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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Twenty-twelve

There are girls on this bus, and they are talking.

Julius hasn’t had a good excuse to turn around yet, but he can hear them fine, their voices just above the vibrating seats and pumps on brake. Girl A, who dominates, is moving away for university. Girl B is staying.

“It’s apocalyptic,” says Girl B. “You’re like, within my top five friends.”

“Easily,” replies Girl A. “Top three, at least. A predictable pick. Solid runner-up. But an apocalypse?  Nowhere near that cinematic. Season finale; not series.”

“Cocky, shit, I should shaft you down. ‘Also ran.’ The commenters will go mad.”

“Nah, they’ve never liked me much. More of a critic’s choice. A slow burner. Not enough snappy dialogue.”

The girls talk over and within each other. Julius’s headphones are on, the podcast paused. Teenage girls, he realises, are never going to stop being terrifying.

“Is anyone else moving there too?” asks Girl A. He’s missed where she’s going.

“I don’t really know. It will be fine. I’m affable, or at least I can be.” Girl A pauses, seemingly surprised that Girl B hasn’t interrupted her. “I don’t think anything about my friends here is unique. I’m sure I’ll find a similar group, the demographics are quite comparable.”

Silence, for a second. The bulging mass of windows begins a sharp turn, evening light racing its way over the empty seats, and Julius turns back.

“Plus,” continues A, “Skype and shit.”

“You’ve invested far too much here to not keep up on the gossip,” reasons B. “I shall be your conduit.”

“Now I am become death,” counters A.

* * *

Julius doesn’t like this. He doesn’t like buying alcohol in stores that only sell alcohol, or arriving at a party alone, or leaving home so soon after getting back from work, but hey, he’s not staying in for another weekend straight, and fuck, he knows thirty-plus people attending, he can arrive by himself at this age, surely, can make conversation with a whole host of acquaintances, can anecdote with the best of them.

 

And Harry is going. He hasn’t seen him in weeks. Harry’s been on holiday somewhere with his parents, but will be back by now. He’s caught a few pictures of Harry smiling, drinking, a blog update every week or so, but their chats have been slow, full sentences, predictable and routine. Julius has new music on his phone he specifically wants to play Harry, new statistics and events in world phenomena the two are interested in.

 

The liquor store is heavily branded, an independent nation sponsored by Woodstock Bourbon and Coke. Deep within the cavernous walk-in fridge, he forgets what he drinks. Weeks of instant coffee, of work-banter filling the scant sunlight, of thirty-tab browser windows and active dashboards, they do this to you. Every person in the store seems to hold his eye, craning their necks like silent sparrows. Spotting a familiar bottle of cider, things click into place. He buys it and leaves.

 

The light is wrong. It spills out of first-floor apartments, taxicab headlights, garden bars, the setting sun a canvas for the rhythms of routine laughter and market speculation. Alone with his thoughts, Julius becomes indulgent and faux-meditative: the future stretches out, long, solitary, but with an end, an arduous fantasy novel in its sixth overly-descriptive chapter. He dawdles, taking the city in like a tourist, then speeds up, embarrassed. (Stop thinking about yourself, dude.)  Seeking detachment, containment, and directions, he gets out his phone.

The world becomes small again. Two texts, both automated.  A baseball score. Four pictures from around the diaspora. A sunny morning in Oxford, two minutes ago. Anachronistic technology in Oman, three minutes ago. An afternoon on Venice Beach, seven minutes ago. A freckled face, beaming, again in Oxford, accompanied by a visitor, someone he saw mere weeks ago, eight minutes ago. Times, places, at once.

He finds his way to the event page, in search of a numbered address. It promises a lot. A 2012 party. A “look back, but not far”. Cute. “Obviously,” the page explained, “the Mayans are an option, but think outside that too.” Julius hadn’t recognised the address, or the hosts names, but enough of his friends were going for it to gain an aura of unmissability.

As he walks, a now-steady pace bringing him both pride and pleasure, the city filters back in. A street magician leers towards a tourist, his clothes comically large, stiffly shaped to a wider man. Three girls unsteadily emerge from a taxi. A homeless woman sits behind a blank cardboard sign, her spread jacket empty of anything but loose tobacco.

He reaches the numbered door, and, shit, he’s been here before. It could have been weeks, years; the door has changed but the buzzer is the same. First floor, a namecard with “swanky apartment” scrawled in sharpie.

“Hello?” asks the buzzer.

“Hi,” replies Julius.

* * *

Up the stairs, through the doors, coat off. The space is large, grimy, a concrete clearing with pallet-board bedrooms carved into the borders. The costumes, thankfully, are mostly as lazy as his: a few Mayans, a few Mitts, a single Carly Rae. Overfilled couches litter the room. Julius sees an acquaintance arguing loudly with a stranger, a few feet away, slotting the phrase “postmodern warfare” into every sentence. He approaches.

* * *

An hour at speed: a comfortable couch seat, people he can go high-pitched around, powdered gums, gulps of cider, low-level misogyny. The room empties and fills, breathing with the rhythms of the smokers who can’t fit around the tiny windows. Pictures of this group – ad-hoc, but pleasant enough – are made global. Harry doesn’t arrive, but Rob does.

Rob is a constant, part of the concrete.

“Julius. It’s been years.”

“How are you? Tell me about the public service.”

“Vast, bloated, inefficient. A stain upon, you know, the country. I’m currently in a vicious interdepartmental battle with myself. I haven’t picked a winner.”

Rob is interning in several departments at once, filling up coffee cards with consummate ease. Julius smiles, sips his cider, knowing Rob is waiting to elaborate. They hold eye contact briefly.

“What’s the fight? Paper stock? Have you seen Harry?”

“Seating order, at a dinner. Not even an important one, the cold war is over. I can be a real pain. Fucking yo-pros.”

While he replies, Julius checks his phone. A text from Harry, ten minutes ago, “just here”. He starts to look around the room, swearing in an impressed voice whenever Rob pauses. The mood has shifted, the dancers and the sitting now sharply divided, the room as full as it will get.

He excuses himself, and walks towards one of the bedrooms. A curtain screenprinted with Adam Lanza’s face hangs in lieu of a door. Julius peeks in. A large desk, brightly lit by a design-blog lamp, accompanied by a small mattress on the floor, and six very concentrated people, exchanging money. One of them says “no”.

The next is curtainless, so Julius just walks right in. There are at least six fish tanks in here, each sporting a flurry of colour and movement, their tank-lights the room’s only illumination. A double bed is just squeezing into the room, no desk, no chairs, no books. Harry is in – no. That’s not Harry.

“Julius!” says the almost-Harry. “I didn’t think you would come.”

“Wouldn’t miss a party in 2012, shit.” Almost-Harry went to high school with Harry and Julius. He was a year below, but had known Harry from birth.

“No, no definitely not. This is my room!”

As he sits down, the room almost empties. Almost-Harry and his friend Ezra are trying acid for the first time, and Ezra is feeling it a lot more. They sit with Julius in a triangle, cross legged amongst the tanks.

“The stars are singing, the stars are singing, the stars are sing—”

“Shut the fuck up,” interrupts almost-Harry. “We’re inside. It’s not working.”

“I tried to read a book, but I was writing it as I read it, my mind was creating new sentences, it fit too well.”

“I really, dude, I really don’t think it’s good enough to make you write a novel. This was forty dollars. Did I take it wrong? Ezra’s high as shit.”

Julius considers pretending to be knowledgeable about acid. Ezra is spidering his fingers up his own vibrating leg, across to his almost-Harry’s, being swatted away. Almost-Harry is heading in the wrong direction, elliptical now, speaking to Julius like it’s 5am and they’re best friends from high school.

“I’m just…fuck, I hate how this sounds, but I’m really sick of pretending to like so many people.”

He laughs a little. Ezra chimes in, more confident in sentences now, but having his own conversation.

“Destroyer of worlds. Did you ever see the second Dr. Strangelove? It’s better I think. I don’t know, the message isn’t so heavy handed.”

Almost-Harry waits for him to finish, but continues as if it were a plane passing. They are both staring at their crotches, hard to hear. Julius stands too quickly, splays his arm out for support. He feels no sensation of solidity as his wrist passes through the glass, no cold as the bubbly water explodes onto his arm, nothing until his entire body is shuddering and he’s staring at the gigantic fishes, each with their own sawdust filled puddle, gaping in silence. Almost-Harry screams for three seconds before abruptly rescuing the fish and fetching a towel for Julius.

Texting Harry “are you still coming?”, Julius returns to the centre room. The girls from the bus approach him. They know his name. They’re mocking him for breaking shit, mostly A, but B laughs along. B refers to A as “April”, which fits a little too well, but remains anonymous herself.

“—was easily the event of the party,” repeats April, spitting a little in excited-delivery. “This will forever be the night you managed to kill three fish without breaking the skin.”

“Are they dead? Didn’t he just put them in—” Julius begins.

“Fish don’t bruise well. Gravity isn’t really a part of their daily lives. Well, it is,” she giggles, clears her throat. “But not in, like, the falling sense.”

The song stops, a YouTube ad is muted. Their tone changes. B begins to talk a bit more, holding on to April for support.

“It’s so weird to see you here Julius. Good, though. I can’t believe you weren’t at the leaving party. He said you had work.”

Julius nods, completely lost. Things are moving faster again, the fish tank a small pause, an intermission. Rob, from nowhere, grabs his arm, pulls him away.

“Why did you text me? You knew I was here, we talked.”

He brandishes one of his three phones at Julius, “are you still coming?” in jagged, pixellated text. Rob is rolling, his teeth are at semi-automatic, each pupil a black pool.

“I must, I thought, I have your number as Harry.”

“Oh, shit, right, oh. This is his old phone. Right. I think that’s him over there.”

Rob points to one of the couches. (Why would Harry get a new phone without asking him for advice?) Three girls are clustered around an iPad, their faces a canvas of light. Julius and Rob walk over. Harry is beaming out of it, his face filling the screen, the Wi-Fi unreliable. “2pm!” he proclaims. “So the acid’s working for some people, but not for others? Who else is there?”

Julius turns to Rob, not sure if he wants to talk to Harry in the afternoon. “Fuck, he’s still away? He should be back now, it’s been like a month.”

Rob stops chewing, turns to Julius. Girl A slides past them towards the iPad.

“Elizabeth!” Harry exclaims. “What the fuck are you doing at one of my friend’s parties? You’re like, ten, Mum must have had a stroke.”

Rob, once again, grabs Julius, walks him over to almost-Harry. His grip is strong, his steps a bit forceful. Rob likes this – the control, the theatricality – Julius can tell.

“Julius, I know you weren’t at the party, but you know Harry’s doing a whole honours course in Berlin right? Like, at least a year. You were kidding, but with the texts, but—”

“Jesus, Julius,” interrupts almost-Harry. “I knew you were self-obsessed, but you had to know he was going. Are you fucking serious? No.”

* * *

Julius finds himself on the street, the party now mixing with others from open windows, with the din of taxicabs and teenagers. Of course Harry is gone. The two barely talk, but he remembers the group message now. Julius read half of it on his phone but hadn’t bothered opening it, busy in the middle of a sentence, compartmentalising his entire social life behind a snappy tweet. Then it had just drifted away, forgotten along with all the other things his friends did that had nothing to do with him. Elizabeth emerges.

“What did you come out here to ‘collect your thoughts’? You don’t even smoke.” She laughs a little. “Harry always said you suited smoking far too much to not, like your search for the perfect accessory would finally be over. I think…I think he’ll miss you, Julius, but he already did before he left.”

“It’s probably about time I found a new group of people to miss me.”

“Duh, easiest fucking option. I guess, but a new group of friends doesn’t have to mean whole destruction of the one before. Moving to Melbourne isn’t going to make any difference to your actual personality, you know? Like you’re still going to have to wake up every day and be yourself.”

Julius smiles, and turns his phone off.

 

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