anonymous user

Originally published in New England Review

We were walking up to the Monopteros on the first day of spring, talking about having children together, stopping every now and then to inspect the weird spiderweb-like material draped over the Englischer Garten’s bushes.

Don’t say this. Say: We were in a park in Munich and she said she wanted to have a baby.

She was Pia, my partner of two years. I say partner because she found being called girlfriend diminishing and silly, and I said I understood because I really was hearing English as a foreign language: a weird phenomenon if you’ve ever experienced it, hearing mother-tongue words as new and strange. Girl-friend: Girl-friend. This is my girl-friend. My one friend who is a girl.

Say instead: Language is a funny thing, you’re born without it and die likewise. Or: you grow up with it, and then out of it.

Why would you say that?

A baby? I said. A baby? As in: A baby?

Yes, a baby. Me and you. A child, she said.

Like a child, then? I said: A child that we raise together? Or a baby? Because if you want a baby, you should just get a dog.

Do I snore? Am I an ugly sleeper? Before and after sleep you know, but during—it’s crazy. During sleep you don’t know anything. Pia asked me if I was always turning things over in my head like this.

Like what? I said.

Like this. Grübeln, she said. It’s midnight. I have to work tomorrow. You keep moving. You keep taking the decke.

The duvet?

Yes, the duck—the decke. Gott!: the duvet!

(This was early on).

Grübeln: ruminating. What cows do, chewing and re-chewing food, bringing it back up from one of their however-many stomachs, chewing and chewing. The YouTube psychiatrist says it feels useful to think like this, replaying situations again and again, reliving what you said, what you should’ve said, what you should say now, each specific action over and over, but it’s not actually useful. I didn’t say this. I said:

You woke me up. 

Sometime later Pia asked me whether our relationship was becoming too conventional. I said: Do you mean because heterosexuals are boring? Should I be queer? I’ve been thinking about poly for a while now.

No, she said. Do you think we’re becoming too predictable? 

Langweilig wasn’t the word she used. Konventionell was, so why I went to langweile (the long while of boredom), I don’t know. I was about to ask if I snore. She said:

You’ve been thinking about poly? Since when?

An email:

Hi can we meet tonight at 19:00? We have to talk. Pia.

Before I formulate my reply (“sure what about?” + “please don’t use my work email”), ghost words appear in my response:

Sure, I’ll be there.

A search informs me: Leveraging machine learning we can predict what you’ll write. Don’t worry—your recipients won’t be able to tell—we’ve designed the smart suggestion tool to sound exactly like you. Just start writing, and the tool will take it from there.

I hate this—my answer before it’s written. I write: Sounds serious? 

Before sending, I receive another email: Sorry I didn’t say where! My uni café works, Pia
: )

I delete my response and write: Sure, I’ll be there.

Still—maybe something was up. I go to check her socials but very quickly I’m looking at something else:

This is tough for me to write. Tough, but so liberating!! I finally get to reveal what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’m going to adopt!!

Apparently, social media is good for remaining connected to people you’d otherwise have lost contact with—your cousins’ cousins, those quiet, strange figures in classrooms/offices a few desks away, etc.

I don’t know why I kept this to myself for so long. I thought there was something wrong with me—why did I want a child when none of my friends did? How come I wanted to have a child on my own?

But connecting—it’s not just connecting, is it? What I mean is, it must be equally true that social media keeps alive—superficially—relationships that should’ve been allowed to expire.

I thought it was wrong for a straight man to want to have a child without a woman.

So there you are, still in contact with those friends of friends, long after the couple whose wedding you’re both photo’d at have separated, and your thought patterns have reorganized around new crises, global + personal.

Today has been the best day. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of my best life!!

That’s how it is with Richard Davies-Knight—or as he introduced himself to me at a wedding years ago: Rich Davies. What did we talk about? Wanting to leave London? Wanting to do something big with our lives? Had he seen the deer in the park? How did he know Josh? He didn’t, he knew Niamh, oh I see, from uni, right. Me? Yeah, friends with Josh from school. Only met Niamh—weird to say his wife—a couple of times before. And, what do you do? London really is tough to live in unless you’re loaded.

I remember the low-definition sunset behind Richmond Park’s dark blue trees. I remember drinking as fairy lights came on in the pub garden. Swing music underneath the sense of something big needing to happen. Rich discreetly said to me: To be honest, I don’t know why anyone would want to get married—especially to a bint like Niamh. I remember thinking: Me and this guy Rich, we’re going to be mates.

Marek appears by my desk: All aboard? he says.

12:30—like every day. 

This is where—as a developer—you have to leave comments in your code. There’s no worse feeling than coming back to a dense block of symbols, of and and and having no idea why it’s written like that. Why is this stuff so elaborate/deranged? What was I thinking? Jesus Christ, what does any of this broken punctuation mean?

Ten years after meeting Rich, in the middle of a work day in Munich, I tell myself that unfriending him is now impossible. Not after his post. Not on the best day of his life. I put the cursor before a block, push #, and comment: # Unfortunately our proxy mechanism has compatibility issues with set-able properties but not sure why so I need to check this later.

I say: Sure, all aboard the lunch-train.

Some years later I see her with her child walking out of an airport toilet, asking the child if it’s washed its hands properly, and the child, even though it’s so blond and pale-skinned it’s almost featureless, like out of a painting (say, one of Pieter Breughel’s Where’s Wally? series: soft-skin, long arms, rounded, cartoonish—and also, somehow, approximate), I still can’t project a vision of myself onto it, see its brown eyes as Indian, enjoy its half-German-half-English accent.

Project a vision, that’s to say: edit the child’s code. Correct it.

What happens next: I put my hand up to signal her, but she doesn’t see me, and I don’t say “Pia!”, and she walks into the airport crowd, towards her new partner (a translucent film of grease on his bright skin), and I’m left standing in front of a Starbucks waving to a toilet entrance.

I write: Just seen ex with her kid in airport. They look tired. Dodged a bullet. Within two minutes I’ve gotten enough likes that I feel the waving/look-at-me-thing was worth it, my big journey’s delayed departure made more interesting. I write in English, and almost accidentally steal a sandwich.

Even when we were talking about babies, I never imagined being a dad, as in, being a parent—fatherhood. Pia more or less imagined both our roles: You’ll be the analytical, anxious parent, good with homework, punctual, and I’ll be the cool, arty mama.

She added: Of course the children will love their mama more.

I imagined the various kinds of disruptions to my ambitions/routines: the free man in the convertible, coastline, sun + moon, vodka-clear air—all that advert-stuff thwarted.

Why did Rich want to escape his own advert?

Pia: And the baby will grow up with four languages. Four!

Me: Four? No, two: me English, you German.

Pia: No, English you and me. German me, and maybe a bit you. Italian me. And Polish, also me.

Me: Your English isn’t that good. I could maybe do Punjabi too. Maybe. Maybe not. 

Pia: Do you even speak Punjabi? Teach me a word then. Say “language,” no! Say “children.” 

Me: It’s my mother tongue! Well, sort of. Mum and Dad spoke it. I answered in English. 

Pia: I can’t believe you’re saying my English isn’t good. You say that—fine! But then you ask me to explain Shakespeare to you.

She meant early on I’d asked her what she was doing for her Master’s, and she said The Tempest, and I said what’s that, and she said, Shakespeare, and I said huh?, when I shouldve said: You know Caliban was based on contemporary accounts of slaves? Or: What’s your opinion, is Shakespeare Prospero? Or, I should’ve at least checked Shakespeare’s Wiki before our date. If I had, that convo would’ve gone:

Me: Your English isn’t that good.

Pia: No? Maybe you can help me. You’re so smart.

But really, she said: Don’t worry I don’t expect you to know Shakespeare—remember, you said you like rap music. By the way you’re like the least gangster person I’ve ever met. 

Anyway. We’re as much defined by the things we don’t do, as those we do, says a YouTube motivational video. Our unrealized dreams and unfulfilled plans, the speaker says, burden us our whole lives. Can I go into my code, rewrite it? There must be comments explaining why this over-engineered block is written this way (# Some compatibility issues with Pia) or why this baroque section exists (# Unfortunately I felt I had to lie about myself to make friends). The speaker has weird hair.

I’d have been a terrible father. Why terrible? Do you grow out of being a disappointing son and grow into being a bad father? No, I won’t say that. I’ll say: Hang on. Let me say, I think I would’ve been—I’ll say this: There’s nothing in the intervening time between losing Pia and now that suggests I’d have made a good father. Or: I’d need to be a father to determine if I was good or not.

After the breakup I went to Brazil and took a pack raft down a tributary of the Amazon into the rainforest some hundred miles west of Manaus, spending several weeks learning how to cook chicken over a fire, watching the Milky Way glow in the night sky like the Holy Ghost while Arturo, my guide, told me how his father came from a tribe and after joining mainstream Brazilian society, impregnated some twenty women, one of whom was his mother.

Jungle man, he said. That’s how the jungle man do it. He laughed.

He didn’t have the European skill of hiding how he felt, and the light/shadow show of the fire added a kind of—not intensity exactly, but a feeling of consequence to the scene. Did those spiderwebs on the bushes in the Englischer Garten come to mind (something thin and vague on something strong and alive)? Maybe not, but I’ll say they did.

I asked him: But you’re still in touch with him? I mean, you have a good—connection—to him?

He held a small brown bottle up to his face and drank. The trees moaned in the black wind. He offered me the bottle, and after I drank, I laughed.

Jungle man, I said.

My new flat in Glockenbach was at a busy junction, above a Japanese restaurant, meaning: constant noise and smell (and I don’t want to get into some kind of banal back and forth about Munich drivers, but they’re all—invariably—well, anyway). Anyway, the good things were: the river was literally opposite my building meaning reflective walks (which I never took), and if you climbed to the roof of my top-floor flat (which I did daily), you had a somewhat clear view of the Alps to the south.

Distant mountains, purple snow. The snows of the Anthropocene.

We eat → the fish swim → the river runs → it snows on the mountains. It snows because we eat sushi. The sun goes around the Earth, or wait, let me say, there’s noise first, then lightning. Things just happen before they happen. Apparently your brain makes a decision before you realize it.

Shopping online for a completely new wardrobe, sushi almost finished, I found Rich’s profile:

It’s official! My adoption papers have been submitted again, and this time, the agency FINALLY said that everything’s looking good. So if I’m accepted to become an approved adopter, I’ll work with them to begin prospectively finding a child in need of adoption!! This past year has been awful—my life has been turned upside down. But I am a fighter!! And I don’t give up!! Thank you for sticking with me!!!

The first comment: Congrats!!!!!!!!! : )

An indistinct urge in my stomach led me to the roof. I put my headphones on: Biggie. Surprising to think everyone still called him that—Biggie— even though this poor boy was murdered in his twenty-fifth year, still so undeveloped/exploratory/fragile. And Rich, poor, young Rich. I’d forgotten about him, after my weeks in the rainforest. Something bad had happened. Something worse would still happen. I wanted to call him, save him from his own story’s predictable end. I saw him alone in a damp house where the landlord would order him to take down the kids’ posters in the unoccupied box-room. 

I opened his profile on my phone and almost wrote: Why do this to yourself? But I scrolled through his photos: in a silly hat, at the pub, looking over a cityscape at night. I know that people online are just their photos, stupid things they’ve said, noble causes they’ve liked, and that IRL people are different. Did Rich play chess with his father, compare calorie labels on cereal boxes, have a favorite pizza place he went to? Looking at him online, I felt like I was on the edge of something, seeing a fire or disaster in the distance, something I was helpless to prevent. 

They killed Biggie in his car as he waited—langweilte—at a traffic light. The Munich drivers below argued. Pia and I walked up to a mountaintop where purple snows were melting, up to a Monopteros, so that we could put out the flames behind the peak. We walked up there, and not to the place most other hikers were headed—the overgrown ruins of the Berghof, Hitler’s green + kitsch retreat, where Neo-Nazis lit tealights, and tourists bought beer and spongy knödeln from nearby hotels.

Dad talked to himself. He couldn’t eat in the same room as anyone else. He’s not the kind of man you’d be interested to know about.

Don’t say that. Don’t say: Dad. Say: Father. Say: My father was a highly religious man. I’ll qualify: only in the sense—I think—that an immigrant who has little purchase on the surrounding culture, and little self-knowledge, can be religious.

This was (actually) Pia’s suggestion. She didn’t say the above exactly, the semi-racist above. She said: For a lot of people, religion is a way of managing worry. A way of dealing with the Über-Ich.

What’s that? I asked. Also, how would you know?

Look! Snowman! she said.

Her gloved hand took mine. 

Know what? she said.

About religion?

We’re Catholic. My family, she said.

I said: He beat me.

He beat you? asked Pia, as we walked through the Englischer Garten (this time our footsteps plunging into the rubbery sound of snow). Oh God, I’m so sorry. She attempted to hold my hand tighter.

Do you remember a few months ago, I said, those weird spiderweb things?

(This was all in English.)

She laughed: Oh yeah! And then: Don’t change the subject.

I told her about the time he kicked me because I’d left the gate open (actually just a slap), and about the time he threw a video tape at my head because I’d interrupted his prayer (this was real): Look, here’s the scar.

Oh God. Sorry. Sorry.

I didn’t tell her that actually these things make me feel special, somehow. As though I’m marked out and have been closer than others to a vortex called reality. What most other people saw was an illusion where Christmas would keep on happening forever, and the universe’s code would never break. Maybe I should’ve said something about the pain in my stomach.

By the park’s well-known pagoda, some scarves were wrapped around derelict snow piles, the area nearby brown and damp.

She pulled me closer, despite our goose-down coats and ski gloves preventing any real contact. Her hair was grasped by one of my coat’s Velcro strips—strands which would later somehow end up in my tuna mayonnaise kumpir and threaten my tonsils; flesh, potato, sweetcorn, mucus coughed up in a tissue, a crushed baby bird in the snow. 

I said: Your English is getting really good.

We walked. She said:

Do you know this painting by Pieter Breughel? The snow one? I always remember me that painting on days like this.

Did I say your English is getting good?

That snowman is really fat, she said.

Could also be a she, I said. Snow-woman.

She’s pregnant, she said.

Parents from India, born in the UK, living in Germany, dreaming of Brazil. Am I boring? How can I make my life sound less konventionell? Pia tells me I’m taking the duck, the deckeGott!, the duvet, as I fill out forms in an office. I don’t write any of the above. Instead, I write:


Es ist ja langweilig, aber muss man, says the Bürgeramt guy. I’m registering the new Glockenbach flat. He means to say filling out forms is boring, but you have to do it. And this form, he implies, is particularly boring. I don’t say: All forms are boring. I say: I agree.

If my life were laid out in forms, if I had spell-check for my life, I could see where the typos—the dumb mistakes—were. I could adjust the grammar of my choices. Let me say: If could overwrite my life, do it again, I wouldn’t just do better in school or kiss all those faces I ran from. I’d get the right sperm to enter that egg which formed me, one with brains + courage + a heart. Then I’d stay in London, not Munich, so I’d never have to deal with German administration again.

Maybe Rich sees a future for himself in cinematic detail: scrubbing grass stains off the kid’s trousers before they get washed, or making breakfast while the kid watches Saturday morning TV on his belly like he’s been spilled out of a glass. With zero exaggeration, I don’t see a future. I see the past on repeat. Maybe he sees himself as part of a line, taking and passing the torch—all that. Social media will do that for us one day: friend-requests to the unborn. The Bürgeramt guy sneezes.

He offers opinions on German bureaucracy; how dull it is; how it continues to give Germany such notoriety. He wants me to know, I intuit, that he’s different from his colleagues, that he has a past or an adjacent-present which is more interesting. I don’t tell him bureaucracy isn’t the reason for Germany’s bad reputation.

Student? he asks.

No. Work. Developer.

He’s puzzled. I explain what I do, but he says he knows what an Entwickler is. He wants to know why I dress like a student. Then he reminds me that not too long ago, before computers, foreigners couldn’t get decent jobs. Not even Engländer.

I say: My ex actually just threw out all my clothes.

He laughs and asks if it’s true, because it sounds like a movie. A woman filling out her own form at a desk nearby coughs to shush us. Nobody likes bureaucracy. But white people especially don’t. It’s not just a question of atmosphere—stuffiness—but because it shows them what it’s like to be nameless/faceless/featureless in a big system.

I don’t say this (obviously). Instead: Smile/nod to the woman, as if to say, sorry!

A group of kids ran away with my trainers. My multicolored Carlo Culicci jumper (similar to Biggie’s) landed on top of a curry-colored dog turd.

Yeah. It’s true, I say.

After subletting the Glockenbach flat out for my six-month trip to Brazil, I message my uncle: won’t be reachable for a while but will send you some emergency numbers.

After a few texts, he tells me he’s worried. Or, rather, he links me to a news story about violence in Brazil. He doesn’t write: Please don’t go.

This will sound like I’m making it up, but I’m not. I skim the article (minor political unrest) and see something I can’t believe: in the most-read list, a thumbnail image of a recognizable face. I click.

London man sues adoption agency after having application rejected due to “discrimination.”

Rich looks so much older than his Facebook photos. He looks so pale, so cold. 

The comments:

This idiot says he’s being discriminated against as a “single, straight male”—sorry but no normal guy would do this. And I’m a straight single male btw. 

Gosh! If this is his ploy to try to appear like a family man to get women, it’s not working. He looks like a creep. 

Richard Davies-Knight. Bet he thinks he’s some kid’s knight in shining armour. 

The story: . . . Mr. Davies-Knight’s legal representatives commented that the lawsuit was not filed for a specific financial amount, but rather to publicly contest the agency’s decision to not proceed with his adoption application. Mr. Davies-Knight commented he is “fighting for all those people who don’t fit into boxes.”

A predictable end for Rich, or rather, for Mr. Davies-Knight. He shouldn’t ruin his life over this. I want to write to him: not over this. I create an account (profile name: anonymous_user) and write: 

We’re as much defined by the things we don’t do, as the things we do—you could be so happy if you just don’t go ahead with it. Please don’t ruin your life over this. 

Then I delete this and write: paedo. 

I message my uncle: Don’t worry. And then my keyboard suggests the words, one by one: I’ll . . . be . . . fine. The final suggestion, the slightly smiling face emoji: 🙂

I hit send, and post my comment to the article.

My uncle responds: : )

I took an e-reader to Brazil, and on it, the complete Shakespeare. I couldn’t get into The Tempest, but I read Othello outside a café in Rio, where I was served coffee and fried sandwiches by a woman whose hair gave me a strange feeling in my stomach. In the scene where Iago tells Othello to beware the green-eyed monster, I was surprised to see this:

Farewell, farewell:
If more thou dost perceive, let me know more;
Set on thy wife to observe: leave me, Iago:

[Going] My lord, I take my leave.

Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless
Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.

[Returning] My lord, I would I might entreat your honour . . . 

Mopeds, trucks, constant noise, constant smell, my brown and dusty sandals, uncut toenails, kids. Iago tricks Othello into thinking Desdemona is cheating with Cassio. Why? Obviously he hates Othello, hates his position/power/genetic code/thick lips. He calls him a black ram. And the explanatory notes said as much: Othello’s central themes are jealousy, racism, and ambition. But there’s one thing the notes didn’t mention: Iago hates Othello because he is Othello’s brain. Othello cannot stop thinking. He cannot stop going over the possibility of Desdemona’s betrayal. And Iago—Iago does what Othello’s thoughts do. Iago leaves, then he returns with his just one more thing. 

Rumination isn’t what cows do, chewing and chewing. It’s your brain betraying you. 

Why did the waitress give me such a dirty/hateful look before she left?

It’s not grübeln. It’s your brain trying to kill you.

After Brazil I call my uncle to ask how Dad’s doing.

He died last week, he says.

Oh right, I say. Okay, well, how’s the weather?

It’s our joke to talk about Dad this way. He’s dead, or he died, or didn’t you hear, he fell off a cliff—little YIKES! sign in tow. My uncle hates him. He says Dad was a bastard, used to beat his sister. He tells me like I don’t know.

How do I feel about Dad? Hate him? What does it feel like to hate someone? Should I say: I hate my father? Is there a note in my DNA explaining exactly why I feel this pain only in my stomach? What I mean is, say I hate him, how should I feel? He threw a videotape at my head. Here’s the scar, look. No really, how should I feel? I’m asking because if it feels like not much, like absolutely nothing, then yes, I hate him.

My uncle asks how Brazil was and am I back in Munich and will I come to the UK any time soon? I say no, I’ve just gotten into a new flat and the sublet was a real animal. There were two full bin bags when I returned. There were more flies in the kitchen than in the jungle.

After our call, I’ll see, surprisingly, that Rich won his case. In a few days’ time, I’ll stand on the roof and want to put out a fire behind the mountains, but before that, I’ll just go through the newspaper article quoted on his Facebook saying: Mr Davies-Knight expressed his “complete and unwavering” intention to submit another adoption claim

To my uncle, I say:

You know what? I’m glad Dad’s dead.

Something wants to comfort Dad in the past, driving his taxi out there in the unsteady VHS dark, praying quietly white men don’t kill him. Something wants to say: If hatred feels like nothing, then yes.

You shouldn’t say that, my uncle says.

At work I tell Carla the story about Rich, but she puts her headphones on halfway through.

Sorry don’t care, she says, turning back to her screen.

I want to lift up her headphones to say: He’s won his case but surely there’s no way they’re going to let him have a kid now. But instead I open Facebook to message him. And instead of that Marek asks: All aboard?

As Marek talks, the child I never have walks by me in the street. It says my clothes are dumb. It asks why I spent six months in Brazil just to come back to Munich and do the same job I was doing before. Don’t I want to be a jungle man now?

I don’t answer.

Instead, I enter my building and place the pizza box on my desk. I see a timeline where I have a kid and learn a life-lesson, but an unspecific one (childless, cannot imagine the lesson to be learned). I imagine Rich learning a lesson. Like: Don’t try to have a kid on your own. Or, people will fuck you up. Or, nothing ever works out anyway.

Then that timeline fades and I’m opposite Carla as she eats ramen at her desk. She has hair like the Brazilian waitress. (There is a compatibility issue between this hair and my stomach.)

I open my email, and again, Facebook. Rich’s profile:

Since my second adoption claim, I’ve been the victim of a vicious online hate campaign. People have sent messages to my employer. And worst of all, after the court case last year, I was stalked and harassed by two men who tried on a number of occasions to get access to my flat. 

With pizza in my mouth:

Hey, Carla, let me ask you something. Do you want kids?

I had to change flats, work arrangements, and file multiple police reports. 

What did you say? she asks, pulling one headphone away slightly. 

But through some miracle, and I mean it really IS a miracle—they were recently arrested and are currently in jail!!

Just out of interest, I say, do you want kids?

So I get to say it. It’s happening. It’s actually happening. I’m adopting!! I’ve been given police and community support, and thank goodness, the noise and threats have died down, and everything seems more normal!! In about 20 months my newly adopted daughter will be able to move in with me!! Thank you to everyone who’s supported me throughout this ordeal. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Now time to repaint my future daughter’s bedroom!! ❤ 

Rich’s not thanking me, even though at Josh and Niamh’s wedding near to Richmond Park (the pink and blue sunset), I had my arm around him. Under fairy lights, this guy and me: We’re going to be mates.

Shut the fuck up, she says.

Up by the Monopteros we have our first date. Not Pia and me but a girl I meet through my former sublet. Should I say I’m really looking forward to spending time with her, when I’m not? Should I tell her that something big needs to happen in my life?

I say: I’m glad we get to finally spend some time together. Do you know why it’s called a Monopteros?

She nods. I want to rewrite her face’s code, make it more like Pia’s, or my own, or make it reassuring, make it anything but the face before me now. 

I try talking about Munich drivers, the Alps, and then, even though I don’t want to, I can’t help it, I suddenly start talking about Rich—his adoption story, his online harassment. I tell her about Rich’s stalkers—how they were caught for assaulting a man they mistook for him (waiting outside a pub while Rich drank; attacking the first man who emerged looking like him; the victim, like Rich, a faceless man). And I tell her that even though I know me writing that thing about him online wasn’t the reason those guys started stalking him, and that they would have stalked him anyway, they were in fact more than just bad guys. They were my brain, fixated on him. It’s like they’re my brain, and they just decided to do that without me realizing it. Like my brain is some kind of anonymous user logged into my life. They weren’t just bad guys—they were my brain trying to kill Rich. 

I smile at her. 

She says: One moment. 

Taking her phone from her bag, she writes a message, and looks up at me: My friends are now expecting me home, she says. 

The pain in my stomach lessens as she walks away, and I drink my coffee. Should I say: The streetlights come on or the white buildings transform into cozy, orange-windowed homes at night, or purple shadows lie across the distant mountains?

On my phone’s bright screen, I open a chat to Pia. I write: Hi. Then the suggested words appear: How . . . are . . . you . . . going . . . to . . . get . . . there? I deleteWhy can’t I just write this myself? Why can’t I just write: How are you? Would you like to get a coffee? BTW I miss you. I miss talking to you. Why can’t I end the message with: X or :)?

The child I never have (featureless, out of a Breughel painting) tells me: Go be a jungle man. I tell it to shut up. Don’t you get it? You can’t go through life with this happy, dumb attitude. Good things don’t always just happen. You might want them to, but things turn out the way they do. Things always turn to shit. I’m not saying you have to be depressed, but just don’t be surprised when you’re alone.

The kid doesn’t respond. Its featureless face warps: A sad mouth, like Dad’s sad mouth, appears. The face looks at me. My stomach hurts. The face changes. It says: Go be a jungle man. It’s smiling, slightly.

Closing the message, opening a tab, it takes me a moment to realize what I’m looking at on my bright, too-bright, phone.

A timeline:

After I wave to a toilet, I wait for my delayed plane to Brasilia at the gate. This time, I’m really going to make a go of it. Not just a few months, but possibly years. Get rid of the Glockenbach flat, and stay out there. Weeks before getting to that point, I’ll say to the guy in the Brazilian Embassy: It’s boring but you have to fill out forms.

Ja, he’ll shrug.

My plan is to take Ayahuasca in a traditional ceremony, first. Ayahuasca, or whatever they call it in Brazil. Maybe I’ll set up my own company in Rio. I don’t know. I have European wealth, and can live comfortably, although I’d never say this. I’ll say: Life is a big adventure.

With the Ayahuasca, I’m sure there’ll be strange mythical associations tied to a Punjabi upbringing in the UK, as well as a kind of mangled German and rigidly formal and basic Portuguese. I’ll not be looking forward to the intense feeling that having lived some forty years on this planet, there are no elders above me (uncle died recently), and no offspring to look to and say: This is a reflection of me. Parents, I’ll think, don’t talk about children this way.

Will I think about that moment in the dark, looking at my too-bright phone?

Can I ask you a question? I’ll say to the guy. Do you know what those spiderweb things are on the bushes? (I will have seen some on the dirty hedges lining the path to the embassy, and if I pick at them I will say it’s like picking at a network of memories, or lifting language—its fine lace—to get to reality underneath).

Will I remember what brought me to this embassy, this airport gate?

He’ll shrug.

Will I remember my phone and Richard’s adopted child? His long-haired, freckled, blue-eyed child. 

How about thinking: Maybe life doesn’t need spell check? Maybe it’s not so predictable?

Perhaps I’ll remember seeing Rich’s child and saying out loud: God! Such a happy smile!

I wave to a toilet. Pia and her kid walk by. A Where’s Wally? painting tells me my shoes are dumb, go be a jungle man.

Dad drives a fork into Mum’s hand.

Oh hang on, he’ll say. I know. But I can’t remember.

I’ll be about to say something—something about life being empty grammar.

He’ll interrupt: Don’t worry, they grow everywhere. They’re not harmful. ■

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