February 15, 2019 | Narrative
life as a pure neutral
There’s a bloke in the Odyssey named Eurylochus, one of Odysseus’ commanders. He leads an expedition to the home of the sorceress Circe, who gives the men wine and a magical meal that turns them all into pigs. All of them, that is, except Eurylochus, who, unlike the rest of the crew, has some sense of self-preservation, hangs back, and legs it to the ship when things get porcine. When Eurylochus refuses to try to rescue the other men, Odysseus retrieves them himself and nearly kills Eurylochus in a rage.
I like Eurylochus. For better or worse, we have similar value schemes: Pure Neutral. Every online morality quiz pins me as a paragon of decisive self-interest, neutral as Swiss chocolate, Swedish meatballs, Irish tea, or Andorran tax evasion. Fine by me. Andorra has the highest life expectancy on earth.
When I was eighteen, I went to Amsterdam for three days, meeting up with a group of friends near the end of their interrail journey across Europe. One member had dropped out in the Czech Republic when a girl he’d been in love with since he was eight sent him a mildly suggestive text message. He hopped on the first plane home with romance on his brain—presumably next to all the water—hoping to declare his feelings for her before they went to different universities. I’m sure they’re together to this day. In any case, I took his hostel bed. My “pure neutrality” was put to the test on day one, in the Red-Light District.
You see, Eurylochus holds back—he’s an observer. He thus likely would have received a small fine in the Red-Light District, which recently implemented a ban on staring at sex workers. The same fate befell me, but, in my defense, I did not realize that I was staring at an actual woman. I thought she was a mannequin until she slid the glass aside, took my hand, and whispered “fifty euros” in my ear, which would have turned even redder had that been possible under the illumination.
On the off chance that my mum has stumbled upon this essay, I want to make it clear that I had no intention of hiring a prostitute. Pure Neutral. I’d never smoked a cigarette, let alone weed, and the condom given to me by a visiting sexual health counselor sat in the bottom of my school bag as a real-time experiment in latex decomposition.
Say what you like about Eurylochus, but he’s got one thing going for him. He didn’t get turned into a pig. We onlookers might not be honorable, or brave, or particularly interesting, but damn it, we’re safe. The bands of marauding Brits I saw boozing their way along the canals are considerably less so. In fact, the city’s ombudsman recently set up CCTV in one of the main squares, recording 900 offenses committed between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.
The next day, the group decided they were going to take shrooms. We bustled into a tiny shop with a caricatured mural of Bob Marley on the wall, bought a small tub of walnut-looking hallucinogens, and headed to Vondelpark. I was sort of the designated driver. Anyone who got too high could be gently yanked back down to earth by my sobering presence. One friend—we’ll call him ‘Alex’, because that’s his real name—I found two hours later, sitting against a tree.
“I saw her,” he whispered. “Aphrodite.” He motioned to a middle-aged woman sitting across the park on a bench. I’m going to use what artistic license I have to infuse what he said next with some air of elegance and sophistication, to the best of my ability.
“Charles, my old chum,” he said, “my hands at my sides, my trousers still on, I have, I’m afraid, been brought to climax.”
“I see,” I said, turned on my heels, and walked away.
It’s a rough line to tread between abstainer, onlooker, even voyeur. Odysseus is not a fan of Eurylochus. I can’t imagine the Ancient Greeks would have been big fans of me. Most of the people on that trip weren’t big fans of me either, though I will say that between my asthma and my unimposing silhouette they were, at least, less likely to have left me on a mountainside in infancy. When Odysseus manages to have his porky crew turned back into men, Circe also restores some of their youth on the house. I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t miss out on some of my youth by standing back in Amsterdam though half the experiences available there are still not to my tastes. I don’t want to be polymorphed, but I don’t want to be an onlooker anymore, either. The Red-Light District and Aphrodite incidents blurred the lines, showing me you can sit back and still find yourself transformed into a pig.
On the final day of the trip, I went to a cannabis café and bought a muffin. It cost six euros and had no effect on me, but it never occurred to me to check whether or not that muffin actually contained any marijuana. Still, when it comes to closing my eyes and experiencing something new, it felt like a start. Sorry, Mum.