He was the bad guy anyway, according to me, and according to that portion of the world I canvassed on the subject, who were friends of mine, cronies you might say, but who else would I canvass? Word was he'd come back from a two year find-slash-escape himself tour of the Orient, or the Amazon, could have been Spain, had been inquiring after me, was I still around Dublin? Yes I was, no thanks for asking, and enjoying it all the more in his absence, pass it on. I'd even managed to drop my habit of scanning the byways for his silhouette, that miserable slouch that haunts my dreams like childhood trauma, like the death of Bambi's mum.
I should have stayed sharp and squinty, shouldn't have let my guard slip, because one wet Tuesday night there he was in my eyeline, there I was in his. Small city, bound to happen, we agreed to go for a drink.
"You know what your problem is?" he spat at me over pint four, and I could have ventured a few suggestions - too much comfort, too much fun, that teacher who called me out for a phony when I was 14 - but I wanted to know what he thought, I always wanted to know what he thought (I'm still hoping for the moment to arrive when I don't want to know what he thought). "Your problem is that you've given up on being a genius. And my problem is I haven't."
He pitched it as a sad and bitter witticism, and I thought, How witty, how sad, blew air through my nose, hmmph. Poor sap, I beamed at him. Let it go. And then I thought, Balls, maybe that means he'll turn out to be a genius, hoped I'd turned off my telepathy so he wouldn't hear me.
He taught me about genius, literary genius, when I was thirteen. During a lonesome lunchbreak in my first year in secondary school he found me reading a book about emotionally tormented wizards. Infantile pap, he declared. The greatest novel of all time, I countered. Oh, how he sighed. "If you knew anything," he said, bored into pedagogic condecension by my gaucheness, "you'd know that Ulysses is the greatest novel of all time. It's a work of genius." According to him this man Joyce had reconstructed the world by means of sounds that onomatopoeically - I understood the term, thank God, primary school teachers were mad for it back in the ninties - felt like the world. He described howa single word written by Joyce - a single word! - looked like a stream of random letters but sounded like waves crashing on a pebbled beach, the pebbles audibly clattering over each other as the waves rolled back out to sea. You could count the pebbles by the sound, he said, you could tell if they were the size of peanuts or chestnuts or one of those nuts in between.
He'd caught me at an impressionable time, the precocious huckster, really got his fangs in with that teachable moment. Despite my protestations on behalf of my novel, despite my simple love of sad wizards and talking dragons, as puberty was juicing me from a child into a man-child the thinness of fantasy was ceding ground to the real. But it was already clear to me that the reality of the looming grown-up world wouldn't be enough, that my parents' world of jobs and cars and mortgages wouldn't be sustaining. His description sounded like genius all right, if not outright wizardry; a book of incantations not only to speak the world into being, but to breath life into its concrete lungs. It was magic, but it was an urbane, grown-up magic.
Across the tin table he twirled his cigarette like a character in a Coward play. "What a charming tale," he drawled. "Mr Urbane dragging up Mr Suburbane by your humble forelock."
Ah, the old familiar dig at suburbia, that great grey nothing from which I hail. He had deep, spreading roots in the rich loam of art and academe, whereas my own family tree was like something you'd buy in a garden centre.
"I think you graced me with that charming remenisence the last time we met. And the time before that," he said, revolted by my lack of novelty.
Well, thought I defiantly, I'm hardly going to lay out recent personal scoop just to watch you shit all over it, you vicious bastard, wondered if I had any recent personal scoop that might interest him, couldn't think of any, fell into a depression.
"You know," he said, suddenly expansive, "I figured my life by now would be this swirling salon of luminaries and impresarios. Diaghilev to the left of me, Bowie to the right, Scott and Zelda duking it out in the bathroom, Beckett never quite making it to the party. I thought our salon chatter would be an unofficial record of the great artistic movements of our time."
He seemed to working himself up to a flight of eloquence, an act of verbal and creative generosity to lift all our perishing spirits, but then his eyelids dropped, his shoulders sagged, and he said, "But maybe all I get is talking to you, and other disappointments like you, in shitty un-salon-like pubs like this."
I was stung, but wanted him to go further, insult me more, expedite my offence-taking preliminary to my leave-taking. He closed his eyes, twisted his mouth into a moue of disgust - a moue, I shit you not - and I wondered how I'd disappointed him in the last few seconds.
"I made that speech a few days ago," he said, "but it came off better then. I've forgotten most of it. Perhaps," and he looked at me significantly, "the company was more inspiring. So, still doing drugs?"
Heavens no, knocked that on the head thanks, the pills and the coke anyway. On the other hand, I'd nasally administered a threshold dose of alphamethyltriptamine in the bathroom after pint one, in order to mitigate by its entactogenic properties the paranoia-inducing effects of his company. The AMT was also a sterling aide-de-camp in my ongoing battle with an acid comedown from the weekend, not that I worried about acid, non-habit forming as it is, though I've never gotten my hands on enough to test that theory. I suppose I had what some people might call a drug problem, ho ho, but it made all the other problems so much easier to deal with, ha ha.
"Yeah yeah, non-habit forming drug taking. Pathetic. Think you're a genius of degeneracy?" He pulled up his hoodie and T-shirt, showed me his wear and tear, a bulge on his right side below the ribs. "That's my liver," he said. The skin shone, glowed a brassy yellow like God's own index finger, assuming God is, as I've always suspected, a 40 a day man.
I told him about the girl I'd gone to bed with a couple of weeks back, about her Christian revulsion of the deed, her alcoholic escape from agency, her whispered intimations the next morning that I'd abused her, the rape accusation I expected any day to come knocking on my door.
"I fucked five women yesterday," he said, "And one man. I licked the shit off his dick."
I told him my father had died this year.
"Lucky you," he said, "Mine's still alive".
The spirit of death enveloped us then, chthonic vapours seeped into our pints and down our throats, and I worried about the power of incantations, because my father hadn't died. It seemed that I became aware of the atoms I was made of, and that I could feel all that empty space inside the atoms, that quantum void between the electrons and the nucleus, and that empty space was death.
"Smile, lads," said a passing mum, not my mum, nor his, but playing the part of our mum for a generous moment. She was concerned for us probably, flirting in a way that was kind, like the memory of lasciviousness. "You're both too pretty for frowning," she added with a wink
"Fuck off you horrible cunt, this man used to be genius," he bellowed, and then hocked up a terrifying wad of brown phlegm, sent her scurrying to the safety of the bar, muttering oaths.
A part of me could have hugged him. But instead I started putting on my coat. I said it had been good to see him, told him he was looking well, said I'd missed this, this savage little repartee thing we had. I couldn't tell if I was lying or telling the truth. He raised his eyebrows, nodded or perhaps shook his head, it was hard to tell.
"You've always kept me down, always," he said towards the bleary end. "I would have made it if you hadn't given up on me."
He was my first real love, counting only the reciprocated loves, and though it may be hard to see, hard to put your finger on, hard to take the temperature of it, the love endures. Sometimes I even wish him well, wish him better. Sometimes I want my face to be the last thing he sees before he dies, my face turning away from him. Most days I don't think of him at all.