Updated: Mar 30, 2021
This is a short story about a war I never fought in. It started in a barber shop when I was seventeen. My gay barber, of Norwegian stock, was the type to relate how hard his life was back in the day. He started picking up shavings from the floor at twelve and nobody understood, least of all the spoilt boys whose hair he cut today, how hard it had been. There is always a vein of resentment in these men; they are bitter for good and will inflict their bitterness on others. They have not been touched by the sun. He made a good living from the mothers, easily charmed by his harmless sexuality, who brought their sons to him. This has a sinister relation and aspect now. Once he told me that, through some bureaucratic mistake, the council identified his address as that of a sex offender. Oh great alarm, he was afraid that the local rag would get hold of it and make a fuss. I was too naïve then to make the association. Now, schooled in the world, I evaluate his concern with suspicion. The cliches are all true, there is no smoke without fire.
From the barbers to the grand museum. I stood by the steps and waited for a lift. The Sun was low on that September day. I jumped into my mother’s car, into the warmth of home. There is greater significance in a parent’s car than in any other. The car is home, not just a lift. The step over the boundary is a step to safety. You breathe easier in the car. Somehow, a whole tension expires. I wonder if this feeling is gone forever once we have left home. I think back to girlfriends and apartments and I am sure that I have never felt the same relief. There is only one safe port, one home; when it has gone, it is gone forever.
“Have you heard about the attack?” “The what?” I am, automatically, surly with my mother. It is a reflex that development around adolescence and now is at its height. It is, perhaps, something to do with forming my own identity. It is also to do with the recognition of the fundamental helplessness of women. Their general confusion at the world, especially in the face of technical tasks, does not always cause a man to feel sympathetic. I suppose men are bred for strength and we detest the sight of weakness and confusion; we detest it in other men and in ourselves. The feeling does not extinguish itself simply because it is a helpless woman standing there. The contempt is still there. It is all summed up in the stale word “competence”, though men who use that word are usually decayed in unusual places.
I suppose it seems silly to hear a woman speak about politics or war, since women have no grasp of these things; it is always a pantomime when they pretend so. I listen to the radio. The announcers speak of New York, of towers on fire, and of a missile. “Could it be a Chinese missile?”. I never heard that speculation again; perhaps they were too quick in anticipating the opening shots of that war. The descriptions from New York: bodies falling from the towers, smoke over Manhattan. I text with the boys still at school: “Have you heard? Are you watching?” “Yes, yes. We’re watching now. Everyone is watching the common room TV.” I tell my mother to take the long way back home, because I want to listen to the radio. My reason, absurd, is that people panic in situations like these and flood the roads. Well, they did not do that. Not even in New York. So we drive the long way back and I absorb the situation and when I get home my grandmother is ironing and watching the towers on fire and says, “Isn’t it awful?” And we say that, yes, it is awful.