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?”
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?”
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)