Jay’s Interview with Dan, 3

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


When Dan staggered back to the bar, he buried his face in his gloved hands. Jay bought him his third pint of stout to keep the story moving. “Lio never got to beat the smug out of me, but he came pretty close.” Dan drank most of the pint at once. “I attended college where my dad killed himself, since the University was financially supportive and let me live in his old apartment—no one else wanted to live there, I guess. I didn’t see you or Beatrice or Lio for years, but Faith took art-classes on campus, and we always ate lunch together. One day she invited me to a party.”

“Aw, that’s nice.” Jay was glad to hear new stories about their late friends. “Where did they live? After high-school I was always abroad, so I only talked to you guys on the phone.”

“Faith and Beatrice lived on the top floor of an apartment by the beach. The first floor belonged to a frat-house, and apparently they were all invited to the party, too, because they were streaming up the exterior steps in a vertical zigzag of bed-sheet togas. I kinda wish I’d gotten the memo, I would’ve joined the dress-code.”

“Haha.”

“At the top steps, Faith leapt onto me and hung around my neck. She kissed me, and I could taste what she’d been drinking. She offered me a beer, but after my dad died, I was afraid to touch alcohol.” He finished his third pint. “So we just looked over the balcony together. The ocean so close, a drunken toga-brother puked into it over the railing. ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Dainty? I wish I could fly over the waves like a bird!’ “

“I figured she’d wanna be a fox.”

“That’s what I said. ‘I’ll be a flying fox!’ Then she kissed me some more. It was like she wanted to lick all my teeth, but she was almost two feet shorter than me, so she had to really reach for my molars. ‘Are you into this, Dainty? Am I bothering you?’ I guess I’m not a very active kisser. I liked Faith, I enjoyed her affection, but—“

“But you were thinking of Beatrice,” said Jay.

Dan whimpered. “She detected it easily as you did. Ever since meeting Lio in the library, I felt like I had to protect Beatrice from people like that, and I hadn’t seen her since high-school graduation! ‘Oh, Dainty,’ Faith said. ‘You could have everything anyone ever wanted right in front of you, and you’d still chase BeatBax to Hell and back just to make awkward small-talk.’ I was like, well, you’re her girlfriend, and you’re kissing me. ‘Ah, but BeatBax and I have an understanding.’ She smiled sorta mischievously, like she might kiss me again, but instead she pulled a bug-stick from her pocket. ‘If I’ve kissed you, it’s only fair you kiss her, too, right? She’s had enough party for tonight, so she’s in our bed-room right now. You two could spend some time alone together.’ She kissed the bug-stick’s stem and told me to share it with her, because ‘it’d be just like smooching.’ “

“Had you ever smoked a cricket before?”

“No, and honestly, the idea of tricking Beatrice into kissing like that made me feel sick. I told Faith, but she insisted it was okay, because we were only smooching symbolically. She pushed me into the apartment, where frat-bros in bed-sheets were flirting with girls from nursing-school in scrubs. The hallway was clogged with drunks waiting for the bathroom, but I squeezed past them to Beatrice’s door. As soon as I knocked, she said ‘come in!’ I’d never heard her sound so inviting, so I held back. She was probably expecting Faith, right? Wouldn’t she be disappointed to see it was just me? But when I opened the door, I saw why she greeted me so eagerly.”

“Why?”

“There she was, in bed, tucked under warm blankets, reading her Bible, and right there, sitting on her bedside, was Lio.” Dan shuddered. Jay grimaced; with the timeline as he knew it, Lio had been married to Eva for about five years at this point. “He was fatter than he was in high-school, but he was still bald, and he’d kept the dark sunglasses. He was wearing a red bed-sheet like a toga, but he’d drawn it up his chest higher than any other frat-brother. And he had a glass water-pipe, all crusted-up with bug-gunk. Beatrice wasn’t even looking in his direction. She just smiled at me, like, see what I have to put up with? ‘Hey, Dan, have you met this guy, Henry? He came in here, like, forever ago, looking for the bathroom, supposedly. Maybe you can help him find it?’

“I walked up to Lio and played along with his little game. ‘Hi, Henry,‘ I said, ‘My name’s Lio. The bathroom’s in the hallway. You must be pretty bug-eyed to have missed it.’ “

“He put a hand out to shake, and when I shook it, he yanked me. ‘I’m teaching B here how to smoke powdered bug-sticks from one of these bad boys.’ He offered her the bong, but she buried herself in the Bible. ‘Go enjoy the party, bro.’ He finished his stupid machismo handshake, but I didn’t let go. I braced my foot on the wall and yanked him off Beatrice’s bed. ‘Whoa! Hey!’ He was too bug-eyed to keep me from pulling him to the door, or maybe he was playing limp to pretend my aggression was undue. ‘Why are you being so violent?’

“I shut Beatrice’s door behind us. Lio raised his fists like he’d plug me, but I just talked to him. He couldn’t throw the first punch in front of everyone in the hallway; he wouldn’t look like enough of a victim yet. ‘Look, Henry, when you do this shit, you look like a psycho, and you’ll be treated like one. I’m not gonna enable you by pretending we can be friends.’ Obviously he was like, what’re you talking about, I didn’t do anything wrong! Show me the evidence, I know the law! And I said, ‘Henry, there’s no difference between a nimrod manipulated by scumbags and scum playing dumb very convincingly. No one will waste time trying to figure you out. You’re talking to a rare person who pities you enough to warn you making figs like this means you’re on a dark path. You call yourself an alpha, but it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who knocks off your fucking Alpha-unit.’ “

“Ooh, a LuLu’s reference.” Jay sucked his pen. ” ‘No difference between a nimrod manipulated by scumbags and scum playing dumb very convincingly,’ huh? Is that a quote from something?”

Dan shook his head. “A nimrod can be redeemed, but a scumbag can pretend to be redeemed. If you can tell the difference, they weren’t playing dumb very convincingly, were they?”

“I see.”

“That’s not to say nimrods should be treated like scumbags,” Dan clarified, “or scumbags should be treated like nimrods. I just mean ethical-systems must deal with both cases exactly the same way, because in practice, they’re identical.” Jay wrote that down, but didn’t say anything. Dan knew it was time to continue the story. “Lio finally cut the act a little and tried to serve me his figgy kool-aid. ‘We could share her, Danny-boy.’ I told him Beatrice would never be interested in him or me, in part because she was a lesbian already in a relationship. ‘I know, isn’t it awful? Those bitches eat babies! I kissed her once, though, in middle school. She didn’t make it easy. I bet I can straighten her out for both of us.’ “

Jay gripped his pen. “Faith told me a boy kissed Beatrice once.”

“Yeah? Beatrice told me that too.”

“Faith said she didn’t like it.”

“I didn’t like it either. I dated Beatrice once, remember?”

“Mm-hm.”

“I wanted her to know consent mattered to me,” said Dan, “but when I asked if she was comfortable with an arm around her shoulders, she looked at me like deer in headlights, and I hated myself for it. What a first kiss, Lio must’ve been!” He drank the last dribbles of beer. “I tried explaining this with cultural references he could interpret, but even if he did understand, he was pretending not to.”

“Cultural references like what?”

Dan sighed into his third empty pint. “First I played easy. ‘I’m not gonna pretend you’re an emperor wearing new clothes. Even if it hurts to hear, my kindness of admitting your nudity is for your benefit.’ Ah, ah, ah, but couldn’t I see he wasn’t nude at all? He was clearly wearing a bed-sheet toga, was I blind? So I leaned all-in for my second joust. Do you remember in LuLu’s, Eisu and Fumiko tell Commander Lucille about the dystopian hellscape before the World-Unification? How it functioned on a genocidal game called Victim Card?

“Vaguely.”

Tatsu‘s commentary online described how that game was played. Dictators considered modern and historical events to be playing-cards, either in Victim position or Virtue position.” Dan put two fingers on the bar and slid them like he was turning a trading-card to horizontal-landscape or vertical-portrait. “Treated badly? That’s a Victim Card. Been nice lately? That’s a Virtue Card.”

“Alright.”

“Victim Cards were used to justify atrocities, in retribution for prior atrocities. Virtue Cards were also used to justify atrocities, in self-defense.”

“Fig-making all around.”

“Right. But Lio, here—” Dan palmed his forehead. “Lio was virtue-signalling with Victim Cards and vice-versa without swapping their position first. He was virtuous for kissing Beatrice straight, but he was still a victim of Beatrice being a baby-eating lesbian. He was a victim for having taxes ‘stolen,’ but also virtuous for ‘paying’ taxes. He was a victim because society wouldn’t let him do stuff, but he was virtuous for doing that stuff anyway. To other dictators who know how to play the hand they’re dealt, that double-thought reveals vulnerability. You’re not a victim. You’re not virtuous. There’s nothing in there, or if there is, it’s buried pretty deep.”

” ‘Blink twice,’ ” said Jay.

“When I mentioned LuLu’s, Lio said he’d watched an episode, once, but the girls weren’t young enough or undressed enough for his tastes.” Dan shuddered. “I tried one last time. In 1984, Orwell described humanity’s future as a boot stomping on a man’s face forever. Lio liked that image, even though I doubted he’d ever read the book: ‘see how bad you communists are? You better stop stomping on me!‘ But virtue-signaling with Victim Cards reveals the boot is on humanity’s own forearm and it’s stomping on its own face until it realizes it’s only fooling itself. Lio didn’t get it: ‘You’re treading on me!’ he said again. ‘You’re forcing me to bite, don’t you see? I don’t have a choice!’ Well, I tread back into Beatrice’s room and locked the door behind me.”

Jay wasn’t sure why he was taking notes on Lio, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Faith once told me you tried starting a fight at a party. Was that it?”

“No, no. I’m getting to that. When I walked back in, Beatrice was indifferently appreciative. ‘That guy was trying to force-feed me his bong for, like, five minutes. Kept saying he used to be a cop, like I’d be impressed. If you hadn’t knocked when you did, I might’ve stopped figuring out if he was legitimately stupid and just screamed.’ ” Jay wondered if Lio had ever actually been a police-officer, or if it was just another lie he liked to tell. He could imagine Lio as a mall-cop inflating himself. “I told her Faith wanted us to share a cricket. ‘Oh yeah? Is that her lipstick on your chin?’ I wiped it off and apologized. ‘It’s alright. Faith and I have an understanding.’ She came out from under the covers. I worried she was nude, but she was wearing brown footie-pajamas with little yellow cartoon bunnies. She pat the bed and I sat next to her. She lit the cricket and puffed it. Apparently she and Faith had smoked since after high-school.”

“Yeah, I knew that, actually.”

“She showed me how to smoke the bug-stick, and after one puff, I was astounded. It was like…” Dan revolved his left hand in a circle, searching for words. Jay flipped to another fresh page of his notepad. He’d struggled to describe the sensation himself and hoped Dan would have the vocabulary for it. “Samadhi. Nothing had changed, but I was suddenly aware of my own thoughts. I mean, we’re all aware of our own thoughts, but I suddenly realized my thoughts were the only thing I was aware of, or possibly could be aware of. You know?”

“That’s just it,” said Jay. “You realize the worms in your vessel interact with other worm-vessels through stories.

“The brain is a fiction-machine,” said Dan. “We bounce fictions off each other because fiction is all there is. Every one of us is a slice-of-life protagonist.”

“A great and complicated tool,” said Jay. “What happened next with Beatrice?”

“I had to ask, where could I get these? She told me…” Dan swallowed. “She told me ‘Faith buys them from Lio, but she’ll have to find a new supplier, because I don’t feel safe with him anywhere around.’ I told her, yeah, that guy once told me the existence of gays was genocide, and therefore he should be allowed to buy and impregnate children. He barely acts decent sometimes because Faith buys his bugs and he wants to prove he’s a man by getting in your pants. ‘Sorta like you, huh?’ she said. ‘You’re always staring at me a little gormlessly.’ I was petrified.”

“Petrified, uh, staring at her gormlessly?” asked Jay.

“Well, yeah. ‘We’ve known each other for years and you still don’t know anything about me,’ she said. I told her I knew she was in nursing-school, and I knew she liked birds—and bunnies, too, apparently, given her PJs. ‘But why are you so obsessed with being on my good side? I’d probably like you more if you were just yourself around me.’ So I said being her friend made me feel special. That made her smile! But next I told her I admired how she knew a fig-maker when she saw one, and she didn’t take their shit. Her approval meant I was… Well, I wasn’t bad as Lio. ‘Ugh. Thanks, I hate it,’ she said. ‘You’re not trying to get into my pants, but you’re still using me as a source of self-worth.’ “

“Hmm.” Jay wasn’t taking notes of this, but he sketched a fox, a bird, and a bunny in his notepad to keep his hands busy. “She has a point. You shouldn’t need Beatrice to verify you’re not like Lio.”

“Well, I wasn’t quite convinced, yet,” said Dan. “I told her, ‘Faith joked sharing a cricket would be like kissing you. I should’ve told you before we started smoking. Now I feel like him, scoring without consent—but even worse, because I’m scoring secretly, symbolically, without you even knowing. That’s why I need your approval, because deep down, I know I’m a bad person, and you’re the only way I can be any better.’

“She just wordlessly passed me the bug-stick. I wondered, was she showing approval by symbolic smooch? But when I puffed in, she grabbed my shoulders, kissed me, and sucked the smoke straight from my lungs. She blew it out her open window, toward the moon. ‘There. Now you’ve got no excuses! Get over yourself.’ “

“Did it work?” asked Jay. “Did you feel any better?”

“Kinda?” Dan waved a hand. “Beatrice showed me so long as I thought I needed her approval, her approval would never be enough. If I wanted to prove I wasn’t like Lio, I couldn’t do it through her. I had to do it myself.”

Jay bit his pen. “Kissing Beatrice just brought you right back to Lio, huh?”

“I wanted to be Lio’s Beatrice, sucking out his soul and puffing it out a window for him. I wanted to show Lio the victim-hood he invented to demand more from life was actually a trap he should dismantle, because making figs condemned him to a personal Hell. And I knew just how to do it.”

“Skillful means?”

“My best attempt, at least. I’d use his surrender-instinct to reveal his true color to the party, and that’d zap him awake like a fork in an electrical socket. Beatrice passed me the bug-stick, but I told her to save it. I ran out of her room and back down the hallway. Faith waved me to a ring of couches, where a crowd was watching Lio show off his bong and a bag of bug-sticks. I got myself a cup of beer and put some liquor in it.”

“You said you didn’t drink.”

“I hadn’t before then. Now I needed some confidence.” Dan checked for more drops in his third empty pint. “Lio didn’t notice me sit next to Faith. He was distracted showing off a jar of centipedes to the frat-brothers in togas. It was the first time I saw centipedes outside of LuLu’s; I didn’t even know they were real. He unscrewed the top and made some nursing-school girls smell them, saying he confiscated them from a smuggler. ‘Wanna buy one? Primo stuff!’ he said. ‘I sampled some before I came over. You know, the secret to driving bug-eyed is to go faster than you think is safe.’ The crowd’s uneasiness told me if I got Lio to show his heart on his sleeve, the party would be on my side. I finished my beer and asked Faith to get me another. I wasn’t planning to drink it—I just didn’t want her to see what I did next. I was drunk enough already.”

“Yeah, bug-sticks and alcohol work together like that.”

“As Faith left, I said to Lio, ‘It looks like the smuggler got the best of you. You’re selling centipedes with no antennae. Everyone knows the pollen is the best part.’ I’d heard that’s the case with crickets: the antennae and the eyes. ‘It’s basic biology!’

“He finally noticed me. ‘You again? You wanna take this outside?’

” ‘Why bother?’ I whipped off my shirt. ‘Fight me right here!’ The whole party was immediately against me; everyone gave me this awful look. Lio laughed. He boasted I was half his weight and scrawny like a monk, and he’d beat the smug out of me. ‘All I’m worried about is cutting my knuckles on your stupid sunglasses. Take ’em off.’ The frat was ready to tackle me to the floor, but since he was enjoying the spotlight, Lio took off his sunglasses for the first time in years. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘Your toga, too. I don’t want you blaming your bed-sheets for tripping you up.’ “

Oh.

“He’d pinned himself. He had to take off his bed-sheets, because he was riding a fig-maker victim-complex power-high. I’d given him the chance to be a macho-man defending himself by beating some sense into a cruel yet puny God—but to make the most of it, didn’t he have to be a shirtless action-hero?”

“And then?”

“It was perfect. He saw the other guys were on his side, so he took the bet and lost big. He shrugged off that toga, in his boxers underneath, and every eye in the room was on his swastika-tattoo. He must’ve spent my twenty bucks doubling down, because it was bigger, bolder, and the spokes were correct, so he’d hired someone with one or two more brain-cells to rub together. The toga-brothers cringed in shame. ‘He is not with us!’ God, I could feel their indignity. Imagine flirting with cute nurses all night and then needing to explain your frat didn’t bring the skinhead. ‘I’ve never seen him in my life!’ I put my shirt back on. My work was done. The frat picked up Lio and—well, I didn’t plan this part—they chucked him off the balcony into the ocean.”

“And he washed up in Sheridan,” Jay whispered.

“I was drunk and bug-eyed, so I collapsed on the couch. Faith walked up to me with her arms crossed. ‘I saw that, Dainty.’ She knew I’d started the fight. ‘We don’t appreciate that sort of atmosphere in our apartment.’ I asked if she’d noticed the swastika-tattoo. ‘Yeah, I saw it. Now I don’t want him around, either.’ I told her how Lio had barged into Beatrice’s room. ‘Dainty, I’m gonna tell ya one time: I think that guy’s a colossal douche, and I think you responded poorly.’ I guess my means weren’t as skillful as I thought they were. I’m no Avalokiteshvara.

Jay sighed and capped his pen. He suspected Faith’s reaction wasn’t just about Dan: having allowed Lio into her circle to buy his bugs, she probably blamed herself for his move on Beatrice, but without the chance to retaliate against Lio personally, Dan bore the brunt of Faith’s scorn. “In Sheridan, I wanted to chuck Lio in the river. I can’t blame you for feeling the same way. I’m frankly impressed you can express that sentiment with at least the intention of teaching him a lesson. I just wanted him gone.”

“I guess Faith expected better from me than you do,” said Dan. “She let me pass out on the couch, but in the morning, she shook me awake to leave when Beatrice wanted to come out for breakfast. ‘Maybe we’ll talk again when we’ve decided you’ve cooled off.’ I was gutted. I wanted to finish smoking the cricket with Beatrice. ‘You want cricket?’ She shoved Lio’s water-pipe into my hands. ‘Scram!’ “

“Ah.” Jay found reason to pop open his pen again and continue writing. “I wondered where you got that bong. You named it after him?”

“A source of painful lessons,” said Dan.

“A great and complicated tool?”

“A tool? Definitely. Complicated? I guess. Great? I could take it or leave it. At the time, I took it.” Dan wiped his eyes with his gloves. “I gotta pee again. I’ll be right back.”

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