Paul’s booze-sodden brain was at the beck and call of an indecisive octopus, pulling on levers protruding from the neurological coral that sent his body conflicting messages. Some of these were organic – sensible motions willing him to eat, to drink water, and most prominently of all, to sleep. But thrusting out from the surface in a harem of great, neon, buzzing, digital dildos were the other options. The ring-a-ding options. The Apps. And as hard as one tentacle pulled on good old trusty sleep, another tugged just as vigorously on shiny, glittering, Grindr.
His mouth hung open as he scrolled through the jigsaw of headless torsos and torso-less heads; an endless supply of incarcerated little men that might, just might, grow up into life-size versions of themselves, with real flesh that he could reach out and touch. Men who would provide him with a vigorous shagging so impassioned that it would carve out his abs, flood him with self-esteem, obliterate his loneliness and lift him to a giddy climax, all in one almighty, penetrative motion carrying enough force to crack the face of the moon into two.
But Christ, the effort. And what a bunch of arseholes. Just diving into the coded manuscript beneath the posed veneer was enough to encourage a tug on the gruesome ‘vomit’ lever.
‘Be over 6ft,’ one user required.
‘But you’re only three inches tall,’ said Paul, snorting at his own cleverness.
‘Not into fems,’ stipulated another. Paul hissed like a goose.
The requirements came thick and fast. ‘Be 26–35. Be a bottom. Don’t be a twat.’ Paul considered himself ruled out from all of these. He quickly felt this seemingly limitless array of mentertainment fall down piece by piece, like a house of cards where all the Queens are just pricks.
He exhaled heavily, releasing a toxic gin cloud that threatened to vaporise this army of toy soldiers in an instant. He shuffled in purple boxers, brought his attention to the window and looked out to the East London tower-blocks beyond. All he really wanted, he told himself, was a man, any man really, to just come over and lie directly on top of him whilst he slept. But not one of these men.
Beneath his stubborn skull the sleep lever was getting tugged harder and harder, and his heavy head nodded ever-closer to this rubix cube of rolling men. When, in amongst the nipples and the pecks, the otherworldly Adonises and the leering Grandads, he spotted someone that peaked his attention. A thin, angular face the colour of caramel, with great green, goblin eyes and an odd little smile playing out over rouged lips, which looked like they were guarding closely a secret. The username was not ‘BigDaddy48’ or ‘RIGHTNOW(eyeball emoji)’, but simply one word, which he presently said out loud.
Paul sunk into his profile, which was deliciously devoid of detail. Just a few simple symbols in a language Paul didn’t know. Pixie, Paul decided, was his Ace of Hearts, who had been shuffled in amongst all these other cards just waiting to be picked out.
“Picked! Picksy! Pixie!” It was destiny! There was no doubt. He could’ve sang, but his soggy cephalopod brain was no longer in the mood for singing. The octopus had become cantankerous, the sleep lever was pulled to full extension, and the digital dildos retracted temporarily into the coral. And as Paul began to lose consciousness and all the little men morphed into one grotesque, patchwork blur, he resolutely extracted Pixie, his Ace of Hearts, and placed him, tentacle first, in a quaint wooden draw hidden beneath the cellular seaweed, located directly between the organic ‘wake up’ lever and the digital ‘check Grindr’ lever, and he promised to revisit him first thing in the morning.
It took two whole days for Pixie to respond to Paul’s timid ‘hey’. He checked Grindr no less than 247 times in those 72 hours, willing that fantastical creature locked in a square to respond, or at least block him and relieve the pain. He daydreamed about casting his iPhone into the sluggish Thames, to sleep amongst the needles and shopping trolleys. But then, what would he stare at on the long, inebriated bus journeys to Lewisham?
On the second day Paul did what Paul did best – got pissed on gin with Jenny and dragged her to a subpar gay club. When she somehow miraculously pulled the bouncer and took him off in an uber, Paul scuttled off to the corner, deflated, avoiding every eye on the dancefloor for fear of being talked to. These bopping men were either aloof gym-bunnies seeking similar, or balding predators seeking younger. Like always, he felt he didn’t quite fit, and felt the familiar urge to instead try his luck in the digital realm that existed behind this sweaty reality. He extracted his piece-of-shit iPhone with its Harry Potter lightening scar blazed across the screen. The boy who loved. The boy who Ground. He screwed up one eye extra tight to focus the other on the app, and his body was shot through with some kind of divine electricity. Two messages from the boy called Pixie.
“Doesn’t look like you’re having the best time. Wanna go to the bridge?”
He looked all around, through the throbbing crowds intermittently lit by lights working on algorithms set to music made on computers, up to the balcony that soared overhead. There he was, smiling down on Paul with that same secretive, what’s it got in it’s pocketses smile. Pixie. His Ace of Hearts. His boy-wonder brought to life. His Pinocchio.
They went to the Jubilee Bridge. Paul tried to keep it together in the presence of Pixie’s beauty. Animation did nothing to make him less fantastical. His cheekbones seemed to be in a personal battle with gravity and demanded to strive higher and higher. His jaw line was grazed with a gentle stubble that made the rose colour of his lips shine brighter. His hair was crow-black, somehow tangled yet sleek, and the gigantic eyeballs which now shone with life were two moons, too much to look directly into. Though he wore black skinny jeans and a tight retro Ellese jacket, it wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination to picture him adorned in ivy, frolicking through a forest bathed in twilight, with goat legs and pan-pipes.
There on the bridge, Paul mustered an emergency supply of confidence within whilst trying desperately not to wet himself, as if some squelching being in his brain was pulling on levers and calling the shots. They smoked and flirted. Finally, when Paul was mid-ramble, Pixie pulled him in by the top button and they kissed as London shimmered.
In the weeks that followed, Paul felt he had been freed. They took trains out to the countryside and chased horses with sugar cubes. They bought a dingy on Ebay and took it down the Queens canal whilst swigging on gin. One night Pixie convinced Paul to squeeze into a pair of obscenely tight leather shorts and dance to techno for 8 hours. Paul had previously described techno as “electro for apes”, but with Pixie (and a pill) it all made sense. The monotonous thumping became the steady beat that drew them ever closer and closer together, until one was inside the other.
Pixie fancied himself as some sort of modern day guru, and Paul fancied him as that too. Paul curled up in Pixie’s lotus lap and listen as he listed the constellations. They worked their way through Pixie’s Dad’s Persian record collection and twisted themselves into impossible positions. Paul would come home smelling of sex and incense, and try not to be sad knowing that that precise set of moments would never be repeated in precisely the same way.
That’s not to say that Paul was lost in some kind of sex trance. He suffered immense cramp when entangled in the “Weeping Swan” position and nearly cried from the pain. Sometimes when we were kissing, he’d think about which items of clothing he needed to put into the laundry basket, or open his eyes and ponder how intimately close their brains were to touching each other, but how they operated entirely independently. And then he’d wonder what secrets were in there. There was a secret, Paul could tell, and he wanted to dig in and fetch it out. Then he’d feel guilty for being distracted, and hate himself for pondering such mundane things when he was in Pixie’s presence.
Sometimes, Paul grew angry at how much he was into him. He wanted Pixie to eat him. He wanted to chop off Pixie’s legs, or bottle him up so I could administer myself doses of him at regular intervals. He wanted no-one but him to touch him, to see him, to smell him. He wanted to string together a sentence in words unknowable that would seep into Pixie’s brain and make something click, which would confirm there and then that he was forever his.
The subject of monogamy came up only once, when Paul asked Pixie to delete the apps:
“Don’t be a sexual terrorist, Paul. These are our tools to live out the free love revolution. Use them and abuse them man. Look, you don’t see monogamy in the animal kingdom.”
“Penguins…” Paul muttered stubbornly. “Storks. Lobsters.”
“Alright smart arse,” he’d say back with a killer Pixie smile. “I was talking about predators anyway.”
Then, just as ‘wolves’ occurred to Paul, Pixie would say something funny to distract him, and instead of laughing he’d panic, and think, ‘shit, does he know I’m funny too?’
Paul would drink throughout, more and more each time he went round there. Pixie didn’t seem to care. He’d just call him his little ginfox and give him a squeeze, then return to the apps, his own little addiction.
When they took a trip back to the bridge for the sake of nostalgia, Paul lost all ability to restrain the flow of poison that had formed against the dam within him.
“You know something,” Paul said, through a sudden rush of tears that turned London into an neon jellyfish. “We’re two different species, the two of us. You’re squid-ink and I’m sultanas. You’re an extra-terrestrial and I’m a tame tortoise. I’m destined to sit in a bedsit and you’re going to fly to the moon. I’ll gather skin cells whilst you collect stardust. I… I…”
Pixie lunged forward then, an impressive feat in trousers that tight, and placed a slender finger over his lips.
“Peace Mercutio. Thou talkst of nothing.”
The next day, Pixie was gone. The secret had been that he never intended to stay. He had a one-way ticket to the States and said goodbye with a rush of pictures sent on Whatsapp and one message: “Sorry gin-fox, didn’t know how to say it to your face. Don’t hate me yeah. I couldn’t hate you x.”
Loneliness ate Paul whole. The next week he was back in the club, back in the corner, pulling out his phone, lighting it up, snuffing it out, like playing with a stick of dynamite.
He’d flick between the dating apps and Instagram, where he’d follow Pixie from square to square, from state to state: clad in a glitter cloak at the Burning Man festival, kissing the cheek of a haggard old drag queen in Vegas, lunging his trademark skinny-jeans lunge by the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then Paul would cast the image away, into the space beyond his phone. He’d delve back into the digital patchwork quilt of Grindr, the many-faced monster continuing to grow and replenish, frazzle static or throw up new contenders in London’s mighty gay arena of fucks, fucks, fucks.
In a swirling sea of pink gin, the panicked octopus was trying to maintain order. But there were levers it had never seen before, huge metal rods fitted with flashing sirens, labelled CHOKE HAZARD — SWALLOW or CHOKE HAZARD — COUGH. The SLEEP lever had been pulled to unconsciousness and had jammed, and the VOMIT lever, prompted by a powerful signal from the organs below, had launched into action. The control centre shook perilously, the sirens whirred, and no matter how hard the woozy tentacle tugged to bring SLEEP to WAKE, the lever wouldn’t give. In amongst the darkening frenzy, one cock-shaped beacon still beat on steadily, glittering and glimmering, set as it was, firmly entrenched in Paul’s mind.
Paul’s convulsions went unheard by anyone, as he lay on his back quite stuck. But locked in his palm, with his little finger slid firmly beneath and the others curled around the side, was his battered and beaten old iPhone. Curiously, as if in response to some last minute mechanism deep within his brain, Paul’s hovering thumb began drawing it’s way up and down the cracked glass, prompting men locked in boxes to cascade down the screen.
Dan Ayres is a Berlin-based writer heralding from the cider-soaked hills of England’s Westcountry. A lover of all things surreal and fantastical, he is increasingly drawn to the monumental impact social media and technology is having upon our organic little lives. He also likes stories with cats in them.
Renaud Hélena likes plastic and synthetic fabric, cutting a trash bag to transform it into a garland. He like listening to lyrical music (with violin and other classical instruments) like in the movies, except that here I will be the one saving you. He likes mundane conversations that fail to reach anyone. He wonders if you come here often.
You can also see more of Renaud’s works in #TheGalleryProject.