The Beginner's Guide to Living (14 page)

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
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“I can't. Here, take it and stick it in the charity box over there.” She points to a plastic dog with a slot in its head. “Better than giving it to these guys. Bloody corporate robbers.”

It's then that I notice the girl's name is Cherry and her fingernails are painted black.

“What are you going to do with that?” She grins, nodding at my plastic bag.


“Yeah, right.” She leans over the counter and whispers, “I'm getting off in half an hour. Will you wait for me?”

First thought, Taryn, followed by, maybe it's time for a little fire. “Sure, why not? I'll meet you at the café downstairs, the one next to the sushi bar. By the way, my name's Will.”

“Where there's a will.” She laughs, too loud for the lady behind me. “Won't be long. Only a few more people to rob.”

*   *   *

The coffee's bitter and I'm thinking this was a dumb idea. Somebody I know might see me. Tell Taryn. Tell Dad. And what's with the anarchist checkout chick?

“So, Will, what's your tag?” Cherry arrives wearing a bright red top in keeping with the theme.

“Don't have one.”

“Well, have you at least picked a spot?”

“There's this place I've seen from the train, under a bridge. It's about three stations down.”

“Cool. So, only the one color then.”

I drink the last bad mouthful of coffee. “I'll only be writing words.”

“Sounds like you've got a plan. Come on, let's get out of here.”

*   *   *

It's cooler under the bridge and our mission feels nobler away from people's eyes. I know everything about Cherry—how many half siblings she has, that her father's gay, the name of the first guy she ever slept with, and how useless he was. How the second one was
fucking great!
She looks like she'll jump me if she gets the chance even though she's only half my size—her fierceness makes me feel like a dumb kid and an old man all at once.

“I can't believe you've never done ecstasy. Until you've dropped an E you haven't lived.” In Cherry's world, there is a long list of things you must do in order to have lived. I'm about to do one of them. “So, what are you going to write?”

“All of us are creatures of a day.”


“Because I think it's true.”

“Fair enough. Did you make it up?”

“No, Marcus Aurelius did.”

“Who's Marcus Aurelius?”

“I can't believe you haven't read Marcus Aurelius. Until you've read his
, you haven't lived.”

“Loser.” She shoves me hard, then steadies me, hands on my arms. “Train coming. Move back.”

“Move back? Shouldn't we get out from under the bridge?”

“No fun,” she says pressing her back into the wall. I do the same, the mortar jagged against my hands. The roar of the train entering the tunnel, getting louder, the warning rush of wind, and suddenly it's there, the sound of metal on metal, a violent pitch. The flash of silver. I stop breathing. Cherry screams. So loud, so loud, then gone, the tail end of it speeding down the track.

“You okay?”

“Sure,” says Cherry, her hair blown off her face. “I always scream with stuff like that. Gets your heart going. Come on, we'd better hurry, in case the driver saw us and phones it in.”

I pull the spray can out of my bag and test it on the wall. The paint spits. Cherry laughs. “You have to shake it first, you idiot.”

“I know that.”

Overhead, cars judder across the bridge. There's a long patch of black where somebody's painted over some graffiti, so I start spraying on that.

“White on black. Very good. Easy to see.” Cherry straddles a track to watch me as I work. Her boots crunch on the gravel and smoke from her cigarette curls around her shoulder—now that the train's gone there's no wind. I spray into grooves and over bumps. I have to keep standing back to make sure the whole thing is straight. The sentence seems longer now that every letter requires effort. Both of us, me and Marcus Aurelius, are earning our place on the wall.

“Your first masterpiece,” says Cherry when I finish. “Better get out of here now, just in case.”

She grinds the butt into the polished track with her boot while I wipe the paint that has dripped down my fingers onto the wall. Hope they can't take prints from this. I shove the can back into its plastic bag—I'll dump it at the station, or maybe I'll keep it and write something somewhere else. Cover the whole city in philosophical graffiti. I need to get myself a tag.

*   *   *

On the way back on the train, we pass under the bridge. Two cops are standing next to our words. Cherry waves at them as we go past. “At least they've learned something today,” she laughs, kissing me on the cheek. “Can we do this again?”

“I've got a girlfriend.”

“I didn't ask you to have sex with me,” she says, grinning. She pulls out a pen and writes on my hand. “That's my number. Call me. Whatever. I'm getting off here.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“Thanks, yourself.” Her bright red top is a beacon moving along the platform. I pull out my notebook.

15. Will others get burned if I sit down in the fire?


Mom's gone. Dad said she went to visit an old friend, but she didn't tell me—Mom always tells me if she's going away. It's not so bad because we get to eat takeout all week and stay up late. I've just turned six. Dad forgets to tell us to go to bed. He forgets to take out the garbage and the bin starts to stink.

When she comes back she's wearing a new red dress. For a few days she keeps trying to hug me whenever I walk into the room. She leaves her packed bag sitting by her bed for ages, until one day it's gone. I find the red dress in her wardrobe, scrunched up and shoved to the back.

*   *   *

Wednesday night. Supermarket parking lot wall.

To live each day as though one's last.


Thursday, 3 a.m. Side of the school gym. With Cherry.

A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.


Friday after school. Other side of the railway bridge. Cherry couldn't make it, she had to work, but that's okay, this one I want to do on my own.

I get the can out of my bag and give it a good shake. The Marcus Aurelius quote I did last time is still there, nobody's painted over it yet—I'll have to do the letters smaller because there's less room on this side. Too many tags.

I pull my notebook out of my bag and open it to the new quote, write
You must have
, and get halfway through
, when I hear it—the screech, the oscillating rattle, the fading of all other sound. Spray can secure against the wall, I go to climb out of the tunnel but my foot freezes on a rock at the bottom of the bank. I go back inside, to the middle of the tunnel, to its stretched light, press my shoulder blades against the wall.

And then it comes, hurtling metal, the wind, the roar, a mix of suction and repulsion, the blur of faces and glass. The void. My hands against the bricks, shoulders reaching forward, my foot lifting. My heart rallies to the rhythm of the wheels, clack, clack, clack. My eyes closed, I step away from the wall, feel the reflection of metal on my face and I fall forward, falling, falling …

Plummet into space, Nietzsche's words in my head.

You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.

*   *   *

“And I thought you were taking me somewhere romantic,” says Taryn. We are in the Safeway parking lot.

“Oh, but it is, sort of. You'll see.”

A woman wheeling a shopping cart back to her car gives us a “loitering teenagers” kind of look. I smile back.

“Ta-da.” We're standing in front of Marcus Aurelius—
To live each day as though one's last

“Did you do that?”

I nod and hug her. “What do you think?”

“About what you wrote, or the fact that you've taken up vandalism as your new thing?”

I let her go. “Either.”

“Don't look at me like that, Will. All I was thinking…”


“Well, is this really the right thing to be doing?”

I fling my arms out toward the shoppers, their shopping carts loaded on a Saturday night. “Look at these people. They're surrounded by stuff, but there's no real thought.”

“People have to eat, Will. Anyway, I'm sure, if you asked, they'd have their own philosophy on life.”

“You reckon?”

I kick an empty cigarette pack but it doesn't lift; it crushes under my feet instead. Taryn's finger fumbles the end of my sleeve. “Will, I don't want to sound cruel, but I think what happened to you has kind of warped your whole view of things, at least for the moment. In time…”

“In time I'll learn to shut my eyes like the rest of the world.”

“Can we go somewhere else?”

“I think not.”

I stare past her at a piece of gum smudged into the asphalt and I lean against the wall, next to the word
. “Anyway, I'm meeting someone later.”


“Nobody you know.”

“This is
wrong, Will. Look at me.”

I stare into those eyes.

“We love each other, remember?”

I nod. She puts her arms around me and my hand settles in the sway of her back. “Let's go home, Will.”


“And that person you had to meet?”

“It can wait.”

Her mouth fumbles its way to mine. Her kiss is wary at first, then fierce.

*   *   *

Samara's getting friendly with a bottle of Cointreau when we arrive at the house. She pours some for us. “Cheers.”

It tastes like oranges and it has a kick. Taryn bangs her emptied glass on the table. “Shut up and keep serving. Whose is it anyway?”

“Mine. Got it duty-free on my way back.”

“It's delicious,” says Taryn. “So, tell us about those drug lords you were hanging around with in Pakistan. What kind of stuff were they selling?”

Samara looks sideways at Taryn as she refills her glass. “Mostly heroin and opium. It comes from Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass.”

“What were drug dealers doing listening to Sufi music?” I ask.

“Everybody listens to qawwali over there. Don't get me wrong, they were probably quite spiritual.”

Taryn. “Yeah, in a drug-induced kind of way.”

I turn to Samara. “So, do Sufis do drugs?”

“Don't know, never met any. But I know sadhus do.”

Seems I get one word worked out and another shows up. “What's a sadhu?”

Taryn bangs her glass on the table again, next to the groove that she cut, and refills her glass herself. Samara smiles. “A sadhu is a holy man. They're all over India, mostly Hindus. They give up everything and go on the road. In some states, government shops sell hash and opium to sadhus for religious purposes.” She raises her eyebrows. “Or, at least, that's what I heard.”

“Really? So, what's hash meant to do?” I ask Samara as Taryn throws her head back and drains her glass.

“Free your mind. Help you get in contact with Shiva, Consciousness, whatever you want to call it.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“What? Hash? Sure, but not for that reason, just to get high. I can roll us a joint if you like,” offers Samara. “I've got some in my room.”

“What about your parents?”

“They're out. Anyway, I wouldn't worry about them, they went to university in the seventies. Still, better come into my room, don't want to stink up the whole house.”

Taryn jabs me with her elbow. “You've never smoked weed, have you?”

“Never got around to it,” I mutter.

Taryn puts some music on while Samara gets a plastic bag out of the drawer by her bed. She lights a joint, takes a deep puff, and hands it to Taryn. Fugitive smoke curls from her nose.

“Man, that's strong,” murmurs Taryn, sucking in her breath. The end is moist, the smoke harsh as it enters my throat, and it's hard to resist the urge to cough. I feel dizzy but not much else. I hand it back to Samara and it continues like this, the music and the joint going around.

“Let's go,” says Taryn, tugging on my arm. It's going to come out of my shoulder if she doesn't stop. I try to stand but my legs wilt. “Will.”

“You're all right. Off you go, just don't make too much noise though.” Samara's lying on her back, finishing off the joint.

I manage to get up and stay up. Taryn drags me to her room, lowers me onto the bed, starts winding my T-shirt off, but I don't want to be undressed. I want to sit in a corner, not close my eyes—tried that already, not good—maybe look at the wall.

“Taryn. I'm … sorry.”

Her hand reaches into my jeans but only the rims of my eyelids feel hard. She presses herself against me, legs tangled, but it's like being caged. I need to push her away. “Taryn…”

“What the hell is up with you, Will?”


She climbs on top of me and pins me down, her marmalade hair flaming around her face. “Who were you going to meet?”


“Don't lie.”

“Just this girl. She's been helping with the graffiti.”

“Great.” Taryn covers her face with her hands. “This is all falling apart, Will.”

“No, it's not. Don't, Taryn. You're stoned, that's all.” She feels far away, looming, must be the dope.

“Obviously not stoned enough.” She rolls off and turns away from me. “Why don't you go home.”

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
2.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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