The auburn shoes don’t match, they just don’t, and that was the first hitch of the day. His father did say something about the shoes while he was trying them on. It wasn’t the color according to father. And yet he can’t recall exactly what it was. There was something wrong with the way they were made, the whole thing. But he did not confront father and that was always the case because father was never clear about things. Father would mumble as if he was afraid to take responsibility for the things that came out of his mouth. He hated that, the indecisiveness, not knowing how to react, not knowing what to do in such circumstances, and secretly, as if ashamed by the thought, he hoped he would not turn out to be like his father.
Now he is completely aware of it, of the shoes that is, and that gruesome auburn that seems like a splotch on the whole outfit. They seemed so much nicer while he was trying them on. And it’s not just that. What he’s most angry at is the fact that he fell for it. He fell for all that capitalist shopping-aura related bag full of crap that pushed people into buying things they didn’t particularly like. Now he has to deal with the side effects, with the sorrow that comes with realizing that it was a mistake, with understanding that the shoes don’t match and it all boils down to wasted money, money that his parents can’t spare. And now, as he is waiting in line for his fried chicken he has the uncanny feeling that he is being watched by people who disagree with his choice of shoes. Everyone seems to be staring at the shoes and all he can think of is just going home and switching the damned shoes with the old and worn-out navy blue pair.
Even the guy standing in line next to him seems to be staring at his shoes and he feels like saying something to him, telling him that it was the shopping craze, and shops made him nervous. Most of all, he wanted to tell the guy that in the shop the color seemed like a gesture of rebellion, a rule-breaking statement that would disrupt the tediousness of life. But that would be weird and so he doesn’t say anything. People don’t just talk about shoes like that while waiting for their fried chicken.
Instead he pretends to be looking through the menu, and the words don’t make sense because people can’t possibly want roasted nails, they don’t exist, and it’s the shoes again, and all he wants is to get his fried chicken and get out, but the chubby guy at the counter who is supposed to deliver his order is too busy talking and joking around. Italians, the thought furiously takes shape, they like that, talking as if talking were an occupation of some sort. Or smoking. It must have been Wilde, he thinks, a man should always have an occupation of some kind. He’s sure of it. It must have been Wilde, just the right amount of sarcasm. He plays with the phrase in his mind. Italians should have an occupation of some kind. Talking, that is, delicious idleness. Does he talk that much? In the end, he, too, is Italian. Studying all those foreign languages at the university can’t change the fact that he is still one of them.
The guy next to him, he must be Italian, too. His vaguely dark skin and the dark hair, both seem to confirm his Italian origins. He feels a sort of pride in it, in being able to guess the nationality of someone just by the color of his or her skin. It must be because he is Italian too, and he knows. It’s just too easy and too arrogant in a way. He dismisses the thought immediately. The guy seems to have moved closer and as he turns for an instant to look out of the windows of the takeaway he has a clear glimpse of the guy’s underwear just beneath the shirt sloppily hanging over the belt. He turns quickly back to the menu blood rushing to his cheeks. The guy must have seen it, he is almost sure of it; the curious and almost indecent look as that of a child caught red handed in the cookie jar. And yet the image hangs in there as if it were the embodiment of a promise, of something reachable, almost like an invitation, and he can’t get rid of it. He wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible because he feels the guy’s cold and alien stare on the back of his head. Where is that chicken? He tries to make his impatience visible by moving his feet nervously because that’s all he could think of to make the image go away and with it his shame. But somehow the images squeezes itself back and again it turns into a promise. He must be wearing boxer briefs, grey, with a blue waistband.
“Let’s just hope the chicken won’t be too fried”, the guy says moving closer. He smiles and then laughs, a nervous laugh that seems fake even to himself. And there’s that cheap perfume, he can’t remember the name, notorious and with no personality.
“It’s so much more difficult in your case”, Gareth says, “when a guy sees a girl he likes, he can only hope she likes him back”. He nods. He and Gareth took the same course in American literature a few years back. They have been friends since then, and if he closes his eyes he can still see Gareth standing outside the building waiting for the class to start. Even now, as he tries to recall the moment, he can still feel the remains of that almost secret wish to become Gareth’s friend. A clandestine craving for his skin, almost sexual, that grew to obsessive proportions while they were still unknown to each other, but then had to be denied because of the inappropriateness of it. There was something about him, about the way in which he looked around him as if terrified by the prospect of an unexpected encounter. Gareth somewhat looked like a harmless deer while feeding, its eyes alert, muscles tightened, ready to leap at the slightest movement in the bushes. He later found out that Gareth was part of a famous band and he inferred that unexpected encounters must have always been on the agenda. Gareth denied that on several occasions and will continue to deny it until nobody will care anymore. Now they’re on the train, heading back home, their friendship strengthened by the many talks they’ve had over the years.
“You see a guy you like”, Gareth continues, “and you have to be very careful because the distinction is not very clear”. Gareth repeats the pronoun as if for emphasis. There it is again, he thinks, the revelatory use of pronouns to make a point, to divide things. Moses, too, might have used a pronoun to part the waters. We’re on this side and you’re on the other, there’s no mistake about that. He always resented and treasured that, the way English pronouns left room for interpretation. Once, while he was still in college, he thought of writing an ode to the omnipotent and oblique you, its superb and almost tasteful indifference toward gender and other distinctions of that kind. The very notion of otherness seemed obliterated by this indifference, thrown into stupor by a language so responsive to the needs of its users that it even reacted to his need for coded language.
“You never know how he’s going to react”, he replies, “he might even punch you in the face or something. You just secretly wish he’s like you“. It rarely happens, it’s a mistake that they do, think that all men are like them, or secretly wish they were like them, and then act according to that false conviction. All men are curious, one of his friends used to say. You can never be sure and you look for hidden signs. A look, or maybe a smile, a timid touch on the shoulder and bodies responding to it lavishly as if that touch is the answer that they’ve been waiting for a very long time. We’re so obsessed with our coded language that we start seeing hidden meanings even in the most innocent exchanges.
Gareth goes on telling him that he met a guy once, a musician, who told him that he would hit on practically every guy because he could never be sure about it. The word stays hidden like an ugly child. There are other people around them and they could hear and jump to conclusions. There’s a self-absorbed teenager sitting on the opposite row of seats. But a game, finally, you pull the lever and three red cherries might pop up. He wants to say that there is always a triple standard, three little boxes that you need to tick before moving in. All three need to be ticked otherwise it doesn’t work. All those fears and the longing that never goes away eventually boil down to that, to three little squares: I like him, he’s like me, and he likes me too. And that’s that, three saintly likes sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g. He’s almost furious, because of the unfairness of the whole situation. Then he realizes that he’s missing something else, something that he won’t be able to tell Gareth because then Gareth will end up knowing too much about him. Even now, as the train rushes out of the underground tunnel and into the blinding light, he resents the whole discussion. And then that mouth, miss congeniality. There’s another box that needs to be ticked before doing anything. It’s not a question of swimming or playing tennis. You need to know who’s who. A trivial thing, but still vital: unless one wants to waste a relationship by acting as if one was living in a nunnery, and nobody wants that. He could try to explain it to Gareth and Gareth would smile and maybe say oh and that would be the end of it and the starting point of a friendship lived in awkwardness. And for a moment, Gareth resembles an exhausted friend turned enemy.
They are both laughing now and he’d like to reach out, see how flesh responds to that other flesh. Epithelium, graspable but still capable of osmosis, people can’t be that, at least, they can’t be like that, as always the body stands in the way. He wants to say move closer, or move over, there are strings tied to his ankles as he moves. The rest of the world is the true density, the air with all its noble gases, that’s it, the body is variation, impure, and still it wants to extend its arms outward. A revelation that comes too late to change anything. A commotion and a plastic bag a voice addressing him. Your chicken, it says, and for a moment he has the eerie feeling that the voice is telling him something else as if in a dream. He cannot tell what it is. It’s too late now because a hand is extended, a palm and on it veins swollen, the outline of a tree, so tempting that he wants to feel it on his face. He takes a step back to make some space. The chubby guy at the counter stops for a moment, mouth open, plastic bag in midair, as if to say something. The plastic bag goes over the counter slowly and the extended palm takes it, some money and niceties exchanged, and that’s it. One final glimpse of the loose shirt and the underwear beneath, and that’s it. He moves, heavily, and then looks at the menu. Those damned shoes.