The Bath -Texas, 1997

76bMatt has already gone to bed.

I am curled up on the couch, pale and blue-veined as a fetus, waiting for a talk-show epiphany to cure my insomniac dreams.  But tonight’s offerings are stale and unsatisfying.   30 minute advertisements for useless exercise equipment, teeth whiteners, and hair restorers promise self improvement broadcast through radio waves, all for the low, low monthly installment of $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

Heavy hoofed, I hear the sound of Matt goose-stepping down the hallway and see his face around the corner, cheeks as red and breathless as an Aryan peasant.

“Are you coming to bed soon?”  He asks, yawning, all freckles and lips.  “I can’t sleep without you.”  He scratches his shirtless stomach and squints beneath the flickering blue rectangle of the television.

“In a minute.”  I say.

“Would you like a bubble bath before bed?”  He asks. “It might help you sleep.”

“Sure.”  I say.

For weeks it seems I’ve been on edge, like there’s lightning pulsing just beneath my fingertips, always on the verge of exploding.  I sit in classrooms and coffeehouses vibrating. The air around me hums, and I feel like even a pin prick could send me spiraling into space. The prospect of a warm, soothing bath sounds enticing.

He marches me into the bathroom, suffocating me with sulfurous kisses.  As Matt runs a bubble bath, I stare at my reflection in the foggy mirror.  All I can see is myself at odd angles, an ugly boy with a face full of flaws.  I touch my cheek and wonder what Matt sees as he stands behind me kissing my shoulder with rose-petaled tumors, the lips I’d once thought to be his best feature. I feel like there must be two of me, separated twins masquerading as a single person, the sweet, shy boy that Matt is allegedly in love with, and the real me who observes all of this from a distance with the cold detachment of an imbedded journalist.

Matt sits on the side of the bathtub and looks at me,  my blond curls, too thin frame, my hands clasped behind my back. I trace the squares of faded blue tile with my toes, self conscious beneath his unwavering gaze.

“At school today a girl saw my necklace and asked me if I was in the Olympics,” I say, fingering my freedom rings.

“What did you tell her?”  Matt asks, grinning.

“That I was on the luge team.”

“Do you even know what that is?”  Matt asks, laughing.

“No.”  I say.  “But I guess she didn’t either, because she believed me.”

We laugh and whatever strange tension was lingering in the air between us is dissolved, disappears into the shadows, creeps behind doors, and settles into corners of the apartment, teasing our periphery with a presence I know can make itself manifest at any moment. For months it’s been like this. We talk about everything that’s not important and go through the motions of a relationship and behave the way that men in love are supposed to behave. Robotic dinners in Italian restaurants are followed by mechanical sex and nights devoid of sleep, just half closed eyes and the grinding of gears.

“Who couldn’t believe you?”  Matt asks.  “You look like a cherub.”

“But I’m not.”  I say, smiling up coyly through long lashes.

“Believe me,” Matt laughs. “I know.” He dips his hand into the water and says, “How’s this?”

I test the temperature with my big toe.

“Fine.”  I say. “Did I tell you I hurt my ankle today getting off the bus today?”

Matt seems non-plussed.  “I once broke my foot in three places on a skiing trip,” he says.

I frown.  Matt pushes up my chin to kiss my pouty lips.

He says, “Now into the tub.”

I obey.

He bathes me as if I  am a newborn, holding my head, the navy washcloth gliding hot, and wet, and gentle against my skin.  Every motion is Freudian blue, familiar.  Lost in the shallow wrinkles around Matt’s eyes, I remember the way the two of us were two years ago when things were new.  The midnight walks, roses, first touches, kisses, the excitement of exploration have all become routinized.  I long for the warm, unknown touch of a stranger’s fingers against my skin.  Even roses when expected as an everyday occurrence take on the role of a lesser symbol of Matt’s laminated love.

Two years ago, the furtive late night drives to Matt’s apartment, through swirls of fog and hints of chrome, I felt alive.  Wearing only my high-school letter jacket and nothing else, racing barefoot up Matt’s stairs and hoping no one saw me, I rang the bell, breath white puffs of steam in the chilly air.  When Matt opened the door  I dropped the jacket and stood naked in his doorway, bathed in florescent light, an unexpected invitation, a live wire of sexual impulses, all hormones and heat.  The thrill of being alive, and young, and sexual was still new and I thought that it would last forever.

“What are you thinking?”  Matt asks, rinsing the soap off of my forehead with hands full of warm water.

“Nothing.”  I say.

“Nothing?” Matt asks, looking pointedly at my burgeoning erection.

His hand closes over my penis, slowly moving up and down.

He washes the soap off of my neck, sending unexpected chills through my stomach.

“Lets drive to the beach,” I say, sitting up in the tub.  “Lets drive to the beach and watch the sun come up over the ocean.”

Matt lets his thick wrist fall into the soapy water.  “The beach?”  He says, surprised.  “That’s five hours away!”

Caught up in the idea, I go on, “We could take a blanket,” I say.  “We could have a picnic.”

Imagined, the wriggling of toes through wet, salty sand, seagulls and concession stands.

Matt shakes his head.  “It’s late,” he says.  “I have to work tomorrow and you have school.  We can’t just take off like that!”

The back of his hand brushes my cheek.  I watch a thick drop of candle wax drip down the side of a candle in the windowsill in a mean, red blob.

“Oh.”  I say, looking at my legs clouded and barely visible in the milky water.

“Maybe we can plan a trip sometime later when we’re not so busy,” Matt says.  “It was a nice thought, though.”

He smiles, splashes me.

I smile too, having learned to mimic the motions, if not the feeling.

“I’ve never seen the ocean.”  I say.

Outside rain slips against the window in a slow, thin drizzle, and the roar of the wind through gutters sounds like an imagined ocean.

Later, in bed, wrapped in Matt’s red, flannel sheets, I stare at his shoulders, the smell of him, masculine and strange, his good night kisses a stale film on my lips.  I stare unblinking at his freckled shoulders and listen to his even breathing. I cannot sleep.

The phone rings, violently, startling us both. I stumble over Matt’s sleeping body in a tangle of cotton sheets, trying to find the phone on the nightstand by feel and knocking over picture frames, candles, a pair of handcuffs.

The phone rings again, vibrating beneath my pale, thin fingers, startling me again, though I know exactly who it is, and exactly what has happened before I pick it up.  I let it ring one more time before I answer.

On the other end of the phone is my mother’s voice, a voice that recalls scoldings, kitchen smells and bed-time stories.  “Its me.”  She says, “Paw Paw’s passed away.” A long pause.  “The funeral is Tuesday,” I hear her say.  “We’ll have to buy you some decent clothes.”

“Okay.” I say.

“We’ll go tomorrow morning before your classes,” she says. “I don’t want you to miss any school.”

“That’s not important.” I say.

“Yes it is!” She sounds angry. There is another long pause before she says, “Anyway, I’ll call you in the morning.  Mama and Daddy love you.”

“I love you too.” I say.

Matt holds my shoulders in his thick, stubby hands.

“Was it about your Grandfather?”  He asks.

I nod, still holding the phone in my hand.

“So?”  He asks.

“His condition has stabilized.” I say.

“Well that’s good isn’t it?”  Matt asks.

I smile sadly in the dark as Matt drifts back to sleep.

When I come home from school the next day, Matt has dinner waiting for me.  Roses, a ransom of guilt and supplication are slowly dying in a vase of water on the dining room table.  Insistent, suffocating love proclaimed in petals beaded with water that seem to say, “I love you. Don’t leave me. Love me.” Cobalt blue, a pair of wine-glasses full of expectations and ulterior motives sits in wait.

“Its filet minion.”  He says when I walk into the kitchen.  “Like we had at the French restaurant that time after the opera, remember?”

Last night when it was my turn to make dinner, I’d brought home Chinese.

“You always have to out do me.”  I say, looking back and forth from Matt’s red face, the butterfly magnets on the yellow refrigerator, the fake marble countertop, the microwave.

“What?”  Matt’s lips are a tragedy.  “Don’t you like it?”

The dishwasher begins the rinse cycle.  “I’m a vegetarian.”  I say.

“Since when?”

The fish on the windowsill swims around and around above its black rocks in depressing circles, its fins like red and blue flame.

Stupid fish.

I make a mental note to feed it.

“Since always!”  I say, hearing my voice go high and shrill.

The fish opens and closes its mouth.

A bottle of red wine.

A corkscrew.

Two clear blue plates.

“I’ve known you for two years, and you’ve never been a vegetarian!”  Matt  says, a wooden spoon in his thick hand.

“Well, I always meant to be!”  I say, slamming my keys on the counter.

The microwave beats.

The oven light turns on.

The dishwasher pounds.

My head throbs and the fish swims around in depressing circles.

“You don’t know everything about me!”  I say.

“Well, I want to.”  Matt says softly.   “What’s this about?  Is it your Grandfather?”  He touches my face.  I force myself to stand perfectly still, when every cell in me instinctively recoils from his touch.

“Yes.”  I lie.

Matt’s arms around me crush me.

“Oh sweetie,” he consoles. “I know.”

Perspiration drips down the cold wine bottle in perfect little drops.

“You didn’t notice my haircut.”  I say.

“Yes I did.”  He rubs his thick fingers through my hair. “It looks good.” He says.

“My mom made me cut it for the funeral tomorrow.”  I say.  “She wants me to look normal.  She doesn’t want me to embarrass her.”

My mouth opens and closes.  I swim around in depressing circles.

Funeral.

My cousins, lanky and awkward in borrowed ties, don’t know what to say when they see me.

“How’s college treating you?”  They ask.

“Fine.”  I mumble and we all stand around on the patchy grass of the cemetery looking at our feet.  I notice with dismay that almost all of them are going bald, only a few years older than myself.  Standing pale beneath a sky that’s seven shades of gray, beneath a bucolic spattering of rain that doesn’t quite settle the dust.  As a child I was sheltered from this.  Death.  Premature baldness.  But I am no longer a child.  I have obligations, responsibilities.  I must behave.  I don’t want my mother to be ashamed of me.

Later, strangers who know my name and my familial ties shake my hand, ask about school, and all I see are grinning skulls, cracked lips, and the baring of teeth.

“What are you going to do when you get out of school?”  An old man asks, his wax lipped smile and firm handshake gripping my hand like a claw.

“I’m going to be a Time Traveler.”  I tell him.

My mother is several yards away, her arm around his grandmother’s bony shoulders, handing her a white carnation of long forgotten birthdays, casseroles, and Christmas eves. My grandmother is an old, gray turtle out of it’s shell. She looks so fragile with white hair spiderwebbed around her head.

“I dye my pubic hair blue.”  I say, and the man’s eyes widen and he thinks he must have misheard.

I smile as if nothing is wrong.

Strobe light.

The low throb of techno music.  Bone jarring, brain numbing music.  I dance.  I close my eyes and let my body fall into the bass, twisting and shaking in spasm after spasm of insistent, drug tinged desperation.  My black t-shirt clings to me with sweat.  Artificial smoke oozes down from the ceiling.  Hard bodies, wet and shirtless brush against me, throbbing, moving, spinning.  My eyes dart from body to body, from face to face.

Across the crowd, I see a familiar face in a dizzy, writhing sea of faces.  A face brown and Egyptian and far too serious.  The face belongs to a girl I know from class, from coffeehouses, raves, and late night, after hour parties. The face sees me and smiles in recognition and we move through the crowd toward one another.

“Hey, Anisha.”  I say as she presses against me with a kiss of greeting.  Her black vinyl dress squeaks against my black, vinyl pants.

“Did you hear about Andy?”  She asks, leaning close to my ear.  Her hair is like Cleopatra’s.  Her eye makeup is turned up at the corners in black and purple and silver lines.  Her breath is alcohol, cigarettes, and afterthought breath mints.

“What?”  I ask, the music pounding in my ears.  The dizzy glare of the strobe casts disjointed, jerky shadows.  People are grinding against me.

“Andy committed suicide last week.”  She says.  She is drunk.  She hangs onto me for support.  Her eye makeup is smeared, running down her face in black globs.  Andy was her best friend, a toothpaste smile, a GAP commercial.

“He shot himself in my bathtub.”  She says.

I don’t know what to say.  Andy was a year younger than me, cute, and always smiling.  I remember him playing board games at a party, remember talking once about a book I saw him reading, remember a lingering hug one drunken night as we were leaving, of Matt driving home, the two of us not speaking.

Anisha is still clinging to me, too tightly, grabbing my shirt, burying her face in my chest.  I go rigid as she slumps against me, until her friends pull her off and carry her away sobbing.  The dancers keep on dancing, oblivious.

All I want to do is get away.  I push myself through the crowd of bodies, of white faced zombies, mumbled apologies, and stumble out of the club, ears ringing.  At the door a girl grabs my arm and says, “I like your pants!”  I finally break away into the night, gasping for breath. On the drive home I pull over to the side of the road beneath the dim, yellow glare of a suburban streetlights.  Leaning over in the front seat with my knees pressed against my chest, I cry for the first time in years, but there is no sense of release. I’m still tight as a balled up fist and faded as a star that’s already been wished on and spent.

Months pass.  Another semester ends.  Holidays come and go. I move out of Matt’s apartment into an apartment of my own. For the first time since I was a teenager, I am single.  I don’t know how to fill the time. Time passes in a  string of nights, of feverish aching nights, one night stands with tall impostors, reckless and pressed against walls and bedsprings.  Promises are whispered into the folds of sheets and then forgotten. Loneliness is a phone that never rings.

Visits to my parents’ with baskets of laundry and grocery lists. We visit my grandfather’s grave, and later sit in different rooms watching different television shows, and I wish that I could tell them about Matt, or Andy, or about anything important, about the dull gray shade of loss that follows me like a stillborn twin. But there are things they don’t want to know, truths that they refuse to hear,  and comforts they can’t offer.

Anisha dropped out of school completely, and later, when I ran into her picking up some Indian food at a hole in the wall across from campus she told me about Andy. She told me that his parents, upon learning that he was gay, had disowned him, had cut him off so that he couldn’t afford school, or food, or his apartment. He’d been staying with Anisha for a couple of weeks, feeling like a burden, even though she’d assured him he was no trouble. And then one day she’d come home from class to find him in her bathtub, a gunshot wound to the head. She told me how she’d scrubbed and scrubbed with bottles of bleach, but still couldn’t completely remove the stain he’d left behind. There was really nothing left to say, just a final hug goodbye and wishing each other all the best.

Outside, lightning flashes, searing the summer air with clean, white heat.  It is night. The low bass of the neighbor’s car stereo rattles the naked glass of the bathroom window.  Steam from the full bath rises up, gray and snaking and hot in thick tendrils, fogging the window, the mirror, clinging to my skin.  The air smells like rain, wet leaves and bleach.

Next door the neighbors scream at each other in Spanish.  Thunder cracks through the summer night like a chemical explosion, rattling the windowpanes, shaking the stained white walls that smell like Play Doh, like crumbling chalk, like peeling paint.

Next door a baby cries, shrill and insistent into the night like a screaming cat.

In front of the mirror I take off my shirt.  My skin gleams gold and pale in the gentle light of one red candle.  The tiny hairs on my arms and chest glisten gold and blond in the shadows as I move.  I stare at my face, looking for wrinkles, a receding hairline, some mark of my inevitable decline.  I lean forward toward my reflection and whisper, “I love you.”  Close my eyes.  My lips meet the cool, steamy glass of the mirror.  If I keep saying it, I think, maybe one day I’ll believe it.

I step out of my jeans and underwear, and then, not satisfied, I step out of my skin, and leave my flesh, and muscles, and bones in a pile on the bathroom floor. I listen to the neighbors speak rapidly in Spanish.  My body spreads out like a stain across the tile. A baby cries. Tejano music plays next door. I sink into the bath up to my chin.  I imagine getting in my car and driving to the ocean before the sun comes up. Of shedding my clothes and walking naked across the beach into water until it covers me.

To let the ocean lull me to sleep.

To be carried away by dark and silent waves.

To drift off to a place where dreamers meet.

To meet my lover there beneath the waves.

And kiss him in the dark of endless sleep.

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California -Austin, 2002

venicesurfersHannah left on Thursday.

I was the only one to help her move because I didn’t have a job, and because neither of us had any other friends.  She was wearing a bubble gum raincoat, just in case. Her dark, curly hair was pulled back out of her face. Her lips were red. She always made a conscious effort to dress as if she was already famous, an undercover celebrity hiding behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, out of place in the dismal gray cubicles we found ourselves working in.

We struggled downstairs with her hand-me-down furniture.  We laughed when the bottom fell out of her box of dishes.  We laughed when we got stuck, half in and half out, one of us on either side of her bulky couch.  We laughed when I tripped and fell and bounced on the springy mattress of her bed.

There was no room in the moving van for her chest of drawers so she left it on the sidewalk.

“Someone will take it,” she said and shrugged.

We went back inside for one last look around.  Empty, her apartment was as stark and embarrassed as an unmade bed.  She held my hand and gripped it tightly. I didn’t have to ask what she was thinking, we were too close for that. She expected me to follow her out there, to lay my beach towel down beside hers and soak up the bright, California sun. We’d talked about it, and I’d agreed to think about it, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t imagine a place for myself in Los Angeles among the mannequins driving down Rodeo Drive.

“I should go before it rains,” she said.

“Yeah.”  I agreed. There was no point in telling her not to go, or that I’d miss her. I knew that her mind was made up, and that I’d miss her was understood.

“I hate this,” she said, squeezing into the front of the moving van.

“I’ll see you soon,” I told her, holding her tattered, blue backpack until she was settled.

“When?”

“Soon.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes when I said it. She didn’t believe me, but she hugged me anyway and kissed my cheek.

She drove away slowly honking her horn, blowing a starlet kiss to the rearview mirror.  I stood watching her drive away, and I stood for a while after she was gone, waiting, for what I couldn’t say. A sign. Something to point me in the direction of my next bold move.

The sky turned from gray to darker gray.

The security lights all came on at the same time, orange and dull.

I didn’t leave until one of Hannah’s neighbors asked me in Spanish if she could have the chest of drawers.

I told her in English that she could.

A drop of rain hit the back of my neck and startled me.  The second hit my arm.  I squinted at the clouds as more and more drops fell.  The wind turned cold, so I turned to leave.

Driving away, I saw the woman dragging the chest back to her apartment.  The rain made her white dress cling to her brown arms.  I thought I should stop to help her, but I didn’t.  I just kept driving away.

Friday afternoon I fumbled through the week’s worth of dirty dishes, crumpled newspaper, and soiled clothes for a pair of not too dirty underwear.  Opening my mouth was like peeling up linoleum.  I wanted to go back to bed, but thought I should look for a job.

I went across the street to the little market owned by Ali and his son Nazim.

“Hey Chief,” Ali said, when he saw me. “No vegetarian left.”

Every day I came in for a breakfast taco and a cup of coffee. Today I’d gotten a late start and missed my chance for the taco. But the coffee was hot and black. Ali stood up with effort.  He smelled like incense and cheap aftershave. The top few buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing a thicket of gray and black hair tangled in gold chains. His foot was in a fracture boot.

“Anything else?” He asked.

“Just this,” I said, handing him a copy of the New York Times.

“Want these?”  He asked, holding a box of condoms.  “Someone take just one,” he said.  He showed me the tampered box with two remaining condoms.  “Or these?”  He added, holding a box of similarly tampered cigarettes.

“That’s okay,” I said, smiling and embarrassed.  He was always trying to give me half-empty egg cartons or cases of wine coolers with one bottle missing,  juice about to go bad, overripe fruit, milk a day after its expiration date.

“Want a bag?”  He asked me.

I always answered, “No, thank you,” but he always gave me a bag anyway, no matter what I purchased, even if it was a newspaper.

I paid for my paper and cup of coffee, and when I got back home I noticed that he’d slipped the condoms and cigarettes into my bag somehow without me noticing.  I threw the cigarettes away, but kept the condoms, just in case.

I sat at my table and turned on my laptop. There was something comforting about the familiar tone as it turned on. I sat, waiting for my coffee to cool, and looked out the window into the courtyard of my apartment complex. The view was limited to a small patch of bright green grass, and a smaller patch of sky blue swimming pool that it was still too cold to swim in.

Every day, I’d sit at the table with my coffee, with or without a vegetarian breakfast taco, and peruse the online job boards for something, anything. But with a degree in Sociology, and little experience or marketable skills, there were few prospects. Since college I’d been in and out of one cubicle or another, the only thing differentiating them was the shade of gray carpeting the walls.

Hannah and I had met while working at one such call center, the billing department for a third rate credit card company. Since I was working largely to pay off my massive credit card debt, I was ostensibly an indentured servant. Our cubicles were adjacent and we became fast friends, bonding over our shared love of The Cure and black and white French films about death, and our disdain for the public at large.

We worked there for nearly a year as our friendship blossomed. We started going to movies together, Hannah acting out the most dramatic scenes as we drove home and having me critique her technique in her parent’s hand-me-down SUV. Then we’d go dancing, sometimes to clubs where she could meet guys, and sometimes to clubs where I could. When we weren’t together we were on the phone, spending hours analyzing our relationships or the lack of them, our childhood, our dreams.

We became so close that I couldn’t imagine a time when I hadn’t known her. She became superimposed over my own history, so that the two of us were sitting together in the high-school cafeteria, the homecoming game,  the senior prom. The thing that Hannah most wanted was to be a famous singer, but despite a smattering of gigs in Austin, she hadn’t been able to build any momentum with her music. She thought that in Los Angeles her style would be better appreciated, and she’d have more opportunities.  My own dreams were less defined. I wanted to make a living as a writer. Nothing glitzy, just a modest living in a small, cozy place surrounded by books. But while Hannah had discipline to spare, constantly working on new songs and practicing her instruments, I’d barely written anything since college and wondered if my dream was misplaced, a thing to get over so that I could finally grow up and find some proper, grown up career.

Then two months ago Hannah had been fired for repeatedly shouting an obscenity in earshot of a client who’d complained, and I’d been fired shortly thereafter for writing a scathing comment on an employee discussion forum about the disparity between our salaries and that of the CEO. Hannah took this as a sign from the universe that it was time for us to move on. I was mostly panic stricken about what was sure to be my inevitable eviction and starvation.

The job boards were not forthcoming. No one was hiring. I couldn’t even get the temp agencies to call me back. My initial relief at being free from the job I hated quickly turned to anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to find another job to hate. In the first weeks of my unemployment I spent hours sending my resume to any employer advertising a job I was even remotely qualified for. But as the weeks became months, my motivation became apathy, and the intensity of my search waned and became half-hearted searches punctuated by frequently miserable bouts of wallowing in self-pity.

After spending a few minutes looking for jobs, I turned instead to the entertainment news, the funny memes of the day, and porn. Part of me felt like I should take advantage of the time off to finally write that novel I’d been thinking of for years, but I couldn’t seem to get started. Instead of writing I bought a canvas, thinking I could get out my creativity in this other medium. But the easel and canvas remained untouched. I told myself that I was just too anxious about being unemployed to focus on my art.

The truth is the blank page and the bare canvas are too too full of promise. Nothing I can create can be as perfect as their blankness.  In my mind images pulse and writhe, bodily.  My fingers twitch to grab the brush to just paint for the sake of painting, write for the sake of writing.  But my mind refuses.  As long as the canvas remains empty there is the idea of beauty, of something substantial, a body that bleeds and sweats.  But the second paint from my brush touches it the potential is diminished.  A canvas is too small and ordinary to carry the beauty of my dreams.

If I don’t paint, then I can’t fail to realize my mind’s landscapes.

I can remain full of promise, like California, a dream.

Plus I realized that I seemed just as cool by merely keeping an easel in my living room, a glass jar full of paintbrushes on the windowsill, and telling people at parties that I’m an artist.

Hannah wanted me to move with her to Los Angeles. She tried to sell me on the beauty of it. In her eager, angelic voice she described the two of us in a red convertible, driving down Highway 1, with cliffs on one side, and the blue expanse of the Pacific ocean on the other, the trees and flowers that line the boulevards and avenues of the residential areas, the skyscrapers that sprout in a jagged toothed jungle downtown, the iron skeletons and lidless eyes of glass faceted windows designed to tower over the twisting palm trees, to outshine the dim and hazy stars.

“We can live together in L.A.,” Hannah told me one night when I was sitting in her bathtub as she cut my hair.

“You can write” she went on, “and I’ll land some gigs.  We can share a studio until we’re both working and can afford something better.  You can write anywhere really.  Lift your head a little.”

She held my chin.  I saw the tiny blond hairs falling into my lap.

“California is the last place where you can really live the American dream.” She said.

“Only because the American dream is getting your own reality show.” I said, joking, but only halfway.

“I’m serious.” She said. “What do you think?”

“It sounds great,” I’d told her.

“Really?” She asked, rubbing wax into my thinning hair and styling it.

“Yeah.” I said.

She had it all planned out, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly commit. California was her dream, not mine.

Hannah.

My Russian ballerina.

My bubblegum raincoat.

The unheard siren, singing to a captivated audience of one.

I didn’t expect to miss her so much. But her presence was everywhere, coiled in bedsprings, floating like motes of dust in patches of sunlight, pressed between the pages of the New York Times. Suddenly I found myself alone without someone to join me for cheap, Chinese, or to go on a 4 am donut run. Without her there was nothing for me to focus on but myself, and introspection was always a recipe for an inevitable downward spiral. I was disappointed when it rained, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.

That night I had a blind date with a man I’d met on the internet.  We met outside an all night diner that Hannah and I had haunted. He looked older than he had in his picture.  His face and stomach had gone slack.  I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him at all, that we’d somehow miss one another amongst all the other late night strangers. But he smiled and walked right up to me.  There was an awkward moment when I wasn’t sure if he was going to shake my hand or hug me, so I extended my hand, and we half hugged.

“Should we go in?”  He asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m starving.”

I could see right away that everything I said was going to be wrong.  I knew that I’d be uncharacteristically honest, that my confessions would baffle him. I led the way into the diner.  His hand was on my shoulder, an intimacy I felt he hadn’t earned and I disliked him immediately.

“So what do you do again?”  He asked while we were waiting for the waitress to bring our drinks.

“I’m an artist,” I said, fidgeting nervously in my seat amidst the young couples with strollers, the lonely coffee drinkers with cigarette-stained fingers, the old fashioned amber colored hanging lamps.

“Are you showing your work anywhere around town?”  He asked.

I said, “I’m very protective of it,” hoping that this would sound more mysterious than pathetic.  I was grateful when the waitress brought our drinks.

He was a personal trainer, though he’d taken some time off after a back injury.  “All healed now,” he assured me with a wink.

I repeatedly stacked and then toppled tubs of late night butter while blathering about a horror movie I’d seen recently.  I described in unnecessary detail the plot, which consisted of a group of teenagers being stalked by a maniac in a remote forest.

“Are you nervous?”  He asked.

“Why?” I asked. “Should I be?”  The butter toppled.

He reached across the table and put his hand over my own, his thick, tan fingers weighing down my thin, pale ones.  I pulled my hand away.

“I can’t read you.”  He said.

Spittle wet the creases around his lips.  His face was ruddy, and blotched.  His shirt, taught over his once impressive chest, his slack stomach.  I was repulsed by him.

The check came.  We split it, to my dismay.

Outside I walked to my car.  He followed me.

“So.  What now?”  He asked, leaning into me, his smile a leer.

I pulled back, was silent.

“My place?”  He suggested.

“Sure.”  I heard myself saying.  “Why not?”

Afterward, I couldn’t stop shaking.  I was sore. I saw myself reflected in the mirror.  My thin, sweaty hair.  My neck bruised from too many hard kisses.   My mouth, swollen and red. I tasted like someone else.  Like milk about to sour, like fruit that was too ripe.  My eyes were dry and stinging.  My shirt smelled like strange cologne and sweat.  I peeled it off.  And, unsatisfied, I peeled off everything.  I wanted to be a blank canvas, white and full of promise.  But it was impossible to undo the days, the years of strange apartments, the collected dust and detritus of dive bars and dance clubs, to buff out the oily grooves of so many fingerprints.

I crawled into my bed and lie there, sleepless, staring at my ceiling until the sun came up, pale and orange as a ball of thread through the sliding doors that led out to my balcony. Eventually I dozed off for a while and woke up, hot and sweaty, and couldn’t fall asleep again. I wanted to just keep lying there, forever, but I’d made plans so I forced myself to get up.

“Which do you like better, Indian girls or Pakistani?”  The one without glasses asked. Sometimes Ali’s daughters were behind the register. I never learned their names and just differentiated them by thinking of them as the one with glasses and the one without.

“Which are you?” I asked.

“Pakistani.”  She said.

“Then Pakistani.”  I looked at the shy one with glasses and winked.  They both giggled as I left with my coffee.

I squinted, unaccustomed to the pale sun that shined before noon on a Saturday. I had plans to meet my friend Scott who lived across town, and who didn’t have a car of his own. When I got to his apartment, Scott was sitting at his coffee table on the living room floor, rolling a joint. I was meeting up with him to go to a protest, of the war, or the disparity between the rich and the poor, or Gay rights. I was unsure of the particular cause. Scott was an equal opportunity attender when it came to defending the underdog.

“Hey.”  He said.

“Hey.”  I let myself in, scanning his apartment, dimly lit, the avuncular pad of a longtime bachelor.  The patchwork sofa, celestial rug, the Coca Cola magnets on the refrigerator of second hand beer and frozen pizza.  Sunlight stained glassed across the fake marble counter top in patches of orange and red and purple on the beige hemp mat in front of the sink, giving the impression, as you stepped inside, that you were entering a place of worship.

I sat across from him at his computer desk.  He lit up and offered me a drag.  I shook my head and thumbed through his CDs.

“Why do you keep all these?” I asked, since all of the music was on his computer, and the physical CDs seemed unnecessary.

“I just like the act of playing a CD,” he said. “I like the ritual of it.”

I didn’t get it, but I’ve never really understood him. Most of the times we’d hung out with one another, I’d felt as if the two of us were speaking different languages. I didn’t understand him, but I liked the idea of him, the intense, bearded young man who cared about social causes and justice, who wanted world peace. If you listened to the music I like, read the books I enjoyed reading, and watched my favorite movies, you’d probably know everything about me. There was nothing else beneath the surface. I was just an empty vessel, a reflection. But Scott cared about things, and was involved, and even if I wasn’t sure why, I liked this about him. I imagined him turning that same passionate intensity toward me, of him seeing something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself.  We’d made out once, drunk at a club, but nothing else had happened, and as time passed, I worried that the window of opportunity was closing.

“What is it today?” I asked, as he got in the rumbling, green car I’d inherited from my mother.

“The war.” He answered. I didn’t ask him which one.

Arriving at the protest provided no clarity. Crowds of determined progressives, college students mostly, white guys with dreadlocks, and girls in sandals, but also some holdovers from the sixties with their long, gray beards, and awful, tie-dye t-shirts were already lining the street by the lake. The signs were a hodge-podge of familiar slogans, “No blood for oil,” “End this War,” “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” “We Are the 99%,” “Legalize Gay Cupcakes.”

We joined the growing throng by Town Lake and then made a slow walk down Congress Avenue to the capital. My eyes darted through the crowd of  protestors, the vaguely curious onlookers lining the avenue, the annoyed drivers sitting in their cars at blocked off intersections, unaware of the day’s scheduled march. We walked down Congress, Scott joining in chants, and me tagging along in silence, stealing glances at any attractive, pseudo-hippies in the general vicinity.

We assembled on the steps of the state capital and listened to the speakers give their speeches, local politicians and community organizers. I zoned out shortly after the first of the seemingly endless parade of windbags got started. Politics have always bored me. Scott’s handsome, bearded face was intent, his brow creased. Everyone was similarly focused, and I wondered what I was doing there. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I wouldn’t meet anyone, that Scott’s interest in me was due entirely to the fact that I had a car and he did not, that the protest would offer neither romance, nor inspiration. I started formulating plans for the evening which involved overpriced cocktails at on overpriced club with music too loud for conversation, and a dance floor too full to accommodate dancing.

A row of police in riot gear stood behind the makeshift podium just in case things got out of hand. I stood, imagining them advancing on the docile crowd like I’d seen on television. I imagined the peaceful crowd erupting into chaos of tear gas, and people getting trampled and beaten with batons. A big part of me longed for this to happen, just to feel like I was part of something. Just for some kind of real human contact, just to feel something aside from my usual existential angst. But nothing happened. The speakers spoke. The crowd chanted and cheered. The police stood, and then all of us quietly dispersed to middle class cars to drive back to the suburbs.

I asked Scott if he wanted to do anything else, but he just shrugged, so we walked back to my car.

“It was a good turn out.” I said, and he agreed, and even though we had nothing to say to one another, I still thought we might end up making out.

But when we got back to his place, he just unfastened his seatbelt and said, “Thanks for the ride.”

Not knowing what to do, myself, I drove back to my own apartment. I thought I’d stop at Ali’s for a soda, but there were police cars outside. For a moment I panicked irrationally that the police had somehow come for me, even though I’d done nothing wrong, but I realized that they weren’t there for my sake. Someone had broken the windows of the store and spray painted the word “Terrorist” in big red letters across the side of the building.

Inside my apartment, I found myself upset, without really understanding why. I wanted to somehow exorcise the feeling, but it was too primal to write down. I wanted to paint. Not with brushes, but with my bare hands. I wanted to feel the paint on my fingers, to run my fingertips across the bare canvas, and to pour this image that existed in my mind out onto the white expanse before me.

At first I didn’t know how to start it. I just stood in front of the easel, wondering where to begin. Red was my key to getting into it. Once I started with red, the rest followed. Images that bled and sweat, corpulent masses of color. Hannah’s hair, her bright red lips, the swirling lights of dance clubs, the bedrooms of strange men, the loneliness of crowds, the helplessness, the brutality of vandalism. My fingertips smeared color across the canvass. The colors of regret, the unbearable devastation of rejection. First red, yellow, green, gold, and from the side, black and blue, a cloud, a bruise, a threat. I painted, my fingers stained, a blue, satisfying smear on my cheek.

I stopped when Hannah called to tell me she’d made it safely to Los Angeles.

“Are you writing?”  She asked.

“Painting.”  I said, wiping my hands on a towel, my body smeared with blue, and brown, and gold.

“That’s great,” she said.  “I don’t want to disturb you.  I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”

“I’m nearly done, I think.”  I said.  “I’m glad you made it okay.  Was the trip hard?”

“No.” She said.  “The longest part was just getting out of Texas. But now I’m here, too exhausted to unpack anything, but too keyed up to go to sleep.”

“I get that.” I said.

“When are you coming out here?”  She pressed.

“Soon,” I said. I didn’t tell her about my date, or the protest, or Scott, or any of it. There was really nothing worth talking about.

I painted for a while after we’d stopped talking, and when I felt like it was done, I stood back and regarded my first creation in years, feeling this bubbling thrill of accomplishment at having actually created something, of following a project from start to finish, of taking something that existed in my mind and making it exist in the real world.

When I stepped back to get a good look, my heart sank. The painting I’d poured all of my energy and emotion into was nothing like the image I’d had in my head. The lines were unsteady. The confidence of my college years was gone from lack of practice. The painting was amateurish at best. I was disappointed, but more than that I was afraid. If I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t write, what was I going to do? Who was I if I wasn’t an artist, except a twenty something failure with no job, and no prospects?

While it was still wet, I took the painting with me to the bathroom.  I stood beneath the florescent lights with all of my faults exposed. The sudden shock of first cold, then hot water covered me.  I watched my pale skin turn red.  The colors of the canvas ran together, colored the water at my feet in purples, reds, browns and blue.  I rubbed the canvas with my hands smearing the colors together, obliterating my disaster, the watercolor running together in blobs, coloring the bathtub, but, once paint smeared, the canvas could never be made white again.

I stood in the shower long after the hot water had disappeared and wondered, how much water and how much time it would take to cleanse us both?  I wondered if enough time and enough distance could take my illusions, my lies, my deceits and make them true. That maybe instead of just calling myself an artist, I could actually be one, if I just had the right inspiration, the right location. Maybe not here, but in a sunny state.  A dream.  California.

Clean – Austin 1999

046Jeremy likes it clean.

On Valentine’s day I decorate our whole apartment with pink and red construction paper hearts. On each heart I write down a reason why I love him. I make a romantic dinner from scratch, light candles, and run a bubble bath. I sit on his third degree sofa and wait for him to come home.

And wait.

And wait.

When he finally arrives, long after dinner has gotten cold, the candles have all burned out and the bubble bath is just a tub of tepid, soapy water, he takes one look at the hearts, the trail of rose petals leading to the bed, the balloons with streamers hanging from the ceiling and says, “You can clean up the mess tomorrow.”

He likes it clean.

The next day, when I come home, he hands me a heart shaped box of chocolates.

“They were half off.” He says.

The box is already mostly empty, crumpled foil wrappers.

We’d met online only a few months before our graduation from separate colleges. I’d driven to Houston and he’d snuck me into his parents house after they had gone to sleep.  We crept up his stairs and whispered quietly in his childhood bedroom, and had awkward sex, crouched on his bathroom floor, careful not to make a sound.

He played piano, studied French and wrote poetry, so of course I fell in love with him.

When I got a job in Austin after graduation, he drove down to look at apartments with me. When I realized that he wasn’t just there helping me find an apartment for myself, he was looking for a place for the two of us, I knew that it was probably a mistake. But I made it anyway, because my heart is a stupid pump.

We go to concerts and he disappears without saying anything. I spend hours looking for him before finding him back at the car, or sitting on a corner bench a few blocks away. I try to acclimate to his quirks and his moods, but I feel that we never speak the same language. We sit in some chain restaurant (he is too intimidated to go to restaurants he isn’t familiar with) and the powder blue waitress acts as our interpreter.

We sleep in twin beds like a 50s sitcom couple. Every night I lie awake, hard, when all I want is his touch. I fantasize about him ripping my clothes off, of plowing into me because he is so consumed with passion. When he puts in his retainer, I know it is all over. Nothing will happen. He’ll fall asleep and I’ll listen to him snoring from across the room. I touch myself and pretend that it is him.

The first time we broke up we were in Paris.

I spent the entire trip pretending that everything was okay. I smiled for photographs. I trailed after him through museums, through catacombs and cathedrals, beneath the Arc d Triumph and up the Eiffel Tower, and on the last night, as a dubbed American cop drama was playing on the hotel TV, I told him I didn’t want to be together anymore.

We furiously packed our clothes, and I frantically ran after him as he hailed a cab, afraid that he’d abandon me in a foreign city.

But by the time we made our connecting flight in Newark, NJ, we had reconciled.

For a couple of months things were okay.

He began to stay up all night and to sleep all day. I see him briefly in the morning as I leave to go to to work and briefly when I get home. Our schedules barely overlap. He’s made no attempt to find a job after college and is relying on a dwindling trust fund to sustain him. Any time we have any kind of conflict he locks himself inside his car or in the bathroom.

Once when I was walking through the living room eating a sandwich, Jeremy was behind me with the vacuum, following my every step, sucking up the crumbs.

“Now, how am I going to find my way back to the kitchen?” I ask, but he doesn’t laugh.

When he is done working out is when I want him most, sweaty and hard. But Jeremy has to shower first. He’ll wash his hair seven times, boil the heat from his skin and anything that smells like him, until his skin is red and tight.  He likes it clean.

One day I came home from work and he had rearranged the living room.  He asked me how I liked it.  I said that I couldn’t tell what was different.  Jeremy says that I must be the least observant person that he’s ever met.

I am transfixed by the tiny hairs on his arms that move with the rhythm of the ceiling fan, up past his chest stretched t-shirt, the hole in the collar, the marble white throat, blanket of three day stubble, chin cleft, pouty lip blushed and heavy as a cloud full of rain, the arched nose, invisible bump that Jeremy thinks makes him less beautiful, nostrils flaring, the thin, high cheekbones, deep set, black eyes, the bushy eyebrows, sweeping forehead, inky black disheveled hair.

“Yes,” I said. “I never notice anything.”

When we make love it’s with as little contact as possible, me on my knees, and Jeremy behind me, arched away from me.  I come to him pasteurized and sterilized.  He comes to me with latex gloves and I’m just thankful for his touch.  He likes it clean.  So he sprays me down with disinfectant, turns me round the washing machine and leaves me spinning.

The second time we broke up it was his idea. He was moving to another city without me. I wondered, but didn’t want to wonder if he’d met some other boy online. Someone younger, more interesting, more attractive than me.

For a month after we broke up we still lived together.

On Sundays, I ease out of bed, creeping to the living room.  I sit in front of a muted television while in the other room, the Sleeper sleeps.  I’m too afraid to eat or rattle around the kitchen for fear of waking Jeremy up.  So I wait patiently for the day to pass, passing the time in fingernails and unlaced shoes.

The air conditioner rattles discontent.

The ticking clock, the television, the sunlit blinds, the dishwasher begins the rinse cycle, the kettle in the kitchen, the pot is ready to boil.

The microwave beeps.

The Sleeper sleeps, and I am awake.

I drive from coffee shop to coffee shop.

“Let me guess, chocolate coffee cheesecake and a cherry Italian Soda?” The tall barista with the crinkly, blond hair asks.

They were out of cherry syrup, so I order a hot chocolate instead. The barista turns the froth into a heart. I sit at a table alone, and when The Smith’s “How Soon is Now” comes on I mouth the words. I read a couple chapters of Catch 22, waiting for it to be late enough to go dancing.

Atomic Cafe plays 80s music on Sunday nights.

At the club I dance to Depeche Mode and Joy Division, and when I stand by the bar, a boy in a black t-shirt stands beside me, but he doesn’t say anything and I don’t say anything. A chubby woman with a blonde ponytail invites me to spend the night with she and her husband, and I politely decline, and when the boy in the black t-shirt leaves, I leave.

When I get home Jeremy is watching a movie. He doesn’t say a word to me as I walk in. When we pass one another in the hallway, we flatten ourselves against opposite walls as if even breathing the same air is painful.

I imagine floating out of my clothes, out of my skin, leaving myself in a corpulent mass of twitching this and bloodstained that.  To be nothing, ephemeral, to lose myself in the atmosphere, to break apart and become nothing.

We have sex one last time. After we use the very last condom it sinks in that it is really over. We sit on opposite sides of the room, carpet burned and cathartic. He sits on the side of the bed clipping his toenails and I stupidly still love him.

When I come home from work the next day to find Jeremy’s posters off the wall, his side of the closet empty, a yellow post it on the refrigerator telling me goodbye, I don’t cry or scream.  I just turn off the television, close the door and falls against it, winded.  Because when Jeremy left, even the break was clean.

 

Just Like Heaven – Seattle, 2007

“Look, we’re wearing the same underwear,” he says. His mouth is swollen and red like the splitting skin of a squashed plum.  He finishes pulling down my pants.  There is no denying the unembarrassed redness of our briefs.

“So we are.”  I agree.

His pale skin is a stark contrast against his flannel sheets.  I slide on a condom.  His hand is on my chest.  Red.  I close my eyes.  Red.  When we kiss, we are reduced to a pair of red, open mouths.

Earlier, I’d been sitting in a coffeehouse, pretending to read, silently willing him to ask me what I was reading, to ask my name, to say something, anything.  Outside the sun crept blood red across a purple sky like a fuzzy spider.  A ray of light set all the trees lining the boulevard on fire.  My reflection was superimposed over the empty, gray street below as I stared dully out the window, surprised by the intensity of my own longing.

Later I sit naked on the edge of his bed.

“Can I snoop through your bag?”  He asks.

“Sure.” I say.

I start to put my clothes on.

“Which is which?”  I ask, holding up identical pairs of red underwear.

“At this point does it really matter?”  He asks.

At this point, I have to concede, it probably doesn’t, and I shrug into one pair and hand him the other.  I put on my pants and sweater and look under his bed for my socks.

“Can I borrow this?”  He asks of the book I’d been pretending to read when we met.  An impressively long, French novel, that after five years I’d never finished reading.

“Sure.”  I respond.  I put my hand on his naked shoulder and kiss the top of his head, gently.  I cannot find my socks.

“Good.”  He grins.  “Now you’ll have to see me again.”

Outside it has gotten cold, and I walk with my hands tucked under my arms back to Hannah’s apartment.  I walk up Pine Street, toward Broadway, where the homeless people huddle in doorways, where empty syringes litter the sidewalk of an abandoned lot, where young men in leather jackets walk from one bar to the next, where the sky is red and black like an infected wound, and no one expects any kindness.  A homeless man asks if I have any change, but I shake my head “no” and keep on walking.  When I rub my nose I notice that my fingers smell like him, and I smile into the cold night.  My breath hovers in front of my face like a lonesome ghost.

When she feels sad, Hannah puts on high-heeled shoes and plays the piano.  I hear the music echo down the hallway before I get to her door.  Once there I pause and wonder if I should go back to the coffeehouse.  I slip in, anyway.  She sees me and smiles, and once she’s finished with her song asks, “How was the coffeehouse?”

“Good.” I respond, taking off my shoes.  I leave my wallet, watch, and keys in a neat pile.  I try to be as unobtrusive as I can.

“Like the ones back home?”  She asks, sitting on her piano bench, draping an old, fringed blanket over the keyboard.

“No.”  I say.  “But promising.”

“That’s good,” she says.

I ask about her day at work.  She is the bookkeeper of a retirement community.  She relates a story about Herman, an alcoholic, paraplegic war veteran who came down stairs in his wheelchair with no pants on, covered in feces when they were showing some new prospective tenants the facilities.  She saw him first and wheeled him back up to his apartment before anyone else had a chance to see him and had an aid give him a bath and dress him.

“I guess we’ve got something to look forward to!”  I say, but Hannah just snorts and shakes her head.
“No,” she says.  “We could never afford a place like Victorian Gardens.  We’ll end up in some state run place, smelling like pee and talking to the walls.”

“I’m glad we had this talk.”  I say.

She grins at me with her crooked smile and says, “Let me cut your hair.”  I acquiesce and she leads me to her bathroom.  I sit on the edge of her bathtub with no shirt on.  She stands behind me with a pair of scissors and a comb.  “You were out late,” she says.  I feel her cold fingers on my scalp, on the back of my neck.  “Sit still.” She says.

I watch the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap.

“I met a boy.”  I say.

“That’s good.  That’s just what you need.”  She says, “lift your head.”  Her hand is under my chin.  After a while she says, there.  “How does it look?” I stand holding her compact and look at the back of my head in her bathroom mirror.

“Great.”

Then she says, “Want to go grab some hot chocolate?”

Walking to the French café across the street from her apartment we see that they have lit the Christmas tree on top of the Space Needle.  In the café we eat croissants filled with nutella and carols play and we joke about how Christmas music is inescapable.  We watch people walk by from the shops downtown with their arms full of shopping bags, packages tied up in neat, red bows.

Then we see him, her imaginary boyfriend.  He’s tall and thin, with sideburns like lightning bolts wearing all black.  She slips out of her seat and runs out after him.  They went out twice, and then he stopped returning her calls.  Nevertheless, she is convinced that he is her soul-mate and has spent hours sitting on her couch with me, analyzing the possible reasons why he hasn’t returned her calls, and relating why they are perfect for one another.

I see them standing in the street below beneath a streetlamp, her red lips and red shoes, the coal black shock of her coiled hair, her pale face.  I see them shout at one another as shoppers pass by hurriedly, as a homeless man sits waiting for a bus.  I look at my spoon sitting in a pool of pale brown chocolate in my white saucer.  I look up again and the imaginary boyfriend is gone, and Hannah is standing in the street alone.

In her apartment I curl up with a blanket on her couch.  After hours of her crying, after she stands on her balcony setting fire to a dried rose he had given her, after she leaves two sobbing, incoherent messages on his cell phone, after rubbing her back, after consolations and good nights and see you in the mornings, sleep becomes impossible.  Sometimes at night I turn into a giant, red monster, and I stomp around, smashing things and crushing entire buildings beneath my red, monster feet.   I stomp through memories and smash them.  Smash the face of the young man from the coffeehouse.  Smash Hannah’s bathtub.  Smash the  weathered awnings of the French café.  Once the night has been ripped to pieces so that only blackness remains, then finally, fitful sleep.

The entire city is underwater, blue and bloated as a mermaid’s lips.

“Get used to it.”  My coworker warned me.  “You won’t see the sun again for months.  Winter makes everyone crazy.”

Puget Sound is the same slate gray as the sky, as the sidewalks and the buildings, and there is no horizon, just muted shades of the same headachy color.  I walk to work shivering, my jacket damp from the wet, misty air.  The warm, rumbling thunderstorms of Texas seem like an imagined landscape from another world.

I’d left Hannah’s the week before and moved into an apartment of my own.  I’d traded a small space cramped with wires, electronics and musical equipment for the emptiness of stark white walls and unpacked boxes.  I’m relieved to no longer be sleeping on someone else’s couch, to have a place of my own again.

 

“I can hear you smiling.”  He says, as we lie curled up on his bed, afterward.  I can tell that I like him, because of my willingness to spend the entire night squished into his single bed.

“Did I happen to leave a necklace here last time?”  I ask him.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “What does it look like?”

“It’s blue.”

“I’ll look for it.”  He says.

“Thanks.”

“Who’s Jeremy?” He asks in the quite dark.

A question can fold space, can Medusa your whole body.  Your skin, your sinew and your organs can all solidify.  Dreams can be awakened from and realities can implode.  I feel myself sinking into his bed, stiff as stone.  “Why do you ask?”  Words forced through petrified lips, and even they seem heavy and solid.

“His name is written on the inside cover of that book you loaned me.”  He says.

“Just someone I used to know,” I say. He turns over, satisfied.  I feel the flesh of his arm against the stone of my chest.

Morning.  He and I go to a Russian bakery and get piroshkies for breakfast.  We walk down to Pioneer Square and take the underground tour of the city.  We walk through narrow walkways, the concrete of the city sidewalks above us, sunlight filtering in through purple skylights.  He holds my hand.  Mice scurry in the stones and rubble near our feet.  Ghosts shuffle down the abandoned avenues propelled by the memory of warmth.

We stand on the corner and he asks if I want to go see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.

“I’m helping Hannah put up fliers for her show next week.”  I say.

“When is her show, again?”  He asks.

I tell him that the show is on Saturday.  I tell him he should come.

“Is it 21 and up?”  He asks. He stands in front of me, his hands in the pockets of my jacket to keep them warm.

“I guess so.” I say. “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Well, if it is I can’t go.”  He says.

I don’t immediately understand. “Wait?” I ask.  “How old are you?”

“20.”  He answers.  “How old are you, 23?”

“Oh god.” I say.

“24?”  He ventures.

I look at him, horrified. “Oh god.”  I say again.

Hannah and I are walking up Pike with a stack of fliers, advertising her show.

“You’re dating a 20 year old?”  She asks, laughing, and I immediately regret having told her.

“We’re not dating.  It’s just sex.” I say. “Only now it isn’t anything.  I’m cutting it off.”

She asks me to hand her the tape.  The newspaper beside us has a picture of Mount St Helens puffing a curl of thick, gray smoke into the sky.  Hannah tells me that she thinks Twenty is a good distraction, exactly what I need.  She and her Imaginary Boyfriend have reconciled and he’s coming to her show.  Besides, none of it will matter if the volcano explodes.

I tell her that the volcano is too far away.  Probably.  We imagine the city turned to ash.  The people will all be frozen, mundane figurines trapped in their everyday tasks like the citizens of Pompeii, to be rediscovered by some future archeologists.

“They’d think I was an accountant and you worked in a cubicle.”  Hannah says.  “No one would ever be able to tell who we really are.”  This is her biggest fear, invisibility. I realize that every action of Hannah’s stems from her desire to be seen, from her need for an audience.

“Who are we?”  I ask, and the question hovers in the air between us, unanswered.

Back at my apartment building I run into my neighbor, a drag queen with beautiful, caramel colored skin and a fondness for old soul music.  She sasses by in a powder blue dress and blue, high heeled shoes, a feathered boa.  I struggle with my key.

“Girl, I know you’re going to come to my show on Saturday!”  She says.

“I’ll try.”  I say, and I open the door to my apartment and go inside.  The walls are all still bare and white and the boxes all unpacked.  On my phone there is a text from Twenty.  He found my necklace behind his bed.  I should go meet him for Vietnamese and he’ll return it to me.

I meet Twenty for Vietnamese.

“Is this yours?”  He asks, holding the blue, beaded necklace in his hands.

“Yes.”  I say, eyes glistening.   The familiar feel of the necklace in my hands again.  I run my fingertips over the bumpy ceramic tile of the tabletop.

“It must mean a lot to you.”  Twenty says.

I agree that it does.

We order Pho, and sit across from one another, the steaming bowls of broth in front of us.

“You don’t look that old.”  He says, squeezing a slice of lime over his soup.

“Thanks.”  I say, stirring bean sprouts and basil into my broth, waiting for it to cool.

“Age is just a number.”  He says.  Over dinner I am surprised that I forget that he is twenty.  We talk about movies that we both love, and how he wants to study linguistics, that one day he wants to have children of his own.  Seeing a couple walk by outside with a baby between them, we smile, and his hand crawls across the table and finds mine.  “I really like you,” he says.

Outside we’re walking down Broadway, debating whether or not to stop at the chocolate shop for tiramisu.  I’m fingering my necklace, walking away from a warm, remembered past into an uncertain future.  The universe expands and contracts, and in that moment it seems possible that there is space enough for both the past and the present all at once.

 

“Will you buy me a Guinness?”  He asks, as we sit in a dark corner of the Karma Café waiting for Hannah’s show to start, our knees touching.

“So now I’m supposed to supply alcohol to a minor?”  I ask with feigned indignation.  I squint at him and then go to the bar and order a Guinness and a gin and tonic and carry them back to the table where Twenty waits for me.

“You’re the handsomest man here,” he says when I sit down beside him.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”  I tell him, and hand him his beer.  The taste of gin on my lips as Hannah comes onto the stage in a black, low-cut dress.  Her hair is done up in ringlets.  She sits at the piano in high heels and begins to play.

“She’s good.”  Twenty whispers to me.  His knee is pressed against my own. Our shoulders are rubbing against one another.  I taste the sweet alcohol on his breath,  the smell of his cologne.

Hannah plays piano with a desperate intensity.  She sings, her thin voice rises high above the candlelight above the assembled audience and echoes in the rafters.  I look at the pale, candlelit faces of the audience as they look at Hannah.  There is the sound of glasses and bottles clanking, of people talking at the back of the bar, of pool balls smashing against one another from the other room.  I look outside and see two men passing a joint back and forth in the blustery, anemic night.

When the show is over, the audience stands in lingering clumps, looking in purses for cigarettes or checking the time on their cell phones.  A man begins disconnecting the microphone and amps and is rolling up cords.  Twenty and I walk up to Hannah and Twenty says, “You were great!”

I nod my assent, and say, “Really, it was a great show.”

Hannah scans the audience, now disappearing, or milling about in small circles.  “He didn’t come.”  She says.  “He said he would.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”  I squeeze her hand.  “Do you want to go grab dinner somewhere?”

She shakes here head, “No. You two go,” she says.  “I’m going to talk to the owner about another gig.”

Walking with Twenty down the street, he says, “You and Hannah must be very close.”

“We are.”  I agree.   But since moving to Seattle, I feel almost like we are strangers who know too much about each other, that all we have in common now is history, that if we hadn’t spent our twenties together, we probably wouldn’t be friends at all.  The only language we have in common is disappearing, being replaced with new words and new memories.

“You’re getting a bald spot.”  He says, his finger tracing a smooth place starting to form at my crown.  “It’s cute.”  He kisses the top of my head.  I’m sitting cross legged in his apartment, looking through the music on his phone while he picks up some homework to work on at the coffeehouse.

“You have terrible taste.”  I tell him.  I’m suddenly so afraid that he’ll stop liking me that I have trouble catching my breath.  The heart is such a stupid organ, I think.  It just keeps on beating, even though, at this point, it must be made entirely of scar tissue.  I imagine myself in a giant bubble, like the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.  I imagine floating down to the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe in inky blackness.

“Lets go.”  He says, wrapping his fingers around my hand like a giant squid and pulling me up again.

At the coffeehouse an Asian girl sits in a corner, setting the timer on her digital camera to take a picture of herself.  We watch her smile, watch the camera flash.  She looks at the picture, and, unsatisfied, sets the timer again.

A young man with unwashed hair walks by wearing a red, Che Guevara T-shirt.  “Do you want me to do that for you?” He offers.

She nods, says “Thanks.”

“Smile,” he says, and she smiles.  The camera flashes.  The two of them look at the picture together.  They smile at one another and the waitress smiles, and I smile.  A deaf couple signs to one another, and they are smiling.  Everyone in the coffeehouse is smiling.

Twenty is sitting at the table across from me, working on trigonometry.

“Who is this?”  He asks when “Just Like Heaven” begins to play on the speakers overhead.

“The Cure!” I exclaim, shocked.

“Never heard of them.”  He says, and goes back to studying.

My narrow bed requires spooning.  My arm is wrapped around his chest.  The aching awareness that all that is separating us is a remarkably thin pair of underwear.   Outside the steady traffic on the interstate has become an impostor ocean.  Concrete, sprawling and gray.  The occasional blaring of a horn, a police siren, the revving engine of a motorcycle.  City sounds.  A discordant lullaby that does nothing to soothe my insomnia.

The drag queen next door arrives home from the club.  She plays “Sunday Kind of Love,” and sings along in a rich, baritone voice.  When the song stops, she plays it once again.  Someone in the apartment below her bangs on their ceiling with a broomstick and she turns the music off.

“Tomorrow we’re listening to nothing but the Cure.”  I tell Twenty.

He rolls over and kisses me, and he kisses me again.

My mind races. “I can’t believe I bought alcohol for a minor!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who I then had sex with!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who has never even heard of the Cure, and then had sex with him.  Twice.  What am I doing?  I’m a 31 year old man and he is 20.  20.  He was not alive when The Challenger exploded.  He doesn’t recall a time when there was no internet.  He has never mailed someone a letter.”  And then, “He has never lost someone he loved.”

Sunday morning.  He convinces me to walk with him in the rain to Pike Market to The Seattle Cheese Festival.  I let him drag me through the crowd from booth to booth.  He hands me cubes of cheese on toothpicks from different countries.  After about the 10th Gouda, I stop eating them and put them in my pocket until I can discretely throw them away.

Walking home, it is still raining.  I round a corner and stop in my tracks.  Standing across from me is a wolf.  Or anyway, I tell myself, it’s just a dog that looks like a wolf, a white, hulking beast straight from Siberia.  Twenty has already left me to go study.  We kissed goodbye in front of all the cold, wet tourists at the market, so I am alone.  The street near my apartment is deserted, eerily barren of Sunday traffic.  The wolf and I regard one another.  His black eyes meet my blue ones.  I am standing close enough to see the moisture on his coal black snout.

An ambulance passes in the distance, and as the siren wails, the wolf closes his eyes and howls in unison.  When the ambulance has passed, I turn, warily, and the wolf turns, and the two of us pad away in opposite directions.

At her apartment Hannah and I order Chinese take-out.  We eat with wooden chopsticks in front of the white light of her television.

“A wolf?”  She asks.

“Not a wolf,” I say uncertainly.  “A dog that looked like a wolf.”

“No fortune cookies.”  She says, disappointed.

“Maybe that’s for the best.”  I say.  She laughs and lays her head on my shoulder.

“I really wanted him to want me.”  She says.

“I know.”

She cries.  I can feel the wet tears seeping through my shirt.  I lay my head against her head.  I smooth her hair.  For a moment, we are in our twenties.  Sitting in the bedroom of my old apartment,  listening to The Cure on my stereo.  I feel suddenly larger than myself.  Like I’m too big for my own body.

“I love you.”  I whisper into her hair.

Night.  Twenty is in my bed, asleep.  I stare at his pale, white back.  The light brown freckles that spill across his shoulders.  The curve of his thigh, white leg against white sheets.  I want to memorize him.  The knobs of his spine.  The uneven line of his dark hair across his neck.  Nothing on earth is as smooth and soft as the small of his back.  I kiss him between his shoulder blades.  He wakes up, slides out of bed to go to the bathroom.    He stops in front of the window.  The blind is rolled up so that we can see the outline of the city stretching out below us.  I see him bathed in the orange light of the security lamp outside.

“It’s snowing.”  He says.

I crawl out of bed and stand behind him.  Outside, the trees and cars and buildings are all blanketed in white.  Glistening.  His skin.  White.  The walls of my apartment.  White.  The sidewalks and the streets.  White.  I want to memorize this moment.  To record it.  To be able to replay it on some future night, when he is, or isn’t there.  When it is, or isn’t snowing.  Think, how delicate time is.

He turns to me and smiles.

I put my arm around his naked shoulders and together we watch it snow.

The Erotic Lives of Vegetables -Austin, 2001

littlecity-12:37 a.m.

The upstairs neighbors are having sex again.

I cannot sleep.  I navigate the familiar dark of my apartment from the bedroom to the bathroom, bare feet, white as lonely irises against the pale, blue tile of the bathroom floor.  Standing in front of the toilet with one hand on the lid and the other on my penis, taking careful aim, I hear the unmistakable sound of hot, sweaty monkey sex.

I stand perfectly still, suddenly very awake.  I hear the rhythmic squeak of bedsprings, the dull thud of a headboard slamming against a wall, a woman’s breathy squeals of approaching ecstasy, the deeper bass of a man’s low moans.  I find myself holding my breath, straining my ears.

The hum of the refrigerator.

The whir of the air conditioner.

The ticking of the hallway clock.

Keep going, I will them to continue.  But after a moment the sounds of sex subside.  I remain still another moment just in case the sounds resume, but when nothing more happens, I urinate, flush, and walk back toward my bedroom in the dark.

5:23 a.m. 

I wake up nearly an hour and 40 minutes before the alarm is set to go off.  If I fall back to sleep immediately, I can still get an hour and thirty-seven more minutes of sleep. My brain has made this calculation before I realize it. I try to grab on to the tail end of a vagrant dream, just behind my eyes and disappearing, try to remember it, but then remember that if I am to fall asleep immediately I must stop thinking.

5:24 a.m. 

I cannot stop thinking about not thinking.

6:38 a.m.  

Now there is too little time to go back to sleep.  I wonder if I should get up early, shave, make an effort to look nice for a change.  Maybe if I looked more professional I’d get some recognition, a promotion, a “shining star”, something.

6:57 a.m.  

I turn off the alarm three minutes early, thoughts of work looming large in my mind.  I squeeze my eyes shut tight.

7:00 a.m.  

I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”

7:05 a.m.  

I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”

7:11 a.m.  

I force myself out of bed and into the shower. I stand beneath the steaming water with eyes still closed.  As long as they are closed I can pretend that work does not exist. I find myself thinking about the sounds of lovemaking I’d heard earlier. Suddenly I’m aroused, turgid in the shower. Despite the fact that I am late, I find myself masturbating onto the blue shower curtain.

7:28 a.m. 

I run out the door, late.  There was no time to shave.

7:29 a.m.  

I run out the door for the second time, having forgotten my glasses the first time.

7:45 a.m.  

Traffic.  My car crawls bug-like down a monochrome stretch of highway, inching beneath the thin, anemic, gray of morning car exhaust and fog.  I find myself looking into the windows of the cars beside me, wondering about the lives of the occupants inside.  I invent lives.

The woman beside me has just left her husband and three children to meet a lover in San Antonio.  A dark, Hispanic lover.  A dark, Hispanic, lesbian lover.  They’re going to fly down to Mexico, to Cabo San Lucas to walk hand in hand along sunlit beaches and drink exotic blue drinks from coconuts, to take pictures standing in front of Incan relics, to make love in the rain in an abandoned cabana by the beach.

8:02 a.m.  

Two minutes late for work, I leap into my ergonomic chair and start my computer.   I open a diet coke and drink my breakfast, squinting beneath the sickly florescent, carpeted walls of my cubicle.  I read somewhere that two thirds of America’s work force is in customer service.  The lucky ones who are working.  The knowledge does not reassure me.

On the windowless wall behind my cubicle there is a cardboard palm tree and blue construction paper waves, a cutout paper sunset, and words that say, “No one is an Island.”  Above that there is a sign that reads, “There’s no reason for it, it’s just Policy!”  I’ve never been able to determine whether this was meant as a joke.

I draw eight squares on my company provided note-pad. As each hour passes, I will dutifully cross out a square until the day is finally over.

I put on my headset.

8:04 a.m.  

The phone rings.

“Damn,” I say, fumbling with my headset.  “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper, this is Lance.  How may I help you?”

“Lynn?”

“No.  Lance, like Lancelot.” I say.

“I have a problem.   I can’t get this damned toilet paper you people make off the roll.  It just tears to shreds!”

“Okay,” I say.  “Are you trying to tear at the perforations?”

“The what?”

“The little dotted lines that separate the squares of paper,” I explain.

“No.  Is that what I should be doing?”

“Yes,” I say, sighing deeply.  “That is what you should be doing.”

“Well.  Somebody ought to put constructions on the back of these rolls so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

“I’ll be sure to forward that along to my supervisor, sir.”  I say.  “Is there anything else I can do or answer for you?”

“No.”

“In that case, thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet…”

The familiar silence of dead air.

10:15 a.m.  

Time for my first fifteen minute break.

I receive a text from Hannah.  “Sorry about last night.  Didn’t feel like going out.  Drinks tonight?”

I reply, “Sounds lovely!”

10:32 a.m.  

I log back onto the phone two minutes late.

The phone immediately rings. I put another hash mark on my notepad, one for every call. Two and a half hours in and there are already 20 hash marks.

“Damn,” I say, fumbling for my headset.  “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper.  This is Lance.  How may I help you?”

“Lane?”

“No, Lance, like the magician, Lance Burton.”

11:27 a.m.

I wonder how many more years I’ll be sitting in this cubicle, or some facsimile, being strangled by a tie. I wonder why there’s even a dress code since I only interact with people over the phone anyway. My co-worker Marc is wearing a blue, velour shirt with yellow rhinestones sewn onto it.  Everyone has a different conception of business casual.

11:28 a.m.

I have the sudden, disconcerting realization that if I retire at the age of 65 it means I’ll have to spend 36 more years working. My existential crisis threat-level teeters between orange and red.

12:07 p.m.

Cinnamon Brown does not believe in dinosaurs.

She is my co-worker, and I mentioned reading an article that suggests birds evolved due to a drastic change in dinosaur development, and she says, flat out, “I don’t believe in dinosaurs.”

I pause for a moment, unsure how to process this information before I finally say, “But what about fossils?”

Cinnamon thinks fossils are a hoax implemented by scientists so that people stop believing in God.

I have no response to this.

1:00 p.m.  

Because I’m broke, I have lunch in the office instead of going out. The employee break-room is subdued.  Someone has stolen my low fat frozen pasta so I steal someone else’s macaroni and cheese.   It’s a vicious cycle.  There are two microwaves at my disposal, however, both have “out of order” signs taped to them, so I put the macaroni and cheese back in the fridge and get a candy bar and a bag of chips from the vending machine.

A group of my fellow employees sit in front of a muted television watching a closed captioned, Spanish soap opera.  All of them are on their cell phones, sexting, looking through the online want ads, posting pictures of cats on social media sites.  A girl in a band is folding up flyers for their next gig.  “Bitter Semen and the Fallopian Tubes!  Live at Flaming Moe’s, Friday10:30!”

“You should come!” She says.

“I’ll try to.” I say, having learned that when it comes to co-worker relationships it’s always best to be non-commital.

I ask two of my co-workers who are openly perusing the want ads, “How’s it going?  Anything interesting?”

“We’re being downsized.”  Janice, the 300 pound secretary wheezes.  “Rumor has it they’re outsourcing all our jobs to India.”

“They’ve been saying that for years.” I say, but I secretly hope the rumor is true.

I imagine some unfortunate Indian man in a shirt and tie in some Indian call center saying, “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes” with his Indian accent, and I half smile, empathizing.

“The only thing worse than having a job is not having one.” Janice says.

1:48 p.m.  

I go to the bathroom.   Someone has taped a sign above the urinal that reads, “Employee Satisfaction Survey, Question 27:  While at work I often long for death.  a. completely agree, b. usually agree, c. agree, d. somewhat agree, e. liar.”  The rubber, splash-guard in the urinal is black with white writing that says, “Don’t do drugs.”

1:58 p.m.  

The temperature is always 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the perfect temperature to encourage productivity without putting everyone to sleep.  No Musak plays on the speakers.  Instead white noise muffles the sounds of coughs, squeaking chairs, computers and air conditioners, making one gray sound the same color as the cubicles, the carpet, and the sky through the cracks of blinds over tinted windows.

I sit at my desk, breaking then re-sharpening the lead of my pencil until it’s a tiny nub. I darken in another square on my notepad, denoting another hour passed.

2:17 p.m.

I ask my co-worker in the opposite cubicle how her acting classes are coming along, and get no response.  I say, “Melissa?”

I hear a deep voice answer, “Who’s Melissa?”

“The person who normally sits in your cube.” I say.

“I’ve been here two months.”

2:30 p.m.

On my second fifteen minute break I receive another text from Hannah.  “Not feeling 2 great.  Some other time?”

I reply, “Sure.”

Over the wall of my cubicle, I can hear one of my co-workers quietly sobbing.

2:46 p.m.  

I log back in to my computer.

“Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s toilet paper, this is Lance, how may I help you?”

“Claire?”

“Yeah.” I say.  “This is Claire.  How may I help you?”

4:00 p.m.  

“Lance, do you have a moment to go over your Quarterly Performance Summary?”  My manager is the physical manifestation of my greatest fears in life, bald, arrogant (despite the lack of any accomplishment to warrant it), pudgy, and stuck in a middle management rut in a call center for a third rate toilet paper manufacturer.

I say, “Sure,” dismayed by what will inevitably be a painful experience, but glad to get off the phone for a while.

In the dimly lit “Breakout” room we sit across from one another in plush, purple chairs.

“Well Lance,” he begins, “as always you sound very courteous and professional on the phone.  Your quality is excellent, but I am concerned by the number of absences on your chart the past three months.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, fidgeting.  “I’ve been a bit under the weather these past couple months, but I’m feeling much better now.”

“And your productivity recently is slightly below the group average,” he continues.  “If you look at these charts you can clearly see your log on and log off times…”

My manager’s voice becomes a dull, monotonous bit of static. I imagine how different my life could be if only I had some other job.  On a TV show I watched once, there was a Candy Expert whose job was to taste and judge candy and lend his or her candy expertise.  How does one get that kind of job?

I was valedictorian of my graduating high school class.  I have a college degree.  How is it possible that I’m barely making above minimum wage working in a call center for a toilet paper company?  What decisions have I made in my life that have led me to this place?

Every instinct tells me to quit, but I’ve learned to ignore my instincts.

“Where do you expect to be in five years?”  My manager asks.

“I’m sorry?”  I say, caught off guard.

“You’ve been here for over three years now.  You’re a good worker, for the most part, but you don’t show any initiative.  What is your plan?”

“Well,” I say, “This is really just my day job.  I’m really a writer.”

“Yeah.”  My manager laughs, sarcastically.  “So am I.”

4:57 p.m.  

The phone rings.  I hang up without answering and log off early with a sigh. I rip off the top page of my notepad covered in hash marks and darkened squares and throw it in the blue, recycle bin, leaving a fresh white page for tomorrow. I think of the meeting with my manager and frown.  I imagine a newspaper headline that reads, “Manager Dies in Karma Related Accident, Local Office Rejoices.”  I smile.

5:03 p.m.  

Traffic on the interstate on the way home is bumper to bumper.  I find myself holding my breath from the car exhaust. I stare out of the window at the car beside me.  A young man with spiky hair and rock-star bumper stickers and sunglasses despite the gloom is rocking out to some unheard music.  I imagine that he is a musician, a drummer in a punk band.  To relax, he listens to Jazz.  He goes home to his loft in the city with hardwood floors. He cooks intricate gourmet meals and eats them on his starlit balcony with a glass of wine.  I press my forehead against the dusty film of the car window, willing the young man to look at me.  But he doesn’t.

I drive down the same stretch of road every day, I think.  Every day down the same stretch of road, at the same time every day, and all of these people also drive everyday at the same time as me.  Why is it that I never recognize a single person in these cars from one day to the next?

5:47 p.m.  

Home is a dubious apartment in an even more dubious neighborhood. My answering machine says, “You have no new messages.” I only even still have a landline at my mother’s insistence.

5:55 p.m. 

I look in the refrigerator which is sterile and white, empty except for a few moldy, unrecognizable vegetables in the crisper, some peanut butter (no bread), some pickles, a Tupperware container filled with peas, some dry and crusty mustard, a package of tofu and a carton of orange juice.  I take out a frozen dinner from the freezer that claims to be a healthy alternative to all those other frozen dinners.  A close inspection of the nutrition facts shows that the only thing that differentiates it from its fellows is that there is less of it.  I put it in the microwave anyway.

5:57 p.m. 

I look through the mail.  There is a sale for a discount clothing store, but no attractive guys.  I throw it away.  Then there are three solicitations for new credit card accounts.  I rip them all in half and throw them away.  There are two credit card bills.  I put these in a pile of unpaid bills that I will pay when I get paid again, (days after all of them are due).  Last up is a Christian singles club addressed to me (or occupant).

I call the number on the bottom and politely ask to be removed from their mailing list.  When they ask me why, tell them, “Because I’m a Gay, Atheist Vegetarian.”  I hang up the phone with a feeling of satisfaction.

5:59 p.m.

I remove the frozen dinner from the microwave.  The edges are burnt, but the middle is still frozen.  I attempt to eat it anyway.

6:02 p.m.  

My phone rings.  “May I speak to Lance Brister, please?”

I eye the phone suspiciously.  “He’s not here right now.” I say.

“Then may I speak to the lady of the house?”  The voice asks.

“This is the lady of the house!”  I say in the butchest voice I can muster.  “So what did you want?”

Silence.  The other person disconnects.

6:47 p.m.  

The phone rings.  “Hi, this is Mandy with the Statesman.  Is this Lance Brister?”

I say, “I’m sorry.  I don’t speak English.”

“Mr. Brister, I’m not trying to sell you anything or make you take some survey.  I’d just like to let you know about an incredible offer that our newspaper is making to its readers.”

I say, “I do not exist.”

“Mr. Brister, is there a better time for us to contact you about this?”

I say, “Yes,” and hang up the phone.  I recognize that Mandy is only doing her job, a job she no doubt hates as much as I hate mine, but I can offer no solidarity. I’m quietly amazed that newspapers still exist, along with landlines and paper mail.

7:27 p.m.  

“Large, soy, no whip hot chocolate?”  The tattooed barista asks when I go to the counter.  I don’t know his name, but he, like all of the baristas at the Small World Café, knows my order without me having to ask.

I imagine saying, “No, tonight I’ll have an Italian soda for a change,” but I think better of it. I like hot chocolate.

8:14 p.m.  

Looking through the glass doors outside, I see a pair of men in leather jackets talking on their cellular phones.  I wonder if they’re talking to one another and smile.  A student sits at the table across from me in an unseasonable white tank top.  His brow is furrowed as he pours over a chemistry book.  Another two young men with early tans sit beside my table talking about how many carbohydrates should be in their diets and what exercise regimen they should begin.  I glance back and forth at faces, standing at the counter, behind the counter, at full lips, dark eyes, young, smooth skin, intense brows.  The faces I see lean into one another when they speak.  The faces either do not see me, or see me and dismiss me.

In my notebook I draw the sign of Cancer.  I write one line, “I sit across from you in coffee houses, too afraid to speak to you.”

I think to myself that I should leave, that there is no reason to stay, but I remain sitting with pen in hand, waiting for inspiration to come.

“I’ll just stay until 8:30,” I think as dark begins to slip into the clouds outside and everywhere, descending.

8:30 p.m. 

“I will stay until 9:00,” I amend as 8:30 slips by and I remain unspoken to.  Outside a sudden burst of rain pelts onto the concrete sidewalk.

Bored, I walk up to the counter to order another hot chocolate.

The barista says, “Another rip roaring Wednesday night, huh?”

8:37 p.m.  

There is a young man with dark hair so beautiful that when he leaves he takes all of the air out of the room with him.  I sit and silently resent the young man for being young, for not having even said goodbye, without stopping to wonder why it should make me sad that a stranger didn’t say goodbye to me.

9:03 p.m.  

“I will wait until it stops raining,” I say to myself, looking at the sky of blackened clouds above the dull, orange street lamps.

“Lance?”  A voice beside me asks.

Startled into looking up, I see an attractive man in his late twenties, who seems somehow familiar, though I can’t place the face just yet.

“Yes?”

“Hey, it’s Steve.” The young man says, shaking my hand.  “We used to work together at that shit-hole, Stars and Wipes.”

“Oh yeah.”  I say, remembering now.  We’d been hired the same time.  We’d trained together and complained about the ridiculousness of the company and the training propaganda.  We’d made fun of the boring trainer’s lisp. We’d reassured ourselves that we were only there temporarily until we got a break in the writing world. The only difference between us was that his stint was temporary.

“So what’s up, guy?” Steve asks.

I say, “Oh, you know.” I find myself folding up pieces of poetry and dropping them into my half-full coffee cup. “How about you? I ask.

“I just sold my third screenplay.” Steve says, grinning broadly with a mouth full of perfect, white teeth.

“Oh.”  I say, dismayed.  “That’s really…” I am unable to think of the appropriate adjective.

“Yeah.”  Steve agrees.  “So, buddy, what’re you up to these days?  How is post shit-hole life treating you?”

I pause before answering.  “I’m actually still working at said shit-hole.”

“Oh.”  He says, suddenly visibly uncomfortable.  He looks at his cell phone, though it hasn’t made any noise.  “You hated that place more than I did.”  He looks for a way out.  “Still, you must be like a supervisor or something by now, huh?”

“No.”  I say, ashamed, but enjoying Steve’s now obvious discomfort.  “I’m still doing the same job.  I’m even in the same cubicle as when we started.”

“Oh.”  He says, having already checked out of the conversation. “Well, it was really good seeing you, Dave.  I’ve got to take off though.  I’m meeting some people.”

“Okay.” I say. “Congrats.”

“Take care.” He says. “Good luck with…everything.” He makes his hasty retreat.

9:30 p.m.  

I leave the coffeehouse, packing up my books and laptop without looking at anyone.

9:47 p.m.  

Back at home the first thing that I do is check my messages.

There are none.

I turn on my computer.

10:00 p.m.  

I have two options.  I can try to finish a short story and submit it to a writing contest, or I can work on my supposed novel.

10:01 p.m.  

Net porn.

10:17 p.m.

I have two options.  I can watch a black and white French film with subtitles, or I can watch the impassioned South American documentary with subtitles.

10:18 p.m.  

I watch some horrible reality TV show where people attempt to cook while being angrily berated by a doughy-faced soccer player, while simultaneously surfing the net on my laptop.

10:34 p.m. 

I should probably get ready for bed.

12:07 a.m.  

I really should get ready for bed.

1:02 a.m.  

How have I spent two hours watching video clips of baby sloths?

1:04 a.m.  

I attempt to convince myself to go to sleep, but begin to dread the upcoming workday and find it impossible to do so. Eventually the Earth will be absorbed by the sun, and none of this will matter.  Of course that’s billions of years down the road, and I’ll have long been dust, an infinitely small particle in an ever expanding universe that is unmoved by my existence or lack of existence.

1:05 a.m. 

I lie in bed, fully clothed with all the lights on, staring at the ceiling.  Upstairs, the neighbors are having sex, again.  “Who’s your Crazy Monkey ?”  The man shouts.

“You’re my Crazy Monkey!”  A woman shouts back in reply.  Then, “Oh yeah! You’re my crazy monkey! You’re my crazy monkey!”

It is raining again.

I am no one’s crazy monkey.

1:15 a.m.

I get ready for bed.  Brushing my teeth, I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.  A thin, pale body.  The dark brown hairs of my chest.  The wrinkles beginning to form around my eyes and mouth.  The thinning hair above my forehead.  In places I can see my scalp.  I squint until my image blurs, smoothes out, disappears, and Cheshire Cat’s itself into a fading smile.  Then I rinse my mouth, turn out the bathroom light, and go to bed.

1:18 a.m. 

I lie on a bed of dinosaur bones, on my back, trying to position myself around a spring, but no matter how I insinuate myself, it grinds into my kidneys.  I try first my left side, then my right to no avail.  One leg outside the blankets.  Both legs.  Neither leg.  It is too hot beneath the blanket, too cold outside it.  I cannot sleep.

Some people count sheep.  Fat little, stumpy Q-tips leaping over wooden fences.  I count the different ways that the world could end. This is my discordant lullaby, my nighttime ritual.

One.  An asteroid crashes into some large, metropolitan area sending a plume of ash that blocks out the sun, causing mass extinction.

Two.  Uncontrollable greenhouse gases raise the temperature of Earth enough to melt the polar ice caps. Coastal cities flood. The temperatures continues to rise until the Earth is a bubbling, unbearable liquid planet.

Three.  Some crazed dictator sets off a nuclear holocaust, starting a chain reaction of exploding bombs, leaving the world radioactive. The survivors are all mutants, scouring the barren wasteland for any usable item from the pre-war days.

Four.  Alien invasion completely obliterates humanity, those of us who aren’t enslaved are cloned as an endless chain of people burgers for some intergalactic gourmet restaurant.

Five.  A virulent pandemic wipes out 90 percent of the population, sending the remaining populace back into the middle ages, struggling to survive.

Six.  The robots become self aware, and destroy us before we find a way to destroy the universe.

Seven.  Zombie apocalypse.

Eight.  I find my mind drifting off toward the edge of sleep. I need to do this every night. Destroy the world so that I can bear to wake up and face another day.

2:37 am

My cell phone rings, waking me from a fitful sleep.  I fumble around the bedside table for the phone in the familiar dark of my apartment.  I hesitate when I pick it up, not recognizing the number, thinking that a phone call this late can only mean something bad.

The phone rings again, startling me, and I answer, “Hello?”

“Is Eddie there?”

I hear loud music in the background, the sound of laughter.  Thinking I might have misheard, I say, “Huh?”

The voice on the phone says, “Tell that asshole we’re leaving without him.”

The phone disconnects.

I stare into the dark at the phone before rolling back over to try to sleep again.

Just four hours and twenty-three minutes until I have to be awake to go to work again.  Which means nine hours and twenty-three minutes until lunch.  About fifteen hours and twenty-three minutes until I’m home again, and 20 hours until I’ll be back in bed longing for sleep to wash over me. I try to stop thinking about the minutes, the hours, and days that make up my life.  The fragments make one day interchangeable with any other.  I need to get some sleep, to momentarily forget the carbon-heavy belly of my still-born days, to lose even the faintest flicker of myself, to lie on my body’s reflection in the middle of a rain swept street.  To lose myself in dreams.