Say there was a novel in which Holden Caulfield was an alcoholic and Lolita was a photographer’s assistant and, somehow, they met in Bright Lights, Big City. He’s blinded by love. She by ambition. Diary of an Oxygen Thief is an honest, hilarious, and heartrending novel, but above all, a very realistic account of what we do to each other and what we allow to have done to us.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I liked hurting girls.
Mentally, not physically, I never hit a girl in my life. Well, once. But that was a mistake. I'll tell you about it later. The thing is, I got off on it. I really enjoyed it.
It's like when you hear serial killers say they feel no regret, no remorse for all the people they killed. I was like that. Loved it. I didn't care how long it took either, because I was in no hurry. I'd wait until they were totally in love with me. Till the big saucer eyes were looking at me. I loved the shock on their faces. Then the glaze as they tried to hide how much I was hurting them. And it was legal. I think I killed a few of them. Their souls, I mean. It was their souls I was after. I know I came close a couple of times. But don't worry, I got my comeuppance. That's why I'm telling you this. Justice was done. Balance has been restored. The same thing happened to me, only worse. Worse because it happened to me. I feel purged now, you see. Cleansed. I've been punished, so it's okay to talk about it all. At least that's how it seems to me. I carried the guilt of my crimes around with me for years after I stopped drinking. I couldn't even look at a girl, much less believe I deserved to converse with one. Or maybe I was just afraid that they'd see through me. Either way, after getting into Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn't even kiss a girl for five years. Seriously. Not so much as holding hands.
I meant business.
I think I always knew deep down I had a drinking problem. I just never got around to admitting it. I drank purely for effect. But then, as far as I was concerned, wasn't everyone doing the same thing? I started to realize something was wrong when I began to get beaten up. My mouth always got me into trouble, of course. I'd go up to the biggest guy in the place and look up his nostrils and call him a faggot. And then when he'd head-butt me, I'd say, "Call that a headbutt?" So the guy would do it again harder. The second time I'd have less to say. One of my "victims" stuck my head on an electric cooker ring. In Limerick. Stab City. I was lucky to get out of that house alive. He'd done it, though, because I'd been taking the pith out of hiths listhp. Maybe that's why I moved on to girls. More sophisticated, doncha know. And girls wouldn't beat me up. They'd just stare at me in disbelief and shock.
Their eyes, you see.
All the pretense and rules dissolved away. There was just the two of us and the pain. All those intimate moments, every little sigh, those gentle touches, the lovemaking, the confidences, the orgasms, the attempted orgasms-all mere fuel. The deeper in they were, the more beautiful they looked when the moment came.
And I lived for the moment. I was working freelance in advertising all through this period in London. As an art director. A contradiction in terms if ever there was one. It's what I still do today. Strangely, I was always able to get money. Even in art school, I got a grant because my dad had just retired and I suddenly became eligible. And after that I got job after job without too much trouble.
I never looked like a drunk, I just was one, and anyway in those days advertising was a far more boozy affair than it is today. Because I was freelance, I could be my own man, so to speak, and I would keep myself busy by ensuring I had dates lined up. None of the girls were supposed to know this. The idea was to have an impressive queue so that when one girl neared maturity-usually after about three or four dates with some phone calls in between-another would be introduced. Then as one went onto the scrap heap, a new one would take her place. Nothing unusual about my method, everyone did it. But I enjoyed it so much. Not the sex or even the conquest, but the causing of pain.
It was after my crazy night with Pen (more on that in a minute) that I realized I had found my niche in life. Somehow I was able to lure these creatures into my lair. Half the time I was trying to push them away, but it had just the opposite effect. And the fact that they were attracted to a piece of shit like me made me hate them even more than if they'd laughed in my face and walked away. As for looks? I'm nothing special, but I'm told I have beautiful eyes. Eyes from which nothing but truth could possibly seep.
They say the sea is actually black and that it merely reflects the blue sky above. So it was with me. I allowed you to admire yourself in my eyes. I provided a service. I listened
and listened and listened. You stored yourself in me.
Nothing had ever felt so right to me. If I'm honest, even today I miss hurting. I'm not cured of it, but I don't set out to systematically dismantle like I used to. I don't miss the booze half as much. Oh, to hurt again. Since those heady days I heard an adage that seems to apply here: "Hurt people hurt people."
I see now that I was in pain and wanted others to feel it, too. This was my way of communicating. I'd meet the women the first night and get the obligatory phone number and then after another couple of days, making them sweat a little, I'd call and be all nervous. They loved that. I'd ask them out and pretend I hardly ever did "this kind of thing" and say that I hadn't been out a lot in London because I didn't really know the scene. This was true, though, because all I used to do was get out of my head in local bars around Camberwell.
We'd agree to meet somewhere. I liked Greenwich, with the river and the boats and of course the pubs. And it had a great boyfriend/girlfriend feel. Nice and respectable. I'd be half out of it before we even met, but I'd be witty and charming and boyish and shaking. Trying to put me at ease, they'd smile and comment on my trembling, thinking I was nervous to create a good impression. Because I wasn't getting in enough booze, my very being would shudder. I'd have to order two large Jamesons at the counter for her every half lager. I'd down the Jimmys without her seeing and then on with the show.
I didn't really care if I got them into bed or not. I just wanted some company while I got pissed, while I waited for the courage to hurt to well up in me. And they seemed pleased because I wasn't trying to grope them. Sometimes I would. But mostly I'd be fairly well behaved. This would go on for a few dates. In the meantime I would encourage them to tell me about themselves.
This is very important for the successful moment later. The more they confided and invested in you, the deeper the shock and the more satisfying the moment at the end. So, I'd be told of their dog's habits, their teddy bear's names, their father's moods, their mother's fears. Did I like kids? How many brothers and sisters did I have? A sitcom I had to sit through. But it was okay, because I knew I'd be writing her out of the series.
She'd talk and talk and talk, and I'd nod. Raise a strategic eyebrow. Grimace when necessary. Guffaw or feign shock, whatever was required. I'd watch people in conversation and record their facial expressions. Interest: Raise one eyebrow and raise or lower the other depending on the conversation.
Attraction: Try to blush. Not easy, this (thoughts of what I was going to do to her later helped). And a blush usually begot a blush. That is, if I could muster a blush, she was more than likely to blush back. Sympathy: Crinkle the forehead and nod gently. Charmed: Cock your head to one side and smile apologetically. I'd supply these prefab masks on cue. It was easy. It was enjoyable. Guys did it all the time to get laid. I did it to get even. Unkind to Womankind. That was my mission. Around this time I discovered the meaning of the word "misogynist." I remember thinking it hilarious that it had "Miss" as a prefix.
All I know is, I felt better when I saw someone else in pain. But of course they would often hide how much I had hurt them. Yes, it was a challenge in itself to help her externalize her feelings, but also bloody frustrating to have gone to all that trouble and then not be able to enjoy a dramatic playback. That's why it became necessary to condense everything into the one demonstrative moment.
Sophie was from South London. She used to do the wardrobe for Angus Brady on the comedy show Aren't You Glad to See Me? I met her at a Camberwell College of Arts party that I had crashed. After her, there was that designer girl-whose name I honestly can't remember-who I'm sure I hurt very deeply because she never called me back. Funny that, because even though I never met her again or even heard her say another word, I knew she had it bad.
How do I know?
There was Jenny. She was the one who threw the beer in my face. I was thrilled to have had a hand in causing so much rage.
Then came Emily. But she doesn't really count because she was as good if not better at whatever this is than I was. I kind of fell for her. Laura was somewhere in there. An ex- band publicist with a superb arse that had survived a young daughter. I woke up one morning and there was an eight-year-old girl watching as I tried to extricate myself from the freckled tentacles of her comatose mother. And then after she guilted me into walking her to school, I got the feeling that mother and daughter made full use of the men that passed through their lives. Like the Native American and the Buffalo, The Eskimo and the Seal, The Welfare Mother and Me.
And the one who started it all.
Penelope Arlington. I'd been going out with her for four and a half years. Long time. She'd been nice to me. Nicer to me than any other girl had ever been. When I spoke, she turned her head toward me and seemed to abandon herself to the meaning of my words. I liked that. It was only much later that I found out she was terrible in bed. At the time I thought she was wanton. She wasn't. But she's the one I regret hurting the most. Why? Because she didn't deserve it. Not that the others did, but she wouldn't have left me if I hadn't ripped her apart. And I needed her to leave me because she was getting in the way of my drinking.
And one night I just cracked up. It'd been bubbling for ages. Simmer, simmer, bubble, stew . . . gurgle. I got completely fizzingly drunk and this whole chain of events began to rattle. Why would anyone set out to break the heart of someone he loved? Why would anyone intentionally cause that kind of pain?
Why did people kill each other?
Because they enjoyed it. Was it really that simple? To achieve a soul-shattering, it is better if the perpetrator has been through the same experience. Hurt people hurt people more skillfully. An expert heartbreaker knows the effect of each incision. The blade slips in barely noticed, the pain and the apology delivered at the same time.