I had just finished throwing up when I heard someone calling my name from outside. Licking the bitter saliva from my lips and spitting it into the toilet, I turned to leave the cubicle. On opening the door and seeing the bathroom, I was once again punched in the xiphisternum by my conscience which almost put me down to one knee; a slight stumble. Appropriately, it felt as though I had been punched by the tip of a sword.
The door frame is a reliable wing man to every drunk, as it was to me at that moment.
The green marble on the walls and the sincere expression on the face of the Nigerian immigrant worker selling a spray of cologne for £1 forced me to choke back a snort at the presentation of this juxtaposition. He is a big man, and I could tell by the way his cheap shirt pulls at his trapezius that he either spends a lot of time with a pull up bar or he has a second job carrying heavy loads. Probably both. From the compassion displayed in his eyes; despite no doubt being paid less than minimum wage and having to play Houdini multiple times a night in situations where aggressive drunks who have been stood up too many times in one night want to take their frustration out on someone, I could also deduce he was most probably in the country on a student visa and restricted to working only 20 hours a week.
“Would Sir care to splash his face with some cold water?”
I shook my head but offered a man-smile, the type where you kiss your teeth but press your lips together firmly. Again, I heard my name. And the nausea returned.
I had just finished giving a talk when I was hit with the first wave of nausea. I looked down at my Oxfords, curious as to why they felt like cement blocks and my head started swimming. My freshly pressed and bespoke Thomas Pink shirt, bought for the occasion suddenly felt like a whalebone corset. My hands, white at the knuckles, were holding onto the wooden lectern as if to choke any potential life out of it. I'm sure the audience are applauding but I can hear nothing.
The ugliness of being floods into my consciousness and I can't tell myself apart from the paintings that adorn the walls. Have my emotions been painted onto me? Perhaps deft brush strokes with a careful but purposeful hand have crafted this moment and continue to craft each new one. No. Talking about tertiary economic activity and how to implement cheap immigrant labour was a choice, I realized. I realized this for the first time in my life at that precise moment.
At least the paintings, whose existence is defined by their being, do not need to comprehend or face a choice, never mind deny one. Because that's what I had been doing. Education was a choice. Employment was a choice. Snorting from the very lap of Columbia was a choice. These things can present anyone with problems of the conscience, such as:
The problem that in order to gain the PhD supervision necessary for progress, you may have sabotaged the preparation of more than one person with the help of a keystroke logger, which records the key presses on a keyboard. Very handy for discovering passwords.
Or, the problem that you may have hand-picked illegal immigrants for jobs that barely paid enough to cover the bus travel to and from work every day; and dangled the carrot of a full-time contract in front of them so much that they literally begged for the stick of no lunch break and 14 hour days.
These problems play on the mind unless they are written off.
You did not have any choice in the matter.
Your hand was forced.
You could have done differently, theoretically, but you live in the real world where bills need to be paid and reputation is key to having a good life.
With my audience facing me expectantly, I made the first real choice of my life. By that I mean for the first time in my life I was fully aware that my actions were always a choice and by denying I had a choice in every action I took meant denying I was a human being and more importantly, denying from myself that other people existed as separate social agents and not merely objects to be impressed or scorned.
I did the only thing I could think of at the time. Every action is a choice. I raised my hands, palms facing the audience as a signal to stop applauding. I was persistent so they knew I was not simply feigning modesty. When silence fell over my audience I turned my hands around, so that my sweating palms faced me instead, balled my hands into fists and raised the middle finger on each hand. With my hands still raised I took full advantage of my lapel microphone to address the crowd.
“Fuck you. Fuck you very much. You are all parasites”
And I walked off stage.
Serenity is not something you would associate with a man who had just insulted a large audience but that is the only emotion I felt. Well, it was the first emotion I felt. The serenity of facing up to the transcendent nature of being human was shortly replaced by the sharp impact of a colon gripping cold sweat which you most definitely would associate with a man who had just insulted a large audience.
Every action is a choice.
I tipped that large Nigerian man very well.