by Teddy Wayne
Teddy Wayne’s debut novel, Kapitoil, opens up The 2011 Tournament of Books at The Morning News tomorrow, squaring off against a little-known novel called Freedom by some guy whose name we forget. Kapitoil was named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 First Novels of 2010,” among other honors, and an excerpt won a 2010 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship. Its narrator is Karim Issar, a young, socially awkward computer programmer from Doha, Qatar, who comes to Wall Street in the boom times of 1999 and writes a program that accurately predicts oil futures based on geopolitical news articles. Karim has learned his stilted — though grammatically perfect — English through the worlds of finance and technology. In this excerpt, he attends a party in Brooklyn thrown by his colleague Rebecca, with whom there has been some possible romantic tension.
Jessica left to talk with Rebecca and her friends, and she returned to our circle and asked, “Anyone for weed?”
Everyone else said yes. “You want to have some fun, Karim?” Jessica said.
I said loudly, “Yes, I would like to have some fun.”
She said “All right,” and we all followed her to Rebecca in the corner. Rebecca watched me closely. She whispered, “You know what this is, right?”
“I am not a child,” I said. “I know about marijuana.”
“Okay, sorry,” she said.
Jessica retrieved from a closet a tall red plastic cylinder that had a metal smoking pipe attached to it. She took it to the kitchen, and when she returned the cylinder was partially filled with water. One of the men removed a clear bag with marijuana in it. He inserted his fingers in the bag to pinch a small quantity, as if his hand was a machine that picks up dirt, and carefully deposited it in the pipe.
I observed him closely so that when it was my turn I would not humiliate myself. He covered a small hole in the cylinder with his index finger while he moved an activated lighter over the marijuana, then he inhaled from the cylinder and simultaneously removed his index finger. The smoke passed through the water, and I hypothesized that it made it less carcinogenic and softer for the lungs, which made me less nervous about inhaling it, as I have never even used a hookah.
Then he contained his breath for over ten seconds before he exhaled the smoke like a factory chimney. After he finished he said, “That’s a totally groovy bong, dude” in an intentionally false and high voice, and everyone else laughed with him although I didn’t know why, and I decided I should not make any more jokes in the U.S. because I still didn’t understand the logic of humor here.
He shifted the bong clockwise to the next person. I was next, and while the female next to me inhaled, Rebecca looked at me again as if she was afraid for me.
When I received the bong, I inflamed the marijuana for a long time and inhaled strongly. The water inside made a quiet bubbling sound that was pleasing and then the marijuana smoke reached my lungs, and it burned and produced tears in my eyes, but I closed them and continued inhaling at the same pace as if I was a machine that could proceed infinitely. When I was finally done, Jessica said, “Damn, Karim knows how to par-tay!” and I still contained my breath for even longer than the previous two people. By the time I exhaled there were just a few clouds of smoke, so I had absorbed the lion’s share of it and was using the product efficiently.
I felt slightly imbalanced, but I was not truly inebriated yet. They passed the bong around the circle, and the originator asked if we were up for another round. A few people, including Rebecca, said they had inhaled a sufficient amount, but Jessica said she wanted more and asked if I did, and I said, “If you have enough remaining I would like more,” not only because I wanted to see what the true sensation was like but also to show Rebecca that I knew how to party.
I watched the first man produce another cloud of smoke. I thought about how it was previously the marijuana plant, which came in a larger shipment that was probably sold by a drug dealer with a small income who bought it in a much larger shipment from a drug dealer with a larger income and so on, and was transported into this country by a drug dealer with an even larger income, and originally derived from marijuana plants in the ground, but that it was picked by someone with a very small income. It is always a valuable exercise to evaluate how a product arrives at its consumer, because it shows how many middle men there are and whose labor helps determine the market price.
When the smoke contacted my lungs on the next round, it didn’t burn at all, and my body instantly felt lighter, as if someone had rotated a dial and reduced the gravity in the room.
After I handed the bong to Jessica I thought about how:
- 1. The party was not stimulating the economy, because most of what the guests consumed for entertainment at the party minus the alcohol was either essentially “free” (all the food was homemade, although the raw materials were purchased elsewhere) or not purchased from a store (the marijuana) or was previously purchased and reused (e.g., the music);
- a) but then it also meant the guests were not paying for middle men or advertising;
- b) and ultimately they were creating a “product” (a social event providing entertainment) from almost nothing via creativity and cooperation;
- i. which is impossible in the physical world in which matter cannot be created or destroyed;
- 1. but this is how human emotions and intangible products differ from objects;
- a. and the most powerful material/emotion that you truly derive from nothing is love, which does not require a source and has no limit;
- i. e.g., I have infinitely loved Zahira since the first time I saw her and will always feel that way.
As I concluded this thought, I observed Rebecca more closely than I would normally, especially the small area between her lips and her nose and the soft angles of the two vertical lines there, and I almost became imbalanced, but I put my hand on the wall and remained vertical. I could hear the blood zooming in my ears like water boiling in a teapot, and I licked my dry lips.
I craved water but I couldn’t go to the kitchen because I didn’t want anyone to see me in this condition. I went down a hallway to the restroom on the other side of the apartment.
The restroom was locked, so I leaned against the wall. It hurt my back and I plummeted slowly until I was sitting. That was uncomfortable also, and then I noticed an open door to another room. Multiple coats covered the bed in a pile like a bowl of colorful herbs, and I considered that if coats were allowed to be on the bed then I could be as well.
The room had only a small lamp on for minimal light. A picture of Rebecca’s brother was on the table by the bed and next to a black-and-white picture of a young female with long straight hair who looked like Rebecca. Three framed paintings hung on her walls of men’s faces in colors such as orange and blue and green that looked like the inverted true colors.
A bottle of prescription pills was next to her pictures. I rotated it to read the label:
Take daily with food (150mg)
I rotated it back and reviewed the paintings. The men looked like aliens, and their faces were very angry and sad simultaneously, and my heart accelerated and my skin perspired at an infinite number of points. I sat on the bed where there weren’t any coats and reclined and closed my eyes because the ceiling looked like it was spinning. Then I grew very panicked, because I knew I did not have complete control over my thoughts anymore, and I didn’t want to be at the party anymore and I regretted inhaling marijuana smoke only to impress Rebecca.
I tried to regulate my breathing but I was inhaling shallowly, and then a voice said “Here,” and a cold wet cloth was on my forehead and absorbing the perspiration, and when I opened my eyes Rebecca was leaning over me. She said, “You’ve been gone almost half an hour,” even though it seemed like only a few minutes.
“I am not feeling well,” I said.
She continued petting my forehead. “Just stay still.”
We stayed like that for a few minutes and my breathing deepened. “Do you think some slow music will help?” she asked, and I nodded.
I closed my eyes and focused on the words of the singer on the stereo she said was named Leonard Cohen, and it helped reroute my brain from panicking. The line “Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm” especially helped because I had to mentally link the two images, and it was a logical connection I had never previously considered, and after he sang that I opened my eyes and Rebecca’s hair was now hanging down on the pillow like falling black water and covering everything else around my face like a cylinder and all I could see was her face looking down at me, and my body felt more stabilized.
“Who produced these paintings?” I asked.
“My brother,” she said. “He’s studied art since he was little.”
“Zahira is artistic as well.” I didn’t know what else to say in that position. “But my father discouraged her from taking classes like that when she was young.”
“That’s a shame,” she said. “Girls can do whatever they want here.” She removed the cloth from my forehead. Then she lowered her head and her hair touched my face like feathers. Her eyes fluctuated quickly from my eyes to my chest, and her warm breath moved over me, and my heart accelerated again.
I said, “Rebecca,” because the silence felt like shallow breaths again, and she didn’t answer, so I said her name again and she said, “God, it’s been a while,” and I wasn’t certain what she was referring to but I had an idea, so I said, “Then possibly — ”
Before I could finish my sentence, which was going to be “Then possibly we should first discuss this situation from other angles,” she sat up and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, this is a mistake.” She kept saying the word “mistake” to herself as she stood up and moved away from the bed.
I said I was feeling enhanced and should go home, even though I was perspiring again, and tried to find my coat. The pile was large, and Rebecca stood there while I searched. She said, “You must think I’m a real shithead,” which almost made me laugh after I had analyzed the word, but because I didn’t know how to respond I looked around while I continued feeling through the pile and saw her blue wool hat on her desk.
I said, “That is a nice hat,” and she said, “My mother knitted it for me,” and suddenly I became very sad thinking about her mother producing a hat for her, even though there is of course nothing truly sad about it for her, but I could feel pressure behind my eyes, so I refocused on the pile and finally found my coat at the bottom and said I would see her on Monday and walked out while holding it, and I exited the party without saying goodbye to anyone and took a taxi home.