In Other Rooms, Other Weapons (a novel)

The Man in the Long Coat

I sat in the undersized chair, notebook on my knee, surly pain developing in my upper back. I couldn’t complain, it was a kindergarten after all, and all the chairs were similar, the teacher’s included. There was nobody else around, even the janitor went home after having shown me how to lock the door on my way out. The staff was submissive enough, and one of them apologized for having made me wait for so long. I hadn’t waited for long, but I accepted their apologies with a dismissive wave of the hand.

The kid started crying when he was told he had to stay behind after class. He perceived it as a form of punishment. I tried my best to reassure him, while he was sobbing uncontrollably, that it wasn’t a punishment. I simply wanted to talk to him about matters from his past.

The school headmaster had indeed warned me that this was one sensitive kid, prone to crying every time he felt he was being singled out for something he wouldn’t even think of doing. I sympathized with the kid on that, because I, too, often suffered from such fits of paranoia. The headmaster did not seem to understand the meaning of my statement and instead smiled awkwardly. I knew such people. This man had probably never left the village, and probably could not even recognize the Empire State Building when shown a picture of it taken from an unrecognizable angle. Mental illness was probably as bizarre to him as a pair of human kidneys drying in the sun. But then again I was at his disposal, and I couldn’t deny the awkwardness of the situation. I was a tall man in my late twenties wearing a long coat and a black hat, and I wanted to see a kid who had absolutely no idea what I wanted from him.

When I asked the question about the woods and the older boys again, the kid became defensive. That caught me off guard. He raised the tone of his voice and moved his arms frantically. He was clearly trying to mime an older member of his family, most likely the mother. But I could see through it anyway, I didn’t feel threatened, he was still a kid, and I was the adult in the room.

‘Why are you here?’ The kid almost jumped from the chair. ‘What is it that you want from me? Just leave me alone. I’m going to tell my father about this, and he’s going to come and talk to you.’

I’m here to tell you about strings vibrating underwater.

I tried to reassure him again by telling him who I was and what I was doing there. I told him about the investigation I had undertaken, I told him about my research and the fact that his case might provide useful information. He smiled then as if to say that yes, he probably had some helpful information, something the other kids didn’t have. Most likely that made him feel special, and so he relaxed a bit. He started talking again about the Russians and the stories his grandfather told him about the war. I jotted down all of that, and he slowed down every time I showed signs that I wanted to write something down. He obviously thought I had picked him out from the other kids because somebody told him he was a genius of some sort. I didn’t want to break the spell because not only would he not understand that it was only a spell, but he would also refuse to talk further. I tried steering the discussion back to the woods and the older boys. He told me he was ashamed of talking about it. ‘There’s no shame in talking about that,’ I told him, ‘I’m going to write a book about it, and you’re going to be in it.’ That seemed to satisfy him beyond recognition. His face got lost suddenly, became the flicker of a mask as if he was trying to settle on the kind of look he needed for that moment.

They were his brother’s friends, not his, he didn’t have any friends, he didn’t say why so I pressed him for it. I knew the answer, of course, but I was also trying to lower his defenses by making him feel small, humiliate him. The kid was obviously overweight, and his parents had been overly protective about it. Don’t let the kid suffer, he’ll have the rest of his life to suffer, just don’t let him suffer now, right? I bet that was the philosophy behind it. The kid’s relationship with food must have been out of control: irregular meals, overcompensation, lack of control, hence lack of taste when it came to food, no idea about nutrition, just a whole lot of inherited ideas about food and how a person should look like. And the parents had also probably inherited the notion that people are going to accept the kid the way he was.

‘The other kids don’t like me,’ he told me after brooding over it for a while, ‘they make fun of me, and I don’t like it. They just run away, they don’t want to play with me.’

‘Why is that? Do they feel threatened by you?’

‘Because I can’t play their games and also because they’re stupid.’

‘And you’re not stupid.’

‘I’m not,’ he said, ‘I read books, I read books every day.’

I had, in fact, checked the kid’s library card and noted that he took a lot of books home, but they were returned the very next day when other books were taken on loan, which most likely meant he didn’t read them till the end. I mean, this kid could not have read Crime and Punishment in a single afternoon. He seemed content that I knew of his readings and so I pressed him to tell me about Crime and Punishment. As I expected, he told me the beginning of it then got lost and told me he had forgotten the details. That was a book he had read just a few days before our encounter. I asked him if he knew anything about Dostoevsky. He didn’t. He had simply read Crime and Punishment, and that was the end of it. I told him I thought he was lying and he swore that he had, in fact, read the book. He was obviously lying, but I went back to the episode with the older boys.

‘What were you doing out there, you and the other boys, in the woods on that Sunday afternoon?’

He told me about the schoolteacher, who had these grandchildren living in the city. Every once in a while, the schoolteacher would come to visit and bring the grandchildren as well. They were a couple years older than him and when they were all alone in the woods just behind the house discussions obviously deviated towards sex and what adults did in bed. They were hiding in the tall grass when the kid turned face down and told the others he was going to stay like that. He even pulled his pants down, showing his ass to the other kids. One of them stuck a twig in the kid’s ass. I asked the kid whether the twig penetrated him, and he denied it, saying it was only playful.

I told him to continue, and that’s when I saw what could have made the other kids avoid him. It was his effeminacy and the excessive way he tried to look small in a body that refuted minuteness. If ever I could even begin to believe in the separation between body and soul, he would be a good case study. Inside him, something else moved, which was what he seemed to hold onto with naive keenness.

The kid couldn’t remember the transitions, his memory just wasn’t good with that. In his mind, his life was a series of sudden screams, moments painted in intense colors, oversaturated, excessive structure, contrast turned to extreme degrees. Each memory was a construction made of human bodies. So the next thing he knows he’s part of an orgy in which, by turns, he is a newborn and a mother being fucked by a nasty husband who just came home from work and brought green leaves instead of green dollars. No penetration was involved, the kid assured me, but they did wave their little dicks in the air and mimed penetration. He described the place where it all happened accurately. I wrote some of the details down in my notebook. There’s a small puddle next to the place where it happened, and it is surrounded by thick greenery. He clearly recalls the smell of musk and then the smell of shit because one of them had taken a dump afterward simply because he wanted to show the others how shit can sometimes come out with blood on it. The demonstration was successful apparently. He also recalls the leaves that the other kid used to wipe his ass.

Clearly, I was disgusted by the whole story and didn’t make any effort to hide my disgust, so the kid grew silent. I asked him if they had, at least, washed their hands afterward. He couldn’t recall any such detail, but then he told me about the crab apples they used to eat in the woods and the green leaves that had the taste of lemon, so I realized that personal hygiene wasn’t one of their strong points of the people in the village.

‘Why did you pull your pants down there in the woods?’

‘I don’t know,’ the kid told me, ‘I just felt like it.’

‘You felt like offering them your body on a platter, just like that.’

He didn’t seem to understand but nodded anyway.

‘And were there other moments such as these?’

He told me there had been plenty of moments. The same thing happened with a cousin of his who used to come to play. And again he gave up his body to this other boy who was still too young to have an erection.

‘Why did you do it? What was the purpose of it?’

‘We were just playing, the kid said, nothing more to it. We wanted to be adults, wanted to see what it was like to have sex.’

The moaning of adults must have been fascinating for them, the guttural ululation, the intertwined bodies, the sweat, they were curious about what happened between their legs. They must have seen it in the movies on TV, they must have overheard adults talking about it or even doing it. These people gathered together during the winter and slept in the same room, sometimes sharing the same bed to save on the wood used for the heating. Younger parents always got the advantage of having a place all their own for specific reasons, of course, while the other members of the family were crowded in the same room.

‘What was the thing that you enjoyed most about it?’

I don’t recall exactly how the kid told it, I must have written down the thing mechanically because the sentence sounds too elaborate to have been uttered by a kid his age. He told me that he liked the warmth of the other boy’s body on top of him, the weight of the body pressing him down against the floor.

‘You didn’t do it on the bed?’

Never on the bed apparently. The bed was like a sacred space that could not be disturbed with such trivial matters. It wasn’t an empty floor, of course, there were thick covers placed on the floor where the parents used to nap after lunch.

‘Did that happen often?’

Often enough, and he was never the one to initiate the situation. It was always the other one, who appeared surreptitiously and without warning when nobody was around. I tried to imagine the reach of the hand and the touch that then led to the rest. I wondered how that must have felt. An arm reaching across an unperceived chasm? What sort of satisfaction were they hoping to receive at the end of everything?

The kid then told me about the other guys, a different group of friends who did the same things with him. He was always the one at the bottom, and in his presence, the others felt like asserting their alpha masculinity. It was the same scenario over and over again: the husband coming home from work, tired, bringing green leaves that stood for money, hoping to have a good fuck with the wife who was always waiting at home. No penetration was involved. It was the performance of those roles that gratified them since there was no orgasm at the end. I thought of the games children usually play when they have used up all of the resources of their imagination. It’s always the ‘family game’ that comes up next, a sort of effigy of family life minus the issues because, at that age, family issues are ever taken care of by the adults. The children are part of the decision, but their own opinion is never really taken into consideration except as a side note. And the fake parents in the children’s games are performing similar roles, but they never get as far as sex. But then again the games also respected gender differences, the mother was always a girl, and sex with a girl was just too real to be performed in a game. What was it then that made those boys perceive this kid as a woman?

I then realized that I had been talking with the kid for too long, and he was getting visibly uncomfortable. He was also hungry. And so I told him that he could go home because it was getting late and his mother must have been expecting him for a while. He put his coat on, which seemed about two sizes too big for him though it was rather new, and put his bag over the shoulder, his belly awkwardly protruding against the bag making it stand up. For a moment he resembled a mentally retarded kid. I did not say anything because I was waiting for him to go out so I could see the way he walked. I was hoping to get a clue of some sort, something that could help me elucidate the mystery of this kid. What made him so vulnerable and, most of all, what made him so socially awkward? He went out, and I could see the tip of his hat just below the window. A woman was waiting for him at the gate.

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