Victor picks up. I can see black and grey pixels wrestling as they’re trying to construct his face on my dark screen. His visage takes a moment to come into focus. Orange, yellow, and cream-colored dots enter the scene. A street light from above makes his face look like a bearded skull: bright white cheeks, dark hole eyes.
There he is.
His hair looks happy to see me, ruffled up by a crisp breeze it seems. It’s Saturday evening in London. Slightly wet. Scarf weather. Apparently.
“Nick!” he shouts without looking at me. I hear keys jingling. A door opens. The inside he slips into is as dark as the outside he steps out of.
“Victor! It’s been a while. How have you been?” I start our conversation following the internationally accepted rules of interpersonal conduct: greeting! Segue. Inquiry into personal wellbeing!
Victor skips these hollow formalities. He wiggles out of his coat while he holds up his phone. His scarf comes to rest on what looks like the horn of a unicorn skull, mounted to a golden plate on the dark wall behind him. The pixels on my screen show his eyes sparkling. He seems excited. He is always excited. That’s how I remember him. His beard is longer now. New wrinkles? A few grey hairs? I can’t tell. The connection is fine. Good enough I’d say. But still, his image on my phone has a hard time keeping up with his stride.
“Look at this marvelous specimen!” He holds up a large potato as he walks down the hallway. It has reddish bristles sticking out of its top.
“Wait. Hold on,” he stops and turns the potato upside down. Now it looks like it has a beard. “There!” he says. He sounds ecstatic.
I’ve known Victor long enough to understand that this is a test. I haven’t seen him in a long time. But I know him well enough. Thoughts are squirming in my head. I try to figure out what this is. I want to say something before he does. I want to surprise him.
“A shrunken leprechaun head!” he chants.
Of course. I laugh. No surprise there, I guess.
I haven’t talked to this man for at least 7 or 8 years. Nothing has changed.
He moves quickly through the dark, narrow hallways of his museum. He passes contorted figurines, dimly lit cases filled with bones, glass jars stuffed with lifeless nightmares, and miniature sculptures lined up on old shelves, walls crowded with black and white memories trapped in ornate frames. He squeezes past a big hairy ape-like figure, pushes a heavy velvet curtain aside, and steps into a hole in the wall that’s about as dim as a lost man’s future. When he flicks on the light, the darkness on my screen slithers and crawls and creeps away like creatures of the night when they see the morning sun.
This place looks like the inside of his head. I’m not making this up. He once said that. Go figure.
He sets down the potato and props up his phone on the counter. I see backlit bottles, and flasks, carafes, and pitchers lined up behind him. Rows of them cover the whole wall.
He takes a step back and looks right into the camera. His arms spread and his jacket opens like curtains in a theatre. The shiny purple satin lining of his suit now hides the bottles and flasks and all the light that’s breaking through the glassware in the back. That’s how he’s standing there now. Like an Art Deco Jesus pinned to a wall of bottled sins. He takes a deep breath and empties his lungs with an ardent, “welcome!” This dramatic sigh comes with the usual mischievous glint in his eyes, “it’s good to see you, my dear old friend.”
The Victor show has begun.
I remember this bar in the back of his bizarre museum. Vaguely. 2011. We started the day with a Suissesse: Absinthe, almond syrup, egg white, cream. Simple and deadly. Pair that with a bag of freshly baked almond croissants and you’ve got all the excuses to never see the light of day again.
My recollection of the slippery slope we descended down into the belly of the absinthe flavored beast, and everything we could find to mix it with, gets blurry after the first couple of shots we sipped from the little fairy skulls mounted on silver stems.
I woke up on a spider silk carpet that time around. Next to a collection of withered walrus penises, arranged by size on an oak-paneled wall. That’s what I remember. It was the next morning, I believe. Good times, I think.
But I’m not calling to reminisce. I’m calling to re-connect.
I was drinking with my friend Ryan a few weeks ago. Reminiscing. Re-connecting. Thinking. Talking.
Thinking all the good thoughts of all the good times in all the good places. And talking about all the good talks with all the good people for all the good reasons. All the good reasons we used to have back in the day.
We’ve let it slip. We’ve dropped the ball and let it get away. All the good times and all the good people for all the wrong reasons. Not all of them. Most.
Now we are fading. That’s what Ryan said. We are losing our superpowers. That’s what he told me. We’re going unnoticed. That’s what’s happening. We’re losing our friends. Then we’re losing ourselves. Then we’re lost to others. Then we have lost ourselves. That’s what this is. That’s the result. We’re less and lesser then little and lost. That’s how it goes.
“What can you do!” is what Ryan said.
“Everything!” is what I replied.
And I decided then and there, that I’m not fading. That I’m not giving in to giving up. And that I’m not giving out what I’ve left to give, to who isn’t worth having it given to. And to give it back to who’s been giving me. Give and let give. Receive and return. Rinse and repeat.
I decided then and there that I will be making an effort. That I’ll be staying in touch. That I’ll be reaching out. That I’ll connect and reconnect to the people that make me a better me.
I committed then and there that I won’t let my superpowers fade. Not anymore. Not any longer. Not in any way. No way!
That was then and there. That was a few weeks ago.
Now I’m here. On a Saturday. On my sofa. On a journey into my past. On Victor’s screen. And Victor on mine.
“The Superpower of Connection,” he sums up the story I’ve just told him, “splendid!”
The pixels on my phone struggle to keep up as he spins around and bends down. The focus of his camera adjusts to the bottles behind him when he slips out from the bottom of my screen.
I hear the sounds I hear every Wednesday morning just before dawn. The noise of the men dumping my recycling into the back of their truck. The clinks and the clanks and the clangs. But Victor isn’t sorting trash. I hear little lanterns and flacons, vials filled with delicious worms, roasted larvae in intricate glass containers, patinated brass instruments, spoons, and forks, and knives, and the excited chatter of a gazillion jingly-jings at the bottom of a history-filled crate. I know that’s what I hear.
He re-emerges with a smile on his face and a small bottle posing on his flat hand like a prima donna on a stage. She’s dressed in a greenish-blue label. Her neck is gently pinched between his thumb and index finger as if he’s ringing a bell to call his fairy friends for a round of drinks. His camera picks up a coppery shimmer when she moves.
“It’s a true story,” he says with his eyes on the shimmery diva. “Connection is a superpower.”
I smirk, “I know.”
“Do you?” His question sounds like the beginning of a story.
“I see these people all the time,” he starts, “they don’t understand.” He sets the bottle down on the counter in front of him.
“All these people are independent and free and proud, and they pull themselves up on their bootstraps when they’re down. All by themselves. They think they want money, and power, and fame, and beauty, and eternal youth. And a new car, a new watch, a new nose. That’s all they want.”
He uncorks the little bottle and pours a shot into one of those fairy skull goblets I don’t remember from last time.
“But what they need is connection,” sip, “these silly simpletons! That’s what they need. Then they wouldn’t want what they think they want.”
“Sure,” I say. What he says sounds like a banality. A stale platitude. Something people say, just to say something. He’s usually not like this.
“You think this is insipid gobbledygook, yes?”
“You are as silly as they are,” he smirks. “Connection is one of the ultimate superpowers. If you lose it you fall apart. You numb, you ache, you break. You, my friend, might not want to believe me. But you called me. You might not know this. But you’ve felt it. That’s why you are here now.”
He thrives in pompous announcements like this. And he’s right.
“You are a fool if you think that this is disposable snowflakery. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to connect, to be loved, and to belong! That’s what gives us superpowers!”
He takes a melodramatic whiff of whatever liquid is in the tiny skull.
“Indulge in connection, my friend, and you will be a more pleasant person. Spoil yourself with other people and your misery will be as fleeting as a water nymphs’ ill-temper. You still don’t trust the might of connection, you infidel, do you? This is science I’m preaching. It’s not just knowledge and expertise I’m reciting. It’s the infinite wisdom of the scholars who have studied, and lived and experienced this for tens of thousands of millennia.”
He takes a lungful of air. He withdraws from the camera, tilts his neck back slightly. His hair falls back over his shoulders, his eyes roll up towards the ceiling. The Victor show is a compelling performance and I lack the vocabulary to describe it in an adequate manner. I’m talking greyscale where I should be speaking color. My apologies.
“The lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.” It’s easy to pick up on his disgust over the profanity of this statement, and the one that is to follow. “Strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. That’s a fact. That’s a superpower. There you have it.”
He sighs the relieving sigh of a playwright who has just borne witness to the triumphant premiere of his life’s work. That’s Victor for you.
The curtain falls. Victor is now holding up the tiny fairy skull and he says, “this is the Zaubertrank!”
I wait for more information. But Victor just lifts the miniature goblet to his lips, throws his head back, and empties the skull.
“The Zaubertrank is the power of connection in its liquid form, my friend!”
He grabs the phone, walks around the bar, and slumps down on a purple velvet seat in one of the dimly lit booths. I can still see him but his face is orange and grainy now. The camera has a hard time enhancing this low-light setting. His hand leaves the frame of my phone and returns with a magazine of some sort. A comic book by the looks of it.
“What’cha reading?” I say just to say something.
But he isn’t done. “Sequential pictures!” he says holding up a grainy, orange comic book.
“This art form goes back to before people were able to write. All the way back to the caves and the hieroglyphs. People have always known about the power of connection. Until they didn’t remember. And they have always made sure that no one forgets. Until they forgot.”
He flips through the pages before the book slaps down on the table with a dramatic: Thump! Nothing is ever not dramatic with Victor.
“That’s what it says in your comic book?” I ask.
“This is an accurate observation! Comic books are a continuation of documentation, that has gone on for millennia, of the history of human beings. The bible, my friend, in the early days, was nothing but illustrations. Nothing but sequential pictures. Nothing but a comic book.”
I love it when he educates me on stuff like this. “I love stuff like this,” is the comment I’m able to inject as he refills his lungs.
“Pictures carried wisdom before words did! “ he continues.
“What are you telling me?” I ask.
“This is Asterix,” he holds his book close to the camera. It’s taking up my whole screen. The title says ‘Astérix le Gaulois’. It’s French.
“This story goes back to the time before the common age. I’ll spare you the details, my friend, but it describes the resistance of a small french village against the roman empire. A handful of people defy the crushing force of overwhelming power.”
The book makes room for his face on my screen.
“Heavily armed troops and their inexhaustible resources are to those people what stress, and doubts, and anxieties, and all those miserable things are to us. They will hurt you if you let them. They will cease if you face them. They will retreat if you believe.”
He raises one eyebrow and comes closer.
“And they believe! They believe in their superpowers. Superhuman super-strength granted by a magic potion. The Zaubertrank. This metaphor goes back to the caves. Ancient wisdom, passed down through generations, throughout millennia. From hieroglyphs to comic books to that bottle right there.”
He points towards the bar where he just emptied his drink.
“Everything you see here, I’ve collected myself. I’ve traveled and explored and uncovered and investigated and identified and tested and demonstrated and revealed for more than 30 years. I’ve conducted studies, undertaken expeditions. I’ve held a chair at Oxhedge, I have taught dozens of teachers, and hundreds of students.”
He slows his speech. His face is a blurry mess of disorderly pixels and noise and confusion, that’s how close he is to the camera now. His voice is calm and clear and quiet as ever. And close.
So close that he seems to whisper right into my ear, “Believe me when I tell you this. My most important, most powerful, most intriguing discovery was to find the Zaubertrank!”
“What do you mean?” I’m not sure he means what I think he’s saying.
“I’ve scoured comics and books and caves, and followed every hint in every corner of this planet. I went down every rabbit hole and every dead end and every single one of even the least promising clues. I’ve spent ages of time and decades of sanity to track down this formula.”
“You have the recipe?” I blurt out in excitement. I think it’s excitement. Surprise. I didn’t see this coming. There’s a recipe? This is real? Like a real thing to really drink from little skulls, and do its thing to connect people and do all of this? I’m….I don’t know what I am. I’m confused. I’m curious.
He sits up so I can see the whole grainy, orange face again.
“I’ve found the place. Not the recipe.”
I’m not following.
“There’s a place where people always knew about the power of connection. They always remembered. And they made sure that no one forgets. And no one forgot. And they handed down the recipe from one generation to the next. From Egyptian hieroglyphs to Germanic runes to comic books to written words. And they took the history and the images and the words. They took all that and they distilled it into a liquid. They made it into a potion. A magic potion. The Zaubertrank.”
“There’s a place where you can get the Zaubertrank?” I repeat.
“Not a place. A state of mind. A spirit. The Spirit of Connection, my dear friend.”
That’s the last thing I hear before my phone dies.