It is a Friday night during summer in the not-to-be-out-poshed neighbourhood of Point Grey, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Former Colony of the British Empire. Ancestral lands of the Coast Salish group of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Earth (for readers of the far future). The temperature outside is sixteen degrees Celsius, and if you’re not a smoker and you practice mindfulness, you can almost smell the Pacific Ocean of nearby English Bay. It is also the year 2012, which necessarily arouses all kinds of idiosyncratic associations in your silly human mind.
Now we are there, and we see John Foreskin, twenty-something-year-old, white cis hetero male walking briskly down West 14th Avenue, a distinct hitch in his giddy-up. His hands are buried deep in his pockets. His shoulders are doing the work of the popped collar he is not wearing. And at first glance, we correctly infer a combination of nicotine, diuretic fluids, and refined sugars. The continent among us feel an almost organic contempt.
Some twenty paces back, at the house where John rooms, his millennial associates are busy debasing themselves under the false pretence of immortality. All are still young enough to mistake their looks and vigour for signs of inner virtue. John Foreskin finds parties to be exhausting, sullying affairs where one mixes what one is with too much of what others are. And John Foreskin knows that too much mixing leaves a person as nobody, least of all themselves. At the tender age of twenty-something, he has already begun cultivating the sternness that he will eventually come to associate with adult-male-juvenile hairlines, especially on solitary walks like this. But tonight, he just needed to get out.
He arrived in Vancouver over a year ago following a stint of tree planting up north. Then after couch surfing for a couple of months, he finally found a room in this student house near UBC. It’s an expensive part of town, Point Grey, but the number of people in the house, as many as eight at a time, keeps the rent low. Plus the house itself is in shambles, one of the last student houses of its kind in the neighbourhood. Most of the others have been torn down and replaced with family homes, families that stare at John and his housemates and wonder what’s wrong, where the parents are, and why caucasian youth seem to age so rapidly. John’s not a student anymore, but he can pass for one and is even younger than some of his housemates, so there are no connotations of predation, at least within the house. But the neighbourhood parents don’t seem to want him anywhere near their children.
At the start of John’s walk, he encounters some of them, well-to-do thirty- and forty-somethings, smugly toeing the line, fulfilling nature’s prerogative, then signing up said prerogatives for extracurriculars. Their small children are, by all appearances, in heaven, totally aloof to the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition.
I alone am at fault, John tries to convey with a meek smile, as the mass of baseless pride lodged in his forehead embarrasses even the smallest of the children. They gawk while the parents can only usher them to the opposite edge of the sidewalk, can only wonder what ungodly chance of nature could spawn such a creature. John digs his hands even deeper into his pockets, trying to take up as little of the sidewalk as possible, determined not to light a cigarette till he’s at least off his own street.
If there is a track, their lives are on it, John thinks.
And yet, there is no envy this time, if only because…John senses nothing magical about them. And John, being a twenty-something millennial prone to mood swings, is all about magic. Whether magic is anything other than the caffeinated whimsy of youth is a question for another time, another phase of one’s life.
John plods on, his pace brisk, and finally reaches a busy strip. West 10th. Lighting his first cigarette of the walk, he employs a steady, vacant gaze to accumulate several small victories over passersby who make the mistake of underestimating him. As he passes a yoga studio, it occurs to him that he will probably never preside over the docile harem that his pedigree would have surely justified in bygone times. That his greatness is not immediately apparent to others seems to accord with the discomfort he feels around men of greater height, strength, ability, and overall life force. These encounters, by no means rare, interrupt, but do not extinguish, John’s distinct sense of being somehow special, somehow great.
He next passes a string of establishments boasting both bars and grills, establishments where skirts are weaponized in the name of shaking what one’s mother has given one, flaunting it if one has it, and, more concretely, paying one’s rent and tuition. But the Skirts never regard John in the same way they regard the other cis hetero male patrons, and John tells himself this is because he isn’t “daddy material.”
On the outdoor patios, wheat-bellied daddies hush their wives to better hear themselves agree about sports and oil prices. In their satiated eyes, John discerns first the inherited will to dominate, and then, hidden beyond that, the withering, still-born form of the utterly dominated. Beside each pear-shaped patriarch sits the tragic tendency of the dominated to imitate their masters: at the sunburnt age of fifty-something, each wife has become trapped in an uncanny impersonation of her husband.
The sun finally sets.
John Foreskin plods on, passing various hipster cafés where he knows he’d encounter more of his own kind: men hopelessly caffeinated and drowning in entertained possibility as they vent gasses barely visible to the human eye. These café men are a different breed, more wiry and high-strung, far more susceptible to dysentery and yellow fever (and every other ethnophilic fever for that matter), but otherwise brighter and better preserved than their inert patio cousins. Barely able to contain themselves at either end, they, too, set a strong example of what John needs to fear becoming, for with age their skittish momentum becomes more weakness than virtue. They have no business imbibing that much caffeine, let alone with milk and sugar. But they carry on as their bone density decreases, and their inner cheeks become more discoloured from the daily friction of violent wiping. John knows swamp ass to be an epidemic in Vancouver, not just in his own house. But nobody ever speaks of the things that go on in the café bathrooms. They walk into them urgently then walk out, however many minutes later, head held high, without even once confessing the shame that has transpired within, the shame that follows them back to their seats, that lingers in the bathroom, waiting to accost the next visitor. The music and the quaint furniture of these cafés encourage the delusion that this is Paris circa 1929, that one of the loose-bowled Xanders, or Julians, by virtue of his name and his tortoiseshell frames will be the next Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, the delusion that this is capital-c culture. Warmed-up croissants and for-here espresso cups help make it so. But it is all a lie. The sugar content of the cookies betrays the time and place as Post-Colonial Privilege, population: Children of Sin.
Lurking in the darkness, John feels the call of the lighting and the plush leather. He braves isolation though, as he passes one café after another. He knows the ruggedness he strives for can never be achieved by protracted sitting in air-conditioned environments. Nor will sugar (crystalline levity) help lower his hairline.
When he finally veers off the main strip, back towards his own neighbourhood, the female baristas of Vancouver West breathe a collective sigh of relief. For now, they are safe from John’s prickly, craven glare. John is still twenty-something. He still thinks that women find his mix of eccentricity and inner torment attractive. He has not yet become self-conscious of his particular brand of courtship—his latching on—and so has not yet become ashamed of it. In the coming years, certain interactions with down-to-earth females, invariably of lower blood sugar, will give John the inkling that his schtick is passed expiry, and that serious adult partnerships will require that he bring something other than self-pity and mommy issues to the table.
Closer to home now, down the back lane of West 44th, John Foreskin walks to exhaust himself. He lights another cigarette and begins raking his fingernails across his too-hairy forearms. He is a creature of the night., his audience is at once nowhere and everywhere. If no omen presents itself in the next few seconds, he’ll have to pass by the house like a loser, past the music and boozy chatter, and keep walking until he gets that unmistakable feeling that the night has run its course.
Suddenly, he sees it. Abandoned. Left out for the taking. An old exercise bike. A relic from the days when men’s socks were longer than their shorts.
From when those patio fucks could still run a mile.
It is John’s now. He can lift it. And it’s only twenty or so meters to the house.
This is it.
It will be my outlet for when leaving the house feels impossible.
John will sweat on his own terms now, long before he’s ever left his room, long before the sun can have her way with him, and then again long after his final encounters of the day. He will have his own secret exercises, and the other men in the house will wonder where all of his new vigour has come from. And the women of the house will be the first to notice and the longest to look as his thighs transform into twin promises of stamina and virility.
As he lugs the bike into the yard, then through the kitchen, John Foreskin thanks God and the Universe that nobody is around to witness the indignity of his labours. He hears them out on the front porch and in the living room, jabbering at high speed, but he ducks down to the basement before any of them notice.
John has completed his quest. He’s sweating and more alive than he’s ever been in his entire life. Removing his shirt, he stands in front of his full-length mirror to confirm his self-image.
Screenwriter, repped by The Tobias Agency. Editor to novelists and academics. Deeply interested in how we, as individuals and societies, inhabit and shift paradigms. Debut Novel “Good Boy Alchemy” to be published Summer 2023. Twitter @Nick Guthry
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