Machine Gun Compliments
More bored than a pirate plank, Mani looked around the spinning room. The sheer number of people present, both known and unknown, filled him with reticence. Their inside jokes flew like arrows, which thankfully avoided piercing his protective bubble. He never fully recovered from years of middle and high school bullying. Any laughter in his vicinity still put him on defense. A true romantic, and late to puberty, Mani was raised in a culture that worshiped men who murdered, stole, and destroyed as the epitome of masculinity, so the library and home basement quickly became his only sanctuary and refuge. Ever since the day he refused to break into a neighbor’s home with two of his childhood friends, they waited for him at the bus stop and beat him up, until he convinced his mother to drive him to school on her way to work. After that, rumors started to circulate that Mani was gay, and believed himself better than the others, so his peers derided him and called him an Oreo—black on the outside, while white on the inside. Now, as a mature man, Mani thought it funny how nightmares of the briefest moments of childhood haunt a lifetime.
Mani smiled weakly at the radiant faces animated with storytelling, or enrapture with concentration and attentiveness. The small dinner in celebration of several friends obtaining the rank of first Dan quickly grew to a throng as more friends and family arrived. Mani spoke warmly with the few club members he felt close to, but made his excuses before strangers as alien as life on Saturn’s moons, attempted to delve into the vast oceans of his life. It took all his energy not to let allow them to drown, and instead, extracted himself. He left the restaurant and walked from Rue Saint-Denis over to Boulevard Saint-Laurent to see, in horror, even more people crowding the street. He forgot about the art festival block party. He looked down the road to observe that the city had closed the street to only foot traffic for at least three kilometers, and the massive crowd now meandered to enjoy food, live music, and copious amounts of Québécois alcohol.
The horde danced eerily, like floating icebergs, an avalanche, interlocking, dissociating puzzle pieces, and fluid streams of fire ants. Mani glanced uncomfortably at the people looking at him, and decided to take the side streets home. He backtracked a few blocks, looking at the couples and friends on their way toward the festivities, and felt pride in going the opposite direction. They all rode the Ferris wheel of lies and hypocrisy that would soon fall apart. Those further removed from the inherent instability would suffer less damage, or at least go to the grave knowing they identified the ruse with better clarity. As Mani turned another street, he passed a dive bar he knew served Kentucky bourbon instead of the Irish and Scotch whiskeys more popular in Canada. He decided to spare a few moments to enjoy the sorely missed flavors and aromas of home.
Mani found a nice table near the window to people watch. The bar was not very crowded, but there was a loud assembly near the back that seemed to be enjoying life very much. A hostess came to take Mani’s order, and he stared out at the strangers floating through life passing them all. Or perhaps everything else moved, grew, and wavered in the path of least resistance as everyone one else stood rigid and stationary in the entirety of existence? Mani sat silently with his torrent of thought until a woman’s staccato voice ripped him from his flurry of wonder. He recognized the voice, and turned from the window toward the bar to stare with wonder at one of his ex-girlfriends.
He remembered the second-to-last time he saw her. He had come to deliver a hand-written love note on Valentine’s Day, and she had stood at her door and broken up with him, refusing to even allow him inside to talk it over. Her decision was painfully resolute. The last time he saw her, she had kept attempting to get his attention to meet up, and he took her to dinner, along with his new girlfriend. Retribution was a dish best served over vegetarian black bean nachos, jalapeño peppers, and orgasmic sour cream. What was she doing sixteen hundred kilometers from home?
“Margery?” Mani yelled.
The woman turned. She had cut her brown hair into a gamine bob, and her blue eyes sparkled with sprightly mischief appropriate to her Irish root. Mani’s eyes came to rest involuntarily on her bosom. Margery had always been well developed in conversing about anything, and dabbling in everything, but had no need to peddle her figure. It spoke volumes in silence.
“Mani, is that you? It can’t be! What on earth are you doing here?” she exclaimed, crossing the bar to hug him tightly in her tender softness.
“What am I doing here? I am working. I have a job at the university, and you know better than anyone that I am a Francophile. The real question is what are you doing here? All you could talk about when we were together was Ireland-this, and Gaelic-that, and if my memory is correct, which is often, how you hooked up with some hot Irish guy while you were there and couldn’t wait to go back.”
“Your memory is too good. I am actually flying out to Dublin tomorrow, but some new friends from the hostel decided to show me the city, and here I stand.”
“This is a crazy coincidence! I never would’ve bet on running into someone I know, in a random bar, in such a large city, so far from home.”
“It’s a sign. Of what I do not know,” Margery giggled.
“How is school going?” Mani asked, politely motioning her to sit with him.
“I only have two more years until I get my doctorate in economics. You remember how long it took me to decide between economics or political science?”
“Yes, three months,” Mani laughed, but winced as memories of past feelings of frustration and hurt flooded over him, of Margery treating him like a forgettable back-up option, just in case no school accepted her. The more important question was why had Mani allowed her such power to begin with? Oh well, he could not change the past, but he now possessed the self-worth to never allow such treatment again. As soon as he saw glimpses of ingratitude, Mani disappeared. He never felt happier, or more appreciated as the unique being he was, his entire life, even during those days of middle and high school bullying. He listened to Margery talk non-stop for an hour, barely pausing for breath, and recalled how she could carry herself away in a tornado of words that went nowhere, and could do so with any topic. Mani listened, nodded, and asked polite questions for her to expand on, but when she never deigned to ask how the last few years of his life fared, he quickly lost interest. He thought of how their break-up hurt, but was probably for his betterment in the long run. She got her freedom, and he got a woman who cared. They both turned, startled by the sound of explosions in the distance.
“Over-excited people setting off fireworks in celebration of La Fête Nationale du Québec this Wednesday. I wonder if I get the day off? This will be my first,” Mani explained.
Margery looked into the unseen distance, looked at Mani, and nodded. “Is that like our Independence Day?”
“Yes and no. It is a day to celebrate québécois culture, but because they are still a part of Canada, which is still tied to the former British Empire, it never had the same finality that American Independence carried,” Mani disclosed, enjoying the position of authority rarely afforded him. As his future lie in education, he needed to grow accustomed to all its privileges, joys, and burdens.
“How are your colleagues? In my department, there are fifteen other graduate student my year. Most of them chose their own independent project. I decided to write my dissertation on how increased gender equality improves economic opportunities on an entire societal scale…” Margery orated.
Mani listened and noted how Margery talked over her question into his personal life to continue talking about her own. He nodded, and her speech became background noise reminding him of the main annoyance while they had been together. Mani’s attention drifted to a man from the festival who entered the bar to peddle a large array of novelty, nation flags. A bar patron demanded a Mexican flag, and Mani laughed to himself, noting only one Latin flag in the retinue, and that was Honduras. The patron’s friend also laughed, but said the man could take a Hungarian flag instead.
Mani realized Margery had actually stopped talking a thousand words per minute to listen to the flag discussion. He smiled at her, enjoying her pristine features. She grinned back, but rapidly started a new conversation praising the history of Hungary, and how Hungary was an early country to throw off the yokes of Soviet Union guided Communism in 1989. The random paces and disjointed subjects pierced Mani like rapid, machine gun fire. His energy slowly waned, and he could say and do nothing to stop the barrage, except leave. Margery mentioned how Mani used to be a socialist sympathizer, and that is when he saw his opening to respond.
“For all its lofty intentions, the corruptibility of any government, and ever growing desire to impose violence on a supposedly free people gives me pause. I sincerely hope I am allowed to evolve as a person and change my opinions accordingly, daily if necessary. Want to get out of here and go back to mine?”
“I thought you would never ask.”
Margery continue talking as they gathered their belonging, and Mani finally understood that the nervous barrage meant she truly liked him, and he finally, graciously accepted the compliment.