This week, I will be sharing excerpts from The Girlfriend Project. Here is the first.
This was Isaac Asimov’s word for faster than light, and Ernest liked it very much. It was a well rounded word, soft, comforting. He always felt good when he thought it or said it. “Superluminal.” And never mind that it was impossible. For some reason, this didn’t bother him with this word the way it did some other words.
Ernest was laying in the bath, thinking about an object approaching the speed of light. He was watching it foreshorten as its mass increased. The object was a complete abstraction – not a toaster or a rocketship or a fridge, just an “object.”
He’d read everything he could about relativity when he was ten years old. He’d never been able to understand the maths but he could visualize the mechanics perfectly. He’d never told anyone he could do this. But he enjoyed occupying his mind with relativity.
But at this moment, with bubbles caressing his knees and a cold cup of coffee on the rim of the tub beside him growing a milky skin, something else started to push its way into his mind.
He was fourteen years old, maybe, in a science class with a bunch of animals his own age. Thin, ropy, small of stature, weak and clumsy, a victim of constant pranking. Teacher was out for some reason. He couldn’t remember her name and that bothered him. One of the animals was rubbing his face on the stool Janet had been sitting on until a moment before, saying it was Janet’s bum. Janet, nearby, was pretending not to notice. She had no idea she was the prettiest girl in the school.
Ricky, another small, ropy child, saw Ernest watching and came over. “She’s smashing, isn’t she?” he said. Ernest of course agreed warily. Janet was tall, blonde, perfectly built as are most girls of fourteen when you are a boy of fourteen. Nice teeth, good breeding, patrician accent. “I bet you’d like to eat her pussy.”
The part of Ernest that was thirty-nine and taking a bath rebelled at this part of the memory. Nobody said pussy in England in 1986, he told himself. But he wasn’t really listening. The memory rolled on.
Fourteen-year-old Ernest said yes, of course, in the extremely unlikely event that was ever an option for me, of course I would. But the odds are rather…
Then he was talking to empty space, as Ricky had gone off to see Matt, Janet’s boyfriend du jour. Matt was just under six feet tall and well developed for his age. His voice had a manly deepness that Ernest’s would not acquire until some years later, he was the star center-forward of the football team (they call it soccer here in the US, insisted Ernest’s bathing self, pedantically), and he had all the popularity Ernest and his friends lacked. Matt was so popular he didn’t have to spit on the weaker kids to stay on the ins.
Ricky was telling Matt in a gloating voice that Ernest thought his girlfriend was smashing and that he’d like to eat her pussy. Ernest watched, frozen to the spot, unable to react, but actually feeling nothing, nothing at all. Just another stupid school-boy trap he had fallen into, just like all the others.
Matt, though, didn’t take the bait. He was above it all. He said, “Just leave him alone. Can’t you see he’s got problems enough already?”
This snapped Ernest out of his immobility. “I’ve problems, have I?” he said firmly. “Well sod you, mate. She IS a smasher and maybe I’ll take her away from you! I kissed her once, you know.” Something about that word – “problems” - had shot cold revulsion through his belly and his testes. This was somehow worse than if Matt had taken the excuse to pummel him. He didn’t understand or even really feel the rage the word inspired. But he was nonetheless driven to action by it. Ernest stomped across the room and punched Matt right in the guts, aiming for the spot he’s been hit himself so many times and missing, just a hair too low to stun the bigger boy. Before he knew it, he was in the middle of a brawl.
It was British boys in the 1980’s. They didn’t fight to maim, just to submission. There wasn’t really any chance of Ernest getting hurt at all. Still, Ernest was relieved when teacher arrived back in class, appalled that in the three minutes she had been gone, things had devolved to this level. He could hear her piercing voice but could not see her face in memory or remember her identity precisely.
“What is this all about?” she screeched. She screeched everything. Nobody else seemed to notice, but sometimes Ernest had to sit though class in the hall because her voice hurt his ears so badly. She generally allowed this, just for him, but sometimes he had to act up to get there.
A dozen children at once tried to explain what was happening. The boys involved in the fight just looked at their scuffed shoes. Except for Ernest, who was looking right at this memory-teacher and trying to see her face.
But when Janet started talking, all eyes went to her. She said in her beautiful well-bred voice, “Seems like it was three against one to me, Miss. Ernest was just defending himself.”
And so the boys who had made the trouble – including Matt, who was really quite innocent of anything – were sent off to the headmaster, and Ernest stayed in the lesson, sneaking glances at Janet the remainder of the hour. Janet never looked at him, but then he didn’t expect her to. He was generally quite beneath her notice. Why had she noticed him this time?
The bath was cooling but Ernest scarcely noticed, scarcely came back to the present moment before another memory began to intrude.
“Truth or dare?” was the game on busses back from field trips. The dares were often innocently sexual, pushing boundaries in a time and place where the boundaries were quite rigid. Ernest remembered being the butt of many of these dares. “I dare you to kiss Ernest.” “Ernest, we’re playing a game. Do you mind if I kiss you? Just on the cheek.” “I dare you to kiss him on the lips.” “Ernest, do you mind?” “Mind? For god’s sake why would I mind?” “Because they’re making fun of you.” “I suppose that’s not all bad then, is it? Make fun of me all day.”
Janet’s lips had been cool and tender and sweet. She had lingered just a second longer than she’d had to. He didn’t even hear the giggling from the back of the bus where the cool kids sat. He knew he’d scored a minor victory in a life mostly empty of any victories at all. This memory in a memory made him forget all about light speed for a moment, and the pedantic voice in his head was silent.
Later, Matt cornered him in a hallway. Ernest as usual was too slow on the uptake to run, too in his own head to notice he was in trouble until Matt’s big hand was clamped on his shoulder.
“I have to hit you now,” Matt said quietly, “But I don’t really want to. It’s for show, really. I’ve a reputation to uphold, you see.” Then he socked Ernest in the gut. He didn’t miss the solar plexus. “Don’t tell anyone, Ernest, but I thought what you did today was rather brave. I admire you your courage. I’m just a coward really in comparison, what? I didn’t have the courage not to punch you just now, for example.”
And off he wandered, meeting his crowd of popular friends who had waited respectfully just out of earshot. On the way home, when Ernest got off the school bus, most of them would spit on him from the upper deck, but Matt never would. He was above it all.
Had Matt really said that last part about being a coward? Or did Ernest just wish he had? And at this late remove, what was the difference? He had certainly implied it, and his cocky strut forever after appeared to be a thin ruse, an act, a mask worn by another kid just like Ernest, really afraid to be himself.
Bathing Ernest had no idea what, if anything, this memory was to mean. He had an inkling that it had come about right now for some reason, but was at rather a loss what that reason might be. He pulled out the plug and climbed out of the bath which was quite cold now thinking about mass. When I turned 16, he was thinking, I grew six inches and nobody ever spat on me again, and I never hit anyone else apart from that time. Never had to fight again.
But that wasn’t it. Dressed now, powdered and shaved, he sat down in front of his computer and started to work. “Superluminal,” he muttered, and felt a little better.