There’s a halo around my eyes like I’m looking through a dirty beer bottle’s bottom & the lights in the courtroom’s ceiling are piercing and I’m thinking of you, Oscar Pistorius. Your accent is just foreign enough to be exotic, and your notoriety for being notorious is as captivating as constipation that stretches out over days of meals that you cannot believe your stomach can make room for. The body, as the French writers are always reminding us, is insistent in its pleas for attention.
Several weeks ago, I hurt my knee falling while drunk, so I suppose that makes us brothers of a sort, Oscar. Though your physique in the police photos of you standing on your stumps, naked but for boxers, was far more impressive than mine has become of late, sagging under the burdens of burdens & sloth & things to do postponing other things to do. The way your body terminated suddenly below the knees made it seem as if you had been foreshortened, as if you were the subject of your own magic trick, albeit one without a box & an audience that cringes more than cheers.
What to do in Key West? Well, during our break, he tells me he “partied, chased women,” which I imagine is quite different from how Stevens spent his time there. When I think of Stevens on the beach, attempting to round out the order of sound, I picture him lily white & paunchy, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, his thin pale legs’ flesh sticking from his shorts like the bare ends of Popsicles that have just been pulled from their wrappers.
For years I felt the call of the beach like a vague, persistent longing, a yearning for shore & sky & a warm breeze that ruffles your hair & bare feet on the hot pavement as you walk back to the beach after lunch & the sun high, high in the yellow sky, hanging like a beacon above the water ice seller’s cart slumped in the soft sand up toward the dune. Then one day that longing left, and in its place I felt not so much as a hole as the impression of where a hole ought to have been. As if the hole had been dug in sand that had immediately begun spilling down its edges, erasing the person I used to be.
Violence, violence and bodies. I have never been drowned but can imagine doing so, the desperate gasp at the end that brings only water. Nor have I been shot but have heard that it supposedly feels, at first, like being punched very hard by a hot fist. He testified that the bullet broke his femur as he ran so his leg wrapped around him like a snake, like rubber, briefly boneless in the moment before his inertia carried him forward onto the pavement. How, Oscar, do you think Reeva felt when the shots hit her body? Was there a moment when she felt the kiss of the round that hit her head, before its edges opened like a flower?
Upon impact, be it with a target or soft tissue, such as an elbow or a hip of the side of a head, the bullet in question—which is partitioned like a grapefruit—is designed to open its arms like the petals of a lily, opening its arms to embrace its recipient. And then, by passing through their body with great violence (as the tips of its petals are sharp as razors), cleanse them of the sins of this world and prepare them for the next. Where I imagine all the bathrooms are bright & clean, free of vermin and the booming reverberations of other toilets being flushed in other poorly lit marble-bedecked bathrooms in which the tinny echoes of the central courtyard sound like transmissions from some mumbling god.
But maybe, if we listen closely enough, we can suss out some manner of message in the radiators’ subarachnoid gurgling, something that might help us parse the reams of peer-reviewed papers and protocols that threaten to multiply and so spill off of desks and file cabinets and onto & then cover our floors and couch cushions and decorative plants. Though you may not seek it, life’s effluvia will find you.
One of the times I was miserable, when I was in Key West, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I can’t remember when exactly but I do remember wearing a ringed t-shirt with a print of a Spam container on its front, when I was in Key West in my middle-teens with my family on a forced holiday in late July, when walking outside feels like being hit in the face by a sweaty armpit, we went to lunch one day, the same day we saw Hemingway’s house, the one festooned in polydactyl cats, we had lunch at one of those ubiquitous milquetoast outdoor grill-cum-bar spots that are so popular in towns that largely exist to pour drinks, and I ordered a lemonade and I’m fairly certain, to this day, that the waitress took pity on me and spiked it with vodka.
As the walk away from the restaurant was a particularly bright one, and though it may have been the sun in my eyes the world seemed lit from within, pulsing & blurred around its edges as seen through cheap drugstore reading glasses. The older I get the more my memories and fantasies begin to intertwine, to the point that I sometimes have difficulty recalling whether what I’m recalling is a memory or a fantasy or the memory of a fantasy of. In college, when my sex-starved friend confessed to having a nocturnal emission after dreaming about masturbating, my reaction was to laugh so hard that I fell out of my chair. Now I like to think I’d be more sympathetic, recognizing that the line between what we experience and what we dream is a thin one, if it exists at all.
The difference being that in the morning, once the banal mechanics of the day have begun to grind their gears, dreams tend to fade so that in their wake they leave only the merest whisper, like a stray hair against a cheek. But, though reduced, those whispers of dream tend to linger, often far longer than do the memories of our actual experiences. I cannot really recall, for example, precisely how I reacted to the news of my father’s death, but I do remember the feeling of feeling scooped out every morning for months after dreams at whose edges his presence lingered like a half-forgotten undergraduate athletic trainer standing behind the coaching staff on some game’s sidelines, enveloped in a bubble of his silence of his own making that insulates him from the misplaced passion and vicarious aggression swirling around.
The sound of the crowd sounded like the alternating murmur and roar of the sea. My father’s voice managed to cut through the chaff, bothering me so tremendously that I paused by him on my run to defend the goal and, breathing heavily, told him to shut the hell up, much to the amusement of the other parents in attendance. What, Oscar, did the cheering crowds sound like to you? Did their roars fill your head until you could no longer hear the sound of your own thoughts? Hence the obsession with guns, with spending your free time on shooting ranges blasting targets in preparation for conflict with shadowy criminals in the violent, race-riven culture you call home?
Between 2012 and 2013, there were 16,259 murders in South Africa, about 31.1 per 100,000 people. In 2013 there were 256 murders in Philadelphia, the city in which I live and which, on my darker days, feels a bit like a family abattoir when I’m feeling guilty thinking of my mother’s ashes interred beside my father’s remains in a grave whose stone we’ve yet to get around to having inscribed, these many years on. One the 256 people murdered in Philadelphia in 2013 was Christian Massey, for refusing to give up his headphones.
21 when he was shot in the back after to refusing to hand over his new-bought headphones, Christian Massey was only 21 when he died and was, by all accounts, a gentle giant of a human being, standing six feet two inches and weighing approximately 300 pounds, Christian Massey was a bit slow of mind and played several sports and was loved by all whose lives he touched. When I was 21 I weighed little more than a leaf and was hardly gentle, at least in my attitude. I took pleasure in my own nastiness and biting, incisive snark & rampant substance abuse & thought frequently, with a twisted sort of glee, of how my own suicide might serve to make more of an impact than had my life to that point; to pass the time, I would fantasize about my own funeral, basking in my mourners’ cathartic wails & caterwauling expressions of grief. I wanted to die not because I was miserable but because I wanted others to be miserable on my behalf: I wanted to be their wellspring of regret & loneliness & public expressions of sympathy. But in lieu of following such fantasies to their logical, hanging, conclusion, I instead did nearly every drug I could get my hands on, and drank like a man dying of thirst.
In Being and Nothingness Sartre writes “shame is shame of oneself before the Other,” as the Other puts one in the position of passing “judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” With which I have no quarrel but to point out that the word “object” could here be easily, and perhaps should be, replaced with “target,” for what are we but targets for others to pin various ribbons on, donkeys missing tails or a stack of unused crook cutouts waiting to be put up on the rack at the shooting range, the detective placing his right palm on his gun when he lowers his hand after being sworn in, angling his body away from his weapon & not just because it is uncomfortable in the courtroom outside of which and down the moody, meandering stairs there are food trucks selling arepas and the Parkway is lined with flags of all nations, black and yellow and green and white and red and blue, blue as the river’s eddies swirling like memories in the morning of the previous night’s half-remembered dreams, Hear Ye Hear Ye Hear Ye, All Rise.
Kevin O’Rourke is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. His work has been published in Seneca Review, Word For / Word, and Midway Journal, to name a few. He is also editor of The Hairsplitter.