I thought he’d smell her on me when I returned to the van, or see in me what I’d done. But he saw nothing, he smelled nothing. Honestly, I was disappointed.
Tom knew something was up. He could see in my eyes this disappearance was different from the others. And instead of confronting me about it, he drew closer to [said man] and ignored me completely. They sat together, side by side in [said man]’s van, and absolutely ransacked the Tinder-verse for her. Tom knew it was hopeless but he did it anyway. How much he figured out I couldn’t be sure, but he figured out enough.
Left to myself, I imagined confessing everything. I’d swear to Tom I’d never see her again, I’d tell [said man] how sorry I am, I’d never see her again. We’d fight, we’d make up, there’d be tears, they’d both tell me they forgive me, that they understand, there’d be a big group hug and everything would be okay. But of course this was all only in my head. I told Tom nothing. I told [said man] nothing. No one forgave anyone.
Annie messaged me the next day. I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was the relief. There were none of the games on our second date, nor were there any on the third, the fourth, etc. Though initially we went out in public spaces (dinner, movie, Disneyland, even mini-golf), we quickly realized that neither of us wanted to do these things, all we wanted to do was stay in and get high, get drunk, and play in bed.
I still rationalized this as undercover work, I was always looking for an opening, a way to bring [said man] back into this, until I found I wasn’t thinking about [said man] at all. Annie’s head on my chest, her thigh across mine, a silence would take us and lay bare the truth of what I was doing — namely, I wasn’t doing anything. I’m not sure how I expected this to end. Maybe I expected him to give up, that being here in Orange would make him realize the solution lay within him. Surely he would see that Annie wasn’t the way. I grew almost angry with him. With his sadness, his ignorance, with how he couldn’t see what I was doing, how he could just let this happen. I hated him. I was responsible for him, he wasn’t okay, but it wasn’t my fault! But also it was. He had been recovering, sort of, and then I took him here.
Every time I came back from seeing Annie I could never look [said man] in the eyes, so I didn’t see what was going on there. I didn’t realize there was such a steep descent happening, because it must’ve already been happening. What he saw in the end couldn’t have been enough, it was already there. I have to tell myself that. To remember that.
One evening when I came back to the van (Annie had a closing shift that night), he asked if I would come with him to LA the next day. He was still convinced Annie was in LA and that he wouldn’t find her unless he went there, not on his phone, not on Tinder, but really went there. It was his final test, he said. I tried to tell him she wasn’t in LA, but I couldn’t tell him how I knew. I was vague, he wasn’t listening. I left him there. It didn’t even strike me as odd that Tom’s car was gone. Tom was gone, [said man] was alone, I didn’t see the danger in this. I never looked him in the eye, so I couldn’t see the danger in this.
The sun dropped below the sky, winter was fast approaching, though I’m not convinced winter every really arrives here. I walked aimlessly that evening. It could just as easily have been a cool summer night back in Washington (if you withheld everything but the weather). I didn’t have any cigarettes on me, I think I left my wallet in the van. I felt faint, I felt nauseous, I couldn’t approach anyone for a cigarette because I couldn’t speak. I just kept walking, thoughtless — not the thoughtlessness that implies something else (i.e. Insensitivity), I was simply without thought. But I was thoughtless too. That was also true.
Even the way I thought was starting to mimic his. A blank space rising, a pursuing shadow made known only be the stabbing paranoia at the back of my neck. I’d turn but there was never anyone there. There was no one anywhere. Why was everything so empty?
I found myself at Annie’s apartment complex. Of course she wouldn’t be off until much later, but I didn’t care. I had nowhere else to go. Then there were the cats. Not just any cats, but kittens, an entire sea of them, squirming over me as I sank into their bottomless depths of claws and little teeth and dirty black fur. Annie nudged me with her foot. I’d been sleeping, curled up against her door. Self-conscious, I pushed myself up and wiped the string of drool from my chin.
“What time is it?”
She was still in her work clothes: a stained black polo, black pants. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her apron. I could tell she was tired, but she was also happy to see me. Inside now, she untied her hair, shook it out, and let it fall over her shoulders. I could see why he loved her, I thought, but quickly pushed the thought from my mind as it involved him, and the growing possibility that I loved her too.
“You okay?” she asked me.
But really I was so filled with hate I didn’t know what to do with myself.
In her bedroom, at her desk, she ground up some weed and sprinkled it across some rolling paper. She rolled it, she licked it, she twisted one end to a point and handed it to me. Lying back in her bed, I lit up and took a drag. She opened the window and switched on the fan. There was nothing sexual about the way she took off her clothes — shirt off, bra off, pants off, etc. — but watching her I felt my testosterone-enlarged clit grow hard and chafe against my underwear. She lay down beside me and I handed her the joint. Except for the hum of the fan, everything was quiet. Our breath disappeared with the smoke.
I don’t remember the last time I cried, but that night with Annie, I was close. I felt like crying but I didn’t. Because that would be selfish, I told myself. I wasn’t the one I was hurting.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked me.
I nodded, holding my breath and my eyes.
She fell asleep with her arms around me. Meanwhile I didn’t sleep at all. It’s the cats, I told myself. I don’t want to dream about those cats.
Annie called in sick the next day. She knew something was up and wanted to keep me company. She made breakfast, nothing special, just milk and cornflakes and diced-up fruit from a prepackaged container, and brought it to me in bed with coffee. We spent the rest of the morning there. What remained of the day we spent at the park.
There she asked me if I planned on staying.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you like it here? In Orange?”
“It’s weird to think you could just disappear at any time.”
What she was saying made me uncomfortable. All of this was making me uncomfortable. The calling in sick. The breakfast in bed. The wondering if I’d stay.
“I don’t belong here,” I told her.
It’s now or never, I thought. I have to tell her I don’t care about her, that I’ve been—
“I’m feeling things for you,” she said.
I forced a laugh. “That’s a bad idea.”
I said nothing to that. She leaned in for a kiss and I didn’t stop her, but I didn’t add anything to it, I didn’t close my eyes. It was late in the day now and the same paranoia from the night before grew in me. We were sitting in the grass, in the open, I couldn’t help but feel we were being watched. I looked around but there was no one. Clouds covered the sun, shadow covered us, Annie burrowed into me and said, “Rain’s coming.”
Madness is contagious, I thought.
Then the rain came.
We went back to her place, we slept together, I felt nothing. It meant too much to her. When I left the following morning, I swore I’d never go back. I wonder if she felt this, seeing me off at her front door she held me a beat longer than usual, and a little tighter. I would cut myself off from her, I told myself. Now I understood, the madness, the contagion, wasn’t from [said man], but from her. She was the hooks of fate, the Santa Ana winds. There was nothing I could’ve done.
The minivan was still there in the In-N-Out parking lot, baking in the rising sun, burning up with the wet pavement. If he ever did go into LA, he parked in the same spot as before. I tapped on the window, but there was no answer. He must be asleep. The door was unlocked and sure enough there he was, deep in sleep, the warm reek of vomit wafting out. “God damnit,” I said, but had to smile, turning to breathe in anything other than the smell. It was just like in Oregon, I thought, when he drank himself to sleep and I was left to clean up the mess, tend him back to health. I didn’t mind though, this way I could feel as though I was actually helping him.
But first I needed a smoke. I opened all the doors and windows, let the air out and sat in the front seat where I lit a cigarette. There was no longer any trace of the rain, the last puddles had vanished, the scent of rain replaced by tarmac. I took a couple drags, careful to breathe the smoke out the open door.
Then I saw the note, a folded receipt taped to the wheel. My heart pounded as I took it, and opened it, and read what it said on its back:
I saw you.
And that was it. I turned it over but there was nothing but a credit charge for Jack Daniel’s. I felt like throwing up. He saw us. He meant us. I looked back at him. He hadn’t moved. I couldn’t even hear him breathe. I hopped out of the car and ran to the side. I couldn’t hear anything. Then I saw the blood, not a lot, just dark traces spotting the sheets, little nicks on his wrist as if he wanted to but couldn’t. He was never good with blood. Thank god he was never good with blood. But there were pills— no, an empty bottle of pills near an empty bottle of whiskey. I shook him but he didn’t move. He didn’t move. I screamed his name. I screamed his name. I screamed his name because I was so angry with him. How could he be so stupid.
There were people watching me now. Sirens ringing out in the distance but I couldn’t remember calling anyone. A screaming pulse growing louder and louder until I realized it wasn’t screaming till now — now that it was deafening. His skin was cold. Flashing lights. EMTs rushing to the minivan. I moved to the curb. He was breathing, they said, not to me but to each other. I was on the outside of all this, one with the onlookers who were building up around us, or them — I wasn’t one of them. They lifted him onto a stretcher, into the ambulance, and then they were gone, he was gone, I was alone, with this van that reeked of piss and vomit and him.
Reader, are you reading this? Did you really want to know this? If you are reading this, I’m sorry. This wasn’t meant for you.
There are conversations that play on repeat now, nonstop through every hour of the night. One I remember from when I’d visit him at his parents’ house, during his earlier recovery, the recovery I so thoughtlessly interrupted, and he said he was writing again.
“What are you writing?” I asked him.
He took a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a poem.
my life is a drop
always am I falling
soon I will join the sea.
I was shocked. It wasn’t very good, he was better than this, but I nodded.
“Does it help you?” I asked.
“No, knowing you’re a drop.”
“I think so.”
“How is it supposed to help me?”
“Stop fighting the fall and fall already, you fall regardless.”
And then another, even earlier, conversation:
I asked him why he dropped out of college, the real reason, and he told me he’d already been to college, a long time ago. I asked him why he stopped writing and he told me he’d already lived a life of words. I asked him why he stopped trying, why he stopped doing anything, and he told me he’s already done everything, there was nothing left to do. And now you, selfish reader, want to know why he decided to stop living? Well, I suppose he’d tell you that he’s already done that too. Too many times, and he was tired.
But I know that’s oversimplifying it.
Also, I fear the truth might be even simpler.
Going through his notebooks, trying to find any clue to the “why” behind it, anything to push the blame off myself, I found something he wrote, something that I had originally missed within one of his longer and more incomprehensible passages:
“When you realize you’re nothing but that drop that has dropped many times before, you welcome the fall, only now you wonder how to keep yourself from falling ever again, so that when you become the sea, you stay the sea and the sea stays you. And calm. And in this calm you realize that all things must pass, even the sea. A weightlessness takes you, you rise and again find yourself the sky, suspended there as a thin mist condensing into thin clouds into dark clouds holding larger and heavier drops and you wonder, just before you feel yourself fall, how to keep yourself from falling ever again.”
I could be projecting now that I know what I know, but this fear of falling was in his eyes. He believed he had done this before, had lived this life countless times, believed he was god, told other people he was god, and died like a god because nobody believed he was anything but a mortal. So what’s the point of trying, for wanting to believe we’re anything more than what we are — namely, the dust of the earth, waiting for the wind. Well, too often the wind is a long time coming. He just decided to find it faster.
Because this wasn’t my fault. This wasn’t my fault. This wasn’t my fault. This wasn’t my
join Brian next week for journal #47 (in which Brian finishes his sentence)