13 May 2021

Lest you be judged


On the canal, past the Cadbury factory that, when you run past it at certain times early in the morning, smells of chocolate and biscuits, there is a bridge that you run under and then over to cross from one side of the canal to the other. The iron footbridge underneath the brick trusses of the larger bridge has a beautiful symmetry I noticed for the first time last week as I ran on the towpath in the early grey light and looked up and imagined that someone had hung themselves on the middle post above the canal. I don't know why I saw this, or thought I saw it, but I chalked it up to exhaustion and my recurring fear that I will discover a dead body while running. I did my solo marathon eleven days ago and faded terribly after mile eighteen, the sign of a lack of spirit than a lack of strength. You can run to the end, but when your legs don't feel like they can, you create a negative feedback loop with each mile slowing until your make it to the end, and everything feels like a failure, except that you've finished which is itself the success of that run. You need to remember, I tell myself, that it used to be a miracle one hundred years ago. 

When I had finished my stint as a missionary in Fukuoka, in Japan in 2004, I was looking for any sort of job to stay in the country. I was called that summer to an apartment to meet a woman, who in turn introduced me to a man with an untrimmed pinky fingernail who ran a marriage chapel and who was in search of someone to officiate weddings: a white man, of course, but there had been a small scandal recently where it got out that some of the wedding officiants were just English teachers, not actually religious, and since I had a history in the church, I was a good candidate. At the time, I found this abhorrent, the use of religion in a performative way, and felt like taking the post would ensure swift and terrible judgment, first for having left the ministry, and second for taking up the false gospel instead. I had given up my belief in hell, but I wasn't ready to test it. 

In 2006, a few years later, when I married, I remember insisting that we kiss in the ceremony. This, of all the petty things, was central to me as I thought about weddings, that whatever Japan was going to take from me in terms of this expression of my love, it wouldn't take this. Everyone would have to sit there awkwardly and observe this, even if it made them uncomfortable in a curious way. I insisted like I had insisted at other times in Japan on small cultural things because it would reaffirm that what I wanted, or what I knew, or what was normal to me, was in fact normal. I remember the pastor giving in, not contesting it in a real way and it didn't matter in the end, the way nothing I had worried about came to pass in the way I thought it would. It was all performance anyway.

The grey Citroen Picasso, the car I bought when we moved to Birmingham seven and half years ago, had a failure in the brakes this last week. For a few years, I've been imagining the car would finally give up on us, but when it happened, it was a strange sadness, this thing that had been consistent in our lives, which we had relied on, was going away. We had driven it through Europe to Sweden, that trip three years ago before things seemed to turn noticeably worse, and we had gone skinny dipping in a pond in the woods, and then later, swimming out deep into another lake with Chris and looking back at the shore to the silhouette of my wife on the beach, I made the sort of memory that you are aware is already memory when it is happening, how you can see the same naked body hundreds of times, and then feel like you are seeing it for the first time. 

I needed to replace the car quickly and made a rash, a permanent decision grounded in reasoning that was more-or-less right — buy a good used car with low mileage from a dealership and negotiate on the margins about whatever you can. In this case, the thing at the margins was the value of the old grey Picasso, which Lewis, who was taking the car as a trade in, looked over briefly with a clipboard. He was polite but he didn't need to be polite — it looks like shit, Lewis, that's the point. It's done everything it can for me, and now it's time to move on. Whatever you say it's worth, whatever number you say and whatever number I say in response, we're both making those numbers up. It's okay, we can pretend, but let's not be too serious about something that doesn't matter. This doesn't really matter.

Having had a successful seven years with a grey Citroen Picasso, my plan was to replace like for like, and I managed to find another grey Picasso. On first look, this Picasso, eight years newer than my old one, was slightly smaller, but Lewis assured me it was the same size. I bought it after a short test drive in which Lewis told me about wanting to go to LA on holiday, and I came back on Wednesday having paid the bank transfer. I drove the new old Picasso home, feeling the way you do when you buy a new used car. Was the aircon broke? No, no, the dial was just different. And then the cruise control? No, it was fine too. I heard a ticking in the engine when it idled but it didn't seem serious — and after all, I got it from the dealer so I could bring it back if I needed.

But then I got home and showed everyone, it was smaller, not much smaller but smaller, with the key difference being the middle seat in the back, which was not a seat as it is in the old Picasso, but just a middle space between two other seats. I looked again online and realised I had made a mistake: there were now two Picassos, one slightly larger than the other and I had bought the smaller one. How had I missed this. How was this going to be okay, with my kids who were growing and when we went camping. Of course, no one was as worked up about this as I was. The kids assured me it was fine, they liked the moonroof. We could get a carrier for the top when we went camping. Why was I being so emotional.

The truth is that this mistake, this rash decision, had come at the wrong time and my rationalising only made other things, other challenges suddenly sharpen. The girls are getting older. Naomi is fourteen this week. When are we ever in the car together, all together. I insisted on it last night, to test the new car, and we drove to Starbucks, but how strange, how rare was it. Everyone played along — people will humour me if I make a point of it, even if they don't want to do it, even if it only matters to me. That's the point, isn't it, you can pretend if you need to, if it gets you what you want in the end. I'm still a true believer, for all my critical self-loathing. I believe in the hustle, don't I — every big, rash decision I've made has worked out by being bloody-minded, by insisting it was right, by ignoring the sunk cost fallacy and pressing on. If I just keep saying it, it will be right. You do it when you run, when you say that your body, the thing your body is saying to you is wrong. What would it have mattered if the person marrying you was an English conversation teacher by night. What did it matter that you really believed or didn't, if you were doing it for the aesthetics. Nothing matters, so kiss me. Kiss me, it's important to me.