He muffled the dim sunlight with a turn of his body and backed into the warmth behind him. The pressure of an arm fell about his waist and his dream of a futuristic café continued. Every server looked the same and there was blue everywhere. It was like dining in the sky.
The café walls shook violently when the pounding began. Bam! Bam! Bam! The servers were angry: “You let me in right now, Robert! You fucking let me in you fucking coward!”
Who in the hell was Robert?
Bam! Bam! BAM! Something moved behind him and shifted him away from his dream. The servers were replaced by a single hula girl statuette on a bedside table that was also covered in a hodge-podge of old hardcover books, a half-full ashtray made of purple glass, and three Christmas balls in a wicker bowl shining red, blue, and green. Its sole drawer was missing, having been pulled out of its housing the night before. The lamp that sat among the detritus was a thrift shop nightmare: brown ceramic base of a smiling Buddha and the shade a beaded affair born in 1977. The beads swung and shook as the door opened and slammed against the bookshelf behind it.
In the doorway was a female Rufus didn’t recognize. But she knew Robert, who had retreated back to the bed to retrieve his pants. “I knew it! I knew you had a woman in here, you fucking arsehole!”
Rufus sat up on his elbow and regarded her. No doubt his tousled hair on the pillow and half his face hidden by the duvet had created a bit of confusion. He saw that he had cleared it up the moment the duvet fell away to reveal his decidedly un-female form.
“You- You… Oh my god.” Her accusatory finger had been raised since she gained access to the room, but faltered when she realized her grievous error. Her eyes tore themselves from Rufus and fell again on Robert who was leaning against the bedpost and lighting a cigarette, seemingly unfazed.
“What the fuck?” she managed.
Robert blew out a cloud of smoke and regarded her with concern. “Something wrong, love?”
“You have a man in here,” she said.
“Full marks for you, my girl,” said Robert. “Would you like to try for double or quits in the next round?” He took a long drag and Rufus couldn’t help but smile at him. He just really didn’t give a fuck.
“You’re gay?” said the girl, clearly still missing the plot.
“Oh! So close!” said Robert. “Too bad, really.”
The look of despair and confusion on her face was heartbreaking to Rufus but he didn’t say a word.
“You sick freak. I’m done,” she said. She threw something hard to the carpet, backed out of the room, and disappeared. After a moment another door slammed shut and Robert walked coolly to the door, giving the hallway a glance.
Satisfied that she was gone, Robert turned to pick up the item she threw. It was a key. He placed it on the table near the bowl of Christmas ornaments and said: “So… coffee?”
“Sure,” said Rufus. He blinked as Robert removed himself from the room in a haze of cigarette smoke and returned several minutes later with a steaming cup in his hand and two shot glasses: one containing milk, the other with sugar.
“Don’t have a proper tea service. Sorry,” he said as he nudged the books aside on the bedside table. He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and regarded Rufus. “You look gorgeous in the morning.”
Rufus smiled. “Thank you,” he replied and took a sip of the coffee, black. “Who was that woman?”
“Oh her?” said Robert, glancing at the door. He scratched his head. “Girlfriend. Well…ex now, I suppose.” His hands rested on his hips and he turned back toward Rufus. “I’m for a shower. Just be a tick.” He turned to make for the door opposite the wall the bed was situated against.
Before he reached the threshold, Rufus asked: “You’re bisexual?”
Robert didn’t turn to answer. “Does it really matter?” He entered the bathroom and dropped his pants to the floor in the doorway. Rufus supposed it didn’t.
The club was a new one for Rufus. He had finalized the divorce from his wife eight months before and friends had been urging him to get on with his life. He had bogged himself down with formulae and chemical equations, but nothing brought him joy anymore. Sarai had sullied their marriage with another and it had hollowed him out. They had had a child together, after all. She was supposed to give a shit; he had. But the damage was done and the betrayal overwhelmed him. His brain divorced his heart from his soul as amicably and with as much finality as their divorce decree had. He was rendered useless by it.
It wasn’t just the betrayal that left him cold; it was everything. This had become his life and yet – it wasn’t his anymore. He simply wasn’t able to feel.
The tedium of his everyday schedule hadn’t helped either. He had thought that routine would relieve him from thinking. Unfortunately, it worked a little too well; it rendered him inert. He woke, showered, dressed, ate, worked, ate, worked, ate, worked some more, went to bed, and repeated it all over and over. Occasionally someone would drag him to the pub. Other times he would force march himself around St. Andrew’s Square and out to the Scott Monument and back, but nothing seemed to help. He found the weather to be neither dreary nor bracing. He found his work to be neither challenging nor facile. Everything was just incredibly ordinary.
He saw faces but not features as he passed people in the street, as though he were a ghost in his own existence and they were the populace of a simulation of what real life was meant to be. It was so untenable. He felt stifled and dead.
He didn’t see his daughter much; she had gone with her mother and they were in London. He couldn’t dream of getting away even though his superiors wanted him to. He needed the work. He didn’t have anything else. Even his daughter didn’t need him.
Eventually it got to the point that he caught himself staring at the Bank of Scotland and wondering how difficult it would be to rob it blind, saying to himself that with the right chemical bomb, one could smoke up the room, render the staff unconscious, and all the things one would need in order to take what he wanted and not give a shit about the little old nan whose life savings was wrapped up in the cash at that particular branch. But where had that thought come from? Was it really him standing there, rainwater soaking his hair and dripping down his nose as he tried to mentally commit a crime?
It had upset him so much that he had bought a hat at Jenners and went home, rain dripping from the brim of his new trilby. By the time the next weekend rolled around, the criminal thought was still in his brain like a beggar who wouldn’t stop pestering him. It was stupid, asinine. It upset him all over again. It had, in fact, upset him so much that he had gone to that club.
The music was much too loud for his taste. The room was too dark for his taste as well, but then, that’s what people wanted: to be rendered deaf and blind to whomever they had chosen to take home. Rufus had always been picky when it had come to companions. He was picky when he had chosen Sarai to marry. She had never led him to believe that she was the cheating type - right up until he actually caught her, of course. He had prided himself on his ability to judge character and he had pronounced her superior. It was an even bigger blow to his ego when he found out later that she had been cheating on him for months. She was an excellent actress, it seemed.
Rufus was determined to not be fooled again. He was convinced that he would never marry, never commit his heart again to anyone, never ever fall in love. And so, he had come to the club. A friend of a friend had recommended it and, as he walked from the bar, his fourth beer to his lips, he searched the crowd to make sure that friend of a friend hadn’t also chosen that night to attend. There were no familiar faces.
All the women looked occupied, most of them ensconced with their friends all together in a tight gaggle of low necklines, high hemlines, and the occasional group giggle. It was intimidating when he was a younger man, and if he was honest, groups of women scared the life out of him now too. There was no way he could approach them. And those that were seated alone were absorbed in their phones. He felt guilty for intruding on the decidedly “fuck off” body language, but he had to do something. He walked over to a curly-headed brunette who was texting at lightning speed into a pink phone and sat gingerly at the end of the curved booth she occupied. She never looked up.
He didn’t want to stare, but she had a lip ring. Sarai had never followed that trend and he didn’t know if it would hurt her to kiss with it. He supposed not. Best not to ask her anyway as it might prove to be a rude question. He looked about the room in his desperation to come up with a good ice-breaker and felt the man staring at him before he had even made eye contact.
The music began with an ethereal mix of sound. A dulcet male voice came over the speakers as the thumping rhythm began and the thin man with the mop of black hair who had stared at him from the middle of the dance floor began to move. He closed his eyes and let the rhythm take him as the singer sang:
I broke my bones playing games with you
This type of fun it makes me blue
Oh I – I think I’m into you
How much do you want me too?
What are you prepared to do?
Think I’m gonna make it worse
I talk to you but it don’t work
I touch you but it starts to hurt
What have I been doing wrong?
Oh tell me what it is you want…
His movements weren’t typical. His lithe body splayed out this way and that, never losing the rhythm and becoming more and more frenzied as the music built up, melody rising higher as the singer sang of being tormented by an object of one’s desire. Rufus Sixsmith was enraptured. The singer repeated what his heart had begun to wonder:
“Oh tell me what it is you want Oh tell me what it is you want Oh tell me what it is you want.”
He lay across the bottom of the bed draped in nothing but a towel and Rufus watched him in the dimmest light of the dawn. The purple glass ashtray was resting on his stomach as he smoked yet another cig. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a girlfriend?” asked Rufus.
“Would you have come home with me if I had?” asked Robert.
“Probably not,” said Rufus, thinking of Sarai.
“Then I was wise not to volunteer that information,” he replied with another quiet puff, blowing smoke to the ceiling. “It was pretty much over anyway. This was just the last of it.”
“She seemed pretty invested,” said Rufus, thinking of himself.
“Not so much,” said Robert. “She’s been shagging her ex since before we got together. She’s just as fucked up as I am, I suppose.”
“You’re not fucked up,” said Rufus.
“Aren’t I? How are you an authority? You’ve known me for a collection of hours, erm- See! I can’t even recall your name! Why should I take comfort from your words? I bet you don’t remember my name either.”
“You’re Robert and I’m Rufus,” said Rufus quietly. He sat up straighter in the bed and stuffed a pillow behind his head.
Robert let out a bark of laughter. “Rufus!” he said. “Rufus? Christ! Did your parents want you to get your head bashed in before you were twenty? Who would dare look at such a glorious creature as you and bestow upon him such an inglorious name?”
“Oh shut up and give us a fag, will you?” asked Rufus. He passed him a cigarette and the lighter. “What do you do for a living, Robert?” he asked around lighting his smoke.
“I teach music,” he said.
“Bollocks,” said Rufus.
“Well, no,” said Robert, blushing slightly. “But I feel as if I do. I’m the father of a computer program that helps composers write music. So, in a way, I teach computers music.” He turned his head toward Rufus. “And what does a man named Rufus, who managed to somehow survive his childhood unscathed and unscarred despite his unfortunate moniker, do for a living?”
“I’m a chemist,” said Rufus.
“Seriously?” asked Robert. He stubbed out his cigarette and handed the ashtray over to Rufus. He rolled over, exposing one well-turned arse cheek and the long line of his back, his fringe falling in his eyes. “Like at a Boots… or do you work for the government?”
“The government, I suppose,” said Rufus. “My lab is under government contract.”
Robert let a dreamy smile play over his lips. “A G-man,” he mused. “I got fucked by a G-man last night.”
Rufus rolled his eyes. “Hardly.”
“You hardly fucked me?” asked Robert. “You mean I’ve been gypped?” He sat up on his left hip, the towel fallen uselessly to the bed, and mockingly protested: “You’ve got to be joking! How dare you cheat me, you bastard!” Rufus couldn’t help but laugh as Robert continued: “I demand a proper fucking, right now! You son of a bitch! I pay my taxes! I won’t be cheated out of a proper screw from the government! Come on, you fucker, fuck me properly!”
Rufus chuckled. He stubbed out his cigarette and set the ashtray aside. “If you insist,” he remarked warningly, “but I’ll be asking for double time and a half… and it’ll come out of your taxes.”