nothing but shouted so much, so close to tears, or so close to laughter, one or the other. Sometimes he did those things, quiet and away, with friends, in between saying sorry. He had friends. Or did they have him. They seemed to become his friends without his input and indifferent to his concerns.
He was just sitting there alone (said it again anyway) with only the hollow noise rising up the outside wall of that dirty block of flats. Nothing was happening in those flats, nothing at all, no life. All barren, musky death hanging around on the walls, put in frames, nailed into the plaster for temporary posterity, or carpeted wall-to-wall. Ray looked at the rug and saw its speckled surface rife with dead skin and dandruff and dust. It needed a good shaking out the window, like a lot of things, but that would be too much effort, even revolutionary to him. He played with its edge under his shoe.
For whatever reason he stood up. Oh, he said, opening and looking out the window, I feel as if the world is saying sorry to me too now (it wasn’t).
Oh you don’t have to do that, he said. His limp wrist shooed it away. He didn’t think it had to, he understood the things that happened and understood the things that were going to happen.
He opened the window a little wider and leaned out.
He said it, twice probably.
Grease wiped his brow with his fingers and took a bite into a medium-rare hamburger, somewhere.
Then the pavement apologised for missing.