Journal #25 (in which Tommy Tinder returns home)

Tommy Tinder loses it. It’s hard to say when exactly he loses it, when the barely hinged look in his eyes becomes unhinged entirely, but I first notice it around the time his inheritance hits the bottom of the bucket. When he’s scraping at nothing.

I seem to remember one overheard conversation that placed his remaining funds at $1100. Then later on, an overheard argument placing it just under $300. This was about four weeks ago. Theoretically, it should still be hanging around this number, given his food and lodging come from us. Even without a job, this should be enough. But it wasn’t. The tattoos on his arms and back grow more fierce, more bloody, the mosaic sprawls and stretches across his skin.

How much money he had to begin with, how much his dead mom left him, I don’t know, but it’s gone now. He’s squandered it all on body art and beer. I wonder if it’s his way of coping, his way of remembering her, but I don’t see how this could be. Not one of the tattoos seem to have anything to do with her: the decapitated rat, the devil sloth with wings, the snake coiling around his forearm, it all seems too meaningless, and maybe that’s the message.

None of this means anything. Maybe he learned this from his dead mom, probably he learned it from Brian. Brian has that way about him that brings meaninglessness into the lives of those around him.

Given Brian’s socialist nature, you would think that Tommy hitting the bottom of the bucket wouldn’t bother him, but it’s hard to ignore that this is when much of their fighting starts. Bruises in places there weren’t usually bruises, places that can’t mean kinky sexuality. The side of Tommy’s head, for example, a dark purpley red cloud.

I have to wonder if it’s not Tommy being broke that bothers Brian, but the meaning that Tommy being broke allows. It’s clear that Brian really does love Tommy, but what’s also clear is that Brian begins to doubt Tommy’s love for him. Under what circumstances does Tommy love Brian? If Tommy had a home, if he had any steady income, would Tommy still hang around?

Brian pressures Tommy into getting a job, not because they need the money, but because Brian needs proof that Tommy’s love is more than that of a dog who loves its master—the love that relies on food and tummy (Tommy?) rubs.

“I’ve never had a job where I haven’t wanted to kill myself,” Tommy says, and having said that, he finds a job taking care of some horses in Fernburg for $11 an hour. He doesn’t make it two weeks before he stops showing up. He doesn’t even show up for his paycheck.

I’ve already discussed with you Tommy’s desire for Brian to quit his job so the two of them can hit the road as tramps, selling trinkets or whatever is necessary to survive. Though Brian doesn’t relent easily, he does eventually relent. I believe this is his way of proving to himself that Tommy will still love him when he can no longer feed Tommy, nor shelter him.

He gives the bookstore his one month notice. I find this out from a coworker. Brian doesn’t even look me in the eye when I ask him if it’s true.

“It’s true,” he says.

And so my worst fear comes to pass: Brian has finally decided to leave me. He’s already left me emotionally, but I had hoped it was only a phase, a temporary passing.

It doesn’t help that our landlord finds out “we’ve” been harboring a bum on his property out past the pond. He pulls Brian aside one night and tells him that this will not stand, this must come to an end, Brian must tell Tommy that he can no longer stay there. Though at first I understand where our landlord is coming from, even I grow to resent the man. At night, when Tommy pulls down the drive to drop Brian off, our landlord comes outside with his dog and coffee and stands there on the porch in his bare feet and stares at Tommy until Tommy drives away. Only when he can no longer see Tommy’s break lights does our landlord raise his coffee to his lips, turn around, and go inside.

Brian isn’t the same and I see this, I feel this. Even with Tommy no longer at the cottage, living instead out of his car on the backstreets of Bellingham, Brian doesn’t talk to me the way he used to. We’ve forgotten how to be friends, or worse—we’re no longer friends at all. We’re a shell of what we once were, the last tie between us being that we live in this cottage together, and in a month’s time even this tie will break.

Though the end is near, we keep wearing the shell that we’ve become. I’m not sure if you’d call it a double date, but the four of us—Brian, Tommy, Jane and myself—find ourselves at Locust Beach and wading out into the low tide. When the tide is low here, you can walk more than a mile out, the mud sucking at your bare feet. It’s a wasteland out there, all kinds of sea creatures stranded, wondering where the water went. We’re pretty silent for four people together. I hold Jane’s hand and she holds mine, while Brian and Tommy walk with their hands buried in their pockets. The sky is far too overcast to watch the sun set over the islands. The sky simply goes from gray to darker gray to a blue that’s about to turn black.

There’s a significant tension coming from Brian and Tommy, and Jane notices this too. It’s one of those post fight tensions. These days they always seem to be in a state of post fight. I can tell Jane is uncomfortable but she’s too polite to say anything. I don’t say anything either.

Because even a mile out from shore, I feel his presence. His dark figure lurks on the beach. Constantly I’m looking over my shoulder.

“You okay, bud?” Brian asks me.

“Yes.”

Brian glances to where I’ve been glancing, and I wonder if Brian sees him too.

Back on the beach, we gather around an old fire pit. We all watch Tommy. He stacks rocks into a tower, as high as he can make it without the tower toppling, and then he takes a larger rock and throws it down upon the tower’s crown. Some of the rocks shatter. He does it again. He does it again. He creates the tower again only to destroy it.

“I have an idea,” Tommy says.

“What?” we all seem to say.

“I know some people who owe me money.”

The next thing I know, we’re all in Tommy’s car, driving up Hannegan toward Lynberg and listening to static on the radio. The closer we get to Lynberg, the more frequent the Bible verse signs, the anti-abortion signs, the MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN signs. And then there is the smell. This rancid rot that clings inside you, just behind the eyes.

There are lights behind us. I look out the back and make out the dark outline of that blue Honda, though really it’s impossible to tell the color. The lights are too bright, the night is too blue.

We roll into a flatness of farmland that feels more midwest than Washington. The small shadow of Lynberg approaches. Nobody is on the road but us and the lights that follow. And still there’s that smell.

We pull up before a house, one house of a long line of houses, all identical, all cut from the past. Though they all look the same, I recognize this house. I’ve never been here, but this house is exactly how I had pictured it. This here is the house of Mother and Father Tinder, the people who aren’t really the Mother and Father of Tommy Tinder at all. This is the house where Tommy lived after the death of his real mother, these are the people who took him in, only to pocket his advance rent when they kicked him out.

“Are you sure they’re home?” Brian asks Tommy.

Tommy turns off the headlights, shuts off the car. “Where else would they be?”

The two of them get out of the car, but Jane and myself stay in the backseat. Tommy takes something out of the trunk but I can’t see what it is. Brian peeks into the back and tells us both to stay put, to keep watch.

“Keep watch for what?” I ask.

Brian disappears with Tommy though the side gate, making their way behind the house. “KEEP WATCH FOR WHAT?”

But I already know. I don’t know if Jane is scared or bored next to me. I can’t hear her breathing.

I try to listen for any noise coming from inside the house, watch for any movement behind the drawn shades. And still there’s that smell. I feel it rotting the meat behind my eyes.

“Do you smell that?” I ask Jane.

I can’t see her in the dark, but I think she shakes her head. Or she nods. It’s really impossible to tell.

A car passes us from behind. And then it’s gone. A car passes us from ahead, then it’s gone. It might’ve been the same car.

My mind is spinning from the stench. I’m lightheaded and empty. Where are we again? All the houses look the same. An old song starts playing in my head— I’d Rather Die Young by The Hilltoppers. Once again that feeling I’ve been here before.

“What was that?” Jane asks.

“Did I say something?”

“I don’t know.”

They’ve been gone so long. I don’t know what they’re doing but they’ve been gone too long. Something must’ve gone wrong.

“I’ll be right back,” I whisper to Jane.

“What? Where are you going?”

I step outside into the street. It feels like an old movie. The light flickers like black and white film.

Still that music— I’D RATHER DIE YOUNG THAN GROW OLD WITHOUT YOU, SO DON’T EVER LEAVE ME WHATEVER YOU DO…

Still that smell.

I shut out the music. I follow the smell. It’s rotting everything I have left.

The same car passes on the night road, and this time I see his eyes, I see his hood.

I push through the unlatched gate, make my way into the backyard. The backyard is far too big for one suburban house. It has the feel of a farm, endless farmland. This line of houses shrouds this other world behind. Fields and cows and a sleeping moon, a far horizon. There are no clouds in Lynberg tonight.

There’s a red truck in the grass. The rancid smell is unbearable now. I would faint but I’m too lightheaded to fall.

A ringing reaches my ears and it’s coming from the bed of the truck. I stare at the bed of the truck a long time before I realize what I’m staring at, what’s staring at me. It’s the corpse of a baby cow. Black eyes piercing through me. The night is warm, too warm for a corpse to keep. So it doesn’t. It’s hard to tell where the corpse ends and the truck bed begins. The bloodless corpse, the bloody truck.

The stench floods through me. Everything is so One. I am One. I am the One. The One.

“Jesus, what is he doing?”

I am the One.

“Hey!” someone screams at me.

I am the One to save you.

The dead cow looks into me. “But you didn’t,” it seems to say. “You couldn’t save me.”

A hand grabs my shoulder and turns me. I see Brian’s eyes, my own eyes reflected in them. In my eyes in his eyes I see the eyes of the dead baby cow, a fly perched on its pupil.

“What are you doing? Let’s go!”

Brian has to pull me back to the car. I don’t remember much else. I vaguely remember the flicking on of porch lights, the black rubber skid of a car.

The screech wakes me. The warmth of Jane’s hand.

It seems there’s a church on every corner. Crosses loom over us, follow us into the country, but they’re just power lines.

“Why the cow?” I ask anyone.

“Cows die,” Brian says.

“But why put it in the back of a truck?”

In the rearview mirror, Tommy’s eyes meet mine. “Where else would you put a cow after it dies?”

I don’t know, I don’t say. I don’t have an answer to anything.

A billboard on the side of the road— MARK 1:3: THE VOICE OF ONE CALLING IN THE WILDERNESS, PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.

This doesn’t sit well in my stomach, it doesn’t sit well with my mind.

Apparently in Lynberg, dead baby cows in the backs of trucks are a common occurrence. Before I lose consciousness, all I can think about are these cows, how many of them dead there must be.

Over the coming weeks, back at the cottage, I have trouble eating, I can’t sleep through the cold sweats. Those dreams again. I see her approach me, those eyes, that black hair floating like seaweed in green water.

“Annie?” I say.

“No. Who’s Annie?”

Brian places a bowl of soup to my lips. The broth is hot but I drink it.

Annie is no one.

I’m not sure how long it takes, how much work I miss but my strength comes back. Though my body has taken a hit, emaciated limbs, I feel fit for the world.

“The full beard is a good look,” Brian says.

“Is it?”

Brian nods.

“Where’s Jane?”

“She thinks you have the flu.”

“And what do you think?”

Brian shrugs. He watches me carefully.

“Who’s the man in the hood?” he asks.

“Have you seen him?”

“Who is he?”

“How much do you know?”

Brian shrugs.

My fingers are ghosts of what they once were, and they weren’t much. They tremble as they pick up the tea that Brian has made for me.

“You talk in your sleep,” he says.

“What have I been saying?”

“You’re at the center of everything, aren’t you?”

I nod.

Brian nods too. He doesn’t nod out of having nothing to say, out of not knowing what to do, he nods because he knows. He knows exactly what it feels like to be at the very center. To feel like you’re responsible.

“What do you have to do?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Is Annie part of this?”

“She has to be.”

“Who is she?”

“Some girl.”

“From Chapman?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me about her?”

I shake my head. I don’t have it in me. I don’t know why he’s taken such an interest in me, or in Annie. Only Brian knows that over the past weeks, my tongue has slipped, in my delirium I’ve been calling him Annie.

The only thing that keeps me afloat is writing. This blog, this investigative journal that used to be about Tinder, that still is about Tinder (you just don’t know it yet), is the only thing that keeps me sane, attached to this world of things. But on the side I’m working on something else. It’s a story I wrote before I started this blog, a story that doesn’t have an ending.

I make an ending up. I write it so the memory feels complete, like it means something. But worlds collide and it’s hard to keep things separate. The stories seep into each other and I really wanted to keep this one clean, keep that one unrelated, but they’re bleeding into each other like the decomposing cow and the truck.

With Tommy always gone, sleeping and living out of his car, Brian and I find ourselves sitting in silences growing once again comfortable—Brian reading, me writing an ending to a memory that needs an ending. Then it’s over.

The end is here.

“Brian,” I say, “you want to know about Annie?”

“Yes,” he says.

So I give it to him, I give him the story about Annie. I introduce him to a story that’s really about him.

🐄

join man next week for journal #26 (in which said man gives Brian his origin story)

Journal #24 (which involves sex and lies and somebody dies)

Every text, every phone call she gets, I assume it’s from him. I’m not sure if she realizes how little I begin to trust her. The late night phone calls grow more frequent. Sometimes she answers and steps outside, sometimes she just lets it ring. When she’s asleep, I try to answer her phone without waking her. She sleeps like a stone. I crawl over her and take the call.

On the phone I don’t say anything. I wait for the phone to speak first. I’m not breathing, and in the silence I can hear the phone not breathing too. We’re at a standoff. This wouldn’t have been odd, suspicious even, if the the silence hadn’t been so deep. The silence was too much to be nothing. I know it’s you. I know who you are. I know everything but what you’re doing, or how much time passes. It’s so clean, the silence. I lose myself in it. I lose myself in that oceanic feeling. Everything becomes so connected: me and the silence, the silence and the phone, the non-voice and the girl that sleeps next to me. They’re connected though I don’t know how. How Walker is connected to Jane is a mystery, but they’re connected. Maybe she’s working for Walker, maybe she’s against him. Maybe he’s tried to pay her off and she’s refused. Or! Maybe she was working for him but now she’s not—she’s backed out of their agreement because she’s fallen for me. One more theory: he calls her only to fuck with me, to wait for me to pick up and betray her trust, so I can again and again lose myself in his silence.

All these storylines flood my mind at once, contradicting everything.

Whatever is going on, I’m full of fear. Fear that she’s lying to me, fear that she’s putting herself in danger by refusing his demands. Fear that he hasn’t made contact at all, that he’s simply waiting on the sidelines for me to destroy this like I destroy everything else. Fear that he’s right, like he’s always been right.

A gray field at dusk. A wet electricity to the air. Above, a blanket of clouds pulls over us, like Nyx the Greek goddess of night covering the world in her shadow. The air grows chilly, both of us huddled up under quilts. Explosions bump the earth. Lights flicker and pulse in the haze. She wears a plaid flannel of red, white, and blue to commemorate the holiday. Sometimes a spray of sparks will shoot up from a neighboring property, followed by a splitting crack and echo. I’ve never been to Germany, but the field and the fence, the horses and the farmhouses, the light that’s turning black and gray, this feels like Germany, this feels like war. This feels like a memory of a past life. The two of us, surrounded by war. Me, once again surrounded by, haunted by, a past life I’m not sure was ever mine.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” I say.

“It’s cold,” she says.

“Me too.”

We pick up the blankets and make our way past the pond to the cottage where it’s warm, where inside it still feels like war.

A beach on Chuckanut Bay. We skip stones into the water. Actually I’m skipping stones and she’s just watching from the rocks. My wrist, then my arm grows tired. This feeling floods through me. “I’m so tired,” I say to her and sit down at her feet.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too.”

Her house. She’s outside again, on one of her late night phone calls from no one. This is a short one but it’s heated, her voice sounds emaciated and helpless.

“Who was it?” I ask when she comes back in.

“No one,” she says.

I was right.

“Hey,” she says, snuggling into me. “Hey, I love you.”

“I love you too.”

It’s as if our relationship has become just this, an empty shell of the moment we told each other we loved the other, the only moment it felt true. Since then the words become an attempt to recreate the moment, mimic a feeling that no longer exists. We felt that feeling already, experienced it, exhausted it, put it to bed. It’s no longer there.

Even sex becomes a play-act, both of us attempting to capture some past feeling. The longer we’re together, the rougher she wants it. She wants me to choke her, she want me to pull her hair. Recently, she introduced ropes. I’m afraid to ask her what it is she’s trying to recreate. I fall into her fantasy and lose sight of my own. I grow empty,  tired, I have nothing left to give. I empty myself into her, find myself emptier than before. All this emptying, she must be so full. But in her eyes when it’s over, I see an emptiness there too. And yet I have this incessant need to empty myself further. A desire to empty myself of desire. They say desire is the root of all suffering. What I’m trying for is the nothing one feels after. In that nothing one feels peace. You lose yourself in that nothing like nothing else. Nothing is everything, yet this nothing doesn’t last.

Nothing lasts forever.

But not in the way you want.

I no longer feel his eyes on me, I no longer feel his breath lap on the back of my neck everywhere I go. It would be a relief if I thought he’d given up, but I know he hasn’t. He’s keeping his distance. He knows I’m better at self destruction than he ever was at destruction.

“I love you,” she says to me.

“Are you sure?”

“What? Of course I’m sure.” She thinks I’m toying with her.

“But how do you know? How do you know it’s real?”

“Because I love you.”

“But what does that mean?”

“It means I love you.”

I want to go on, fight this further, but we just had sex. Meaning I’m too tired. I have nothing left.

“Hey,” she says, lifting my chin. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

She lays her head on my chest as the clock ticks past midnight. I don’t fall asleep. I don’t think she falls asleep either. We lie like that till dawn. She gets dressed and goes to class.

The longer I’m with her, the worse I know it’s going to be for her. The sooner I leave her, the safer she’ll be. When I get to thinking like this, I think maybe I do love her after all—the words aren’t empty, just changing into something words can’t grasp. But then he’s there, watching me again from under his hood. His eyes grow impatient, but he knows he doesn’t have to do a thing. He won’t have to lay a hand on her.

There’s been talk at work of KyAnne coming back from Alaska to resume her life here as coffeeshop girl. But bad news reaches us before she does. Her body was found on the side of a mountain. The official story is that she slipped while rock climbing, the rope not tied properly into her harness. An amateur mistake, they say it was. But coffeeshop girl was no amateur, because outside of being coffeeshop girl she was also rock climbing girl. The news doesn’t fill me with sadness but it fills me with fear. Any doubt I had about Walker, my stalker in the hood, is gone. This is more than a game to him. And the way Jane says she loves me, I know she’ll say no to him if he tells her to stay away. She’ll stay with me to her end.

I have to tell her.

“I don’t love you.”

“What?” she says.

“I don’t love you anymore.”

She narrows her eyes as if this will help her to read me, to tell if I’m serious. I have this way about joking that people take too seriously. She looks at me to make sure this is one of those times, one of my tasteless jokes. The way her eyes grow wet, I know she sees that this is not one of those times, one of those jokes.

“Did I do something?” she asks me. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No. I just don’t love you.”

“Did you meet someone else?”

“No.”

She doesn’t say anything, and then she says it again. “I love you.”

I don’t say anything.

“Was it the late night calls? Did you think I was cheating on you?”

“No.”

“Because it was nothing. It was this guy I met before I met you. It was this guy who I hooked up with before I knew you. I haven’t seen him since I met you and now he won’t stop calling me. He won’t leave me alone. It’s nothing, I swear. I love you.”

“You haven’t seen him since?”

“No— I mean, once. A few weeks after we started dating. He texted me to say that we should just be friends and hang out, that he’s new to the area and has no one else. I felt bad for him so I saw him.”

“Did anything happen?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

“He tried to put his arm around me, but I said no. So he didn’t.”

“Nothing else?”

“Well—”

“What?”

“I mean, later he asked if he could kiss me. And I said ‘what’ because I thought I misheard him. He asked me again and when I said nothing he pushed me against the wall—”

She pauses. Her eyes find her fingers and she fiddles with her rings.

“I was so scared. I thought it was happening again.”

“What did you do?”

“He placed his hand to my chest, above it I mean, and asked if I was scared. I told him I wasn’t. ‘Your heart is racing,’ he said. ‘Are you sure you’re not scared?’ And I told him no. I had to pretend I wasn’t upset or angry either, just so he’d let me go. I thought it was the only way.”

I don’t say anything.

“I love you,” she says.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I thought you’d be mad.”

“I am mad, but not at you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” I say, because I forgot how this started.

We fall into her bed. Holding her in my arms, I feel her tremble. Later she tells me about the time in high school, what she meant when she said she thought it was happening again. She had been seeing this guy, had gone on a couple of dates with him when they’re driving home from the movies and he grows frustrated with her because she doesn’t know any good places to park, any good make out spots in town. She says she’s sorry but she just doesn’t know any. He gets angry, starts yelling at her, until finally she finds a pull off, not very private, where the two of them crawl into the backseat.

“I never told him no, though,” she tells me.

“Did you say anything else?”

“No.”

Neither of them said a word the entire way home. When she dropped him off he didn’t say anything.

The first person she told about this was her school counselor, several months after. What the counselor told her was that “These things happen. Look at it this way, at least he thought you were attractive.”

There’s anger and then there’s anger. Holding her in my arms I feel both. I know how Tommy feels when he says he could kill someone, when he eventually does kill several.

“I love you so much,” she says to me. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

I hold her so tight that night. In the early hours of morning, 3:00 or 4:00, her phone keeps ringing. It keeps ringing but neither of us answer. The ringing is welcome tonight. Without it, that level of silence would be too much. You would lose yourself, yes, but I doubt you’d ever get yourself back, climb from the depths of yourself and back into the light.

I ignore the ringing, let it become something else. When she falls asleep I listen to her snore.

😐😔😴💤

join man next week for journal #25 (in which Tommy Tinder returns home)

Journal #23 (in which said man discusses Jane and the L-word)

Her hair drifts across my face. Her hair is lavender, her eyes are hazel. Right now her eyes are closed. I’m on my back and she holds me down. Legs straddling me, she slides across the crotch of my jeans.

I wince, because sometimes it hurts. Her movements grow violent, pressing down into me. I’m caught on something in my jeans.

“Hey,” I say, “hey.”

She slows down, opens her eyes. Her hair tickles my ears.

“Softer,” I say. “Slower.”

“Sorry,” she says. Her cheeks flush red.

“You’re okay,” I say.

I close my eyes, guide her hips into a rhythm. She supports her lower body on her knees as opposed to my crotch. Her movements become gentle caresses.

Above the waist of her cutoffs she’s topless. Her skin is smooth, pale except for the freckles that begin at her shoulders, sprinkle her face. She leans into me and I count them, I make out constellations. The first constellation I find, it was on our first date some weeks ago, is a cross in the Northern Hemisphere of her face, just to the left of her eye. On her forehead there’s a heart. Now, our faces just inches apart, I make out a new constellation on her left cheek and it’s her. In her freckles I see her own face. I take my hand off her hip and rest it on her cheek.

Her eyes open and I lean up to kiss her.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” she says with her smile, sweeping the hair from her eyes.

My heart is pounding, and I try to say it, what I’ve been trying to say for a week now.

“Hey,” I say again.

She just smiles this time, a little tilt to her head.

“Jane. I love you.”

At first she says nothing. Maybe she didn’t hear me, maybe she pretends she didn’t. Blood rushes her cheeks, blots out her freckles. She pulls herself down to shut me up me with a kiss. She pushes back, her eyes on mine. The corner of her mouth twitches.

“I love you too,” she says.

And I stare at her, the hammering of my heart easing only a little.

Suddenly her smile falls and she says, “Wait, what did you say?”

“What?”

Her face is bright red now. She rolls off me and buries her face into the pillow.

“What is it?” I say.

“I’m so embarrassed.” Her voice is muffled by the pillow.

“What? Why?”

“I thought you said it. I thought you said it or else I wouldn’t have said it. I thought you said it first.”

“I did say it first.”

She peeks from the pillow. “Are you sure?”

I nod, I brush her hair over her ear. “I love you.”

“Say it again.”

“I love you, Jane.”

“And you said it first.”

“I said it first.”

“Because the way you were looking at me after I said it, it looked like you had said something else after all. That I said ‘I love you too’ like an idiot to something else completely.”

“No, I said I love you.”

“I love you too,” she says. And she lifts her head from the pillow. As I kiss her I feel her smiling. I roll myself on top of her.

It’s been a month now since our first date, 41 days since we first matched on Tinder.

When I see her for the first time, I don’t think much of her. I don’t think much of her because her photos lied to me. I approach her from the parking lot. She’s sitting at a picnic table, pretending to text. Really, she looks nothing like her photos. The only reason I believe it’s her is because she keeps looking up and then looking away, like she thinks my photos lied too.

Her hair is tied back, splaying out like the tail of a comet. She wears a blue fleece jacket, yoga pants and hiking boots. We agreed to meet here at Whatcom Falls for a short hike, just a walk really. I’m too dressed up for this. I thought this was only a walk. My bowels spin with something mucky.

“Hi. Jane?”

She gets up, slips her phone into her backpack. “Yes. And you must be—”

“Yes.”

Her voice is an octave deeper than I thought it would be. Somehow, I think, she lied about that too.

We shake hands.

“Sorry I’m late,” I say.

“It’s okay.”

I rock on my heels, my buttocks clenching themselves.

“I’ll be right back.”

In the dingy park bathroom I empty myself. I’m sweating in this stink and pray she’s too far away from the bathrooms to hear this, to smell this. My heart hammers everything out. A delirious calm talk me to deliverance. Walker, is this enough to keep you distracted? Is this enough to keep you away? How much longer must I play this charade? I don’t want to do this.

When I exit the bathroom, her phone is out and she’s “texting” again. Either she’s nervous or doesn’t care.

“Shall we?” I ask, sarcastically offering her my elbow.

She takes it. We walk toward trees.

“Sorry,” I say, “I’ve never met up with anyone on Tinder before.”

She stays silent on that one.

The roar of the falls makes the silence bearable. We lean over the bridge for a time and watch the white crash of water.

I don’t see Walker, but I feel his hooded presence among the trees. I suggest we keep moving. I don’t see him anywhere on the trails—everyone seems genuinely uninterested in us. Still, I get the feeling we’re being followed. When I turn around nobody is there.

“What is it?” she asks me.

I shake my head.

We make our way further into the trees, away from prying eyes. It only strikes me later that this need for isolation was interpreted by her as something more romantic.

We find a secluded spot by a brook, where it pools into more of a pond. She takes off her boots and dips her feet in the water. I watch her toes. I don’t say anything for awhile.

There’s a rustling over in the brush that’s more than the wind. There is no wind. Somewhere, a branch snaps. A bird takes off through the trees.

I tell Jane we should go.

“Oh?”

“We should go back to my place.”

“I’d be okay with that.” A timid smile.

And there it is again, my paranoia interpreted as something real—my flight from Walker seen as romantic.

On the darkening roads lined with trees, she follows me in her Subaru back to my cottage. When we get there she asks if I have anything to eat.

Her hunger reminds me of my own hunger. I have nothing to eat.

“That’s okay,” she says.

On my mat in the corner, we use blankets and pillows to make it wide enough for two.

We make love three times. The second time to make up for the first. Third time to make up for the second. Every time I feel inadequate, out of practice, tired. Nothing worth writing about.

Something wakes me with a start in the early hours of the morning, but it’s only her snores. I look outside. It’s too dark to make out any figure in the trees.

I put a kettle on the stove and its whistling shriek wakes her. She sits up, the blankets falling from her naked body, and she watches me.

“Tea?” I ask her.

She nods.

My mind settles as I burrow back next to her under the blankets, both of us balancing the steaming mugs. The touch of her skin calms me. Briefly, I forget about Walker, about what happened five years ago. We snuggle back into sleep. We don’t drink the tea.

She leaves at first light. I stand on the porch and watch her car roll around the last of the trees, my skin pulsating. She disappears down the main road.

That’s when I see him, the dark figure lurking in the breeze. I go inside and shut all the blinds. When I open them again, he’s gone.

Though I continue to see Jane, I’m always on the lookout for the man in the hood, the man in the blue Honda. One day Jane and I are walking around Lake Padden and I ask her, “Do you ever get the sense you’re being followed?”

“No. Do you?”

“No.”

Another time we’re downtown and I see him in a crowd watching us over the others.

I ask her, “Do you see that man?”

“Which one?”

“That one.”

“I can’t tell where you’re pointing. What does he look like?”

I don’t have a good answer to that.

At her place, condom wrappers pile up, used condoms fill the trash. I try not to think about the man called Walker. I convince myself that maybe he’s not out there, trying to destroy this, trying to take what I have.

In bed, I roll off of her. We lay side by side looking into each other’s eyes. “I love you so much,” I say to her.

“I like hearing you say that,” she says.

When she kisses me, her phone makes a ding from the bedside table.

“One sec,” she says, and rolls away from me. She checks her phone but doesn’t text back.

“Who was it?”

“No one.”

“Everything okay?”

She kisses me. “Everything is good.”

She falls asleep in my arms. Over her hair I watch her phone. It makes dings. It makes vibrations. Carefully I reach over her and pick up her phone. Several texts from someone named John W.

I can’t open her phone. I don’t know the code.

When she wakes up, I shut my eyes and pretend to sleep. My blood pummels through my veins. I feel her look at me, and then her legs swing over the side of the bed. She picks up her phone. She texts John W back.

Outside, later in the night, she makes a phone call that grows heated. She seems upset about something. I try not to listen. I try to listen but I can’t hear anything over the blood slugging my skull.

When she comes back, my eyes are still closed. She wraps her arms around me and makes me the little spoon. She whispers “I love you” in my ear but I don’t say anything back. I feel her eyes on me a long time before, finally, she settles in and falls asleep too.

I’m not asleep.

😒📱

join man next week for journal #24 (which involves sex and lies and trouble in paradise)

Journal #22 (in which Tommy Tinder writes a book)

Some weeks ago, long before I started seeing the manic-pixie-dream-girl named Jane, I ask Tommy why he never uses emojis in his texts or Tinder messages. He asks me what an emoji is. I show him.

An emoji is this: 😀

Or this: 😟

An emoji is used to express a feeling, or tone. Sometimes a place or thing.

This is also an emoji: 😮

That’s what Tommy looks like when I introduce him to emojis. He had no idea these weapons of communication were out there. His texts and messages become flooded with them. Though at first his usage is rough, amateurish if you will (Brian even tells me he wishes I never introduced Tommy to emojis), his emoji grammar and flow quickly improve. He becomes an expert, surpassing even me. Combined with his raw texts already so full of poetry, his mastery of the emoji turns his messages into something else entirely, something that transcends anything I’ve seen on any phone, in any prose. You would think that with his help, with his guiding words and emojis, I’d be drowning in Tinder pussy, but I refuse to let him pilot entire conversations. Once he gets a conversation going, I take the controls, and the conversation crashes most spectacularly. I drown in something that is definitely not Tinder pussy.

I scroll through his phone and try to emulate his style, not just in my texts and messages but in my own writing, in this investigative journal you’re reading. Quickly he becomes my favorite writer, surpassing Denis Johnson and Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Murakami—and Tommy isn’t even a writer. There’s one text of his that leaves me speechless, so full it is of heart and soul and emojis, I’m tempted to quit writing altogether. I read it again and again, the seamless flow between his words and the yellow faces. When I finally hand the phone back to him, I say (sarcastically of course) that—

“You could write a novel with just emojis.”

He stares at me a long time before he turns around and leaves the cottage, deep and ponderous emojis swimming in the surface of his eyes. I don’t see him for two weeks. I’m not sure if he’s in the tent or living out of his car on some backstreet, but even Brian sees very little of him. The quiet at the cottage grows unsettling. I try to talk to Brian but it seems we’ve forgotten how to be friends, so set am I in my ways as a third wheel.

When Tommy reappears, he reappears with a full beard and a thick manuscript under his arm, must be at least 400, 500 pages. The title is: 😢😭🗻 🌋 🌌 😶. Tommy tells me this translates to The Tears That Carve Down Mountains, though he admits even his own translation is rough. I take the manuscript in my hands, flip through the pages. Every page is filled with emojis in proper manuscript format: double spaced, one-inch margins.

At first glance it’s gibberish, and then I start reading. I stay up all night with that novel and call in sick to work the next day so I can finish it. When I set the manuscript down, I have to push it away from me in fear I’ll soak the pages. I bury my head in my hands and cry like I haven’t cried in years. Tommy, he says so much and yet says it with so little. The plotting is intricate, his webbing of the three acts with a mysterious fourth dispersed in all three like some sort of dream. And how he pulls from classics I know very well he hasn’t read! Yet every time I read it, the story is different, a new catharsis takes me and water floods from my eyes, emptying some other part of my soul. Honestly, I don’t know how he did it.

I play it cool when I hand it back.

“It’s good,” I say.

And he flashes me that childish smile, that cheeky grin as he raises his chin and closes his eyes.

“How much is true?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “Some of it. Other parts I made up.”

I nod. I want to ask him about the parts involving his mother: did you really experience all of that so deeply? But I don’t have to ask, the proof is there on the page, in every emoji. His choices so abstract, yet so impossibly specific.

Sitting down to write, I try to write like Tommy writes. I try to use only emojis but it’s impossible to lose myself in the work. Without a keyboard exclusively of emojis, how is one supposed to disappear? I want to ask Tommy but I’m ashamed. I pound out a story of emojis but it doesn’t make sense. On Tinder, I send messages exclusively in emojis, but I receive only question marks and WTFs in response. And silence, I get that too.

There are some things you cannot fake, and you cannot fake being Tommy. His vagabond, bohemian lifestyle. His art without his being an artist. The way he makes Brian’s legs tingle in the night. There is just no way.

I want to be Tommy but I don’t have the courage. I want to be Tommy but I don’t have the style. I want to hate Tommy because he’s taken everything from me, but I can’t.

When he hears about my first date with Jane, his grin is so genuine, his eyes so proud, and his embrace so warm that really, you just can’t hate him. He pats me on the back and says, “You did it, bro. You did it.” I know he uses ‘bro’ ironically. Not even Brian shows that kind of emotion when things between Jane and myself grow more serious. If anything, he drifts further away, he stiffens when he’s around me, and yet somehow his eyes seem softer, full of some sort of emotion I don’t think there’s an emoji for. It almost reminds me of how much I love him.

We only pass each other now, using the cottage in shifts. I only see him with Tommy and he only sees me with Jane. Jane asks me if there is anything going on between Brian and me. I tell her there isn’t. I tell myself, quietly, that I need to be more careful. She’ll see right through me.

One morning I get a text from Tommy and it’s all in emojis. Unusual for Tommy, the text is incomprehensible. It’s gibberish. It makes me smile that, maybe, his novel was only a fluke. I don’t respond.

He finds me at work. His eyes are swollen and stale tears stick to his cheeks. His hands tremble. “I think Brian is going to leave me,” he says.

“No,” I say.

“Are you sure?”

“No.”

He wipes tears from his face and snot from his nose. He smears it on his skinny jeans.

“He hasn’t said anything to you?”

I shake my head. It pains me to see him like this, but then again, it doesn’t. It’s nice to see him lose something too.

“If he tells you something, you’ll tell me right?”

“I will.”

Tommy smiles at me and tells me I’m a good friend. He says I’m a good friend even outside of his relationship with Brian. I have trouble wrapping my head around that.

Brian, as expected, tells me nothing. On the nights when I’m not at Jane’s, when Brian and Tommy have the cottage to themselves and I’m sleeping outside in my van, I hear their arguments grow louder, and then quieter which I know is worse.

Honestly, I don’t know what their fights are about, if they’re about anything at all. To my ears they don’t make sense. They shout about things they seem to agree on, saying it in different ways, ignorant of the fact that they’re saying the same thing.

I try to piece it all together, everything I hear. I make a list of the facts—

Fact #1: Tommy’s inheritance is running out. What was once an unknown sum has dwindled down to $300. He’s been selling what he has, but now has nothing left to sell but himself. (I think of his novel, he still has that. He doesn’t realize he’s sitting on a goldmine.)

Fact #2: He’s been trying to convince Brian to quit his job at the bookstore. This comes up a lot in their arguments. They scream at each other about it, yet they seem to be in agreement. I’m afraid they’ll find out they’re in agreement on this one, because if they do, Brian might succumb to Tommy’s next desire, which I lay out in—

Fact #3: Tommy wants Brian to hit the road with him. To bum it up across the country. To drag Brian into his homelessness.

Though I’m getting ahead of myself again, Brian does eventually quit the bookstore. Though he decides to hit the road, he decides to hit the road with someone else.

I’m there when Brian breaks the news to Tommy. I’ve never seen someone so full of light, lose the light just like that. Tommy doesn’t shed a tear, he just stands there, lifeless and empty, his world falling to pieces around him, everything he wanted, everything he’s already had.

His car is empty but for the manuscript that still sits in the backseat, still spotted with tears from the many hours I’ve spent reading it. I expect he’ll write an even better novel about this, tapping into this new heartbreak, this new Hell he’s found himself in.

Tommy looks to me, his eyes so full of empty. “You,” he says. “Friend,” he says. He turns to the car and grabs the manuscript. “I have something for you.”

He walks toward me, waving the manuscript. And my heart lights up, the thoughtfulness of this parting gesture. As he hands it to me, he drops it. He lights a match, drops that too. Flames lick up from the pages, a black ashiness crawls across the little yellow faces. I burn myself trying to put it out. I try to stomp, whomp out the flames.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he says to me, but I don’t believe him.

I’m jumping on the pages now, the fiery ashes. Only my tears are enough to put it out, but it’s too late. I rake my hands through the ashes, the fragments of faces.

“You’re pathetic,” he says, then walks away.

I’m too focused on the mountain of char before me, my tears carving it down to nothing, I don’t see Tommy say goodbye to Brian. I don’t see them kiss, I don’t see the paper, the list that Brian slips into Tommy’s back pocket before Tommy drives away.

The sun sets over the trees and I gather what scraps are left from Tommy’s lost opus. In the cottage, sleepless, I try to piece the fragments together, but no structure comes, no meaning to make of it. I fall asleep and dream of what I’ve left out, what I haven’t told you, but this lacks structure too.

I wake to Brian shaking me, saying it’s time to go, when I realize I fell asleep in the surviving yellow faces, all of them staring at me with their black eyes. Sad faces stuck on my chest, laughter on my forehead, tears on my arms. It all means nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this nothing ever was something to begin with. Sometimes I wonder if the something was only nothing after all.

But here I am, so far ahead of myself, I’m losing myself, I’m losing Brian, and reader, I’m losing you too.

🔥 📖 🔥

join man next week for journal #23 (in which said man discusses Jane and the L-word)

Journal #21 (in which said man overhears a private conversation)

I hear it coming from Tommy’s parked car. Muffled voices. Tommy does most of the talking. Brian fills in the rest with silence. The conversation is as follows:

“Sorry, I can’t talk about this anymore. It makes me too angry, just thinking about it.”

*silence*

“I’ve never really wanted to kill someone before.”

*silence*

I peek through the blinds. Brian sits in the passenger seat, staring blankly at the windshield. Tommy has his face buried in his hands. They don’t look at each other for a long time. Tommy goes on—

“You can leave me, that’s fine, I can handle that. I lost my mom, I can lose anyone. But if you do leave me, leave me with a list so I have something to do.”

Brian glances toward the cottage, his eyes meeting mine. I close the blinds, retreat to my corner. I hear an engine rattle into half-life. Flat tires rolling, gurgling over gravel.

It’s awhile before I realize what Tommy means by list. He means a list of the men who’ve raped Brian (there are four of them). I realize this after Brian finally does leave Tommy to join me on the road to Los Angeles and I know Brian must have left him with this list. On the road—I don’t know how it reaches us—Brian receives a letter. I find it tucked within the pages of his battered copy of Infinite Jest (a book he calls extremely transphobic, but his favorite book anyway). Inside the envelope is a newspaper clipping from the Bellingham Herald detailing a horrific car accident, in which three people died. One of whom was Buddy Guy, the last of the four men who raped Brian. Buddy was driving his pickup when it begins to rain, a hard rain unlike the usual mist of rain salting the state of Washington. He flips on his windshield wipers only to find that his windshield wipers aren’t there. Rain battering the glass, a wash of wet, he speeds past a stop sign and T-Bones a Subaru, killing two others inside.

At the bottom of the clipping, in Tommy’s uneven scrawl, it reads—

That’s one. I love you. Kisses and things.

The clipping is in better condition than the book. I fold it carefully down its worn crease and slip it back inside.

But that all comes later. We haven’t even gotten to the road yet. I don’t even know that in several weeks time I’ll be on my way back to California, Brian at my side. Right now I’m still hunched over my phone, frantically swiping everyone right on Tinder in the hopes of shaking the man who stalks me, follows me, the man who calls himself Walker, the man who first made himself known to me that mad summer five years ago, just south of LA, where all this began, stopped, begins again now.

Swiping everyone right, it’s no surprise you get more matches, but I’m not paying attention to the quantity, nor the quality. This is a game, you see? None of this is real. This is the card I’m playing, my joker, my jester. If Walker is to come back now, after abandoning me for so long—and in abandoning me convincing me that all of that, that summer, was nothing but a manic episode—then he’s got another thing coming. At least now it makes sense, why I’ve had such poor luck on here. Any girl that shows an interest, he pays them off, tells them to stay away. I doubt they put up much resistance. They don’t know me, they don’t realize I’m worth it.

Walker, I will keep you busy, I will fuck with you. How many matches must I get before you run out of payouts, before you can no longer buy them off?

Nine matches now, Walker. How do you like them peaches?

I don’t look at their faces. I send them messages, standard compliments about eyes, about piercings, about smiles. Nobody responds. As long as I keep this up, Walker can’t bother me.

10. 11. 12 matches strong.

A petite blond who wants to pet my dog— HI! I LIKE YOU HAIR

A gymnast, flexible legs— HI! I LIKE YOUR EYES

A manic pixie dream girl, lavender hair— HI! I LIKE YOUR FRECKLES YOU HAVE THE BEST KIND OF FRECKLES

Only the manic pixie dream girl responds, which is good because it means Walker is losing pace, he can’t keep up or he’s running out of resources. Either way, I’m winning.

The name of the manic pixie dream girl is Jane. What Jane says is—

Thanks! ☺️ I haven’t heard that one on here before.

While I stare at the screen, absorbing the shock of an actual response, debating whether to say “really?” or “you haven’t”, she sends me another message—

Your bio says you like to read, what are your favorite books?

I swallow, give her my short list of 20.

While I sit there, patiently waiting for a response, I quickly add—

and you?

She names three. The Handmaid’s Tale and Geek Love and The Secret History. I wonder if I sent her too many, but she doesn’t mention it. She asks me if I like working at the bookstore.

I tell her that I do, quickly asking if she does too.

I like shopping in the bookstore, she says, if that’s what you mean.

Oh, I type, I’ve never seen you in there before.

I haven’t seen you in there either 😁. (Though I later find out this is a lie.)

I tell her I would’ve remembered her hair, it being lavender and all.

I only just dyed it, she says. Do you like it?

I do.

I scroll through her photos, see that her real hair color is auburn. Then there’s her big toothed smile. Those freckles, they really are something else. In them you can make out constellations.

The world becomes a dream, a daze, colors of light flood my vision. I forget about Walker, about this game we’re playing.

“Are you okay?” Brian asks me. He’s just coming home from work, dropping his keys onto the desk.

I nod.

He pulls off his boots, scratches the pale skin within the holes of his socks. He looks at me again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Someone is talking to me on Tinder.”

“Oh.”

“Like, they’re responding.”

“Ah.”

“And they’re asking me questions, too.”

“So you mean, like, a normal conversation.”

I nod.

Brian nods, his eyes softening at their edges. “Are you going to meet with her?”

“This weekend.”

“And she knows about this?”

“She does.”

“And she’s okay with this?”

“She is.”

Brian yanks off his socks and gets up, walking past me. He pats me on the shoulder and says, “I’m proud of you, bud.”

Later in the night I overhear another conversation, though it’s more of a fight and it’s too loud to actually hear what’s going on. In this one I hear mainly Brian. He’s screaming at Tommy about something, and he’s screaming too fast for Tommy to get a word in.

It’s okay though, I’m not worried, I’m not angry, I wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight anyway. I roll over. Next I hear the violent rocking of Tommy’s car. Smeared sweat across the windows. Moans. Huffhuffhuffhuff.

I doze into something, some sort of dream though I don’t remember what it is, what is happening. The only thing I recall are Walker’s eyes, always floating, circling at the periphery of every dream, the borderlands.

A door slams, the whole cottage shakes. Brian turns on all lights, oblivious of the fact that I’m trying to sleep, very well was asleep. He drags his feet to the closet, buries himself there and excavates all kinds of crap I’ve never seen. He seems to find what he was looking for, because he stops.

“Hey,” he says to me. “Hey.”

He sits on the mat, near my thighs. My comforter is pulled up to my chin. He looks at me, says “hey” one more time. Pats my forehead. “Good, you’re awake.”

“What’s up,” I say, unmoving. He smells of cigarettes and whisky. The air burns itself around him. He seems to open his eyes though his eyes were already open.

“I was thinking,” he says, “you should have these.”

He almost collapses as he sets the little wooden box on my chest.

“I don’t need them,” he says, “not anymore.”

I peek into the box, look back up at him.

“They upped my Testosterone again. With the dose being pumped into me now, no life could possibly survive in there.” He points to his stomach, but he means his uterus.

“Are you sure?” His logic sounds shaky.

“I hope she shows up on Sunday,” he says as he pushes himself up off the mat. Stumbling, he has to steady himself against the doorframe before finally leaving. He doesn’t turn off the lights.

It’s 3:52 am.

I lay there in the light awhile, feeling the weight of the box on my chest. I breathe in. The box rises. I breathe out. The box falls.

In the morning the lights are still on and the box is tipped, a scatter of condoms surrounding.

Extra thin, extra large, magnum, ribbed, flavored, skin natural—I scoop them all back into the box, bury the box in my dresser.

Taking a cold shower, I let the water numb my shell and wake whatever is left inside. I try not to think about what’s happening to me, what I’m supposed to do. This downpour crawls over me, I watch it splatter at my feet, pool in murky filth before the drain sucks it under.

💧

join man next week for journal #22 (in which Tommy Tinder writes a book)