Irrecoverable Flat Spin
Once it had been stupid, but also kind of funny, almost innocent, as these things go.
Rewind to first year. Cast your mind back to the time before Mike and Kevin had given themselves fully over to the dark side, when they still attended class, worried about grades, and kept up with their reading, ploughing through the casebooks with their hi-lighters, using different colours to denote obiter vs. ratio, majority vs. dissent, while carefully making little notes in the margins. They knew there was a party going on at Domus, and everybody likes a party, and of course, student life involved all sorts of blow-outs and drink-fests, that was just normal, everybody did it. Mike and Kev weren’t inclined to be stand-offish. If folks were holding parties, it was no more than polite to attend. Anyway, it was good to get to know people, and join in the fun with everybody else.
It was in that spirit that they decided to be active participants in the law school Variety Show (or was it Talent Show?), which went on every year in a venue over at the Student Union Building. Tradition, you know. These weren’t Domus events, but they were certainly in the same vein, and prone to the same sort of inebriated hijinks. Willing students were expected to submit themselves to ritual humiliation.
There were no criteria for the performances. Anyone who liked could do anything that suited him, or her, but it was understood that whatever they did, the drunken crowd would boo, jeer, hoot and holler, throw things – including the contents of garbage pails and half-eaten food – and make such a ruckus that nobody would be able to hear you. Some performers tried gamely to put on a show anyway, while some just went out and started throwing things back at the mob. It was a bit like the Roman Colosseum must have been, absent the sword-play; so far, at least, nobody had been killed. Once it was over, the venue would be shin-deep in refuse and tipped over chairs, empty beer bottles everywhere, looking like the beaches at Dunkirk just after the last of the BEF had made their escape.
Maybe Mike and Kev didn’t fully know the score at the time, but in any case they decided to put on a skit. I can’t remember what it was supposed to be about, but it’s not really relevant, since as soon as they got out there, the howls, boos, and thrown food made any sort of performance pointless. Mike, getting into the spirit of things, decided his act would be to chug-a-lug a whole litre of wine on stage, he downed it in seconds, while Kev resolved that a really funny retort to the abusive audience was in order – the idea would be to retreat, but go out there again and give them a taste of their own medicine. Wouldn’t it be great if they could douse the first few rows with cold water? Really soak the shit out of them? It’d be hilarious. But where to get the water, and how to deliver it?
Abandoning the stage, he grabbed a big plastic garbage pail, emptied out whatever was in it, and loped off into the hallways of the Student Union Building in search of a suitable faucet. Crap. There weren’t any. All the taps he could find were mounted over sinks in the washrooms, and you can’t fit a standard 20-gallon garbage pail into a sink. He knew that for sure, he tried, and it wouldn’t go. With Mike now in tow, the litre of wine sloshing around in his guts – where it was not to remain much longer – Kev searched high and low on all the building’s floors, hoping to find an unlocked janitorial closet or something, so keen to fill the pail to the brim that he didn’t even pause to consider that 20 gallons of water would weigh 200 pounds. It was a mission, dammit. Failure was not an option.
He ended up standing in front of a urinal in one of the washrooms, jamming the pail into it as far as it would go, and repeatedly flushing it, hoping some of the water would be captured. He kept at it, grimly determined, even as the impossibility of the scheme became obvious; after about five minutes, he had maybe an ounce of water at the bottom of the pail. It was going to take him twenty-five years to fill it that way. No matter! There would be no quitters on Kev’s squad, no way! He kept flushing and flushing, screaming his frustration into the porcelain, until he finally drew the attention of a staffer, who barged into the washroom expecting, probably, to find a brutal murder in progress.
The staffer was taken aback for a second. It took a moment to process. Kev kept screaming and flushing. The staffer finally said “What in Christ are you doing?”.
“None of your fuckin’ business!” yelled Kev, struggling in the urinal. “Piss off!”.
This particular staffer was not about to piss off, though. He was actually a guy Mike knew, somehow, maybe from his days in the Militia up in Gagetown. He was a six-foot-plus, black, ex-U.S. Marine and combat vet., and he was most decidedly nobody you wanted to dick with, even if you were as big as he was, let alone if you were diminutive, 135-pound Kevin. His name was Ron Pate – Mr. Pate, to you. Mike, beginning to realize he was inevitably going to vomit, tried, sweatily, to be sociable. “H’lo Ron”, he said, “how’re things?”. No response. It was impossible to focus on anything besides the guy screaming at the urinal.
Mr. Pate, luckily for Kev, wasn’t an excitable guy, and he was more bemused than angry, actually, but it was still his job to put a stop to this nonsense. Ignoring Mike, and without much further ado, he simply walked over and wrested the pail from Kevin like a parent might deprive an infant of its annoying rattle.
Kev tried to resist. Mike advised him to just let Mr. Pate do his job, which was surprisingly prudent, given his now quite sickening level of impairment. “Run along, now”, they were told. Kev was pissed. Now there would be no revenge on the jeering crowd! Mike, however, was only too ready to oblige. He was mightily relieved that they weren’t trying to mess around with Mr. Pate. He was also desperate to find somewhere quiet to crash, somewhere close to a toilet, ideally. He made a beeline home and spent the next few hours in various states of gastro-intestinal distress.
Was that the turning point? Is that when the trajectory changed, and everything went South? Looking back, it seems like it, though I’m not sure why – the drunk-fest of the Variety Show just seems to be the line of demarcation, maybe the first sign of something that was beginning to infect them, after which everything changed. You might have expected the opposite, that drinking yourself sick on stage would put you right off the stuff, but it didn’t work that way. Instead, they were absorbed into the drinking culture you’ll find on every campus, and they were hardly alone.
Correlation isn’t causation, of course. Maybe the Variety Show experience had no special significance, really, and no doubt there were a lot of other interacting factors at play, the general disappointment with law school among them. It might simply have been that by the time the Variety Show was being put on, they were already becoming disillusioned, and the ready availability of everything Domus had to offer, the seductive pull of the place, made the transition easy and seemingly natural. It was just normal to indulge a little, wasn’t it? After all, it was the law student bar, yes? What could be wrong with law students frequenting the law student bar? So they went, and Domus put its hooks into them. The place was like a Venus Flytrap. It had something that drew you in, and then it snapped shut around you, and you never got out, until now, a couple of years later, you were living there, and venturing elsewhere only briefly. All roads led back to the basement.
We didn’t even notice we were going insane. Not until someone actually did, and in the aftermath, Rossi and McGillvary went over the cliff.
The catalyst was a bout of mental illness that couldn’t be laid at the Domus doorstep, remarkably. It was simply a tragic onset of something clinically diagnosable that could have happened anywhere, under any circumstances, and in the manner of these things it struck seemingly the unlikeliest of victims, with appallingly destructive effect.
At first, nobody noticed the signs – actually, at first, there were no signs to see. Joe Rossi’s wife, Katherine, also a law student, was obviously fine. She was soft-spoken and very pretty, in an understated way, such that it snuck up on you, you’d look at her after knowing her for a while and think how did I not notice how pretty this girl is? We all liked her very much, there simply wasn’t anything to dislike, and she was a perfect Yin to Rossi’s Yang. It seemed, indeed, the perfect marriage. Rossi had the ideal wife, brainy and lovely, and friendly, too. They used to host parties that everybody loved attending. It all seemed rather special, and thoroughly, unshakeably, permanent.
Yet there was a sort of time-bomb in Katherine’s mind. I’ll never know whether we witnessed the first explosion, or if it had happened before, but we all started to notice that something wasn’t quite right. Her behaviour became erratic. She started saying strange things, and she started wandering around as if she was navigating through a dreamscape. She’d float into the basement, and speak sentences towards us, but they were utterly incoherent. Sometimes it was apparent that she couldn’t quite remember who you were. She sometimes seemed frightened. Sometimes suspicious. She’d repeat things you said, matching your intonation, like a parrot. “Echolalia”, I think it’s called. I didn’t have enough of a grip on what would then have been the DSM-III to guess what exactly was wrong, but it was clearly some sort of break with reality, and none of us had the slightest idea what we were dealing with, or what we should do.
She left home. She left Rossi all alone. She actually went missing for a few days, and afterwards stayed upstairs at Domus for a while, with Sean, Rossi’s friend, until Sean became afraid of her. He’d awaken with all the flatware he owned, all the forks and knives, arrayed in a semi-circle around his head on his pillow. She burned things in his bathtub.
One night, Dal Security fished her out of a big blue garbage bin, she’d been hiding in there, and Sean was the one she told them to contact. It was awful. They actually told him to come collect “your woman”. To them she was just a hindrance, I suppose. A break in the tranquility of the usually uneventful shift.
Somehow, I find the incident far more upsetting now than I did then.
I can’t shake the feeling that we failed Katherine, yet it was never clear what we might do. With rare exceptions, you can’t force someone to seek treatment. Should I have tried to talk to her anyway? Should Rossi have tried? Or maybe Rossi did try, as best as anyone could, and still she resisted? I don’t know. I’ll never know. Not too many years ago, I revisited my doubts with Jason and Kevin, still my close friends after all these years, and they just about bit my head off. There was nothing anybody could have done, they insisted, angry at me. I guess that’s right. I guess. In retrospect, though, I wish there had been.
I don’t even remember what became of her, in the end. I just remember being totally unprepared, with my meagre life experience, all 21 years of it, to understand what was going on. I know Sean became unsettled enough to send her away, and I don’t know where she went after that. Not back home. Divorce papers were drawn up – I guess somebody with the proper credentials judged Katherine competent enough to understand such things – and I remember Rossi signing them on the Domus bar, emotionless. He signed away his marriage as if he was signing a cheque, outwardly placid and unconcerned.
I don’t believe he was as he seemed.
So Katherine was gone, Rossi was divorced, and in the aftermath of the emotional mess Rossi started to change, and Sean McGillvary changed right along with him. The always latent psychosis of Domus basement life went from the merely theoretical to full realization, as the both of them, symbiotically, jumped the rails.
Oh boy, did they jump the rails. They came to prefer each other’s company to the virtual exclusion of everybody else, sometimes shunning all of us while they huddled together in the basement, drinking, laughing at inside jokes, making snide remarks, mocking just about everybody, and at times practically speaking in tongues. They were their own little social club, and you weren’t always allowed in. The Rossi-McGillvary axis. I can’t say which drugs besides alcohol were being mixed in to the witch’s brew, not in any comprehensive way, there was obviously a lot of grass, and Rossi took to popping these little red pills that were some sort of upper, but God knows what else.
Their symbiotic nut-house repartee had its moments. Oh yes, they were funny all right, they had a black, caustic sense of humour that suited their natural habitat, sparing nothing and nobody from often hilarious, and always mean-spirited, derision and abuse. Rossi was especially good for a laugh, when he was dosed on his uppers, he just prattled along, nattering a non-stop stream of witticisms, invective, complaints, puns, wry observations, bitter sarcasm, and utter non-sequiturs – I really can’t do it justice. I swear, if we’d recorded it, we could still be selling the albums, it was a bit like a deranged and ever-variable stand-up routine, delivered stoned and sitting down. As the pills kicked in, he’d start to sweat, and his eyes would narrow, his speech would accelerate, and nothing could stop him, not even his own punishing body heat. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d simply keeled over, mid-sentence, or burst into flames. It might have been worrying, had we the wit to be worried. Every machine, mechanical or biological, has its operational limits, and Rossi was running well above his. All his gauges were in the red. The piston rods were about to burst clean through the hood.
How he loved to rant. He’d be sitting there, reading a newspaper, and something in one of the stories would set him off. Before long, the original topic was forgotten, and it turned into free association, with Sean egging him on and laughing his guts out. You never knew what he’d come up with. Out of the blue, apropos of nothing, he’d say something like “Actually, my great success with women has no firm anatomical basis. My penis is no longer than the North American Caucasian average, and may even be a little shorter. What drives them crazy is my tireless wit, and the way I can hold a conversation, at length, on just about anything, which is a product of my inveterate drug use.” The gift of drug-induced gab never deserted him, and may even have saved him from a beating one night, when his nattering insults managed to offend someone quite large and formidable standing next to him at the bar.
The Rossi treatment may have been directed to no one in particular, but the other guy at the bar took it personally, and Rossi found himself pinned to the wall with the guy’s hands around his throat. “Don’t strangle me like a coward” he gasped, “take me outside and thrash me like a man!” This seemed to confuse his assailant, who let him go and backed away as if it was bad luck to beat up anyone that crazy.
It went on like that month after month. Rossi and McGillvary almost fused into a single, demented consciousness. One would start a sentence that the other would finish. They’d exchange knowing glances – what they knew, exactly, I couldn’t say – and burst into uproarious laughter that often had a distressingly hysterical edge to it. The joke was generally their little secret. They’d converse not in sentences, but song lyrics, each of them quoting in turn what must have seemed like appropriate lines from dozens of tunes, especially Dylan, Sean’s favourite. Sometimes they sat there drinking for hours and didn’t say anything at all, until somebody walked by who struck them as a child of privilege, at which point the snide remarks would be hurled – they hated anyone who might have started from a better place than they thought they had. They developed the attitude that they were lower class citizens amid a snobbish elite, while the rest of us were “bourgeois pigs”, all of us, we’d all been “brought up in a rumpus room”.
They also developed an elaborate form of sexually rapacious misogyny. They leered and lusted constantly, catcalling and harassing every attractive girl that crossed their path, and remember, this was university – they were all attractive. They insisted that any woman they saw was crazy about them. “Look, look, Joe, her over there – she’s crazy about me!”
“Yup. She’s cracking for it.”
“She needs it.”
“You can tell. You can tell from all the way over here.”
The Hell of it was, it was often true. They were insanely successful with women. None of their casual affairs lasted very long, of course, but they were all torrid, and while they were in progress, the both of them would brag in gruesome, gynocological detail about what they’d been up to with the latest conquest. “I had her every way a man can have a woman”, one of them would say. “I did her on the pinball machine until she lost her mind, and passed out”. “She’d never had it where I put it”. Believe me, this is sugar-coating it. They weren’t making it up, either, the girls weren’t fictional and neither were the exploits. It was hard to listen to, especially if you were as pathetically unsuccessful with the opposite sex as I was. Girls wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole. What was so great about these guys? Christ, sometimes it seemed like they hadn’t even bathed for a week or two. It didn’t matter. They had it down to a science. One time they even tried to explain it to me.
The trick, you see, was to give the young woman your undivided attention. Shut your own yap – yes, it was possible, if the prize was sweet enough – and hang on her every word. Make it seem like you were deeply interested, and listening with rapt attention. Never interrupt. Never contradict. Never betray boredom. Never, never let on what you were really after. Just listen, always listen. “You see,” Rossi explained, “this will almost certainly be something she’s never experienced. A guy actually listening. It’s like cat-nip for them. She’ll have been hoping for it ever since she started with guys, and all you have to do is be the first one who ever gave it to her.”
“It’s all bullshit, of course”, added Sean.
“Oh, of course” agreed Bill. “It’s pure, unadulterated panty-removing horse shit”.
“And it works.”
“It really does.”
“Sometimes after only an hour or two. She’ll feel so appreciated, she’ll be crazy about you.”
“It can happen that fast.”
“After that it’s simple. Simple.”
“Sometimes it’s tough to keep it all up, though. You know, week after week.”
“But the payoff.”
“She’ll let you do anything. Because you respect her, see?”
“It might be a month, maybe more, before she catches on”.
“Yeah, what ruins it is sometimes you let your guard down and say something you really mean.”
“I know. There was one time I said to this girl, she wanted to go to a movie or eat out or some such shit, so ‘Look’, I said to her, ‘can we just cut the crap for tonight and fuck?’”
Back and forth, like a ping-pong ball. That was a conversation with Sean and Joe. They weren’t yanking my chain, either, they were utterly sincere, fraternal, even, and as far as they were concerned they were being kind enough to let me in on a powerful secret. I was getting it all ass-backwards, and they wanted to straighten me out. For all those years I’d been barking up the wrong tree. I actually liked girls. The key, apparently, was to have contempt for them. Just screw with their minds according to established methods, proven effective, and you’d be far more successful.
You can disapprove, I can disapprove, but there’s no denying that it worked. It did. It worked.
In between the endless stream of short-term dalliances, incredibly, they both also managed to sustain stable relationships with honest-to-God girlfriends, in something approximating the honest-to-God conventional manner. Rossi contrived to seduce, and somehow hold on to, a very pretty co-ed many years his junior. Sean had two long-term girlfriends, one local, and one in New Brunswick, the latter of whom would come down from time to time to see him. It got a little sticky there one night, when New Brunswick Girl arrived unannounced, and Sean was already in the basement with his local squeeze. He tried to placate them both, as they sat at opposite ends of the basement, actually crossing the bar every few minutes to spend a little time with each of them in turn. It was amazingly awkward, but nobody felt like stomping away, because there was a howling snow-storm in progress outside. There we all were, snowed in, as the pressure mounted. Just one more improbable scene in an endless parade of improbable scenes.
Throughout, they both pulled regular shifts on bar, Sean on Fridays, Joe on Saturdays, when the patrons would all be outsiders that they could have endless fun abusing. What mattered to the clientele was that the place would be open all night long, so the drinkers would take their lumps and keep coming back. They actually got screamed at, and were arbitrarily denied service, insulted on general principle as worthless bourgeois denizens of their respective childhood rumpus rooms, and berated for their lousy tips. “GRATUITY!!” bellowed Sean after a guy left nothing at all in the tip bowl. “THE CONCEPT IS GRATUITY!!” How many times did he have to go over this with these assholes? It said so right on the bowl: Tips is all we get. As punishment for similar tip-related offences, Sean actually jacked the prices on them one night, charging more every time they came back for a refill.
“That’ll be a buck-forty.”
“But it was a buck-twenty last time!”
“Well, now it’s a buck-forty”.
“I dunno. Inflation. The passage of time.”
“Oh yes, it’s true. It’s policy”.
“Fuck – O.K., a buck-forty. Here.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry – since we’ve been talking, it went up to a buck-fifty-five.”
They paid, too; where else were they going to get it at four in the morning?
Sean once got so pissed at a customer that he shattered a beer bottle on the counter and threatened him with the jagged remains, like you see in movies about the old West, or the mob.
It was crazy. It was exhausting. I began to find it frightening. There was never any end to it, the Rossi-McGillvary show just kept making more episodes, right up until graduation, by which point we were all, finally, burned out on Domus and its deleterious effects. The strain was wearing on everybody, Joe and Sean more than anyone else. Mike, as bar manager, visited Domus daily, and one mid-morning on a Sunday he arrived to find the place still open, music still blaring, and Rossi unconscious, face-down on the bar. Another time, Kevin and I walked in to find Sean asleep on the hardwood of the main floor, curled up around an industrial sander with which he’d been planning to strip the flooring so we could refinish it, a big disk of sandpaper clutched in his hand. Bending over to change the sandpaper, exhausted, he’d simply collapsed.
We made no effort to rouse him.
It was the end of another long night of patrol duty with the cops. It had been the usual shit out there, and as usual, at the end of shift Kev found himself a little bit depressed. Or maybe a lot-a-bit. The big difference between us and the derelicts the HPD policed-up every night, he realized, was that we could indeed frolic in a rumpus room like the ones we’d grown up in, a place where we could play safely, and after that we had warm, safe, beds to go to – beds which for some of us were right upstairs. No need even to go outdoors.
It was very early in the morning, or very late at night, whichever way you preferred to look at it, and Kev made his way down to the basement to find the detritus of some sort of party strewn everywhere. Oh, right. The basement had hosted a stag party earlier. We did that sometimes. All that was left now was the rubbish, the sticky floor, some broken glass, and a couple of slices of cold pizza. Kev picked his way through it all, got himself a beer, and noticed that over by the far wall, a VCR had been hooked up to a TV. There were a couple of cassettes lying on top. Kev looked at their packaging, saw what he expected, and thought Oh, what the Hell. Why not? He pulled up a chair, drank his beer, and watched the porn. He wasn’t even interested, really. It was just something to do before sleeping.
This is decadence, he thought. This is true decadence.
It was awful when clarity ambushed you like that.