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Growing Pains by Jake Kendall

We’re moving fast now. The crowds, the lights, and the noise of the city centre receding into quiet darkness.

I can’t get my mind straight.

I feel I should know the time; yet no amount of squinting at my phone can process the swirling screen. There’s a two involved—past midnight then? Two AM? Twenty past anything? Christ I’m fucked up. My phone is useless to me right now, though I’m glad not to have lost it. I push it deep in my pocket; patting my jeans to ensure I wasn’t stupid enough to just drop it there and then.

I’m sat back-to-back with the driver, forced to observe the grotesque throes of passion between Elliot and that girl from the pub. They’re kissing loud, slobbering kisses. Elliot has his hand on hers, pulling it across his lap, towards his crotch. The girl catches my eye. She winks and invites me to join them with her free hand.

I decline silently, shaking my head and look out the window instead. I don’t know this route. Where the fuck are we going? The passing of unknown streets becomes a flicker book—my mind unable to connect the impression of still images linking at speed. 

Speed…that’s definitely part of that concoction the girl gave us—the “party powder” as she called it. My grinding teeth and lockjaw suggests there’s also MDMA at work. Maybe something else too; we definitely agreed to go to this party of hers, but my memory has a black hole where leaving the pub should be. Whatever that powder is, we’ve gummed and snorted too much of an unknown quantity like the drunk twats we are. 

I feel a hand tapping my knee. The girl has disengaged from Elliot.

“We need to swap darling. We’re close now—I should concentrate for a minute.”

I nod and stand, carefully shuffling across to sit next to Elliot. He’s grinning, eyes bulging from the suspected ecstasy, his mouth twitching involuntarily like a cow chewing cud. 

We’re too old to look this wasted. We let ourselves get carried away, we’ve allowed ourselves to lose control. I tell him “I have gum somewhere. Let me get some for you.”

“Thanks man,” Elliot replies as I begin checking my jacket. “I got to say I love you. I really do. You know that?”

Yeah, definitely MDMA in there. I return the platitude and hand over a stick of gum. Elliot senses the flippancy in my tone and puts his arm around me, pulling me close to emphasise his sincerity.

“I need you to understand me, right now; you’re like a brother. You’ve made me so happy. There aren’t many friends that would step aside on their birthday. I felt like such a shit for asking, but you know how it’s been for me.”

Of course, that’s the reason for this bout of mawkishness. The girl entered our night quite a few drinks ago now. I say “girl” because obviously she’s younger than us—I’d guess early twenties. She spotted me wearing my obligatory 30th birthday badge at the bar. She insisted on buying me a shot. We chatted a while and it was good. I invited her back to the table. She’s perhaps a bit grungy, a little too thin –too alternative to be everyone’s idea of pretty. Still, I thought she was kind of sexy. Maybe that’s 5 a confidence trick – she’s certainly charismatic: easily keeping pace with the jokes, and calling out my friends that habitually picked the lowest hanging fruit. She drank hard and fast, necking large glasses of white wine faster than any of us drank our pints. Under the table her party powder did the rounds. I felt her hand caressing my thigh; her feet playfully nudging mine. 

I guess she must’ve been giving Elliot the same treatment. As I used the downstairs bathroom he was waiting in the corridor outside, wringing his hands.

“Dude—I know it’s your birthday and she came back with you and all…I think I’m winning her over, though—if that’s OK? She’s laughing at my jokes, keeping eye contact... either one of us has a chance right now. Mate, I’m sorry if this sounds pathetic…You know I haven’t been with a girl for nearly three fucking years…”

That didn’t sound pathetic to me. Generally speaking, we’re getting better at communicating, at detoxifying masculinity and sexuality. Still, the internal voices are the most judgmental of all and the hardest to silence. I’ve heard them myself, my confidence ever-diminishing during a long barren run; whispering that I was unlovable, unfuckable, and destined for a lifetime of unhappiness.

Elliot is in danger of going that step beyond, into the red zone. Repeated rejection can result in bitterness, self-pity, and misogyny. Already Elliot’s firing warning shots. He repeatedly describes himself as “a nice guy”; he makes assumptions about who deserves what in life; his social media output is full of myopic defeatism, they go un-liked and un-commented upon like some lonely lighthouse beaming SOS messages into the disinterested nothingness.

Elliot continued pleading his case. “You know how long three years feels in drought time? This is…” before I smiled and silenced him with a hug.

“Mate, I don’t mind at all” I said, and meant it. “If she gives you the chance, take it.”

I sat away from them after that; my ego half-expecting her to follow me across the table, or leave to re-join whoever she started the night with. She did neither. Another of our mates—Ryan—sat in my place. I kept a quiet eye on things. Ryan moved away before he was even a third of the way through his pint. I’m sure I heard him quietly mumbling the words, “I have a girlfriend, sorry.”

I watched her more objectively after that. I sat, trying to remember her name. I think she said it was something like "Mi" or possibly "Fi," but the background noise was too much. I felt like a shit for not clarifying it with her for a few moments before I realise it didn’t matter one bit. This is a girl looking for ephemeral and anonymous encounters. I doubted her interest in either of us is sincere or lasting. To her, Elliot and I are just passing faces, easily replaceable. The name she gave probably wasn’t even real anyway.

She tells the driver to stop. The fare is seventeen quid. I suggest an even split. Elliot stands all huffed up and insists upon paying for it all himself. He looks unduly pleased with the gesture. I think he believes somehow he’s improved his chances with her. Personally I’m unconvinced; I doubt many woman fuck for taxi fare, and I’m sure this one won’t even remember the gesture in ten minutes.

That’s the moment I realised Elliot’s comparatively naivety, and that his night won’t end the way he wants it to. There’s no turning back now though. We’ve come too far. His hopes are too high.

Outside the air is cold. I hop from one foot to the other. The girl wraps her arms around me.

“Are you having a good birthday?” She asks, pushing her head into my chest. I pull free before Elliot catches sight of us and starts with the inevitable paranoia and bad vibes.

“I got to say my mate is into you. I’m not saying get with him or don’t—that’s your choice. With all respect though, I’m done—from now on there’s no hugging and no touching between us. That ok?”

She stares back at me. I wonder if she’s offended and I feel like a dickhead again.

“You’re so sexy when you give orders,” she tells me, all matter-of-fact. “In that voice you could tell me to do anything and I’d just...”

Elliot interrupts, sidling up and putting his arm around her.

“Where’s this party at then?” His voice filled with feigned enthusiasm. The girl cranes her neck upwards and bites him hard in the earlobe. Elliot winces, his face flushed with surprise, the girl frees herself and leads him forward by the hand.

I’ve never seen the house were approaching before, still, I’m confident nothing wholesome happens inside. The front garden is piled up with bin bags, bottles, tins and nitrous oxide canisters; the windows blacked out; the sound of drum and bass seeps out from the door.

The girl pushes her way inside. As he follows her, Elliot looks back as if checking if I’m still behind him.

“She bit my ear,” he mutters, more to himself than to me. “Mad fucking bitch.”

We haven’t had a drink for at least half an hour now. I share this thought with my companions and we duly make for a kitchen that obviously hasn’t seen the preparation or consumption of food in months. The counters are bare except for bottles, tins, baggies, ash, and burnt tin foil. The oven is actually repulsive to look at. In the corner two younger men are passing a joint. They chat about something to do with the government, marijuana legalisation and corporate interest—one of them clearly more enthusiastic about the conversation than the other.

Among the empties I find some full tins of lager and pass them around. The girl has her powder out. She and Elliot snort another line, I refuse mine. The girl shrugs disinterestedly before hoovering it up. The smell of marijuana has made me crave some. I suggest smoking to the group. The girl doesn’t want to, she wants to dance. So does Elliot apparently, but does he fuck – Elliot can’t dance and hates anyone that makes him try. I tell them to enjoy anyway and move over to the stoners.

“That going round?” I ask pointing at the joint. They look at me with an air of slight affront. I realise I probably came across as rude, presumptuous, or just too fucked-up to be palatable company. “I took too many uppers and need to take the edge off,” I add to explain my needs, speaking slowly so as not to slur.

The more placid of the two takes a big hit and passes it to me with a nod. Motor mouth introduces himself with some faux-friendliness—undoubtedly he thinks me an intrusion. As soon as it is polite to resume his lecture he does so with an “I was just saying…” At first I try and follow the conversation with a sincere intention of joining in. He’s talks too fast though, his rant unstructured and repetitive. It sounds like some standard-issue conspiracy tropes thrown together. I strongly suspect that he’s saying nothing worth hear- 9 ing; suspicions that seem to be validated by the sight of other people walking into the kitchen, taking one look at us and leaving.

I’m there for what feels like an eternity. When I’m sure that a socially acceptable period has elapsed, I make a concerted effort to finish my beer and slosh the empty can at them.

“Cheers for the smoke guys,” I tell them. “I’m dry though.” If they wonder why I don’t simply pick up another and rejoin them they are too courteous to verbalise it. That or simply relieved to be free of the silent swaying mess.

I grab another beer and begin exploring the party. The music comes from a crowded living room with some decks set up. I can’t breathe in there, it feels like fifty people are crammed in and trying to dance. Outside, in the garden, someone is puking against the fence. A group of people are watching someone so far gone that I assume he’s on LSD—this one’s eyes are crazy, he staggers like his spine is made of liquid while he laughs uncontrollably.

“Someone take him out” comes a shout from the crowd. It’s probably a joke, but the atmosphere here is hostile and weird and I can’t see Elliot among them anyway.

I’m about to walk up the stairs when someone obstructs my path. He stops me by putting his hand on my chest.

“Here’s a thieving bastard,” he hisses.

The man is a good half foot shorter than me, but even at five-three he’s terrifying: his arms are monstrous, almost certainly I’m looking at a case of over-compensating, though braver people than me wouldn’t voice the thought in hearing range. I don’t know what he’s talking about. The confusion shows on my face. He points at the beer I’m carrying.

“I was told they were going free,” I lie, a little meekly.

The man wrenches the can from my hand, spilling beer across my shirt. He leans against the wall and drinks deeply from the can, challenging me to complain. I’m frozen. Unsure of what to do, I do nothing. The small man finishes the beer before sending a sharp slap towards my face. I flinch a little in anticipation, but the blow was more of a feint—losing all force at the last second, he pats my cheek instead with a mendacious chuckle.

“Don’t be scared sweetheart, it’s all love here.” His farewell snide and belittling as he swaggers past towards the dancefloor.

I make my way upstairs. I mistime one step and slip. The fall is slow, stupid and preventable. I catch myself on a knee and two hands and push myself back onto my feet.

Elliot is nowhere to be seen upstairs either. One room has mellow techno playing to those on a burn out—the room filled with marijuana smoke and a profound lack of conversation. I notice an unattended bag of weed, enough for a couple of smokes, and slyly pocket it.

The bathroom is disgusting, it smells so strongly of piss that I’m glad the party powder has robbed me of that ability myself.

The final room I check is lit by a red bulb and has nothing inside but a few mattresses. As I poke my head around the door I realise too late what this is for—and why two men are stood with their backs to me and their trousers down. On the opposite wall another man is filming with his phone. This is too much, I don’t want to see any more, I just want to find Elliot and get the hell out of here.

I start back for the stairs—if it means fighting through the dancefloor I’m finding him. I find myself face to face with the girl. I’m about to ask if she knows where Elliot is when I realise she’s topless and leading another man towards the red room. Behind that man is another holding his camera phone up above them and shouting to the screen, “this girl’s fucking crazy!”

She doesn’t acknowledge me as she passes. I’m happy about that.

Elliot charges in from the garden, he’s scanning the hallway, presumably looking for the girl.

“Have you seen her?”

“No mate. Let’s go—I’m tired.”

“Tired? We’re too high for that—neither of us are sleeping tonight. Come on mate, help me find her.”

He notices the stairs and near-sprints up. I offer the word bollocks up to no one in particular before following.

Elliot’s in the mellow room, probably spinning out those inside with his manic energy and mad eyes. I wait on the landing, trying to find the right words. They don’t form in time. Elliot exits the mellow room and heads straight for the red one.

“Elliot, what if she’s gone?”

“She wouldn’t do that to me,” he presumes. “Besides, we’ve only just got here.”

“Do not go in that room.”

I put a restraining hand on his shoulder, it’s a mistake, his anger is being redirected towards it.

“Why—is she in there?”

“Let it go mate. Please?”

“Why are you saying that—why did you tell me she’s gone?” He turns to me, having made five from two and two. “You said you’d step aside—why say it if you didn’t mean it?”

I don’t like the look in his eyes, the aggression in them amplified by a cocktail of intoxicants.

“Is it because you’re always Mr. Nice Guy? Everyone’s best friend, until it comes down to it—then your fucking bullshit. You’d rather I stayed miserable than handle the fact that just one time a girl preferred me.”

At first I’m a little hurt by this unexpected revelation of mistrust and resentment; but Elliot takes my mind off it immediately, pushing me off-balance and hard against the wall. He lashes out with his fist, catching me awkwardly in the chest. His punches are wild and messy. I’m able to catch his second attempt and force his arms down by his side. I try and tell him that the girl wasn’t really interested in either of us, that to her we were just passing faces and easily replaceable. He won’t listen, though, he keeps asking why I lied to him, and telling me how much he really likes this woman he doesn’t even know.

I keep hold of him in a boxers clinch and allow him enough time to vent. Eventually he tails off and our silence is filled with general noise of whooping and shouting emanating from the red room. Elliot turns his head, focussing on the noise until it clarifies into the unmistakable sounds of communal fucking: the sounds of degradation and debasement, and of men saying ugly things.

Elliot’s face works through confusion through realisation and embarrassment. “She’s in there?”

“Do you still want to go inside?”

He bows his head, “let’s go,” he mutters.

Outside the cool air is much appreciated. My mind has calmed down a little, I can read my phone—its quarter to four and we are in Roath. Home is only a twenty minutes away.

We walk in silence for a while.

“I’m sorry I lost it back there,” Elliot offers.

“That’s okay.”

“I hit you.”

“It’s okay, really.”

“You okay?” I eventually ask.

“Yeah mate, fine.”

“I said some pretty stupid things too, let’s blame it on the booze. Booze and depression.”

I don’t know what to say to him. We’ve said everything before. Elliot stops suddenly, crumbling onto the pavement where he bursts into wild noiseless tears.

Jake Kendall is a Creative Writing graduate of Cardiff University based in his hometown of Oxford. His words can be found through the Cabinet of Heed, the Mechanic’s Institue Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Idle Ink, Burning House Press, Here Comes Everyone, and Lonesome October Lit. Find him on Twitter @jakendallox.

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