Adam X (from Disappearance)
1. In the beginning
After an explosive beginning, ADAM arrives at an anonymous-looking office space. The Australian Embassy, in fact. But we don’t realise this. Not yet.
2. I want to disappear
I want to disappear.
How can I get rid of myself?
How can I find the point of vanishing? The white-out?—and when I discover it, walk at it, and into it, and keep going until I know that I’m no longer anywhere.
Records will show that I existed. That every morning I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, breathed on the glass—
That one morning like any other, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror,
facing my reflection.
That I pushed at the surface, and like Glad Wrap, it gave way.
That I carried on pushing …
3. How did I get here?
6:23 am, Monday. I opened my eyes. Outside it was already light. I got up to make a coffee and as I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, I decided to disappear.
I use instant because it saves time. You pour hot water straight onto it. It’s freeze-dried, the water remakes it. Of all the types of instant coffee I’ve tried, International Roast is the best.
I generally avoid making decisions, but this time my mind is made up: I’m going to disappear in the week between Christmas and New Year. It’s an odd time, that period between the end of December and the first of January. A kind of no-man’s-land. People just milling about. Everything on hold.
4. The backstory
OK, let’s rewind a bit. My name is Adam. I could be Jack or John, but you might just as well call me Adam. The first man, the generic man, man of the earth in Hebrew and Arabic. Number 16 on the PlanetBaby website of most popular boys’ names.
I never call people by their first name, not because I’m worried I might get it wrong, but because I like to maintain a degree of separation. I call neighbours or colleagues Mr or Ms Whatever, even when I’m told: Please call me Ric—or Sara. At work I have to write to people who’ve participated in our surveys. When I began the job, the trainer told us to act like we’re friends with them, and start our correspondence: Hi Robbie, exclamation mark.’ But I always begin mine: Dear Mrs Novak, blah, blah, blah, yours sincerely Adam, et cetera, et cetera.
I’m 34 years old and live in a unit that’s 34 square metres. A room of sharp corners and dead air—like a child’s bedroom but without the parents. The space I occupy is inversely proportional to my age: when I was 24 I lived in an apartment 48 square metres.
I’ve always been drawn to numbers. At primary school my favourite picture book was called: Make Friends With Mathematics. Which I did. Big time. I find something evergreen and reassuring about numbers. Something solid.
I like 8 for its playful double loop.
2 because it has a kind of questioning quality to its shape.
3 seems unfinished so I try to avoid it.
Whereas for elegance and simplicity, you can’t go past 7.
I don’t have any hobbies; I don’t have any funny stories.
I do have 2 brothers and a step-sister. Between us we have 20 years of tertiary education.
Every family has its forte or area of proficiency. Some specialise in parking, in not returning library books, premature births, cheerfulness. Our expertise is tertiary study.
I have a B-plus, A-minus life.
I grew up in a popular beach-side suburb 20-minutes drive from the CBD of a city that’s home to one-point-7 million people and a purpose-built convention centre. The name of the suburb translates into English as: Level. In Level, residents and visitors alike enjoy the sand and sea, heritage trails, shopping and alfresco dining.
Level is palindrome and a pleasant place to live.
My girlfriend is also a palindrome: Anna. She’s a Botticelli angel—kind, intelligent, stunningly beautiful. We take long walks and read novels that have won literary prizes. Once a week we go to classes in African drumming.
Weekends we generally spend at the Art Gallery or Ikea. We’re living the dream. Everyone wants to be us. Even us.
At work, there are the usual disputes between smokers and non-smokers.
I go in, check the 200 messages in my inbox. Then use our survey results to come up with new strategies to sell ice-cream to men in the 40-plus demographic.
Outside the office, traffic goes past: one car, then another, and another. Appearing and disappearing.
My salary provides enough to live on, and the demands of the job itself are such that I am neither stressed, nor bored.
Like most managers my boss prefers employees who are single. To improve productivity, she advocates in-house fucking. To promote this she hires attractive twenty-somethings. Beauty is priceless. Youth is cheap. Everyone ought to be happy.
5. Starting to erase myself
Like I said, I generally avoid making decisions, but if I’m going to disappear between Christmas and New Year, I need to begin the process early December
At the office Christmas party
my boss tells me her first husband left her to teach Christian mathematics in Africa.
Although I’ve only been with the firm a few months I enjoy a relaxed camaraderie with my colleagues.
How’s it going then?
Yeah, yeah … fine, good. You?
Hey, get this—
Listen. He said—
Yeah, I know.
Get you another?
Not a problem.
OK over there?
Did she really?
Yeah, good, fine … not too bad.
Far as I’m concerned, man has a right to defend himself against a woman’s attempt to talk. Ha, ha, ha!
So, Adam. You going away at all over the break?
It’s a cult classic. 1954 black and white.
Directed by Ishirō Honda.
Who began his career as Kurosawa’s assistant,
and worked closely with him on several films.
Mm, I think you can see Kurosawa’s influence in the film.
Yeah, yeah … I reckon you’re right. Especially in his approach to the whole ethics of combat. That last attack from Tokyo Bay—
I’ve never seen the film, but I’m involved in an intense discussion of its style and mise-en-scène, its political context, and the merits of the various sequels and spin-offs. Plus of course, how it relates to me and my personal life. I like it—this free-floating dialogue about a shared interest that doesn’t exist.
6. How to disappear?
6:23 am, Wednesday. I open my eyes. Outside it’s already light. I get up to make a coffee and as I stand in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, I realise I have a way to go on the disappearance front.
I use instant because it saves time. Of all the types I’ve tried, the supermarket’s own brand is the best.
How to disappear—
Rehearse the easy things:
Observe how people mislay keys, iPhones, umbrellas …
See what it takes to go unnoticed in a crowded room.
Tell obvious lies: I’ll call you back. Your cheque is in the mail. The dog ate my homework.
Unfolds a flyer and reads it.
Tired of the way you’re living? Fed up with creditors, the tax office, a vindictive ex-spouse nipping at your heels? Or do you just feel like being invisible?
If only you could disappear without a trace—
Well, now you can!
In our workshop How To Disappear, we’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to vanish. For just $900 plus GST we’ll prepare you logistically and psychologically to disappear. Yes, that’s right: we can make you disappear—as if by magic.
Whether you’re in search of a new life, or just keen to experience invisibility, sign up now for the opportunity of a lifetime. Our nuts-and-bolts guide to disappearance.
We sit on plastic chairs to catch the PowerPoint bullets:
One. Find your inner dead child. Go to a cemetery and look for a kid whose year of birth is the same as yours. They must have died young, the younger the better—so they haven’t filled out too many forms.
2. Get the birth certificate. Anyone asks: You’re a relative researching your family tree. To librarians and archivists, that makes you a nobody.
3. Create a paper trail for your new identity. Audition to be part of a medical drug trial. Something risky, with potentially nasty side effects. The researchers will be so grateful to have you, they won’t check your background too carefully.
4. Break your patterns. Avoid jobs in the public eye.
5. Totally irrational, but people trust engravings—get one. Watch, ring, whatever.
6. Abandon your car in a nondescript suburban street. Don’t set it on fire or tip it into a quarry. This isn’t Hollywood. You want it found.
7. Don’t look back, don’t say goodbye, don’t take any mementos from your previous life. Remember: It’s the little longings of the heart that can blow everything out of the water.
The workshop was moderately interesting, but ultimately unhelpful.
I want to disappear, not switch identities or reinvent myself.
I want to turn me into thin air.
I want to turn
and turn again,
and be gone,
nothing filling up my place.
A body is a thing composed of words: nerves, vessels, spleen, thoracic inlet …
the brain floating in its lake of cerebospinal fluid. This is a lake more precious than Baikal.
Lake Baikal in Siberia is the largest reservoir in the world.
From the early 1700s Siberia has been a place of exile and disappearance. It covers an area of 12-and-a-half-million square kilometres.
That’s over one-hundred-and-77 times the number of illegal immigrants in Australia, which is about 7 times the number of people in Belgium living with HIV/AIDS.
I go to a cybercafé and look up Adam.
Code Adam is a missing child alert used in American shops and public buildings.
Of the 28-million Adams that exist online, I know only one.
I met Adam at a service station. He had on a Che Guevara T-shirt, which he explained he was wearing ironically.
What makes us who we are? A name and phone number? Experiences? A handful of memories? A digital record? The individual shavings we leave behind: Fingerprints on the door handle, skin cells on the carpet, saliva on the coffee cup?
If this is what makes Adam, then I should be able to unmake him—right?
I don’t tell anyone about my intention to disappear. But when she sees my top-of-the-range Cross-Cut Shredder, Anna suspects something is shifting. To deflect her questions, I tell her I’m feeling anxious, and that shredding documents is relaxing. I now have a hobby.
I go to see a psychologist, a behaviourist. She has no interest in hearing my life story and tries to hypnotise me by talking about beaches.
You’re walking along a beach …
You feel sand beneath your feet …
The sand is warm …
The ocean is deep …
How to disappear—
First things first:
I add myself up: credit card numbers, company ID, Blockbuster membership, all my PIN numbers, phone, unit security code, PO box, the 14-dollars, 35-cents I have in my pocket …
I come to a total of 9-hundred-and-87-million, 2-hundred-and-47-thousand.
Divided by my age, 34, you get 29-million, 45-thousand, 5-hundred. But if you add up the individual digits of that last number you get a total of 25. 2 plus 5 equals 7. According to Harry Potter 7 is the most powerful number in magic.
I don’t believe in Harry Potter.
Writes the number 7 on a piece of paper and shreds it.
7. Get lost
6:23 am, Thursday. I open my eyes. Outside it’s already light. I get up to make a coffee.
I use instant because it saves time. Nescafé Blend 43 is the best.
4 plus 3 equals 7.
Then I do something I’ve never done before.
I catch a bus whose route I don’t know, to a part of the city I’ve never visited
To get lost.
I sit on board to the end of the line. Until the driver yells: Last stop! And I get off.
Arrows point this way to the Belgian and Russian Embassies. Another arrow directs you to the Chinese Consulate. This must be the city’s diplomatic quarter—a kind of every-man’s-land. I follow the shiniest arrow to the longest queue.
Outside the Australian Embassy people snake, 2 or 3 deep around the building, clutching their passports as if their lives depended on them.
I go home.
The anonymous-looking office space that is the Australian Embassy now displays the predictable, iconic images of the country.
The following day I return.
Outside the Embassy people still snake around the building, clutching their passports.
I go home.
I go back.
I go back again.
I keep returning because I like the lobby.
The chairs locked together in groups
The portraits of Prime Ministers and native animals.
I start to recognise the same faces, passports in hand, queuing up to get inside to wait day after day on hard seats under photos of koalas and parrots and cricketers in white-pressed cotton.
I start to research the place.
The walls of the Australian Embassy are crowded with images—and with absences.
Harold Holt went for an after-breakfast swim and disappeared on the 17th of December 1967. His body was never recovered. So those rumours and theories just keep rolling in.
Sex, spies or suicide?
Most countries lose a song contest or football match; Australia loses a Prime Minister.
Could it be me? Could I be missing from this place … ?
Take a number. Any number. Last week I tried out 8 and 24. Today a woman with skin like refrozen ice cream is telling me to take a ticket. Hers is number 32. Mine would be 33.
I’ll come back tomorrow.
Outside the Australian Embassy more people snake around the building, clutching their passports as if their lives depended on them.
I go home.
Begins to shred his passport.
To erase yourself is the opposite of the task facing the refugee or migrant who is constantly asked to prove who they are. That they are who they say they are.
His passport no longer exists.
8. Growing obsession
The polar ice caps are disappearing.
Belgium may disappear.
Red hair will disappear—probably.
Chairman Mao is disappearing from Chinese history books.
Once upon a time Harold Holt went for a swim and disappeared.
The thylacine has already disappeared.
If you turn the corner, you disappear.
What’s the opposite of disappearance?
At work, there are the usual disputes between gum-chewers and non-gum-chewers.
On any footpath, there it is: chewing gum.
Those dots are not part of the design, they’re globs of discarded chewing gum.
Spat out of people’s mouths, swarming around litter bins, massing at bus stops, squashed flat by feet. Gradually drying, losing their whiteness, turning grey, then black, but never dissolving. Stubbornly existing like some prehistoric lichen, surviving rain and sun, and government campaigns to clean it up.
That’s why it’s banned in Singapore.
Until the second World War, it was made from a substance called chicle, a latex sap that comes from a tree in Central America. In other words, it’s a form of rubber, and just like rubber bands don’t melt when you chew them, neither does chicle. Since 1945 artificial gum bases have replaced chicle, but they’ve got the same sticking-around, refusing-to-disappear properties as the natural stuff.
My local 7-Eleven sells cartons of it.
7 is the number of years after which most teachers consider quitting.
7 is the average number of pets an Australian will have in the course of their lifetime.
A dog’s life moves at the speed of 7.
Deadly sins, colours of the rainbow, dwarves, wonders of the ancient world—what is it about 7?
I type ‘significance of 7’ into Google. Results one to 10 of more than 253,000 hits pop up.
Only 17-percent of what’s on the Net ever gets looked at. If a site doesn’t come up within 7 seconds the typical surfer moves on to the next one.
If he chooses to, the compulsive gambler can get himself barred from a casino. A criminal can turn himself in at a police station and get a lawyer to negotiate the duration of his exile. You have no such freedom
to disappear takes hard work and persistence.
I take the bus to the end of the line and follow the arrows
to the Embassy.
I’ve been doing this for some time now.
Every weekday I drink my second coffee in Australia
From a dispensing machine located beneath photos of towering rocks and wild ravines.
But first. We stand on the footpath, on all the discarded chewing gum, waiting for the Embassy to open at 9:33. It’s supposed to open at 9:30, but the employees always delay unlocking the door a few minutes. I enter and take a number from the automatic dispenser. After my earlier experiments, I’ve settled on 7. Smart, straight-forward 7. Every time I contrive to take the number: 7.
At the embassy there are glass partitions that separate one desk from another. These partitions however, are no guarantee of confidentiality. Customer number 3 has one child. A son who is missing a foot. He and his wife are trying for a second child. One with 2 feet. You have a nice day, Sir.
The clerk calls my number:
I don’t move.
The clerk calls again:
Still I don’t move.
Everyone checks their tickets.
The clerk looks around.
That’s my cue to leave.
I repeat this every day, Monday to Friday.
If the Embassy were open weekends, I’d come Saturday and Sunday as well. But it’s not, so weekends I count down the hours until Monday morning rolls around
catch the bus to the end of the line.
Follow the arrows.
Wait on the footpath.
Take my number.
Monday to Friday
Rain or shine.
The polar ice caps are melting.
Belgium may break up.
Red hair will soon be rare outside Scotland.
Once upon a time Harold Holt went for a swim …
If you turn the corner, you disappear.
This morning the Embassy doors open and I take my ticket: 7. I sit down and wait to create my moment of absence.
Customer number 5 has hair dyed into tiger stripes and a lot of opinions about the Chinese economy.
Number 6 is applying for a student visa.
I see myself reflected in the glass of the partition
A wobbly half-image.
The clerk coughs, and
what happens next …
What happens next takes my breath away.
She looks me straight in the eye and presses not once, but twice on the Next button. Skips my number and goes instead to:
© Noëlle Janaczewska