The Hard Lessons of Old Men By Theo Von Prondzynski

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Buddhism has a curious hold over me. I go through a trunkful of Buddhist books every year. I think I’d be a better person if I could put a few of their beliefs into practice. But then I fetch up against some strange epigram that sends me right back to the sense, the safety, of materialism. Take this, for example. One Buddhist monk wrote that death is not the worst thing in life. The inevitable carries no real meaning, after all; it’s nothing more and nothing less than guaranteed. But then he went on, an error these monks constantly make, to say that the worst thing in life is to believe you’ve got something to lose.

This argument, I soon decided, could only be made by someone who was voluntarily bald. I began losing my hair when I was sixteen, wholly against my will, and I knew that losing my hair was much worse than not losing it. I would spend hours on the internet in quest of comfort, looking for proof that bald people, far from being politicians and bankers, could lead fulfilling lives. I searched for bald celebrities who had inveigled themselves into relationships. (More than you’d think, but not a well-populated category. And did the relationship start before or after the hairloss?) I searched for models with receding hairlines. (A non-starter, it turned out.) I fumbled across — innocently, I might add — an extensive genre of pornography featuring bald men plying their trade. But that doesn’t really count. I could get models if I paid them and had money to pay them.

In any case, I needn’t have worried so much. I still have a hairline. I am twenty-eight, and I still have a shock of unstyleable hair atop my skull. And when it comes time to ditch the comb, both implement and -over, I hope to have reached a state of enlightenment where baldness doesn’t matter. Or at least to have tied a woman down with matrimony and kids.

A bit about me, then. I am Jude Szymkowiak. Despite the hearty ratio of consonants to vowels, I am British. I was born in Britain to a British father and a British mother. The name, along with some DNA and an insatiable desire for complex carbohydrates, comes from Polish ancestors — blue-blooded ones, as a matter of fact. One of my ancestors, Szymon Szymkowiak, was a nobleman of sorts; but in common with aristocracy the world over, he was a few dumplings short of a Pierogi. Or he ended up that way. According to family lore, his wife returned to their pile one Sunday after church to find Szym Szym on his hands and knees, eating from a dog’s bowl. Naturally she screamed the house down, but when the servants bounded into the room on all-fours the situation got away from her and she took a leave of consciousness. Her maid later explained what had happened, and her explanation has been passed down through the generations to me. The master of the house, arriving at breakfast that morning, stood before the table and slammed his fist down. ‘Hang it all,’ quoth my ancestor, ‘we are a pack of dogs and we will ruddy well start acting like it.’ He ordered every member of the menagerie to drop to their paws and, from that day forward, rigorously enforced his instruction. His wife lasted two days — not bad going, really — before calling it quits and shacking up with some other rich fool. This tale, as with all family lore, became a moral; in this case a moral about the dangers of not going to church. Though how anyone could suggest that four hours of incense is conducive to sanity, I don’t know. (I’m still working on my spiritual side.)

I’ll take the risk of saying that I haven’t yet succumbed to madness. The Szymkowiak genes seem to have been diluted by so many decades of English blood that they pose no threat. But let’s be honest: I’ve got my flaws. In fact it’s possible, entirely possible, that I’m unlikable. I’m extremely sentimental, which can make me appear kind; but once the feeling passes, I find it hard to maintain any interest in whatever I was feeling sentimental about. The last page of a novel, for instance, is often an order form for more books by the same author. Now the thought of someone filling it in, enclosing a humble cheque or a few hard-earned pounds and waiting patiently for their selection to arrive in the post — well, I could cry right now. Thinking about it just breaks my heart. But only for a moment.

Am I intelligent? Love of the long word notwithstanding, no. I can talk fluently and write engagingly — can’t I? — I read almost continuously and my tastes incline to the difficult; but I can’t put two and two together to make four in any convincing way, I can’t maintain an interest in the sciences, I find graphs unsettling; in short, I could scrape my way through PPE at Oxbridge but I can’t do anything worth while. Is that a depressing thought?

My life started up North, but when I was ten my parents packed me up and brought me to London. Looking back, I don’t regret the move from a small northern hamlet to a large southern city. Not that I have anything against the North, which I capitalise respectfully; but London, snaking skyscraping gleaming decaying threatening heartbreaking London — well, show me a better a city. Just you show me a better one right now.

There were casualties, of course, when we moved down south. Friends, two girlfriends, small-town life — and, sadly, my accent. I lost it a few years before I started losing my hair, and I lost it more thoroughly; everything except my short A. I clung to my short A. I fought for my short A. Bathroom as in bat, not bathroom as in bar. And I’m not giving it up. You may think of it as an affectation, but it’s my last remaining link to the place of my birth. Why should I cut that particular umbilical cord?

As for my parents, they were both lawyers. Two lawyers. They made money. I feel the guilt welling up. I’m white, I’m rich, I’m male; I was born with a book in my mouth, so I had a headstart as well as a not-going-to-be-suspicious-because-of-my-skin-colour start. And I’m not complaining. Lord knows I’m not complaining.

I had fairly normal teenage years, including the rebellious phase. It started when I was sixteen. I wasn’t self-aware enough to know any better. I realise now that my rebellious phase would’ve had more bite, more poignancy, if I’d had anything to rebel against. I felt the same things you felt, proletarian reader, but I had no real cause for complaint. I felt the injustice of the world but hadn’t suffered it personally. I felt the pain of racism but I was in every conceivable majority. The closest brush to hardship I ever had was poor vision. I was forced to wear glasses. And by the time I was sixteen, glasses had become cool. Can you believe that? Boys and girls who didn’t need glasses started wearing them anyway. Geek chic, it was called. Is it still around? (In fact, geek chic strikes me as something the woke crowd might get woked up about. It’s disability appropriation. Would everyone be quite so indifferent, I wonder, if people without disabilities started rolling around in wheelchairs? Not so much geek chic as wheelchair flair.)

Anyway, time is getting away from us. So let me tell you about a houseparty. It was in lower-middle-class London, the bad part of Earl’s Court — which, let’s be honest, isn’t that bad. I was sixteen, absurdly confident, cripplingly insecure, and looking forward to being drunk. The party was at Terry’s house, which is what we called Terry’s mum’s house.

‘Look at this page, look at this page,’ Terry said, flashing someone’s Facebook profile in front of me. The party was due to start in an hour (giving Terry’s parents enough time to get well clear), and there were rumours, tantalising rumours apparently, that Jessica White was coming.

‘She looks hot — total tross though,’ I said. (Tross, for some reason, meant a girl who was unobtainable through a combination of good looks and popularity. Where did we get the term from? I don’t remember. But there won’t have been anything clever behind it. Those who have gone through adolescence know that it’s nothing like Julian Barnes’ novels.)

‘Yeah, but I think I can get her.’

Terry, despite being somewhat chubby and somewhat strange, managed to get girls. And not just any girls. Hot girls. How? This was a secret I wasn’t privy to. Which, I might add, the girls were aware of. They knew I didn’t know how to get them so they wouldn’t let me get them. But Terry had the secret. So when he said he could get her, I yielded gracefully.

‘No you bloody can’t. How can you get her?’

‘Easy. Just by not giving a shit. Everyone’s gonna take a run at her, so I’m gonna play it cool. Maybe do something embarrassing in front of her, just to show I don’t care. Trust me,’ Terry said. And I did, I did trust him.

‘Whatever. I’m here to get drunk.’

Two hours later the party was in full swing. I was pleasantly drunk. Terry, abandoning his don’t-give-a-shit attitude, was bouncing between girls like a demented tennis ball. Chris, my best friend, had downed a bottle of Jack Daniels ten minutes after the party started and was now mostly unconscious in Terry’s bed. Someone in the kitchen produced a beer bong. This is a large snakelike tube with a funnel at one end: you pour beer down the funnel while a person at the other aperture drinks as quickly as they can. Terry tried it and about ten seconds later vomited all over the floor. But it didn’t matter. The party was thrumming and everyone was in high spirits; even the element, which tends to turn up at house parties, was having a good time.

I remember the arrival of Jessica White. I don’t know why — there was nothing spectacular about it. I was by the staircase in the hallway, and she walked through the front door with a couple of friends. She turned out to be short with long black hair, styled in what she would never have called emo but which was none the less emo. I can’t lie: she was hot. I mean don’t even try hot. And yet her clothes… She was wearing a dress with elephants on it, a form-covering dress, a screamingly unfashionable dress. This told me something about her, but at the time I wasn’t sure what. In any case, I wasn’t going to even think about trying to pull her. I told myself it was because I didn’t want to put in any effort. But of course I was deluding myself. Deep down, I was just too nervous to make a move. Surely you can’t just see someone you like and kiss them, not if you wear glasses.

As it happens, I think the only thing I lacked was knowledge of adolescent mating rituals. Or ritual, because there’s really only one. You might think it awful, antediluvian, and demeaning, but teenage girls all seem to want the same thing: to not be wanted. So in retrospect Terry was right. To get the girl of your dreams, go out of your way to show her that she isn’t. Make an indifferent pass at her and then steer well clear. Don’t reply to her texts. Conspicuously avoid her. Feign interest in a friend of hers. Send her an itemised list of reasons why you don’t want to be with her. You might incur the justified contempt of sensible adults, but you’ll get the girl.

It was late. The houseparty hadn’t slowed down, but it was late. There was some sort of poshboy fight taking place on the first-floor landing; you know the type, lots of big talk and squaring up and absolutely no hitting. Quite a few of us were standing on the stairs, vaguely watching it all unfold; and accidentally, drunkenly, I found myself next to Jessica. Reader, what I did next seemed natural at the time: it occurred to me that the thing to do, the only thing I could do, was to lift up Jessica’s dress and get a better view of those elephants. So that’s what I did.

‘I like your dress,’ I lied.

‘Thank you. It’s second-hand. I found it in a charity shop. You can put my dress down now, though,’ Jessica said.

‘Oh crap, sorry. I don’t know why I did that.’

‘That’s okay.’ She smiled at me. It was an odd smile. It was a smile that verged on calculating. She smiled, I’ve since thought, for gain. There was a motive behind Jessica’s smiles.

‘So how do you like the party?’

She shrugged.

‘It’s okay. I’m a bit drunk. Lots of poshboys about. What about you?’

It was truly the best party I’d ever been to.

‘I’m Jude, by the way. Yeah it’s all right. It’s my mate Terry’s house so I’ve got to be nice about it.’

‘Terry… I think I know him. Is he the one who tried to talk to me? Said something about not expecting me to turn up and then said he’d take a run at me later. He seems charming.’

‘Yeah, that sounds like Terry. Don’t worry, he’ll be too drunk to remember that now.’

Jessica smiled at me again. She wanted something, but I’m not sure it was me. To this day I don’t think it was me. And why were her clothes so form-covering?

‘Shall we go into the spare room? I can’t hear with all these people about.’ (I said that, obviously.)

We awkwardly made our way into the spare room, past the few spectators left on the stairs. Sitting on Terry’s spare bed, we covered the usual topics: school, parents, dreams, dislikes, music (no books, of course). She was from a small family. She lived in Peckham with her parents and two younger brothers. She went to state school and teased me for going to private school. (Yeah, sorry about that, I should have mentioned. My parents are lawyers. What did you expect?) It was a pleasant talk, with none of those silences that give your interlocutor time to reflect on how much she’d rather be talking to someone else. But everything she said sounded, if not prepared, then a bit too picturesque. She was selling a version of her life, seeing whether I’d buy it. Which of course I did.

We spent quite a lot of time staring into each other’s eyes — I thought romantically, but perhaps it was just drunkenly.

‘Are you sad, Jude?’

‘Yes, I am, really. Aren’t you?’

‘Totally. All intelligent people are a bit sad. It’s part of the package, you know?’

‘Yeah I think so too. And no one really gets it, do they? I mean, we’re pretty unique, you and I. The rest of the people at this party, they haven’t felt real sadness. They think the death of a pet is sadness. But it’s not. We feel a purity of sadness because there’s no direct cause. Probably because we’re just a bit cleverer than everyone else. It makes us feel lonely.’

Hold up, wait, no, I didn’t say that. But I probably felt it. I probably said something like it. Oh, I was a right clot, I was.

We were holding hands now.

‘My friend Terry showed me your Facebook profile before the party. Apparently I’m the only person who’s never heard of you.’

‘Ell oh ell. Right.’

‘Seriously. You’re known as the hot girl. Everyone wants to bang you.’

‘No one has, though. Is that weird?’

Should I admit that I too am a virgin? Probably safer not to. She might actually find me attractive. Strangely, I’m not sure I find her attractive. There’s something attractive about her. But is it her?

‘It’s a bit weird, yeah. But I’m a bit weird too. So all these guys trying to get with Jessica White. Have any been successful today?’

—And here the narrator must interrupt to skip over an uncouth comment or two. Priggish reader, we were teenagers. We did what teenagers do. Just be grateful that we weren’t injecting cocaine and heroin, which I hear is rather on-trend among today’s young rascals.

‘This might be the last time I ever see you.’

She made a funny noise, sort of like ‘aw’ but bereft, thank God, of any pity. Then she leaned in. We kissed; it was a long kiss; it turned into multiple kisses. She stood up to leave the spare room.

‘You never know, Jude.’

She left the room but she didn’t leave the party, not straight away. The element, surprisingly, were the first to go.

‘Nice one, boys — sorry for the blood.’

(Terry and I spent the next morning looking for blood. We never found a trace.)

I stumbled back to the party, wanting to boast about Jessica but maintaining a dignified reticence. Jessica and her friends eventually left, all of them singing ‘Hey Jude’ at me. In the end, for all his luck and mysterious advantages, Terry didn’t hook up with anyone. So perhaps luck and fate were apportioned differently that night. To this day I look back fondly on that party. It was the first time I realised that I was desirable.

I got the tross and Terry got the blood. Not bad going.

If you’ll forgive a digression, and I daresay you will, I’d like to discuss addiction. So let’s be open about the subject. I am an addict. Something in me craves more than the average person craves. And by that I don’t mean I crave more things; I mean that the power to crave, fullstop, is stronger in me than it is in most people. Addiction is a bit like feeling hungry: but you feel it with your whole body, not just your stomach. Your thoughts feel hungry. And the only way to get rid of it is to slake the hunger. (Or, potentially, to not be an addict. Further research is needed on that one.)

Now it would be virtually true to say that I have never been tempted by illegal drugs. Virtually true, because of course my teenage years did include illegal drugs. The odd joint, the occasional line. But after a while their effects palled. I grew bored and stopped.

So illegal drugs were never really a problem. Addiction, with me, has taken other forms. I appease my brain’s desire to damage my body with a smoking habit. (Although I must admit, shamefully, that I’m vaping now. It’s a very inadequate substitute. In fact I’m terrified that I might not be damaging myself at all.) Books, too, have a strange hold over me. (Not that the twelve steps would help me here. I’ve always acknowledged that there’s a higher power than myself: the power of the written word.) But I suppose my greatest addiction has always been to experiences. I want to do things I enjoy all the time. I really don’t understand why I can’t do things I enjoy all the time. I don’t understand why anyone does anything they don’t like at any time. It seems to me that humans can only find God through pain.

Anyway, this rather drawn-out point brings me back to my relationship with Jessica White. We ended up seeing each other after the party. A lot. We didn’t have dates because sixteen-year-olds don’t have dates. Instead we spent time at each other’s houses, in each other’s inboxes. Before long I was addicted. I wanted to spend all my time with her. And not just my time: I wanted to spend other people’s time as well. I decided that my school, after subjecting me to years of lessons and many unsettling graphs, would repay me in hours. That is to say, I skipped classes to meet up with Jessica.

It was love on my side, obsessive love; all the purer because I wanted nothing from her. I had no thoughts of the future, of marriage, of kids and animals — the impedimenta of adult relationships. I just wanted her.

But I never really had her. She gave me the same copy of herself that she gave everyone else. If I made any attempt to see her more often than she wanted, to text her more often than she wanted, to want her more than she wanted to be wanted, I was quickly rebuffed. My conscious self tried not to pay attention to it. But my unconscious self was deeply affected. Panic set in. I thought our relations were cooling when they had never been more than lukewarm. I reacted with pertinacity. I tried to reason Jessica into loving me. And the more indifferent she became, the more strenuously I pursued her. Teenagers.

‘I think I like you more than you like me,’ I said on a day that was, for us, only nominally a schoolday.

‘Why do you think that?’ Jessica asked, with a hint of irritability that should’ve stopped me.

‘I’m always the one to text first. I’m always the one to suggest doing something. We’re only meeting today because I asked you.’

‘It’s not that deep.’

I think if I’d stopped there, if I’d let the subject drop and feigned indifference to Jessica for a while, I might have been able to have a few more months with her. But I didn’t stop. All the logic of a teenage boy kicked in; I tried to negotiate with her feelings.

‘For you. But it’s deep for me. You came on to me at Terry’s party. I wasn’t looking for you. Don’t you think that meant something? We’ve spent all this time together. It must mean something.’

‘Christ, Jude, it was a party. You’re supposed to kiss people at parties. It’s not supposed to be a big deal.’

‘Yeah, but then we kept seeing each other afterwards. You wanted to keep seeing me afterwards.’

‘And it’s been nice. It can still be nice. If you don’t ruin it. No?’

‘But I want more. I want more time with you, Jessica. All the rest is crap. I want to be your boyfriend.’

If I’d stopped there — well, it would’ve made no difference. I’d said too much. I’d shown beyond doubt that I wanted her more than she wanted me. I broke the only rule of adolescent dating.

‘Jude,’ she said, her tone crushingly soft, ‘that’s… I think you should go.’

There’s an old Zen Buddhist story that I’d like to write out in full, if you don’t mind.

A long time ago, two old men visited a market in a big city.

The village they belonged to was poor. Food was scarce and hungry mouths were plentiful. These two men, aged but wise, had been asked by the villagers to buy food. None of the other villagers wanted to go to the market; they were afraid of being tricked by nefarious traders and unfair prices.

So the two men went to the market and were now returning. As they approached the village, late in the evening, the villagers ran out of their homes to greet the men. Cheers rose from the crowd. Hungry mouths salivated. There would be food tonight!

But the two men had come back empty-handed, and the joy of the crowd quickly turned to anger. Why hadn’t they brought any food? Now the villagers would go to sleep hungry. Now the children would be famished. This was unacceptable! This was outrageous!

The men waited for the crowd to tire itself out. When the villagers fell silent, the elder of the two men spoke.

‘You placed your faith and your money in our hands. Both are gone. When you lose faith in yourself, you lose everything.’

Look, all right, let’s be frank: those two old men were dicks. But they had a point, don’t you think?

I never saw Jessica White again. I’d like to tell you that I carried my rejection with dignity. I’d like to tell you that I had the self-respect, thank you very much, to keep out of her inbox. But of course it wouldn’t be true. I pestered, I nagged, I pleaded: I’d put all my self-belief in her hands, and when I lost her I lost everything. Or so I thought. But that’s the problem with other people, with the objects of your addiction: they don’t really have anything you need.

glasses

Theo Von Prondzynski

Theo von Prondzynski is a writer of short stories, a copywriter in a marketing agency, and an example of persistence in the face of an odd name. One of his short stories was previously published by a small American literary magazine.

If you’d like to get in touch with Theo, you can do so via his LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/theo-von-prondzynski-972743114/

Image by analogicus from Pixabay

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