The Contract (2017)
In a forest, I don't know which, I bent down to pick up the knife. I don't know how it got there, or why I, of all people, stumbled upon it here, of all places (wherever that was). I don't believe in signs, in fate, in destiny, or anything of the sort, but I believe in causality. And if your steps, the ones seemingly chosen and the ones seemingly random, carry you somewhere, towards something, you should accept it, and go from there.
It wasn't the same forest as the one where I met her. Her being the only one with whom I've ever had sex in a forest. That, I think, is why I remember her so clearly. I always wanted to have sex among the trees, and I was a bit surprised it ended up happening with someone I'd never see again. Perhaps that makes it extra special.
Nah, who am I kidding. I hate one-night-stands.
In yet another forest, I sit with the knife rescued from the wilderness and wonder why I don't like random sex encounters, when other people seem to enjoy them so much. Their enjoyment probably has something to do with evolution. Spread your legs, spread your semen, make those babies, make yourself immortal. Of course, it's fun for them, I guess. But that, in turn, is also because biology makes it pleasurable, else no one would do it, and there goes life out the window. That's probably why most people don't perform well. They don't feel like they have to, and most others would agree their partners don't have to, because it's so much fun in and on itself, anyway, so that no set of skills is exactly necessary beyond the ones most get equipped with during puberty. I remember when some guy moaned how well I was sucking him off for someone who does it rarely, and I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes: All I did was move my mouth and tongue in those basic motions you apply when you suck on something, and play with his balls a little because I know that feels good from my own experience. Who can be bad at that?
And how do people enjoy doing this kind of stuff with random people they don't even like, people they don't want to please, have no reason to want to please?
I always knew I was a genetic mess. I don't want to be pleased by anyone but someone I care about pleasing in return. And I just don't care about most people. In that respect, at least, I assume I'm normal.
Here I sit, with my knife, pondering all this irrelevant bullshit along with my life's choices. I am thirty-three now, and I have done all the things my contract obliges me to do before I am allowed relief. Who am I to go against a contract, I ask you. Even if the only one who signed was me. I look at it again, at the piece of paper I ripped from the notebook I lost long ago. What made me rip it out? How did it transpire that, days before the months of thoughts and ideas dropped from my life like a knife someone had lost in a forest, I turned the one page I wish I had never written into a wrinkled, scraped document fit for nothing but the rubbish bin - and that this act of vandalism was what made sure the contract became the only page that survived?
Causality, that's what. My dearest friend, my greatest enemy, my only hope, and the destroyer of all worlds.
I look up beyond the treetops and find peace in the knowledge that somewhere that is nowhere, I sit in this forest as well - but without contract and knife. In some other where, with you. In some other where, with someone else. And in some further elsewhere, I am in a bed, resting, and I have never written the contract. And maybe if I turn my eyes towards that cloud that looks a bit like a flower, I unknowingly catch a glimpse of the me who hasn't ripped out this one page, lost the entirety of the notebook and forgot all about his contract with his younger self. Who knows? Who am I to say it isn't so? Who am I to deny myself the only metaphysical idea I ever enjoyed considering?
Well, maybe I should. Looking down at my contract, the only thing the once reassuring thought gives me is regret. Regret that I cannot switch places with those other people. Those other myselves.
I lay my body back on the damp grass. It is a dark hour, a marauder's hour, a thief's hour. I am a thief. I have stolen, not only the knife in my hand, but money from my parents when I was young - before I headed out to the cinema or the mall, I would always take a tenner or something out of one of their wallets and never tell them about it. Friends' secrets - I made them trust me with my unjudging attitude, my diplomatic words, my impartial, plain nature, and turned their pain and their bad choices and their fears and their hopes into my own, used their experience as an excuse not to experience anything for myself. My lovers' time - I did everything I could to keep them, gave them all of me, and impressed upon them that because of this, they owed me, owed me their love and their submissiveness, if nothing else, and I guilt-tripped them into being mine, truly mine, and made them waste their lives for me, and I repeated this mistake again and again, until no one was left to love me.
My therapist says I have to stop pitying myself. Instead, I stopped talking to her. Because she does not understand. This has nothing to do with self-pity. This is not wallowing ... This is hatred. Hatred cradles, someone once said. I don't remember if it was a real person or a fictional character. Either way, they were wrong.
Or maybe not. Maybe lying here, on the forest floor, in the middle of the night, contract in one hand and knife clutched in the other, I actually am being cradled. Wrapped in the grip of my hatred, the only parent I ever learned to trust.
Amazing, the things you realise when you're unhappy.
I close my eyes. I take a deep, conscious breath, maybe hoping that this simple act of purest living will change my mind. Or maybe not. I am done with hope. Isn't it supposed to die last? Well, things always were in a rush with me.
I check my contract again. Go down the list, and remember.
Sleep with someone you do not care about. Check. It was a beautiful summer's night, it happened in a forest like this one, and it was fun, in a way, surprisingly enough. Not fun enough, though.
Hang a portrait in a gallery. Done. My co-worker put me up to it, and arranged for my best work to be made public. He thought he was doing me a huge favour. On some level, he was doing me a huge favour, of course. But he knew nothing of the contract. Did not know that, on the twenty-first of September eight years ago, I ticked off another item on my secret agenda. I remember the rush I felt when I stood before that picture I had created, saw people walk by it with well-mannered curiosity, muttering things like "very beautiful," "what a lovely piece," "we'll see more from this one, I bet." I remember my co-worker patting me on the back, looking at me with smiling eyes that said told you, didn't I?, proud of my accomplishment as if I was more than a colleague. I also remember my disappointment when I learned that no one bought the piece. And the even more depressing disappointment when my co-worker warded off my romantic and sexual advances.
Visit Iceland. Happened. I do not even know how this ended up in my contract. My fascination with Iceland had been born barely a month before the list was written. But somehow, it managed to infest me with the same intensity as my lifetime's desire to become a well-known artist. And then, at a time when life had become particularly unbearable, I decided to just go ahead and go. Saving up on both vacation and money finally paid when I was able to take an entire month off work and spend most of my small fortune on a trip around the country of my very recent dreams. I walked on the black sand of Reynisfjara and touched the remains of the petrified trolls who stood vigil on that beach, I swam in the warm water of Seljavallalaug, and I looked down in awe upon the Asbyrgi Canyon.
MDMA. What a night that was. Not particularly exciting. On the contrary. Rather relaxed. In fact, the most relaxed night I remember. I just laughed along with everyone and everything. It felt like what I had believed being high on cannabis was supposed to make you feel like. It wasn't until much later that I realised that the drug's effect on me might have been due to the other medication I was taking at the time, the one the doctor had told me to take and warned me not to mix with other substances. Most certainly explains my body's complete crash afterwards. Oops.
Throw one huge New Year's Eve party. And how I threw it. Everyone was there. Everyone. Friends. Family. Lovers. People I'd usually not invite anywhere. People I don't even like. I rented a cottage in the mountains, an entire cottage, for that night. It cost me the last of my saved up money, but what the hell. It was the final item on my contract still unchecked. The last order of business on my agenda. Now, a few months later, they still talk to me about that party with glowing eyes and lowered voices, as of something holy, like sharing a secret, a wonderful secret. The lonely house stood far removed from the next town, all by itself. At midnight, the fireworks were magical, an alchemist guild's pyromancy, promising us a future burning with light. At three in the morning, the music was ear-shattering. At five, the multiple bedrooms started filling up, and at noon, walking through the house meant wading through sleeping bodies. We were all young again.
Finish your novel. Finished it is. It's also horrible.
Win the lottery. I won. Enough to buy a pack of cigarettes and two scoops of ice cream. But hey, my past self never specified a figure of any magnitude. Check.
Gain eleven pounds and stick with them for a week. Check, and yuck. One of the reasons for putting this on the list was because I knew I'd never do it. Thought I knew. I am far from being in good shape as it is, any extra pound has always been a horror of mine. But I stick to my word. I gained the weight, carried it around for seven days, went to bed with that additional fat pushing me down into the mattress. I lost twenty-two pounds after that week, and good riddance.
Quit a job. Almost lost the job, instead. When I set up the contract, I imagined myself someday being in a position where I could quit and keep a comfortable lifestyle. But as it was, I was forced to quit before they could fire me, knowing very well that I might not find another job so quickly, and very intent on ticking off every task on my secret to do-list. I did find work again soon enough. I wish I hadn't. My new job is worse than the old one, even further removed from my artistic aspirations. I could be living on the dole now, spending my days half-heartedly filling out applications, my nights full-heartedly painting.
Spend a week in your hometown. Spent. It was the nightmare I thought it would be. There's a reason why I left that community at the earliest opportunity. When I wrote the contract, I was thinking of staying at my childhood home, but when I decided that it was time to test the limits of my patience, my satisfaction, and my countenance, I was glad to see that my past self didn't explicitly compel me to do so. The hotel I picked was fine, but being fine in the town where I grew up is worse than being unwell anywhere else.
Have a civilised conversation with an ex. I did - but this almost proved to turn into the bane of my intentions. The near failure to complete this task was less due to a lack of trying, and more due to a lack of exes willing to converse with me. It was hard to convince any of them that I wished only to talk, and nothing else. In the end, the one I missed the most - whom I bothered the longest, assuming, in my as of yet hopeful brain, that the one I missed the most would also be the one who missed me the most - was willing to meet with me. It was a fine talk we had, a loving talk, a careful talk, a talk not among friends, but not among enemies either. A talk among people who had once meant a lot to each other. Pretending that all that meaning was in the past for me as it was for my ex was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do.
Bury a grandparent. Rest in peace, grandmas and grandpas. I honestly didn't think I'd survive all of you.
Have a second date with a one-night-stand. Dated. Though slightly self-contradictory in its phrasing, I understood what my past self meant me to do, and I affirmed willingly enough when a lovely young man asked me to meet again after our drunken, dating app-induced night together. The second date didn't end in sex, so I kind of managed to go around the self-defeating purpose of the contract's original wording. Lovely Young Man Number So-and-So remained a "one-night-stand" of sorts despite the second date. I give myself extra credit for that. But who's keeping score, anyway?
Swim in the ocean at night. I almost didn't go through with this one. Almost. There's just something so scary about the incredible darkness ocean water is capable of after the sun goes down, and, in some places, even when the sun's up high. I like staring out at sea late at night, but being in it when there's enough darkness to surround and engulf you even on your trusted dry land? I wasn't sure I could muster up the courage. Then I realised it didn't matter what I did, the worst that could happen was me drowning or getting eaten by a shark, and wouldn't that be a way to go? Nothing spectacular whatsoever happened, except for me staying wet for too long after and getting a cold.
Watch The Seventh Seal. Watched and even rewatched it, although it almost bored me to death the first time around. I thought I might have misunderstood it - or rather, not understood it at all, so I tried again, believing that there must be a reason why the film had held an indefinable sway over me ever since I'd first heard of it. But sometimes (or maybe often), fascinating things only remain fascinating so long as one does not actually get a hold of them.
This contract is binding. The final line above my signature and that day's date. I remember that day. Nothing particularly bad had happened in the hours leading up to its sudden, anticlimactic climax, which found me with pen in hand, bent over my notebook, my nose almost touching the paper. I wrote my contract sitting on a bench in a train station, a platform filled with crying children, drunk hobos, laughing teens, stressed-out workers, sweaty fatties, begging junkies. I felt worthless compared to all of them. I considered all of them to be better than me. Why?, my former therapist asked me once, when I told her about this evaluation of my own person. Why do you believe yourself to be of less value than other people, people you have never met, people you do not know, people you actually judge in negative terms? I had no answer for her. I only wondered which self-respecting therapist would ever compose a sentence containing the phrase "negative terms."
The contract is binding, I informed the only other person who would ever set eyes on it: me, weeks, months, or years later. It has turned out to be quite many years. But the paper's meaning remains clear, the bond uptight, the commitment unchanged. Before you do what you think is right, what you think is your best option - before you do what you want to do, you have to have done all of the things on this list, things you also, at some point, wanted to do, if only for a brief moment, things which you think will fulfil you in some way or another, things which you think may happen far enough into the future so that by the time they have happened, you will have mentally dropped your best option and no longer think of it as an option at all. But: If, when you have done all of these things, you still consider it your best option, you still want to do it - do it.
The sharp blade reflects the starlight in an almost entrancing manner.
As a cloud passes over me, I think of the other worlds. In one of them, I never had sex in a forest. Maybe I didn't mess up all that much.
But the contract is binding.
About this story
"The Contract" works two of my favourite themes into its narrative without being explicitly about them: causality and the question of multiple universes. It is not my first time experimenting with these issues, but this text marks my first attempt at de- and recontextualising the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) topics in a very mundane frame, in a story that deals only with the life of a single individual, and the ways in which this life has failed.
Writing the story, it sort of escaped the range of my control and grew away from the thematic starting point, as stories are wont to do and as is healthy and necessary if they are to mean anything. Somehow, causality and multiverses led me to debating sexuality, self-esteem, and suicide - or rather, to having my character debate them. It is this, more than any outstanding artistic quality I may ascribe to "The Contract", which drives me to publish it here: To me, it showcases what happens when you stop thinking and planning and get to simply writing, allowing a character to tell you their own story and a plot to develop itself. I would be interested to know whether you, as a reader, are able to sense this while reading. And I would like to know whether it feels good. Does a story that told itself provide an experience as enjoyable as that of a story whose author kept (or pretended to keep) control?