Neurosis, by Alex Gladstone
I’d walk to the mini-bar, but I’d probably die. I flail my arm limply in its direction, but the handle’s just out of reach, so I drop my arm to the floor. Soon it starts to go numb, so with some effort I roll over and lie prostrate on the bed. As I smush my face into the sheets I estimate the thread count to be about a thousand, and I’m so thrilled by the thought that I grin wildly and dribble a bit. After another fifteen minutes I’m well enough to pigeon step to the sink, and I’m about to fill up a glass of water when with a groan I remember the mini-bar, so amble back over to it and take out a Perrier. I also take an Aspirin, a Neurofen and an Ondansetron the Americans call Zerfen (our guide handed them out; they’re a God send), drink the Perrier in bed, then nap for another half an hour.
There’s a car being sent round at two, so I take the elevator down eight floors to get something to eat at twelve. The restaurant is modern and expensive. It has a light marble floor at the entrance, then pale wooden planks as you pass the maitre d’, three white walls, hung with impressive abstract art, and one wall of windows looking over the exterior garden. I’m seated immediately at a glass table, and I order Omelette aux fines herbes and a Coke. The restaurant is predominantly empty, and though there are several immaculately dressed couples having lunch, there is a pleasing silence they adhere to. The omelette is incredible. Somehow it’s cooked on the outside, but not on the in. The Coke is reassuringly sugary. The air conditioning provides the sensation of a breeze, and I cut up my omelette into the shapes of pillows, bank notes and brochures. In the end I pretend they are tablets and wash each one down with Coke. When the pretty waitress comes back to ask how I want to pay, I briefly imagine us in a film where I’m pouring Coke or Perrier into her mouth and down her throat, some of it splashing over her blouse. I can’t really imagine this particular waitress in my fantasy, but I can imagine myself with a waitress. I have to laugh at the absurdity of my mind though; obviously champagne is the drink of choice during intercourse. I put the bill on my room’s tab.
We’re all gathering in the foyer to meet the car that will take us to Huma-gen, the pharmaceutical company we’re doing business with. Darren Spears enters the reception to a round of jeers and applause, which he graciously accepts, having throw up twice on our night out, then he begins to mingle with our small assembly.
‘There he is!’ I hear him say to Dominic Winters, who is standing next to me. I take out my Blackberry and check for messages I know I don’t have, until I register the end of their conversation. As I put my Blackberry away, Darren Spears appears in front of me with a broad grin on his face.
‘There he is!’ he says.
‘Speary! How you feeling, you animal?!’ I reply.‘Worst hangover in my life! I had to take, like, three Zerfen to make myself feel better.’
‘They’re a God send.’
‘You’re a beast, Speary,’ I say, shaking my head, ‘You ready for the pitch?’
‘Yeah. Tell me, where you reckon they’re taking us out tonight?’
‘No idea,’ I say.
‘Let’s just hope it’s a strip club, eh?’ he says, then pats me on the shoulder and moves on to talk to Callum Brewer.
The car pulls up at two on the dot, and one of the hotel staff opens the door for us to get in. We glide from the cool lobby, through twelve footsteps of sweltering heat, and then into the powerfully air-conditioned car, but as I take my seat I realise that I’ve still managed to perspire on my forehead, so I surreptitiously wipe it off and hope no one’s noticed. The trip has maintained a sense of wonder that I find usually wanes on my personal holidays, and I attribute this to the extravagant luxury we are indulging in. When I was young my family would sometimes go to France, but on the ferry you could smell the fuel, and the pipes on the deck had been painted over with cheap paint. My mum would lean out over the side, and as the spray hit her waterproof my dad would pull her back as if she were in great peril, and they’d bend over laughing, and then look at me, encouraging me. I wanted to be inside, away from the ocean and in one of the buffet restaurants where you could put your tray on the guiding rails and walk along the curving track, presented with a variety of classic dishes. Of course, I’ve matured since then, and I prefer the bars on the ships, rather than the buffet. However, I still get excited about the idea of food served during a journey, and so when we were fed on the flight I was fully prepared for the cheap plane meals I normally enjoy, but I was blown away by what we did get. We got duck. On a plane. Since we took off there has been almost no interval where I have felt ordinary. As the car pulls away I look at the hotel, which rises up impossibly up against the ferocious sky, and glistens brilliantly in defiance of the natural world. Our guide told me L.A. was built on a desert.
We enter the restaurant, all of us a little high from the afternoon’s successful sales pitch where we managed to secure a deal for a new drug our firm has invented, a cheap and relatively simple form of anti-depressant. We all order Cocktails, then as the waiter starts to move away Darren Spears orders a round of Tequila as well.
‘Hope you’re ready for a big night, Brad!’ he says to our guide, whose real name is Jerry La Cour, which we rejected immediately.
‘I heard you Brits can drink pretty good, but L.A. is my town, so you guys better be ready to keep up,’ he replies, to which we all laugh, and when the drinks arrive we toast to Brad.
‘I don’t know what to pick,’ says Callum Brewer as he looks over the menu.
Brad picks up his menu and points out a section to us.
‘The steak here is great guys, I--’ he says, before Darren Spears cuts him off.
‘Hey Brad, you got any paracetamol?’
‘Err, sure,’ says Brad, searching his jacket pockets.
‘You should get the Lobster, Callum, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, and we aren’t paying,’ says Dominic Winters. Callum Brewer nods thoughtfully.
‘Where you taking us tonight then Brad?’ says Darren Spears as he takes two paracetamol with a sip of his Daiquiri.
‘So it’s this great bar, really cool, you guys’ll love it,’ says Brad nodding enthusiastically at us.
‘You sure Darren’ll fit in?’ says Dominic Winters, smirking.
As Darren Spears is about to retort, Callum Brewer cuts him off by asking him whether he should have the steak or the lobster. I have never particularly liked Callum Brewer for this exact reason.
‘Just have the fucking lobster, Callum,’ says Dominic Winters.
Callum Brewer looks for approval from Darren Spears, who looks at him scornfully before returning to Brad.
‘Will there be girls at this bar? That dance?’
‘Well yeah, on the dance floor,’ says Brad, confused.
‘No, Brad, I mean naked girls.’
‘Oh!’ says Brad as he gets it, then his face becomes concerned. ‘You mean like a strip joint? Listen fellas, I’ve planned this all out, it’s a nice bar, I promise.’
Darren Spears puts on a silly voice and mock-cries in an imitation of Brad that I find distasteful, and I have to take a long sip of Mojito whilst observing the set cutlery on an empty table to alleviate. I hear Dominic Winters telling Darren Spears to shut up about the strip club.
‘We’ll see how we feel later,’ says Brad.
‘I think I’ll go with the steak,’ says Callum Brewer happily.
When the waiter arrives to take our orders, I ask him for the recommended wine to accompany the lobster, unlike Darren Spears and Dominic Winters, who predictably choose the most expensive items. Callum Brewer has been squirming in his seat, and when the waiter moves onto him, he too orders the lobster.
We all climb into Taxis after dinner, and I make sure I’m with Brad and Darren Spears, leaving Dominic Winters with Callum Brewer in the cab behind us. The Drivers start towards the bar Brad wants us to visit, and Brad turns around in the front seat to ask us if we’re having a good time.
‘Yeah, it’s great Brad, this is going to be a good night,’ I say to try and nip him in the bud.
‘You guys taken a Zerfen yet? You take one before you start drinking, you don’t feel so bad the next day.’
When we say we haven’t he pops open a bottle he brought with him and gives us one each.
‘Hey Brad, why don’t we go to a strip club?,’ Darren Spears asks.
‘Darren, buddy, I hadn’t planned it--’
‘Yeah, but we could do it, couldn’t we. It’s not like we have to go to this bar.’
‘We could, sure, sure we could, but I mean, we’re on our way now, so--’
‘You want to go to a strip club, don’t you?,’ says Darren Spears, looking at me. I have no preference where we go, so long as it isn’t mundane.
‘I don’t mind whe--’
‘See,’ says Darren Spears, cutting me off, ‘the guys want to go, so take us there.’
Brad looks unsure, and seems to be doing some mental calculations. Darren Spears nudges me and raises his eyebrows a few times, and I dutifully raise mine back, hoping Brad will take control of the situation. Eventually Brad says, ‘Well, I suppose we could go to a strip joint.’
‘Good man, good man!’, says Darren Spears, leaping forward with excitement and clapping Brad on the shoulder, then punches my arm, and I give Brad a look to say keep this under control, but he just sighs.
As Brad doesn’t know any strip clubs, he asks the Taxi Driver if he knows one, who says he does, and that he’ll take us there for no extra charge. After ten minutes we’re in a poorer part of town. Out of the window I can see that the fancy restaurants and bars have gradually worsened, and most of the bars here have small neon lights over the shop front. I try not to imagine who must go to these places, but I keep conjuring up images of Hell’s Angels, violent Mexicans with big moustaches, and Rednecks with wooden legs or an eye patch. I think about asking Brad where we are, but he looks uncomfortable with the situation, every now and then throwing our Driver a worried look, and I feel a pang of annoyance towards him. Darren Spears is unfazed, so I try to match his attitude. I stop looking out the window and I stop looking at Brad, and soon enough I start to feel more comfortable with the taxi ride.
Not long after this we pull up, and the Driver points out a shady looking club on the corner. Brad looks unsure, but when Darren Spears leaps out of the car and I follow, he pays the Driver and gets out. The other guys get out behind us and walk over, and once they’re with us Brad addresses us.
‘Guys, look, I don’t really know how safe this part of town is, so if you want we can just get back into the taxis and--’
‘We’re here now, and I want to go to a strip bar,’ says Darren Spears, loudly.
I’m thankful for Darren Spears’s interruption, as Brad is starting to dampen my mood.
‘We’ll all enjoy it,’ says Callum Brewer, patting Brad on the back and turning him to face the club, ‘You worry too much; it’s a bar, let’s have drinks.’
We get inside and are hit by jarring foreign music that does not allow me to settle down. At the bar, Brad points out that we’re the only white guys in the place. I try to order myself a Corona, but they don’t have any, so the barman offers me a beer I’ve never heard of. I get him to show me the bottle, and he holds up a clear glass bottle filled with amber larger called Sinaloa, with white curves that look like waves painted on the bottle. It looks vaguely like a Corona, enough so that my temper is not entirely flared, and I hope I can pretend it is no different from my expectations.
We choose an empty table once we’ve all gotten our drinks, but as Darren Spears points out several times, we’re not close to any of the dancers. The club is badly lit, so I doubt the view would be any better from a closer position, and frankly I have begun to give up on the night. Though Brad is more placid now, it is only because the alcohol’s beginning to take effect. I watched him do three shots of Tequila at the bar to out-drink Darren Spears, then, when Darren Spears walked away before he’d finished, he told the barman that that was how true Americans drank. Since then the barman’s been giving us the occasional look.
‘We’re too far away, I can’t see a fucking thing,’ says Darren Spears to no one in particular.
‘Why don’t you ask for a lap dance?’ says Dominic Winters.
‘I might,’ says Darren Spears, but continues to look hopefully at the dancing girls. Brad slumps back into his chair and casts Darren Spears a quick glare that only I catch, then drinks half his beer in one.
‘I’m worried about him,’ says Callum Brewer to me quietly, so that Brad can’t hear.
‘Why? It’s his own fault he’s like this,’ I reply.
Callum Brewer shrugs, then turns his attention to the dancers.
‘I think I might get a lap dance,’ says Darren Spears.
‘Go on then,’ says Dominic Winters.
‘Imagine getting a lap dance,’ says Callum Brewer, ‘can you touch them?’
Darren is counting out dollars in his wallet, and Dominic Winters is alternately looking at Darren Spears and the barman, a wide grin on his face. Callum Brewer mentions that he’s worried about Brad to Darren Spears, and Dominic Winters tells him to shut up. Finally Darren Spears stands up, and casting a proud look around our group, he makes his way over to the bar. As soon as he’s gone Dominic Winters makes comments about how much of an obnoxious idiot Darren Spears is, and how hilarious it will look when he is rejected, and I want to tell him that he too is an idiot and is currently ruining my night. But some things should not have to be said, so I don’t. Callum Brewer leaves for the toilet and accidentally kicks Brad as he walks past, but both are too oblivious to notice. Darren Spears returns from the bar, and to Dominic Winter’s surprise, tells us that a girl will be over soon to perform the lap dance. Dominic Winters dissolves into a sulk and Darren Spears keeps on looking around to find his girl, and I am feeling so depressed by the situation that I go to the bar and buy some more Sinaloas in the hope that I will not be quite so disappointed by them. I spend the next half an hour at the bar, watching Callum Brewer question Darren Spears about the girl that does not arrive, and Dominic Winters mocking Darren Spears’s failure. They don’t notice my absence, let alone Brad and I consider leaving, but I wouldn’t know where I’m supposed to go.
We stagger outside and look around for a taxi, but there isn’t one in sight. Infuriatingly, Brad is almost unconscious, and I have no idea where we are or where a cab would be.
‘We should ask at the bar for a taxi,’ I say.
‘Did you see the way they were looking at us? I’m not going back,’ says Dominic Winters.
‘They’d get us one, you just have to know how to ask,’ says Darren Spears, rubbing his thumb and fingers together to indicate a bribe.
‘Can anyone take Brad off me? He’s really heavy,’ says Callum Brewer, who has been left with Brad.
‘It’s a fucking con, you have to be real assertive to make these people do anything for you,’ says Dominic Winters.
‘What, like you,’ says Darren Spears, snorting.
‘No, I meant like you,’ says Dominic Winters in a sincere voice.
Darren Spears is taken aback, but is quick to pounce on the compliment, and strides back into the club, calling to us that it won’t take long.
‘What an idiot,’ laughs Dominic Winters and shakes his head.
We stand around in silence, as Callum Brewer awkwardly shifts his hold on Brad.
‘Seriously guys, can someone take him for me, just for a minute,’ he says.
‘Where is this place anyway?’ Dominic Winters asks me, as if for some reason I would know. I shrug angrily, then decide to look up the road for either a shop or a taxi. I walk off, leaving Callum Brewer moaning to Dominic Winters about Brad, and make my way up the quiet road. I pass several shops, but they’re all closed, with rickety looking barricades drawn over the front, most of which have graffiti on them. There are a few cars on the street, but nothing like the classy cars in the city centre. The anger I felt turns quickly into nervousness on this alien road. There are no signs of imposing achievements here, just the evidence of people that exist without living. Every shop, every bag of rubbish left on the street is an indication of poverty. After a few minutes I feel so on edge I turn back towards the club, but as I do, I notice a group of people walking on the other side of the road. My heart jolts, and I walk with my head down, hoping they haven’t seen me.
‘Hey, go home man, it’s not safe for you here,’ one of them calls to me.
‘I want to, please, I need a taxi though,’ I call back.
They group laugh.
‘There ain’t no taxis here. People like you ain’t safe.’
‘What do you mean?’ I call helplessly.
‘I mean you wear a suit, you white, and it’s late. You needa go before something bad happens.’
The group move on, laughing about me as they do. I hurry back towards the club, hoping that Darren Spears managed to get a taxi booked, and praying I don’t run into anyone else on the street. Before long though I hear a loud scream and some cries. I feel myself losing control, and fear forces me into a sprint. As I get within sight of the club I see a body on the ground, and another kneeling over it. As I get closer I see Callum Brewer is sprawling on the side of the club and staring at the body on the ground, a pool of vomit lies beside him into which Brad has passed out. I reach the kneeling figure of Dominic Winters and see that he is staring wide eyed at the body, his hands held in front of him and shaking.
‘They stabbed him, someone from the club,’ says Dominic Winters, looking into my face like a child to an adult, ‘ I didn’t want this...’
Darren Spears lies on the floor, and one of his shoulders is covered in blood. It trickles out of his shirt like a tiny waterfall, and pools on the floor, forming a lake around a raised paving slab. Everything has gone very quiet, or distant, a mixture of the two. I look up to Dominic, and he’s yelling at me, in a muffled voice, ‘What should we do?! All I can think of is a big bunch of tampons, to stop the bleeding’ and I think about the nature of his suggestion, like a cork into a wine bottle. I touch Darren’s cheek to see if he’s conscious, his stubble like a worn doormat, and I suddenly feel very sorry for him. As I take my hand away I see that I have gotten some of his blood on my fingers, and I stare, fascinated at the sticky liquid that must run throughout all of Darren’s body, and all of my body too, through everyone’s body, hidden beneath our skin. Dominic is cowering with Callum now, and I see that they cannot help Darren. I look around the street but there is no one who can help Darren. I look once more at the blood seeping through Darren’s shirt, spilling out uncontrollably with every pulse and gushing down the side of his body. His designer shirt is so saturated with blood that it will be nearly completely stained, and impossible to return to its original condition. Suddenly, I am hit by fear as I have never felt it before, and as I reel backwards away from the body my mind fills with images of tampons and packets of pills and Coronas and plane flights, and as I frantically wipe my bloody hand on my trousers, I realise I cannot help Darren Spears either.