Journal #47 (in which Brian finishes his sentence)

fault. 

After a brief stint in the ER, at the doctor’s recommendation, his parents had him committed to a hospital closer to home. I never saw him. Though his parents kept me in the loop for a time — no lasting damage was done, they told me, that when all is said and over he’d be okay — eventually they told me nothing at all. They stopped calling. Or I stopped calling back. I can’t remember.

“When all is said and over…” that’s what they told me. And when exactly would that be? I wanted to ask. When is anything over?

“You should see him,” they said to me.

“He doesn’t want to see me.”

“You know that’s not true.”

I didn’t believe that either.

I was stuck in Southern California. I hated being here, but I couldn’t leave. At least if I stayed in the same state as him, I could claim I never actually abandoned him — visiting him would still be a possibility. I knew if I left California I would never go back. So I stayed put. In California.

In a minivan that belonged to him. In a minivan filled with all of his stuff. His laundry, his notebooks, his laptop tucked away under his mattress. Why did he bring his laptop? In the state he was in, what could he have possibly needed it for?

Annie still messaged me of course. Hey you, she’d say.

And I’d say nothing.

You okay? she’d ask, hours later.

And hours later I’d say nothing.

His notebooks were filled to the endpapers, most of it illegible. They too were tucked away, strapped together by several rubber bands. Except for one. This one was lying open and face down between the front seats. It was just about halfway full, the pages bent and stained where he left off. I brushed off what I could, flattened out the folds, and started reading.

Yo you there? Annie would text me two days later.

What’s going on? she’d text me on the next.

Dude talk to me wtf

Seriously?

You’re going to ignore me?

Fuck you

And then nothing.

And then I’d say nothing.

I read his notebooks back to front, starting from the last things he’d written toward older, cleaner pages, tracing every thought he documented in reverse. Many lines, pages even, were crossed out. There were notes between the lines and in the margins, edits to his thoughts and edits to his edits. I kept flipping back, deciphering what was decipherable, marking pages I felt were important.

You could have at least told me you were leaving

And then I’d turn off my phone.

At first I thought I was having deja vu. Didn’t I read this already? Didn’t I read this exact same thought pages ago? So I’d flip forward, to the pages already read and — yes, there it is, the same but polished — flip back to the raw thought. I’d flip even further back and come to the original thought, the first scattered observations he’d use to build later entries. Notes in real time. Fuller entries later. And I noticed a trend, a specific motif popping up again and again.

Tinder. He kept coming back to Tinder.

Yes, we’d been on Tinder often, of course he’d write about it. But this repetition seemed more than that, as if everything centered around it. Tinder was the focal point, the weight, it focused his thoughts and kept his writing grounded even when he wasn’t. If he strayed too far, Tinder would reign him back— and then it hit me.

Jesus. Was he still writing this? Was he still posting all of this to his blog?

Merry fucking Christmas

And also fuck you

And I’d think: I thought I turned you off.

MAN WITHOUT A TINDER. Yes, that’s what he had called it. I remember when he first came to me with the name, asking me what I thought. I thought it was good and told him so. MAN WITHOUT A TINDER. A blog about a man who most definitely has a Tinder — sure. I reached under the mattress for his laptop and opened it. His browser was already open, and so was WordPress, his only open tab.

39 posts. That’s how far he’d gotten. The last one posted just after our arrival in Orange. There was another in his drafts folder — making 40 — and for some reason I went ahead and posted it. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like something that needed to be done.

Happy New Year!!!! 🎉🥂💋

Sorry that was meant for someone else

Burn in hell

I went back to the beginning. I remembered the first four or so, I think, I definitely didn’t remember the stuff about Tom. Did I tell him all that? He had shown me the first few, before he posted them, and asked me for my thoughts. He prefaced this by telling me they were fiction, though obviously they weren’t. He claimed Brian wasn’t me, though obviously he was. He claimed the thoughts of the narrator weren’t his own, and that was debatable. But the starting point was irrelevant. Fiction or nonfiction, the story was pulled forward by his life, our life at the cottage and everything that happened after. I had to laugh. All this time he’d been writing about all this?

I pored through it, every post. In the back of his minivan, camped out 100 miles east of Orange at Joshua Tree, reading this was my only comfort. And then the story stopped. It just ended without an ending. So how—

Right.

I closed the laptop and tried to shut it from my mind. I fell back on the stripped mattress and tried to shut it from my mind. Closed my eyes and tried, desperately—

I’m sorry

Please just let me know how you’re doing?

Immediately I’d throw the phone against the window. The window would crack, the phone would be okay.

—But nothing was over. The stalled story kept moving whether it was being written here or not. This was still going. We could end this, I thought. We could still finish this. Again I went through his notebooks, his more recent ones, this time copying out what was both legible and comprehensible. I compiled his notes. I rearranged them obsessively. Here in the desert, in the back of his van, the days and nights were nothing. I kept at it until I had something resembling a story. The flow around me was no longer stagnant. Something was moving again.

In the end I came up with enough material for three posts (see #41, #42, and #43) and posted them. But it didn’t solve the cliffhanger. If anything the cliffhanger was worse — it still needed an ending. I don’t give a crap if nothing ever ends, I thought, this has to end. I am so sick and tired of this story and it has to end. And there was the way he portrayed me, while not inaccurate, I came off as cold and a bit of a dick. Certainly I should at least explain myself? I had that right, hadn’t I? Yes, I told myself, I had that right. So I wrote it all down, everything I had. I explained myself. I excused myself. Yes, that’s what I was doing. I was making excuses.

But to whom was I making these excuses? Did anyone actually read this? No? So to whom was I talking? Though the answer should’ve been obvious, the answer didn’t come to me right away — Of course, I was talking to you.

You. You know who you are.

I can only hope you’ll come back to this when you get out, that you’ll read this, that you’ll see that although I never came to visit you, I never stopped thinking about you. Though I couldn’t bring myself to see you in that place, I had to somehow tell you everything. This isn’t about some story. This is about me and you and how fucking sorry I am. I fucking failed you and I’m fucking sorry.

I once told you that you were my ride or die — fuck Tom, fuck everyone else — it was always you and me till the end. If there’s one thing I regret from reading your posts, it’s how little you thought I thought about you. I never forgot you then, and I haven’t forgotten you now. It doesn’t matter if you never want to see me again, it’s still you and me until the end.

But maybe the end has come and gone for you, and I’m stuck here in this desert reading over and over again a story without an ending, highlighting the truth that nothing ends here, nothing begins, in this godforsaken place where it never rains — though can you believe it? It’s raining. Actually it’s been raining all the time. From inside your minivan I can hear the others out there, eternally tan and happy, say this is the worst winter they’ve ever had. Those assholes, they don’t know what winter is.

I’ve now posted three of these “journals” to your blog, excuse the rambling, and will be posting this one shortly. I don’t know what comes next. I suppose I’ll be driving north to your home, I know you’re still in the hospital there, but I’m not coming to visit you. I’ll drop off your car, your clothes, your notebooks, this laptop, I’ll leave it all for you in the hopes you’ll have the strength to finish this, but more importantly I hope you’ll have it in you to forgive me (that would be an okay ending, wouldn’t it?). Tom’s gotten back in touch, says he has one last letter for me, says he can pick me up in Sunnyvale after I drop off your belongings. He sends you his wishes (and insists I add — his kisses). He misses you too.

I never did text Annie back. Until today that is. I’ve sent her a link to your blog so she knows. I haven’t heard back from her. I don’t expect I will.

👋

join man next week for journal #48? (I don’t know, but I hope so…)

Journal #46 (in which nothing is Brian’s fault)

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?”

“Late.”

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.

“Yes.”

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 okay.”

“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.

“I know.”

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.”

“And?”

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.

“The writing?”

“No, knowing you’re a drop.”

“Should it?”

“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)

Journal #45 (in which Brian goes undercover)

I should preface this with something [said man] said to me during the early stages of his madness, before I knew what it was, that has stuck with me all of this time and is likely the best explanation for why I joined him (encouraged him even, nudged him out the door) on this road trip. He told me how in some primitive cultures, when a child began to hear voices or see visions or dream dreams of a certain variety, the shaman of the tribe would take the child under his wing and lead the child through the experience, not away from it, sometimes isolating the child in the wilderness so the child could confront the “madness” which was then seen as the divine. And the child would be okay. After confronting the experience, the child would return to society and, in time, become the new shaman. What was once seen as a gift is now seen as an illness, something to be suppressed and medicated.

Though there are some schools of thought that still believe in this approach — allowing the “madness” to run its course while guiding the patient inward toward its root — mostly it has fallen away in favor of mind-altering medication and the belief that something is wrong.

Which brings us, in a bit of a skip, to Annie. I didn’t tell you that she messaged me, maybe a week after I was notified of our match. This is likely an important detail, but honestly I don’t remember if this was before or after I picked up [said man] and drove him south through the desert and into the City of Orange. Anyway, I didn’t respond to her until a day or two after our arrival. I wasn’t sure I was going to, but for some reason I thought it important not to lose her.

I’ve deleted Tinder since, so I don’t have the conversation verbatim, but she opened with something in the vein of, “so what.. you going to say hello or hi or what.

Of course she was messing with me, I knew that, but given the number of matches she must get any given day, I also knew that her picking me to mess with meant something. For some reason she picked me. I didn’t know how to tell [said man] this. Seeing how fragile he was, how quick he was to lose it in either direction, I was careful with him to the point of ignorance.

In the meantime I had to respond to Annie. I had to keep her interested in this interaction. Later I would figure out how to tell [said man]. Later we could decide how to end this.

I would have to meet Annie. It didn’t take long to arrange this. You could tell she was the kind of woman who knew what she wanted. She chose me, she wanted me, that was easy to tell. She wasn’t one to play hard to get. She didn’t need to, so she didn’t. I couldn’t tell [said man] this either. What would I say? The longer I went without telling him, the worse I knew it would be.

But I was doing this for him! Surely he would see that. But also, I was flattered. She chose me. Surely he would see that too.

No, I couldn’t tell him.

The idea was we’d meet up for coffee. She lived close, in Orange actually (if she ever moved to LA like he claimed, she moved back). There was a little cafe across the street from the university and she suggested we meet there. By this time, Tom was with us, so I felt okay leaving [said man] in the In-N-Out parking lot.

I arrived early, about 25 minutes. As she chose the place, knew the place, I needed any advantage I could get. I told the barista I was waiting for a friend and sat down. The place was small, half-full with college students working on homework. Classical music played from an old stereo behind the counter, a soft, calming melody, but still I felt on edge. Like I was being watched. I looked around the place, hunched low over my table, when I saw her, watching me from an elevated booth in the back corner. She smiled at me, but she didn’t get up. She wasn’t about to give up her high ground.

Approaching her, I asked, “Annie?”

She smiled and said, “Yes, I was wondering how long it would take for you to notice me.”

There was a familiarity in the way she spoke to me, as if she didn’t need to break any ice. Either there was no ice or she liked ice, I couldn’t tell. She was comfortable in her corner. I grabbed the both of us some coffee though she didn’t, I noticed later, touch hers at all.

“What brings you to Orange?” she asked.

“What makes you think I’m not from here?”

She smiled at that, and suddenly I became self-conscious of my appearance. The boots, the paint-splattered jacket, the hair that hadn’t been cut in I don’t know how long, the facial scruff that was there but refused to grow. I knew I didn’t fit in here, proud that I didn’t fit in here, but for her to notice was something else entirely.

“No,” she clarified, as if reading my mind. “You were 1000+ miles away when we matched, now suddenly you’re here. You didn’t come all this way for me, did you?”

I froze. The air grew stagnant and hot beneath my jacket. Why was I still wearing a jacket? My pits streamed. My stomach closed in on itself.

She smiled.

OH. She was messing with me.

“Of course not,” I said, forcing a smile. “Just tramping around. Not sure where to.”

She was so calm, barely breathing, my own calm seemed to evaporate before her.

It suddenly hit me what would happen if [said man] saw us here. What if he found her on Tinder. What if he saw how close she was and used her distance to triangulate and approximate her location. Probably impossible, but still, it seemed like something he would do. And he knows the area. He could get lucky.

I should say something, I told myself, I should tell her why I’m really here.

“You look nervous,” she said.

“No, sorry. It’s the heat,” I said, looking over my shoulder.

“It’s not that hot.”

“Not for you.”

“Take off your jacket.”

“I’m okay.”

We did the usual small talk and slowly, a cautious kind of calm took over. Eventually I did take off my jacket, draping it over the back of my chair. She was very open, she told me how she went to school here for acting, how she’s given that up though. Now she writes screenplays.

“You write?” I asked.

She nodded, but didn’t elaborate. She spoke of her college years here and I listened intently, hoping for any mention of [said man], but she mentioned nothing about him. She fell in love with this area, she said, only living in LA for a year after graduation. She couldn’t handle all the rejection so she moved back to Orange to pursue writing.

“Writing is still a lot of rejection though,” I said.

“Different kind of rejection.”

“How so?”

She shrugged. “Writing isn’t you. When you audition and are rejected, it feels like they’re rejecting you, the way you look, the way you speak, but writing… you can hide behind words.”

“But having your thoughts rejected must feel deeper, like a rejection of the soul.”

“No. Maybe I haven’t reached my soul yet. I imagine when I do, I won’t be rejected. So I won’t have to worry about that.”

I nodded. She smiled. And we sat in comfortable silence for some time.

And in the silence I watched her, the way she brushed the hair from her eyes and over her ear without any sign of being insecure. She smiled at me. I smiled back. I remembered him. What the fuck was I doing? I have to come clean, I have to tell her about—

“You want to get out of here?” she asked me.

“Yes.”

Her place wasn’t far, and uncomfortably close to the In-N-Out. Walking out into the cafe parking lot, I made for another car I insinuated was mine, but luckily she offered to drive and said she could drop me back here later. “My car” would be fine here. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment off Tustin St. Her roommate was always gone, she said, at her boyfriend’s place in the city. Moving into the kitchen, she opened a bottle of wine, poured two glasses, and without asking if I wanted any, handed me one. I sipped at it, and followed wordlessly to her room at the end of the hall.

She wasn’t thin, but she was by no means fat. I couldn’t help but watch her walk, her firm curves, her black hair falling down her back.

She sat down on the bed right away. I remained standing. I wandered the small room, looking at the bare white walls, her desk covered in notepads and screenplay pages, the window overlooking an alley.

“I keep meaning to decorate, but…” she trailed off.

I nodded, took another sip of wine.

“What kind of stuff do you write?” I asked her.

“It’s all over the place.”

“Well what are you working on?”

She hesitated. “Well,” she said. “It starts as a kind of love story. A young woman and a young man who meet in college. He’s quiet, still waters run deep, you know the type, and the young woman falls for him right away. They’re friends and nothing happens, but there’s a tension there. She knows he wants her too, but she does nothing. It starts out like this, your standard boy meets girl story, but then something happens, there’s a shift in the boy and the sexual tension strains into a sharper kind of tension. The girl pushes away and the boy begins to stalk her. She shuts herself off from him altogether and of course that only makes things worse. It becomes a sort of dark psychological thriller.”

“So what happens?”

“He kills her? I don’t know. One of them dies, I think. I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

I finished the rest of my wine and set down the glass. “So what’s the killer’s name?”

“I haven’t figured out his name.”

“What are you calling him?”

“Just ‘Man.’”

“Oh. ‘Man’ is a good name.”

“Is it?”

“As long as you eventually give him a name.”

She set down her glass on the bedside table, the rim of which I realized her lips haven’t so much as touched. She patted the bed beside her. My mouth was sticky, a deep pounding resounded throughout my entire body. She would destroy him, I thought. And then the thought was gone. I sat down beside her.

She turned to me and leaned in to kiss me. Her breath was roses, mine was all wine. I leaned back, she pulled off my top, kissed my chest, my stomach, undid my pants and slid them down. She paused before my open crotch, breathing heavily, and sat back up.

“Sorry,” she said.

“What?” I said, almost annoyed.

She took a huge gulp of wine. “Sorry. I’ve never been with a woman before—“

I gave her a look.

“No, sorry. Right, I—”

I could see her coming undone. Her display of grace and confidence shedding and falling off all around her. She took her glass of wine and took a large gulp. And another. She was shaking. Her skin was at her feet.

“What I mean is I’m used to dick. That’s all. I’m sorry.”

I should’ve gotten up, it should’ve irked me more than it did, but I couldn’t look away, she was self-destructing and I didn’t have to do a thing. She sat back down, took a breath, and without looking at me, leaned into my legs. There was something timid and inexperienced about her tongue that turned me on, I didn’t expect this, and I had to shut down all other feelings. She didn’t make me cum, not this time, but when she backed away, picking a hair from her teeth, I knew I wanted to make her moan. I looked into her and she knew, I saw right through her. She pulled off her top and fell back. I crawled over her, unclipped her bra, kissed her breasts, kissed her stomach, lifted her skirt and pulled down her panties, I didn’t need my toys to show her how it was done.

It didn’t mean anything to me. Really, it didn’t. Sex isn’t to me what it is to most people, and especially not what it is to [said man]. It’s more like a handshake between two people getting to know each other, who want to know if they want to know each other better. Still, knowing what it would mean to him, I felt guilty. I shouldn’t have done this, of course I shouldn’t have done this, and I got up to leave. It was half past two. Annie propped herself up, her skin pale even in this darkness, and asked where I was going.

I didn’t have a good answer to that. Certainly I couldn’t go back to the In-N-Out parking lot, back to the van. I couldn’t face him like this.

She watched as I paced the room. I told her I couldn’t sleep, would she mind if I played some music?

No, she said. She didn’t mind.

I plugged my phone into her desktop speakers. Remember why you’re here, I told myself. Remedy this. I found the “I’m With You” album on Spotify, asked her if she liked the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I heard her breath catch. “They’re okay.”

“Great,” I said, and pressed play.

I lay down next to her, and she was so stiff, her eyes elsewhere as the music played.

“What is it?” I asked her.

“Nothing.”

And she said nothing else. I could feel her pulse grow frantic though she didn’t move at all.

When “Annie Wants A Baby” came on, she got up and asked if I wouldn’t mind us listening to something else. Something calmer, maybe?

I said sure, I guess, but was impassively passive aggressive about it.

She changed the music to something else, something calm, might’ve been Blind Pilot, then she lay back down beside me, pressed herself up against me, and after a few songs she smiled, she was back to herself. She kissed my ear, bit it, whispered, wondered if I would fuck her again.

I told her yes, and that’s what I did. I fucked Annie again.

🍷

join Brian next week for journal #46 (in which nothing is Brian’s fault)

Journal #44 (in which Brian takes over)

We were in San Francisco when I found her. The two of us, [said man] and I, were both in the back of the minivan and leaning against its opposite sides as we scoured the Tinderverse for her. Outside it was black and a rare summer San Francisco rain came down drumming the roof. Though I wasn’t swiping nearly as fast as [said man], the longer we sat there the closer I came to matching his almost manic pace.

Suddenly I had to pause, my thumb twitching over the screen. I refocused my eyes and stared at her.

“What did you say she looked like?” I asked him.

He went on to list her traits: her black hair, her pale skin and her full, always pursed lips—

But I wasn’t listening. I was going through her photos, this Annie, age 25, black hair, black eyes, pale skin, full pursed lips… of course it was her.

“Why do you ask?” he asked me.

I shook my head. The possibility of succeeding only now struck me as impossible, just now as the impossible became possible. I looked closer at her photos, one in particular, the second to last standing out. She’s as Disneyland. She’s younger. But it’s not complete, the photo is definitely cropped. Someone had been standing next to her. You could see his chin in the upper left hand corner and it’s his, albeit beardless, but definitely his. It’s crooked and uncertain, and from it you could paint the rest of his face, five years younger but still his face.

“Wait, did you find her?” He was staring at me, and I was afraid to look up. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t prepared for her eyes. Those eyes would destroy him. Already have destroyed him. Suddenly I wondered if this was a good idea. She became real just then, no longer the fantasy he conjured, but a real and breathing woman being and what was I supposed to do? I know now, of course, what I should have done, but that’s easy to see now, isn’t it? Knowing everything that’s happened.

I backed out to her bio which read:

“Beware of false men who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”

A chill ran through me. You will know them by their hunger.

“Give me that, what is it?”

He took a swipe at my phone, but I held it away. “It’s nobody,” I told him.

“If it’s nobody then let me see.”

He made another grab at it. I fell back onto the mattress and he on top of me. His chest pressing against my chest, my arm outstretched, us breathing against each other, and suddenly he had it, my phone in his hand.

My heart thumped as I pushed myself back up, watching his face. His face fell, disappointed, and he handed the phone back.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought…”

“It’s okay,” I said.

I looked down at the phone, and where once was Annie was someone else, some thin blonde, in the struggle I must’ve swiped her left or right; anyway, it didn’t matter because she was gone and no match came. Still, her eyes were lodged in mine, gazing up at me from inside. I kept swiping to keep up the charade, but he knew something was up, he must’ve seen the change in me, that I wasn’t really searching.

He put down his phone and watched me. It didn’t matter that he saw “the proof” that I’d been telling “the truth,” he knew that I couldn’t be trusted. His eyes appeared to have a conversation with themselves, with some “other” that wasn’t there, and his distrust for me only grew. I’m not sure how long we were in San Francisco, maybe a week, but by the end he wasn’t talking to me. I disappeared as usual, there was only so much I could take. His presence was heavy, like there were two of him, and so he outnumbered me. I played it calm, but inside I was a mess. Some other side of him was taking over, this blank coldness in his eyes, and I began to doubt our mission. Especially after finding Annie on Tinder and losing her, I didn’t know what the hell we were doing. This was supposed to help him.

During our last night in San Francisco (we didn’t know it was our last night), I woke up to him whispering to himself and watching me. I could see only his silhouette and his eyes, and the glint of something in his hands, turning. My waking had no effect on him, he just kept whispering, whispering, watching me without seeing me.

“Put down the knife,” I said to him, but my voice didn’t register. He only watched me as I watched him. I said his name. I said his name again.

Suddenly he started shouting, I couldn’t understand what, it was like some primitive language he made up, just shouting, no emotion in his voice. Then he lunged at me. If the action was honest I’m sure he could’ve ended me then, but just as fast as he lunged, he dropped the knife and collapsed into the mattress and started to cry. I hid the knife away under the passenger seat. I thought I could hear him whispering I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry through the sobs.

I don’t like writing this. I don’t like telling you this. It paints a much different picture of the man you’ve come to know, because this couldn’t possibly be the man you’ve come to know. And it isn’t. It isn’t the man I know. This was a man taken by a madness, much more serious than his own writings made it out to be, whimsical and mystical and magical (I’m sure it was to him), but outside of him it looked like something else. The reality was worse.

It wasn’t always like this San Francisco night though, sometimes I felt as if he were close to something, something bigger, some great truth that only the mad are graced with. Maybe if he reached this everything would be okay, maybe he could benefit from this in the end, maybe we both could. I hoped that in allowing his delusions to play themselves out, he would find himself, he would come back into himself and find himself stronger. I didn’t want to see him medicated, to see him lose the light in his eyes that first drew me to him, but I was as naive and misguided as he was.

He became unresponsive during the sobbing fit in the van and the only thing I could think to do was to take him home, to his parents’ home. I knew we were close, they lived just south of here, so I took him home.

Honestly I don’t know if he remembered that night, he never wrote about it, and I’m fairly certain he was referring to something else when he wrote, repeatedly, that “nothing happened in San Francisco.” Something else happened between us, it seems unreal to me now but it did. I wouldn’t be surprised if he blocked it all out though. The “other” within him grew to be too much, and he shut down. When you become someone else your mind has to kill what it can, and memory is often the collateral damage.

I despise California. I hate being here. Every time I’m here, I find myself weary, there’s no other way to describe it. A fatigue buried in a place where simple exhaustion can’t reach. But after taking him home, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I felt responsible for what happened, of course I did, I was frivolous with someone who was mentally ill, call it a distrust for doctors, I don’t know, but I’m certain I made it worse.

Tom was always close behind us. I told him what happened and where I was, he came to meet me, and I stayed with him during the first weeks of [said man]’s stay at home. The place was heavy, Sunnyvale I mean, a perfect suburbia so perfect it bordered on a prison. We never felt at ease here, parking on of the side streets, main streets, anywhere. Everything here was clean, well-ordered, so we stuck out like dog shit in a museum. Tom wanted to go, for us to move on and leave [said man] be, but I couldn’t leave him. I’m not sure if it was guilt that kept me around, that kept me checking up on him, or if it was something else.

I’m not sure I really believed this was the end.

Visiting him in his parents’ home grew tough, I never could accept it as his home. He was calm, he was taken care of, and if it wasn’t for the failing light in his eyes, I would’ve believed he was okay. I couldn’t watch this. I didn’t want to be there when the light was finally gone, knowing I was responsible. I had to let him go. He knew this too. So I let him go.

Tom picked me up and we went away, booked it as far away from California as we could go. We took I-80 through Nevada, into Utah, its endless white nothing the perfect cure for California’s never-ending everything, and reaching Salt Lake, switched north to I-15 into Idaho and I believe this was where we were when Trump was elected, though I can’t be sure where we were when any of this happened. This story isn’t about that. We protested, we burned shit, we headed further east as the world fell apart, but this story isn’t about that.

[Said man] no longer texted. He drifted from my thoughts, from my reality, and though he’d crop up there from time to time (I had to wonder if he knew what was going on, if he knew the state of the world, and if he did, if he even cared, if it mattered to him), mostly he was gone.

I do know we were in DC when my phone buzzed, I remember this very distinctly, and since I was with Tom at the time, I thought it must be [said man], but it wasn’t. It was Tinder.

I had a new match.

I knew it was Annie before I even opened my phone. I looked at her but did nothing. I couldn’t look at her, I couldn’t make room to think about her. I closed the app, put my phone in my pocket and tried to think of other things. More important things. Like what Tom and I were trying to do here. But there [said man] was again, back in my thoughts, back in my reality, this story we started and failed to finish.

But I was right to take him home, wasn’t I?

Yes, you were right to take him home, Tom would reassure me. He wasn’t well.

Right, I would say. He wasn’t.

My thoughts strayed from what we were doing here. What we were doing here felt increasingly like nothing at all, burning things that couldn’t burn, touching things that couldn’t be touched, screaming at the inevitable tide of history as it slipped in on itself.

I thought about him. What I did to him. How I left him there alone. How if there was one thing in this world I could change, one way I could make a difference…

“I have to go back,” I told Tom.

Tom nodded. He knew where I was talking about, to whom I was talking about, and without hesitation he told me he’d take me. And in a manic-light-blinding-quick-pissing-caffeine-headache-dreamless-sleepless three days, he drove me the whole way.

Beyond going back, I had no plan. I debated on whether or not to tell him about Annie, that I had found her (she was here! on my phone! we can finally end this!), but when we arrived back in Sunnyvale, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t approach him.

Tom dropped me off, told me he’d stay close, to text him if I needed anything. And I nodded, said okay, now go.

I watched the house. His room was dark, no movement there. I waited at the open end of the cul-de-sac and felt eyes on me from other dark windows, but I didn’t move. Three nights I spent like this before I saw anything, and it wasn’t much, just a shadow at his bedroom window as his blinds flitted open, closed, and open again. When the shadow was gone I crept to the window and peered inside. A car rolled down the cul-de-sac, its windows open, its driver tossing newspapers deep into driveways. I stayed low as the headlights sprayed shadows across the bedroom walls. When the car turned the corner, I peeked in again. Except for his slow breathing, he hadn’t moved. He slept how normal people sleep. He breathed how normal people breathe. But whether this normality was normal or something else, dormant, I couldn’t know.

Passing by his minivan in the driveway, I noticed it was unlocked. I don’t know why I got in, maybe it was for old time’s sake, my way of saying goodbye for good without saying a thing, but I got in. Coming here was a bad idea. Maybe he really was better. I sat there in the driver’s seat and put my hands on the wheel. The wheel was cold, dusty and unused. Below it was a glint dangling in the dark. His keys, just hanging from the ignition. I laughed to myself then. No, he was not okay. He was not okay at all.

I toyed with the keychain, felt it with my fingers, up to the inserted key, and turned it a notch.

No, he was not okay at all.

From the stack of CDs on the passenger side floor, I picked one up from the top and slipped it into the slot. At first it was silence. Then bass static. Then guitar static. Guitar screaming. CLASH! Singer screaming. CLASH! Funk beat— CLASH!CLASH!CLASH!

And I sat there, listening, waiting, waiting, waiting…

Just waiting.

💿

join Brian next week for journal #45 (in which Brian goes undercover)

Journal #43 (in which said man runs out of people, finds himself alone)

Brian is gone.

[…]

Brian is gone.

[…]

Brian left, came back, but Brian is gone again.

[…]

I don’t know where Brian is.

[…]

Brian is gone.

[…]

If my memory has served me, and I’m not sure it has, Tommy still owes Brian one more letter.

[…]

Though Tommy never leaves my side, our little “van mansion,” it’s clear he lives in his own world. There’s always been a disconnect between us, a divide too wide to cross, but now it’s widening.

[…]

It’s a matter of story, I think. We live in different stories. I remember he’s a man on the run and his story is consumed by crime and the avenging of what happened to Brian back then. It’s easy to forget this, how his view of reality must be colored by this. This other color is in his eyes.

Sometimes our stories bleed together, his coloring mine and mine coloring his, but the colors never mix. My story isn’t his story. His story isn’t my story.

[…]

With Brian gone most of the time, Tommy becomes consumed with the fourth letter. Maybe if he finishes the fourth letter, Tommy thinks, Brian will stop disappearing.

[…]

I’ve seen the list posted on the ceiling of the DREAD NAUTILUS, right above the corner where he sleeps. On the list are three names crossed out, and one that is not—

“No Last Name Danny”

Tommy is trying to find Danny.

And this Danny has no last name.

He makes phone calls, he scours the internet, he rips through phone books from states away (how did he get these???), he doesn’t sleep. Maps cover the mattress, the tapestries, the ceiling — cities crossed out, cities circled and crossed out again. If I crawl to his side of the “van mansion,” he ignores me. If I linger too long, he gives me a look. Gone is the sympathy he had for me. Gone is the place behind his eyes. Suddenly getting Brian back takes priority over helping me find Annie.

[…]

It stings for him too, I realize, Brian leaving. It’s hurting Tommy too.

[…]

[Meanwhile,] Annie is nowhere to be found.

[…]

While Tommy searches for No Last Name Danny, I search for Annie. But there’s nothing. I’ve changed locations on Tinder, every godforsaken place in LA and surrounding, widened my search radius to its limit. I’ve tried Hollywood. Nothing. Studio City. Nothing. Pasadena. Nada.

Glendale Santa Monica Inglewood Burbank El Monte Beverly Hills Culver City Hawthorne Huntington Park South Gate Whittier Hacienda Heights.

Nothing, nothing, etc. Nothing.

[…]

What if I missed her? What if she changed her name? Her hair? Her nose? But I’ve been looking for her eyes! Just her eyes!

[…]

No, I couldn’t have missed her.

[…]

But what if I missed her?

[…]

Pooping is no longer a problem. I haven’t been eating. I’m not sure Tommy’s been eating either.

[…]

A cop taps on our window, tells us to move on. We say, yes, officer, absolutely, officer. His radio crackles, he tells us he’ll be back, we better not be here when he is, then he’s gone. We move our “van mansion” one parking lot row closer to the 24-Hour Fitness.

[…]

At night the vagrants come out. Gunshots echo from the East. The low dark mountains.

[…]

The cop doesn’t come back.

[…]

Tommy crawls to my side of the van. Through the opening I see his maps folded up, everything tucked away. His eyes look calmer, but steeled for something. He asks how I’m doing. I tell him I’m okay. He sits next to me and takes out his phone. He’s on Tinder and once again looking for Annie. But I can see his eyes, he’s not really looking.

[…]

[Later] I hear the shredding buzz of clippers, smell burnt hair flying next door.

[…]

[Later] I hear Tommy snoring.

[…]

Tommy is gone. He left during the night. A breeze sweeps in through the open side door to let me know it’s just me now. The planks lie on the parking lot pavement where the DREAD NAUTILUS had been. I close the door and lie down and think.

[…]

Nothing to do. Flipping through older notebooks. Come across a quote from Fitzgerald. Wrote down page 72, though not sure from what book. “…one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality…

Good. Use this somewhere?

[…]

Annie watches me write. In a nearby cafe across the street from the university. It’s a screenplay I’ve agreed will be for her. It’s called Suicide Blonde, about a woman who picks up suicidal men at a suicide hotline, her own dating service for lonely, desperate, sensitive men. I will not sell the screenplay unless Annie’s attached as the lead. I’ll only write for her. In turn, all her acting will be for me. She’ll perform only my words, my work. We need each other, we tell each other.

[…]

LA was always where she was heading, but she never needed me to go to LA. I’m the one who needed her.

[…]

If Tommy had redirected the energy and resources he used in finding “No Last Name Danny” into finding Annie, we would have found Annie a long time ago.

[…]

I won’t find her cooped up in this van. I won’t find her in Orange, on Tinder, Passport location set to LA. No, if I’m to find her, I have to go into LA.

[…]

Nighttime. Brian knocks on the window. At first I think it’s the cop again, but seeing it’s Brian I let him in. He flops on the mattress and says nothing about Tommy’s disappearance. He says nothing about anything. He doesn’t want to look at me.

“Where have you been going?” I ask him.

He takes a breath, his eyes roll up as if to find the answer there. “I’m trying to help you.”

“How?”

“Just know I’m trying to help you.”

He’s trying to convince himself, not me.

“If you want to help me, then help me. Come with me to LA tomorrow. Help me find Annie.”

Brian doesn’t say anything. He closes his eyes. At first I think he’s asleep — he’s not moving — but his breathing isn’t sleep breathing.

“Why are we here then?” I ask him. “Isn’t this why you took me here? To find her?”

“Here was beside the point,” he says. “I just couldn’t leave you there.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you really think Annie will save you?”

“She’s the only way to end this.”

“Only you can end this.”

“I’ve tried to end this. I was going to end this and then you came back, took me here, and stopped any possibility of ending it myself.”

“But—” he sighs. “You must see that’s why I had to take you here.”

“Well, we’re here. So what the hell. What’s the big next—”

“SHE’S NOT IN LA!” he shouts at me.

“How do you know?”

“Because she doesn’t exist.”

“What do you mean? Of course she—”

“That’s not what I meant — sorry — but she’s not the person you think she is, I’m sure of it. She’ll destroy you.”

“Maybe I need to be destroyed.”

He sits up, buries his eyes in his hands.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you coming tomorrow or not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I don’t know what we’re doing here. What you’re doing here.”

“I don’t know either.”

[…]

Brian is gone.

[…]

I start the car just as the sun rises.

[…]

I will find Annie today.

[…]

Traffic is slow. Sky a bluish gray, but at least you can see it. A good omen, seeing the sky. I will find Annie today.

[…]

LA skyline approaches. Gray stacks against gray.

[…]

One hand on wheel. The other on Tinder. Tinder set to “current location.”

[…]

Horizon, gone. Sun, gone. Stuck in the shadow of high buildings. Traffic at a standstill.

[…]

Haven’t moved in 25 minutes.

[…]

An hour. I can see where I was an hour ago.

[…]

The sun moves faster than this.

[…]

Looking around, I realize, I don’t know this place. I don’t feel anything toward this place. Keep eyes peeled for a familiar exit.

[…]

There is no familiar exit.

[…]

I don’t know this place.

[…]

Traffic moving again, steady. Must get off Tinder. Must put down notebook.

[…]

The unthinkable. The skyline south of me now. Pulled off on the side of I-5, Tinder tells me — “There’s no one new around you. Use Passport to choose a new location.

[…]

In LA?

[…]

I choose a new location. Every location imaginable, in LA and surrounding. Tinder tells me the same thing — “There’s no one new around you. Use Passport to choose a new location.”

[…]

My van shakes at the passing of cars heading for the northern mountains. I look back toward the city.

I don’t know this place.

I don’t like this place, but it’s only a place. I don’t know it.

I see that now.

[…]

My profile picture pulses on the screen. There is no one new around you.

[…]

I shouldn’t be here.

[…]

“…an unwilling witness of an execution…”

[…]

I need to leave.

[…]

“…the disintegration of one’s own personality…”

[…]

I look to the mountains. I could go home. This road, the straight road, would take me there.

[…]

I drive north only to take the first exit, turn around, and drive south.

[…]

None of us should be here. This place was meant to be a desert.

[…]

I’ve looked everywhere for [Brian]. I’ve waited in the parking lot, I’ve driven around the still fading streets, I’ve called [his] phone but it goes straight to voicemail.

I feel sick.

I need to write all this down.

There’s a park here, nudged up against the 22. I’ve pulled into the park drive and stopped. I need to write all this down.

[…]

“Why did you drop out of college?” people used to ask me.

“I hated LA.”

[…]

“Why did you stop screenwriting?” people used to ask me.

“I hated LA.”

[…]

And I’ve internalized the lie.

Because LA never had anything to do with me.

LA never wanted me.

No, I don’t hate LA.

[…]

But I fear it. It represents everything I couldn’t be.

[…]

I feel sick.

[…]

I need to write this all down. But I can’t see it. My thoughts are gone. The crack is wide open, but I’ve never felt more [sane?]. The delusions recede, the visions and voices recede — yes, this is what it feels like to be “an unwilling witness to an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality” — leaving me alone in this world. My head is a vacuum. I hear only the scraping of the pen on paper, forcing out thoughts that aren’t even mine.

I need to write this all down. To get it back? No. Everything is too far away, my [interior?] has escaped the crack leaving me with nothing. I feel so terribly “sane” that I’m afraid I’ll forget what this feels like, if I ever lose it again, I want to remember how this feels.

I need to write this down. “Sanity” is the real loss, everything is surface, the real losing of things. I need to remember this. If I ever lose it again, stay down there, stay lost because then at least you won’t feel this [illegible—

The last half of this sentence is a rough scrawl. You could see his eyes drifting, catching something outside of himself as he wrote this, which incidentally became the last thing he wrote. You can make out an “L” but the rest is impossible. I’ve gone over it I don’t know how many times. I can’t make it out.

He saw something. After what he saw it’s hard to believe he’d care to write much of anything again. He put the notebook down, where it slid to the place between the seats, face down across the floor, the open pages bent and stained with dirt where he left off.]

📓

join Brian next week for journal #44 (in which Brian takes over)

Journal #42 (which brings the second coming of Tommy Tinder)

I must admit there is some guilt in posting the writings of [said man] without [said man]’s approval, but seeing the way he’s been writing about me all this time, invading my privacy, I feel okay about it. 

I have the “privilege” now of having access to all of his notebooks and papers and, comparing them against his final posts, can see that he cut very little. He cut for brevity and tone, sometimes entire pages of impenetrable rambling slashed out, but he never cut (or so it seems to me) to hide anything; I believe he wanted to be as honest as possible. Any liberties taken I find have more to do with simplifying certain events and delusions rather than falsifying them; the essence of what happened remains much the same.

One omission does stand out however, and that is what happened in San Francisco. He never wrote it down, never mentioned San Francisco until later pages of his notebook (dated during the stretch he lived at home) which are smothered repeatedly with the same line: “nothing happened in san francisco. nothing happened in san francisco. nothing happened in san francisco. nothing happened…” As it’s clear he didn’t intend what happened there to be posted here, I will honor that and write nothing.

As for what he did write of our time south of LA, I can only assume he planned on posting it anyway. I should have no qualms. I have no qualms.

I have no qualms.

Of course it was Tommy who’s been following us. That should’ve been obvious from the beginning. Maybe it was.

[…]

Brian wakes before I can scroll through his messages to see just how long Tommy’s been following us, if they’ve been in cahoots this entire time.

“Hey,” Brian says, before he sees I have his phone.

“Hey,” I say, holding his phone.

Then he sees I have his phone. It takes him awhile to realize what this means.

[…]

[Later I’ll] remember the relief in his eyes when he saw the screen. There was also shame, apology, anger, but mostly what I saw was relief.

[…]

Brian gets out of the van and slams the door behind him. He’s out there for some time, in the parking lot, in his tank top and panties, talking to Tommy on the phone and giving Tommy directions. To here. Which I find odd because hasn’t Tommy been following us? The conversation ends but Brian doesn’t come in right away. He leans against the passenger door and lights a cigarette. Inside the van is stifling. I pull on some jeans. Brian flicks the cigarette into the pavement and joins me back in the van.

“That was Tommy,” he says.

“I know.”

“He’s on his way.”

“I know.”

[…]

[Later I’ll] think he wanted me to say something more, for me to get angry, upset, anything really. But I didn’t. I wasn’t angry. Which I could tell disappointed him because now he couldn’t explain, defend himself against anyone but himself.

[…]

Tommy arrives. The DREAD NAUTILUS pulls up beside us, that wind-worn, sun-faded green Honda Odyssey. Smoke rises from the exhaust, from the cracked windows. His eyes are bloodshot when he exits the car. His hair is long, filthy, and his beard is a mess. But his legs are shaved clean, smooth as any legs I’ve seen.

Brian and I get out of the car. Brian and Tommy look at each other but don’t say anything. Brian sits on the hood of the van — my van — and lights a cigarette. Tommy and I are at a standoff. Staring at each other. Then we’re both staring at our feet.

[…]

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” I say. When I look up, he’s grinning.

[…]

He walks toward me in a graceful, sensual way — those legs, my god — but from the waist up he’s haggard, caved in and jagged. He could be homeless. He is homeless. Except for the legs. He wraps his arms around me as if to tell me everything is going to be okay. But isn’t it? Isn’t everything okay? I feel okay. Though the delusions are still here, at least I know they’re delusions, and anyway they’re getting further away, drifting from me in widening spirals. Tommy reeks of alcohol and deep mud and I know he’s as real as anything. My arms crawl up his back and I hold him too. All of a sudden I’m crying into his shoulder and he pats my back and says, “There, there.”

“There there,” he says.

The moment’s over. His hands on my shoulders, he holds me back to look at me, picks something out of my beard — a cheerio? — though I haven’t had Cheerios since I was home. “We’re going to figure this out,” he says. And I believe him, though for a second I don’t know what we’re talking about.

[…]

We’re driving into Los Angeles and Tommy is with us.

[…]

Traffic is at a standstill. Fumes rise skyward, though there is no “sky.” The thick gray air around us simply merges with the thick gray air above us. I reach out the window and I’m touching sky.

[…]

Brian takes his foot off the brake, we crawl ten yards, he puts his foot back on the brake. He lights a cigarette, takes a drag, lays his arm out the window, and stares ahead at the brake lights in the smog.

[…]

Tommy and I are on Tinder.

[…]

“Is this her?” he asks me.

“No.”

[…]

“Is this her?” he asks me.

“No.”

[…]

“Is this her?” he asks me.

“I’m sorry it’s not.”

“Shoot.”

[…]

We crawl under an intricate network of onramps and offramps and overpasses under even higher overpasses. No one is moving. Music comes from all directions. Windows rolled down. Air bumping. Someone singing along to someone else’s music.

[…]

I don’t look up from my phone. I’m afraid to look up from my phone.

[…]

“Is this her?”

“It’s not.”

[…]

Not even close.

[…]

“Are we there yet?” Tommy asks.

“No,” Brian says.

I haven’t looked out the window but I know we’re not even close.

[…]

We turn around before reaching the city. I’m not sure who’s idea it is. There’s a collective sigh, and we turn around.

[…]

The sunset is a blood-red that recedes across the sky into dusk. All color washes to the West, where presumably, there is an ocean.

[…]

Only back in the safety of the In-N-Out parking lot does Brian take out his phone. Tommy is asleep in the van “next-door.” Outside, drunk college students crowd the In-N-Out entrance. A long line of cars threads into the drive-thru.

[…]

Brian is outside smoking a cigarette. I go out to join him.

“May I?” I ask him.

He nods, hands me one after lighting it.

I breathe in smoke.

“Doing okay?” he asks me.

I nod. The In-N-Out has locked its doors. Inside someone mops the tile.

A couple of vagrants sit on the drive-thru curb. One makes eye contact with Brian. Brian makes eye contact back. The vagrant gets up, I steel myself for confrontation, but the vagrant doesn’t even notice me. “Cigarette?” the vagrant asks. Brian nods and hands him a cigarette. It’s like I’m not even there. Like the vagrant knows I’m not one of them. I’m not sure whether to be relieved or offended. I pride myself on not being one of them, but I’m offended.

[…]

There’s of course the issue of pooping. Living in a strip mall parking lot, we have to time our bowel movements outside of closing hours. Though Brian is comfortable squatting in the palms, I’m not, making sleep an impossibility when I have to poop.

Daylight brings different poop problems. We have to space our poops, from business to business, in order not to arouse suspicion. Though Brian gets in and out with ease, my anxiety draws attention to itself. A clerk asks if he can help me, I say I need to use the bathroom, he says it’s for customers only, I say I just need to use the bathroom, he raises his arms as if I’m being difficult, and I go ahead and use the bathroom. I remember the unease I’d feel, so long ago now, when I’d be eating in a restaurant, a paying customer, when a drifter, a hobo, a vagrant, would come in to use the bathroom. My heart would race and I’d lose my appetite and wonder — my god, what are they doing in there?

Now I know, they were going to the bathroom.

Watching Brian sleep, desperately needing to poop, this is what I’m thinking about.

[…]

Brian is gone. He must’ve left after sunrise, in the afternoon actually, after I finally pooped and got some sleep.

My first thought is that Tommy must’ve taken Brian from me again, this was inevitable after all, but the Honda Odyssey is still there I see, and Tommy is sleeping inside.

I wake him.

“Brian is gone.”

He rubs the crust from his eyes and smiles. “Oh?”

“He’s gone.”

Tommy gets up and looks around. Though he’s not frantic like me, I believe him when he says he doesn’t know where he is, that Brian told him nothing.

[…]

It takes the sting off, knowing that it’s not just me he’s abandoned, but Tommy too. It helps knowing I’m not the only one.

[…]

Note to self — Tommy seems unaffected.

[…]

It’s a long night, waiting up for Brian. The vagrants are back but still they don’t see me. Eye contact is impossible because they won’t look at me.

[…]

Brian is back. He’s silent, he’s showered — for a second there I can’t smell him, I panic, but then there’s a whiff of shampoo — and it doesn’t take a genius to understand where he’s been.

[…]

Brian is gone again. Likely another Tinder excursion. This time I don’t wait up for him, but that doesn’t mean I sleep.

[…]

Tommy has the idea of turning our minivans into one big “Van Mansion,” as he calls it. He finds some plywood, scrapped by some dumpster somewhere, and with our two minivans parked side by side and the adjacent sliding doors open, we lie the planks across. He throws a tarp over the passageway, we pin aside the curtains, and our two vans become one.

[…]

Van Mansion… Vansion? No, never mind. Stupid. Stick to Van Mansion.

[…]

The company is nice, the extra room is nice, though we mostly keep to ourselves.

[…]

Brian is [still] gone.

[…]

I’m writing in my notebook when Tommy crawls through the passageway to my side of the “Van Mansion.”

“What are you writing about?” he asks me.

“Nothing. Just stuff.”

“Weren’t you writing a blog once?”

A fear rips through me.

“I haven’t read it,” he says.

“Oh.”

“Brian mentioned something once. That was a long time ago though.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t think you were still writing.”

“I’m not.”

[…]

[Another time] he asks me about Annie. It’s weird hearing her name come out of his mouth. He asks me what I expect to get from Annie. What I’m going to do if I find her.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. And I don’t. Honestly I hadn’t thought that far ahead. If I had, it was under a different mind, a different perspective. I have to think about it now. All I can come up with is that she’s the key to something.

“A key to what?” he asks.

“A lock.”

“A lock to what?”

“I don’t know. I’ll know when she unlocks it. She’ll unlock something and I’ll know.”

[…]

I don’t completely buy what I told Tommy earlier. The question rocked me. Everything is different now. Everything is drifting further away. I have days when I see nothing, feel nothing. When everything is gone, will Annie mean anything?

I try to focus on her. Every detail. Her black hair across her back. Her makeup. Her splotchy skin without makeup. I try to summon her back. Her eyes, the whites of her eyes. Her fingernails chewed by teeth. The silence between us as we walk the dark campus. Something stirs. The way she looks at me. The way she doesn’t look at me. What’s going on in her head. She wants me. She doesn’t want me. In the darkness something stirs. Above the “Van Mansion,” above the light snoring of Tommy in the next room, a wind brushes the fronds of the high trees. My blood moves faster. My heart beats  even faster. My mouth is sticky. She takes off her top, she unclips her bra and — no, she never did this, not for you — SHUT IT, it doesn’t matter. She takes off her top, she unclips her bra and lowers herself onto me. Kisses my neck—

[…]

I tug at myself but not too hard. I must not shake the van, I must not wake Tommy. I close my eyes and grip harder, but I won’t stay upright. The images recede and no matter how hard I try I can’t bring them back. She lowers herself onto someone else, she kisses someone else, I let go of myself and feel nothing.

🚗

join man next week for journal #43 (in which said man finds himself alone)

Journal #41 (in which the beginning of the end takes place mostly outside an In-N-Out Burger)

The man you know as said man is no longer fit to write this. Shortly after arriving here, he lost himself again. His writings grew scattered and disjointed and he never had those moments of clarity (and if not clarity, then at least stability) that allowed him previously to step outside of himself and compile his notes and observations into comprehensible journals that he would then, unbeknownst to me, post here. This gave his writings an omniscient, almost hyper self awareness, as he would be editing and posting journals weeks after they were originally written. He was only barely able to piece together the last one, after which he continued to write, but as I’ve said his illness prevented him from posting anything more. By the time there was any “clarity,” he was already gone and writing would mean nothing to him. Los Angeles did something to him; I did something to him too. I will take some blame for what happened, but I cannot in good conscience take it all.

I’ve taken it upon myself to go through his notes and make sense of them, to compile them here to the best of my ability. I’ve allowed myself to correct typos and errors in grammar, but I am not adding anything he did not write. Having said that, what follows may be more claustrophobic than what you’re used to. Apologies.

His journals recommence with the two of us in Orange, California, shortly after our arrival…

The beginnings of things escape me. We’ve been in this [In-N-Out Burger] parking lot since we got here. When we got here, I think it was morning, we slept through the day and the following night as well. At least I slept. I can’t speak for Brian. He was here when I woke up anyway.

[…]

My head hurts. The wind hurts it. Everything is so open even the wind hurts it.

[…]

The In-N-Out reminds me of her. There’s a picture I remember, I might still even have it somewhere, of the two of us sitting on one of those white and red plastic benches and Annie has the straw of a milkshake lodged between her lips and she’s starting at the camera. I’m sitting next to her, hands in my jacket pockets, staring into the distance, but this can’t be true because within an In-N-Out there is no distance, just white walls and counters and the hallway leading to the bathrooms. I don’t remember who took the photo.

[…]

East of the college, down Chapman Ave and just past Prospect, the In-N-Out shares its parking lot with a 24-Hour Fitness, making it an ideal place to park overnight.

Across the street is another strip mall. I don’t think we’re the only ones living out of a car.

[…]

Brian goes inside to order. I give him my order first because I refuse to go inside myself. We eat both lunch and dinner in the car. Breakfast is leftovers, stale fries. We don’t talk. He won’t let me in. I’m not sure he knows what he’s doing any more than I know what he’s doing.

[…]

Palm trees spray up from the parking lot islands like geysers petrified in time. Clouds sift across the sky without a horizon. The world keeps going, forever flat in this desert of strip malls.

Sometimes it rains, but not often. When it does, everyone seems surprised.

[…]

I’m afraid to venture up into Los Angeles. Orange is as good of a place as any to camp out, to steel ourselves for our search for Annie. But I can’t bring myself to search for Annie. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? I want to ask Brian but I fear he’ll think the question is stupid. He’ll say something vague like, you know why we’re here, and I’ll be left where we were before I asked the question. Only now I’ll be feeling pretty stupid.

[…]

When we get restless, we drive. Brian always driving. We’ll wind through the backstreets, the suburbs, the Chapman campus, and sometimes Brian will venture onto the 22 heading west, then northwest on I-5, but never far enough north to reach LA. Which I’m grateful for.

I’m afraid of LA.

[…]

A lustful kind of fear.

[…]

Short pale-pink tank top, slim midriff exposed, pierced bellybutton, one arm resting on the black purse hanging low from her shoulder, her free arm swaying lazy on the other side. High waisted jeans. I watch her walk away.

Another. In the grass. A smear of dirt over her left shoulder. A mess of auburn hair falling across her back. Tired eyes drift open and closed. A Scottish Terrier nuzzles into her side. She rolls onto her back, sits up. She looks at me and I have to pretend I wasn’t watching her all this time. Suddenly I’m self-conscious — my skeletal arms, caved in cheeks evident through my unkempt beard. And my eyes—

[…]

There’s a romantic urgency to the city — any beautiful girl, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see her again. Very much unlike smaller towns where, chances are, you will.

Small towns breed romantic procrastination. Cities breed a lustful kind of fear.

[…]

Dreams of San Francisco, again. Revolves around something vague. There’s a center at the center of it that I’m missing. Clouds roll in from the ocean, erasing the bridge in their haze. The waters grow gray, the sky and water exponentially reflect each other until everything is black rather than gray. The wind sweeps in off the beach. It’s too cold to stay here. The sun is still in the sky, though muted, and feels more moon than star. I walk toward the center but I never reach it.

[…]

They’re just dreams. I tell myself that. There’s nothing there.

[…]

The van is so goddamn hot. So hot god-damn-it all, all the time.

[…]

I pace the parking lot. A breeze picks up, the palm trees bend. Fuck me, it’s cold.

[…]

In Southern California there’s nowhere to escape. Nowhere to be alone. Every person who sees me seems to take a piece of me with them, and I’m slowly drawn back into their world. People going to work, coming home from work, riding the bus, drinking in bars and talking about the surface. Suddenly I find that I’m lacking.

[…]

The crack is there. Everything inside me is open for the world. But there’s so much that’s escaped the crack — still escaping the crack — that there’s nothing to latch onto, none of the images take hold. I’m at the center of the delusions, watching the delusions, listening to the delusions, but I’m not part of the delusions, so I’m able to recognize them as what they are.

I’m grounded. I’m at the center of them. My fear is not in being taken by them — there’s just too many of them — but instead in losing sight of what’s real. Because from where I’m standing, I’m at the center of reality too. With all the images and voices flitting in and out of eye and earshot, I’m not sure of what’s really there. I have wondered, several times actually, if Brian is really there. Here. Since he hasn’t been too open, willing to talk, he’s more of a shade of what he once was. You could see that when he lured me from my parents’ home. He was different. He wasn’t all there. Something was wrong or something was missing or he wasn’t Brian at all.

[…]

But Brian proves himself to be real. The realization was simple — he smells. Though many of the images feel and sound real, they lack smell. Brian smells, of sweat and warm stagnant air, and this grounds him in the land of the real.

It’s when I can’t smell him that I begin to worry.

[…]

We drive through the drive-thru, only to park again in the parking lot to eat. I don’t have an appetite, so I sip at the milkshake but touch nothing else. Brian devours his burger, the last of his fries, he wipes the sauce from his lips and says to me, “We should get started.”

I tell him I think he’s right. We should get started. It’s understood we’re talking about Annie. He doesn’t elaborate, but it seems there’s something else he wants to say, something he needs to tell me, but I’m not [illegible handwriting]

I wonder it has something to do with the person who follows us. I haven’t forgotten about this. The presence of this pursuer is always there, though I’m still working out whether or not this pursuer is part of the “crack escapees,” or one of us, part of the land of the real. As the pursuer is always too far away for me to smell, there’s nothing to ground him in either world. The only thing that sway the pursuer to this world is the suspicion that Brian is also aware that he is there.

Brian is aware of many things but he can’t see the birds, the crosses, the dead baby cows, and the dreams of dead men that surround me, circling me, drifting further and further away. No, if Brian is aware of the one who follows, the one who follows is very real.

If I could just smell him.

[…]

I’m hesitant to take out Tinder again, but I do. I’m back at it. Swiping everyone left. I don’t see anyone. I can’t tell you about people I don’t see. My only hope is that when Annie comes across my phone, I’ll see her. And see her in time.

Names blur. Combine with other names. Every face becomes the same face. The One Face.

Brian’s swiping too. But sometimes he’s typing and I wonder to whom, we’re supposed to be looking for Annie, only Annie. Nothing else is important.

I keep swiping.

Outside, the palm trees are high and quiet. The last workers have left the In-N-Out. Brian is asleep. I want to fall asleep too, but my eyes are flooded with

[…]

I must’ve fallen asleep.

I wake with the first sifting of the light through the hanging tapestries. There’s the drone of cars passing but not much else. There’s the chirp of birds, but those might be imaginary. Music playing from somewhere. I sit up. Brian is still asleep, his phone hanging from his limp hand.

His phone buzzes, nudges itself from his hand. He doesn’t wake.

Two minutes later, it does it again.

I pick up his phone. It’s a text from someone named “T.”

I try to open it but the passcode screen comes up, and asks for five numbers. I take a wild guess, spelling out a name I once knew, a name that starts with “T.”

86669 is sufficient to spell it out. The phone opens, my stomach constricts, I open the messaging app where the recently arrived message reads—

“Good morning! Kisses, lol was pooping and cops were investing a crime. 100% ok, i wasnt who they wanted! Just interesting”

I look to Brian, who scratches himself in his sleep.

Of course.

I type in a response to the text—

Hi.”

Hi,” he types back.

You know who this is?

Yes,” he types. “I know who this is.

Then he adds a smiley face.

That’s Tommy for you.

😐

join man next week for journal #42 (which brings the second coming of Tommy Tinder)

Journal #40 (in which Brian comes back)

In bed, in the half light glow of scattered clocks, my mind feels itself, runs its fingers under my skull, over my brain membrane for the—

Tonight, the night that Brian arrives, my mind fingers find nothing — no crack, no tear, no fragile flesh or bone — that could make easy an escape for what I’ve buried there.

I don’t know that Brian is on his way.

The windows are open. Cool air circles the room and chills my scalp without penetrating it. I pull the many quilts up to my chin. I turn to my side. Outside, a car rolls down the cul-de-sac, turns at our dead end without stopping, headlights making striped shadows of the blinds and sliding them across the far wall of my room. The car retreats back up the—

Sleep is an impossibility.

Because there’s a beat to the night you’d have to be dead to hear. It’s impossible to hear it over the beat of your heart. But you can feel it. A low—

I’m sweating now because I know he’s out there. I throw off the quilts and swing my legs over the bedside. I grab a shirt from the floor and put it on. I don’t bother with pants or shoes. I leave the house barefoot.

He’s sitting in the driver’s seat of my minivan and staring at the windshield. The green glow from the dashboard reflects off his face. His hair is longer, wild now, and only blue at the tips. Dark bags hang below his eyes, which scare me. From inside, soft music plays, the imperceptible—

I open the passenger door and a wall of sound hits me. The music is blaring. I sit down and shut the door behind me.

Brian doesn’t look at me. I notice my keys dangling from the ignition. I’m not quite sure how—

“Brian, what are you doing here?”

He doesn’t answer.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

He doesn’t respond.

“BRIAN!”

Finally, he looks at me. Into my eyes, as if he’s been afraid to look to see what he’d find there.

As for his own eyes—

*—scritch—*

“What are you doing here?” I ask him.

“I…” He searches my eyes. His lips part, but strands of saliva pull them back together.

Something is bothering me. I focus on the music. What the music is say—

*—ssscritchh—*

Ouch.

In the back of my mind, there’s a thump, a flutter, a flap. A blur of blue wings.

“Are we okay?” he asks me.

“What?”

“Are we okay?”

“Yes. I don’t see why not.”

He doesn’t take his eyes off me now. He’s really looking into me.

“But I took you here,” he says.

“And you were right to.”

“Was I though?”

“Yes.”

He looks away.

As if he can’t look at me anymore.

“What is it?” I ask him.

He doesn’t answer.

“If you’re looking for forgiveness, you already have it. You were right to take me here. You can go.”

“Are you happy?”

“I’m better.”

He takes his wrist and cracks it, puts his hands back on the steering wheel. The music still plays, it crawls over my skin but doesn’t penetrate any deeper. Just an uncomfortable feeling, like dry wind hitting from all directions. Sanding my skin—

*—ssssccritchhh—*

Down.

Blood on a window. Jesus saluting before crowds, crowds saluting back. An empty cove at night and someone sobbing.

“Turn this off,” I tell Brian.

Brian doesn’t turn it off.

I reach for the dial, but Brian stops me. He turns up the volume. The speakers distort the bass, rattle within, there’s a growing scream and a ring in my ears.

I close my eyes. Breathe, I tell myself. Just breathe. It’s only—

I feel CD cases beneath my feet and open my eyes. At the top of the pile is an album with the cover art of an upscale LA pool, the pool full of orange-fire clouds, and the sky an empty expanse of technicolor waves.

The music bumps against me.

Trying to get in.

“Get your things,” Brian says. “We’re leaving.”

“Where?”

“You know where.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

I look at Brian. I look at the album cover. I look back at Brian.

“Don’t come back here,” I say. I get out of the car and slam the door behind me, effectively shutting the music down to a barely audible thump. The sky is clear, the stars are out, a gentle breeze sweeps in from the far end of the—

Back inside the house, I tiptoe past my parents room and back into my room. I lie down. I get back up. I lie down again. He’s still out there, I know. I still hear — no, feel — the faint bump of music. I bury myself in blankets. I twist myself in blankets. I free myself of blankets. I pace the room. From a plastic vial on the dresser I throw back a couple of pills without water. I sit down on the bed. The nerve of him, coming back here. What does he think—

*—ssssccritchhHH—*

A turntable turning. A white record sleeve of a housefly atop a pill. Black hair falling over black—

I look at the clock by my bed, the one clock labeled: “this time.” It says this time is just past midnight.

*—ssssccritchhHHHH—RIP—*

No.

No. No. No.No.No.NoNoNoNoNo—

NO.

I open my closet and take out clothes, shirts, shorts, underwear, socks, and stuff it all in a duffle. I throw on a jacket and pants and, outside once again, I throw the duffle in the back of the van.

I sit down in the passenger seat.

Brian nods to me. I nod back. I can barely hear him start the engine over the music. The music which reaches inside and sings—

“Destruction leads to a very rough road

 But it also breeds creation”

—and it’s pulling at my lungs.

We back out of the driveway, Brian leaving the headlights off until we round the corner. The house, my home, the cul-de-sac disappears behind—

Sleeping houses, dormant streets, a stray cat prowling the night. I roll down the windows and the cool air slides right through us. My elbow on the sill, I drink in the night that suddenly, I realize, finally tastes like—

“And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar

 They’re just another good vibration

 And tidal waves couldn’t save the world

 From Californication”

—autumn.

Though it’s long been autumn.

We roll out onto the 85, an empty highway of minimal lights, cutting through the rich suburbs of Cupertino, Saratoga, Las Gatos, and finally San Jose where 85 ends and drops us on the 101 heading south. The wind rips through the windows but I don’t roll them up. Low dark hills on our left, telephone polls and starlit lowlands on our right, and behind us the music trails—

“Dream of Californication

 Dream of Californication”

The scent of garlic hits us. We get off the 101 for Pacheco Pass Highway which takes us east, first through farmlands, then winding mountain roads, first climbing, then gliding though still winding, and through the breaks in the hills a black reservoir opening up on our right, the road flattening out—

Ahead, the roar of semis pummeling through the night, passing north to south and south to north, a slow curve pulling us up onto this flatland, this flat stretch of Interstate-5 with nothing in sight but the blurred brights of passing headlights, red taillights in the distance.

The road is straight, the straight road is—

*—scritch—*

Her hands, her nails chewed raw by her teeth. Blood in a sink and eyes like night.

This is the straight road, truly straight, unbearably straight, pulling us straight toward—

Lights behind us, following us. Raccoon eyes, following us. A beheaded rat on a back.

—the mountains. Rising in the South. Rising out of the darkness into a darkness of stars. A line of little lights below, moving, leading into them, the mountains.

I lean out the window and eye the horizon. A sudden wall of rain hits the windshield, my face, and then it’s gone. The sky is clear but for one cloud, now far behind us.

Lights behind us, following us. Raccoon eyes—

No. I think we really are being followed. There really are lights behind us.

Our own lights tear through the dark. Road signs for Grapevine. A climbing road interrupting the straight road. We rise into this winding road, passing semis on our right, climbing, climbing, gears grinding, peaking—

Then the gliding fall with swinging curves, and then there it is. You see it.

The valley of lights.

And we’re falling into it.

“It’s the edge of the world

  and all of Western civilization.

  The sun may rise in the East,

  at least it settles in the final location.

  It’s understood that Hollywood

  sells Californication”

*—scritch—*

*—ssscritchhh—*

*—ssssscccritchHHHHH—*

*—RIP—*

The lights. The bright scattered sea of lights. Falling into these—

Annie.

—scattered lights.

We don’t stop in Los Angeles. We don’t stop at all because I have to see it.

Annie.

I have to see the place where all this started.

Annie.

Also, we’re definitely being followed. No italics. It’s not me, I swear.

Annie.

The blackness turns a smoky gray, red light rises like distant fire in the East, palm trees emerging as black silhouettes. The western sky is still dark, but changing.

Through downtown LA. Through Anaheim. We take the 22 into the City of Orange. Down Glassel Street. Through—

Brian pulls over.

“This it?” he asks, both of us looking right.

I don’t nod. He knows this is it. The white pillars of the University touched red in the light of the rising sun. The grounds still covered in shadow.

Behind us, somewhere, another car pulls to the side of the road and waits.

“Keep going,” I say, finally, to Brian.

“Where?”

“Anywhere.”

So he keeps going.

And the car behind us, too.

“And if you want these kind of dreams

 it’s Californication”

I think, finally, it’s time for another song.

I click NEXT.

🔂

join man next month for the final part, the final season, the thrilling final stretch of MANWITHOUTATINDER

Journal #39 (in which said man retreats further into himself)

My first word was “fuck.”

Now granted, what I was trying to say was undoubtedly truck, what came out at the time was definitely “fuck.” At least that’s what my parents tell me. Why I bring this up now, why this comes back to me — a memory that’s not really my memory at all, just someone else’s memory that involves me and was told to me — is hard to say. It could be because I’m struggling for words now, sitting at the same table where I once said my first word, and my parents are sitting here too and none of us are saying anything. There’s only the clanking and scraping of silverware against plates, the slow chewing of food. This silence at dinner isn’t unusual exactly, at least not for my family, only now it strikes me as mildly uncomfortable. Because here I am, a grown man eating with his parents, and it seems nothing has changed since the moments before I said my first word all those years ago. Except maybe there was hope then. Also, I’m older.

Growing up in a family of introverts was always an easy thing, it was never necessary to talk if you didn’t want to talk. I have three siblings — I realize I’ve never written about them here, probably because they never played into this story, and they won’t be playing a part now as far as the story goes, but maybe it’s important to bring them up if only to give you a better sense of things. I have an older sister, a younger brother, and a younger sister — I’ll leave their names out of this. My younger sister still goes to school, in San Luis Obispo, my brother works at an architecture firm in Seattle, and my older sister still lives at home though right now I don’t know where she is. I haven’t seen much of her since I wound up back here.

What I’m trying to say is, growing up, it wasn’t just me and my parents. But we were silent, all of us. We kept to ourselves. And this allowed for my thoughts to grow in any direction they wanted, and solidify there. Reality was no hindrance. I gave things names that weren’t their real names. I gave things meanings that weren’t their real meanings. I had my own internal language, my own internal set of rules I didn’t realize was internal. Nobody could tell me otherwise because I never spoke to anyone about any of this.

Then there were the voices, not heard, more felt as a cool draft in the back of my head. There were reoccurring nightmares of black-haired demons shapeshifting into black-haired cats. There were all the Bible stories from Sunday School compiling, taking on too literal of a history in my mind. And then there was the belief that all birds were angels, guardian angels to be more specific, that every person was assigned one, and that mine was a particular Blue Jay — though I just called him Blue — who often visited our backyard.

Blue would screech, not sing, in the cluster of trees by the fence. It sounded more like someone screaming. Trying to watch TV, my dad would inevitably get fed up and storm outside to throw rocks at the trees until Blue shut up, or disappeared (my dad even amassed a collection of rocks outside the door for this purpose). On other days, Blue would fly straight into the living room window — we’d always know by the hollow THUMP and rattle of windowpane you could hear from anywhere in the house. And sure enough, there he’d be, lying motionless on the back patio only to shake himself up, un-ruffle his blue and white feathers, give us a quick look with crazed eyes before taking off in whatever direction he saw fit. Sometimes right back into the window.

This was my guardian angel. I told no one this. Probably because I was ashamed of my guardian angel.

Blue stopped showing up around the time I went into high school. By college, I didn’t so much think he was dead, I’d simply forgotten he’d ever existed. Still, all of this remained — the voices and demons and Bible stories and the bird — though buried, hardening within me like cement and expanding. All it needed was a little nick, a slight crack in the skull to escape into the conscious mind.

So after the inevitable first crack came and I was forced to drop out of college, move back in with my parents to seal the crack back up, imagine my surprise when I hear that familiar THUMP against the living room window. I’m home alone at the time, it’s early winter, and who’s out there but little Blue, now gray, lying on the patio and struggling for breath. I recognize him immediately. A smudge of blood on the window where he hit. I crouch over him, watch his feet twitch, his little eyes open wide and eyeing me from their side as if to say, it’s your turn now, it’s your turn to take care of me. And I say, of course, little Blue, I’ll take care of you.

Then he dies.

I’m pretty drunk at the time, so I don’t feel much, drinking being a strict part of my regimen to seal the crack. I just hover over him, and stagger back. His feathers quiver but it’s only the wind. Only later, long after burying him in the stretch of dirt behind the basketball hoop, do I feel something. A brief moment of sober clarity before falling asleep. For the first time, I realize, I’m truly alone.

“Fuck,” I say to myself now, years later, here again, recovering from the second crack.

My parents look up from their plates, mid-chew.

“What was that?” my dad asks.

I feign a cough, shake my head, and that’s the end of that. We all go back to eating.

I’m working hard to seal this second crack up for good, and not just seal it up, but reinforce it with everything I’ve got so it never comes re-cracked, undone — whatever — again. This time I avoid booze, I avoid weed, I run like my life depends on it. And I’m afraid it does. I’m desperate for that hit of high, when the body feels like lead but the mind flies. Without it I sink, keep sinking. These “family” dinners are also part of the regimen, a suggestion from my parents to reintegrate a level of normality and routine back into my life.

And at night when I’m alone, I check the cracks, see what’s still there, what’s still getting through—

The bird was just a bird. Annie was just Annie. The man was just myself. Good. And Brian— well, who was he? My heart sinks. I turn off the light and my heart sinks deeper. Let it sink, I tell myself. I’ll seal my heart up too.

In the morning I run harder, sweat harder, read the papers over breakfast, and reaffirm this as reality. The rise and fall of Trump in the polls, the inevitability of another Clinton in the White House, etc.

I let the *scar tissue* crawl over the split, the tear in my mind, again and again, the *scar tissue* webs itself over—

But just then there’s a little rip, a tear in the

*scar tissue*

scar tissue that I wish you saw

sarcastic mister know it all

close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, cause

with the birds I’ll share—

I need to be more careful with my word choices, my thought choices, because there are still things out there, outside of myself, that can reach the things inside myself, and by connecting what’s inside to what’s outside, it doesn’t matter how much scar        

*AHEM* — reinforcement I’ve put up, what’s inside will always be inside and could at any time come spilling out. At any time.

So I avoid radios, I avoid thinking about radios, I avoid anywhere where radios play, which, it goes without saying, could be anywhere. Naturally this gets in the way of my return to society. I can’t leave the house in fear I’ll overhear a certain song, a certain voice, and all this work will have been for naught. My parents want me to get a job. I’m all for it, I tell them. Unfortunately the only jobs I’m qualified for are in retail or restaurants, places where the radio always plays. I try to explain this to them, my parents, and they’re kind enough to nod, to say they understand, but when suggesting that I should try it anyway and see how it goes, I see they don’t understand at all. It doesn’t matter though, they stick to their hands-off approach and their suggestions remain just that, suggestions.

After one particular visit to the grocery store — a poor decision on my part — I tell myself I can never set foot in a grocery store again. While I ‘d been checking out, a song by that band came down from the overhead speakers—

with the birds I’ll share this lonely viewin’

with the birds I’ll share this lonely viewin’

—and I felt myself waking from some dream, dark smoke pushing, rising, pulsating against the scar *stuff* of my mind, and standing there I knew that if I didn’t leave now all would be lost. I left the groceries with the cashier, and walked out without saying a word.

I cradled myself in the car, humming the song, trying to turn the tune into a different tune. I was unsuccessful.

It’s weeks before I leave my house again. And when I do, it’s to stand in the backyard. Listen to the birds — just birds. Back inside. I form a bubble in my room. I hope that maybe, when this red hot summer is over — though surely summer must be over? — I can safely make the trips outside, when the radios have finally had enough of

that band.

I don’t leave my room. I don’t go on my phone. Though Brian and I would text at first, sometimes he’d even call, our correspondence slows the way most distanced correspondences do. He’s on his way to becoming an old friend, and from there — a forgotten acquaintance. I’ve deleted Tinder, though I’m still charged $9.99 a month for the Plus upgrade because I failed to unsubscribe before deleting the app. I don’t care. I won’t touch it. I’m afraid of getting too close to it again, that somehow it’d draw me back in and I’d stumble across someone’s eyes and said someone’s eyes would wake me from this little cave I’ve created beneath the crack.

Anything to stay safe. To stay sane.

Anything to keep the *crack* closed.

Once again, my mom has to deliver my food, and leave it at the door.

Every now and again I’ll hear a THUMP.

A THUMP THUMP from the living room window but I don’t get up. I can’t let any light through the crack. Not until I’m sure it’s closed for good. For good. Cause with the birds I’ll share—

No. Enough.

Stop that.

—this lonely view. Little Blue.

Stop.

ANYWAY.

Anyway. This is my state. This is where I’m at when Brian decides to come back.

👌

join man next week for journal #40 (in which Brian comes back)

Journal #38 (in which said man revisits the one-armed Jesus)

We sit at the edge of the bed for some time without either of us saying a thing. I can tell there’s something else he wants to say but he’s not saying it. Or he hasn’t quite figured out what he needs to say, if he needs to say anything at all.

I’m still naked. Nothing on but a towel.

“Are you going to open the letter?” I ask him.

“I don’t know. Yes, eventually.”

“What do you think it says?”

“You know what I think it says.”

I nod.

“Is it helping, what he sends you?”

Brian shrugs.

“A little,” he says. “But mostly, no.”

“Will you tell me what this one says?”

“It depends on what it says. Do you want to know?”

“I don’t know. I won’t know till I know what it says.”

“I know what you mean.”

He gets up.

“You will tell me though, won’t you?” I ask.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing better.”

“Am I better?” I ask him. “I really can’t tell.”

“You’re different, that’s for sure.”

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“Will you be back?”

“Yes. I’ll be back.”

And he does come back. Often. Over the coming days, and weeks, he stops by to check up on me, to see how I’m doing. Neither of us seems to know if I’m getting better or if I’m getting worse, we only know that I’m changing. I definitely feel different — sedated, in the moment, but only because I have no hope for better moments. I take every day, day by day, and I’m in the moment because I’m terrified to look at my future, even more ashamed to look at my past. Brian will sometimes bring over a movie, this is when I can tell he doesn’t want to talk, and usually I’m okay with that. One morning he brings Scarface and we watch that. After the movie he asks me, “You like that movie?”

“Not really.”

“Oh.”

We stare at the credits and then the DVD menu when the credits are done. And then he leaves.

Sometimes he doesn’t bring a movie over, and I’m okay with that too, because it means we get to talk, even if all the talks are the same, even though I can tell he’s just trying to confirm that I’m really okay so he can leave for good and wipe his conscience clean of me.

“My parents suggested I see someone,” I tell him.

“Do you want to see someone?”

“No.”

“But do you think it would help?”

“I don’t know.”

He nods.

“I don’t know what I’d say,” I go on. “Also, I’m embarrassed.”

“About what?”

“About the person I thought I was.”

“So you don’t think you’re that anymore.”

“Yes? I don’t know. No. It’s not that though.”

“So what is it?”

“I know who I am, I know who I was, but I’m not sure it means anything anymore. Or I wasn’t Him at all. I don’t know. If I’m Him or I’m not Him, it doesn’t matter because I’m just me, and I’m outdated — He is outdated. I have nothing to say, nothing to do. If there is a God, he’s abandoned me. If I am God, I’ve abandoned myself. Does that make sense?”

“It does.”

“Anyway, I’m not sure telling anyone this would make any difference. Crazy or not, I know what I saw, I’ve seen the interconnectedness of meaningless things, and I can’t unsee that. The feeling will always stick with me. They can put me on medication, they can try to rewire my mind, correct incorrect imbalances, but no amount of dopamine or serotonin, or whatever they deem as the culprit, can make me forget that I’ve seen the interconnectedness of meaningless things. When you’re there, when you feel yourself at your very center, you see it all spreading out and colliding away from you, everything you do affecting everything else and it never ends, nothing ever ends, meaning it goes on forever in an endless cycle, on and on and back around again, every possibility playing itself out, so — mathematically — nothing you do matters. You will always end up where you are. Both of us will always end up here.”

“You’re so close though,” Brian says.

“Close to what?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I never got there.”

“Where?”

“I was hoping you could tell me when you got there.”

“And then you took me here.”

“And then I took you here.”

🌘

A couple of blocks away from my house — there’s no question now this’ll always be my house, there’s no escaping it — there’s a church. In front of this church there’s a statue of Jesus, arms outspread like most statues of Jesus, only here his left arm is silver while the rest of the statue is bronze. This is because, back when I was in middle school, some of the kids had stolen the left arm as a prank. Nobody knew who had done it or why, but the result was that the statue became known as the “Hitler Jesus,” because with only one arm raised, it looked as if he was saluting, palm out, much like Hitler.

At the time, this meant nothing to me — it was just a stupid joke, calling this Jesus the “Hitler Jesus.” It wasn’t until years later, long after the arm was finally replaced with the silver one, that I saw the meaning in it, its careful foreshadowing of my own life. Because late in the first madness, I became convinced that in my cycle of death and rebirth, that every nine lives I was reborn as the antichrist. This came out of necessity, because the only way to create something was to destroy something. Not only was I the reincarnation of Jesus, I was the reincarnation of Hitler.

I had to come to terms with that. I was God. I was a mass murderer. Creating life necessitated killing it.

When, because of these thoughts, I dropped out of college and moved back in with my parents the first time, I had to wonder if the subconscious memory of the “Hitler Jesus” was the root of these delusions, if they were delusions, or instead confirmation of my enlightenment. Whatever the connection, there was a connection between Jesus, Hitler, the statue, and me — that I knew.

When I now talk about the interconnectedness of meaningless things, this is what I’m talking about.

All things are connected and none of it means anything.

Though everything changes, nothing changes at all.

🌒

Brian starts showing up less and less and I feel the time approaching when he’ll show up no more. California is not home to him, neither is Washington for that matter, and I’m surprised he’s lasted in either place for so long. Though he doesn’t say anything, I know one of these visits will be his last and I won’t have it in me to follow him.

I can’t forgive him for bringing me here because I forgave him a long time ago. I almost wonder if I knew this was where the road would end. My road is straight. My road has always been straight. Yet home was always where the straight road ends.

On Brian’s last visit — I know it’s his last visit because in his silence I know he’s trying to tell me something, and whether I’m better or worse than before, we both know I’ve reached the end of the road where better or worse ends — I suggest we go for a walk. He looked uncomfortable sitting there on the couch and maybe I was uncomfortable too. We walk along the perfectly white sidewalk squares and, before long, come across the statue once known as the “Hitler Jesus.” I have to wonder if this was the plan all along, to take him here. We sit on the stone bench beneath the statue.

“Why did you take me here?” he asks me.

I don’t have an answer to that.

He looks around and, confirming nobody is around, lights a cigarette. Even Brian must feel it, a devout atheist like him, he feels the sacredness of this place. He takes a drag from the cigarette and blows a plume up toward the statue.

“Why is his arm a different color?”

I tell him.

I tell him in all seriousness what I’ve told you.

When I’m done telling him, all he says is—

“Jesus.”

And then he bursts out laughing. He laughs and coughs and laughs some more. He wipes a tear from his cheek, pinches the rest from his eyes. “Oh god,” he says and takes a quick drag from his cigarette to steady himself. Once steady, he looks up, almost in awe at the statue, as if he’s been converted into something other than what he is.

“So somewhere out there, he has a third arm, just lying around?”

“Yeah? I guess so.”

“Shit,” he says, though I’m not sure why. “A third arm. Shit.”

He gets up from the bench, stares a long time into the bronze eyes of the statue, and then walks away. I follow him.

When we reach my house, though he still says nothing, I know this is goodbye. You don’t have to be omniscient to know I’m never going to see Brian again.

He says goodbye like all the other times, but this goodbye feels different. The breath in my own goodbye tastes different.

“We’ll always have San Francisco,” he says.

“What happened in San Francisco?”

“You don’t remember?”

“No,” I say.

“Oh. Nothing happened in San Francisco.”

Then he walks away, his duffle slung over his shoulder. He leaves me the keys to the minivan, which at first I find to be a touching parting gesture until I remember it was my minivan all along.

I watch him disappear around the street corner. I thought maybe he’d turn and wave when he got there, but he didn’t. He just vanished without so much as a glance back.

Nothing else moves on the street. The trees are still. The air is stagnant.

I go back inside.

⛪️

join man next week for journal #39 (in which said man retreats further into himself)