Journal #31 (which begins a red hot summer)

This is not your average Christ-goes-on-a-road-trip love story. You’re probably imagining a 1970s convertible, top down, faded and peeling SECOND COMING bumper sticker, Jesus and Judas cruising down the highway drinking wine from a bottle in a bag, endless stretches of desert and sand and Toby Keith on the radio, robes and Jesus hair flailing and trailing in the ripping wind.

First of all, Toby Keith? No.

It’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the new stuff not the old stuff. And it’s constantly on repeat.

Seat belts? Check.

Engine? Rumbling.

Cupholders? Rattling.

Road? Ready, paved, and waiting.

“Excellent,” he says.

Queue the music, I say to him. The road trip songs, the Creedence, the Dylan, the B-B-B-B-Benny and the Jets.

“Let’s listen to the radio.”

“Fine,” I say to him.

His hand on the dial— static.

Music? No, still static.

Then comes the radio voice—

—ISTENING TO WORLD FAMOUS CFOX—RED HOT SUMMER—NEW MUSIC BY THE CHILI PEPPERS, COMING UP NEXT—

And we’re not driving through desert but down the Western Coast. From Bellingham, WA to hellfire down south. The burning hills of Southern California. We’re looking for a girl. We’re taking my minivan and Brian—not Judas—is at my side.

Brian reaches for the dial but I say don’t you dare. Don’t you dare touch the dial. Brian backs off.

We’re shooting down I-5, the one road, the straight road, exhaust rises behind us into the bright white summer sky. I’m all too aware of my heart, my veins, my sweat, the radio crackling with a new beginning—

Quick staccato guitar plucking— rurururrurururururur

And then some piano— na nana nanana na nana nanana na nana

Slowly, the drums.

The build up.

The bass. The funk beat bass! The funk clap! CLAP!

“coming on to the light of day, we got many moons that are deep at play, so I keep an eye on the shadow smile, to see what it has to say”

His voice rips through me, familiar—

“you and I both know, everything must go away, what do you say”

—but I don’t recognize these lyrics.

“you don’t know my mind you don’t know my kind, dark necessities are part of my design”

What else? My hair isn’t quite where it should be yet. It’s curling out rather than Jesus down. I’m skinny, I’ve been “fasting” if you can call it that, but I just haven’t been eating. Can’t get a bite down.

I turn up the volume.

Brian crosses his arms and slides deeper into his seat. The lead singer’s voice—Anthony’s voice—now five years older, sounds exactly the same.

“any way we roll, everything must go away, what do you say”

Some days we go nowhere. When we do go somewhere, it’s not far. It may as well be nowhere. Nix the endless road. We see only a couple miles at a time.

I listen for anything about Annie. Anything about anything in Anthony’s lyrics—

“turn the corner and find the world at your command,

playing the hand”

—but there’s nothing about Annie, nothing about anything of any relevance. The lyrics don’t make sense like the last time, like their last album.

This is not your average Messiah story. It doesn’t look like one and it doesn’t feel like one. No one is saved. Nobody is brought back from the dead.

The next song on the radio might as well be silence. We’re pulled off at the side of the interstate, the engine still going. I’m not sure where we are. I’m shaking. Brian is staring at me and he whispers, “We should go.”

“We should go,” I say, as if Brian said nothing. I pull back out onto the road.

It begins with eyes, Annie’s eyes, and a song.

It’ll end how all things end. Oblivion. Not the end of everything, but when there’s nothing left to be written there’ll be nothing left to write. Life might go on, but here, for you, there’ll be nothing.

I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m writing to you from before the end, I haven’t reached the end yet. As much as I’d like to foreshadow the end, I can’t.

Brian doesn’t ask about the music and I don’t talk about it, though I know he notices me turn up the volume whenever they come on the radio. No matter where we go, Red Hot seems to be the theme of the summer, the Chili Peppers with near constant airplay, their classics mixed with a steady rotation of their new stuff: “Dark Necessities,” “The Getaway,” “Go Robot.” Everything else is filler. Their new stuff plays so often it’s not hard to memorize the lyrics after two days on the road.

“everything must go away everything must go away everything must go away what do you say”

There are pieces I don’t have, other songs I need. Somewhere along the way we make a pitstop at an Everyday Music to buy the album. Brian says nothing when I put it on an endless loop in the car. He says nothing when we’re parked, and I sit there staring at the album cover: a painting of a young girl strolling in step with a raccoon and a bear with a raven leading the way. He says nothing when he’s trying to sleep, and I’m lying beside him in the back of van, mouthing the words by memory, trying to find its meaning but finding nothing. Nothing sounds in the dark but my sticky lips.

Though there are moments when I’m close. Close to finding the why to it all. We’ll be on the road, a lyric will come up, and for a moment I’ll see her, I’ll see Annie, and everything seems to slow down before us, the cars and mountains and breeze coming to a standstill before us, memories rushing at us like black hair in a night breeze and the smell of her smoke and those eyes opening up like burnt black dahlias in bloom and—

“Lookout!”

A horn screams and fades behind and Brian lets go of my wheel.

“Jesus, watch the road.”

“The road is straight,” I say.

“Then drive fucking straight.”

Brian’s already back on his phone, though I know he’s actually watching the road.

We sleep in the parking lots of Walmarts. I’ve already mentioned how we don’t drive everyday, well, some days we don’t even leave the lot, and most days I don’t even leave the car. These parking lots all look the same, the Walmart bathrooms all smell the same. And the people, their eyes I’m telling you, they’re all the same too. It’s like we’re being followed by different people but they’re all the same because they all have the same eyes. Tired, dead eyes. They don’t look at you even when they’re looking at you, so how can they be following you? Doesn’t matter, I tell myself. Some days I fear the outside world. I stay in the back of the van. Doesn’t matter where we are, I don’t know where we are. Forests and farmlands and parking lots. The days go by all the same. Our odors permeate the confined cave of the van, and then it becomes home. You grow used to the smell. You can no longer smell the smell. Brian hangs up tapestries as curtains with pins around the inside perimeter. Hanging layers of them works to block out the light. Some days pass as night.

Tired, dead eyes.

I don’t realize my eyes are the same until I’m staring at myself in a bathroom mirror. There’s a fat man in a blue vest standing behind me, waiting, and I see his eyes, and my eyes and his are identical. I splash water over my face, rub the peeling, dry skin from my nose and cheeks. No matter how vigorously I scrub, my skin keeps peeling. The fat man will wait a long time.

I haven’t been sleeping. I’m not sure how anyone sleeps in these parking lots. These RVs, those vans, those trucks—when I peek out at night across the lots, lit by grainy blue lamplights, I can’t imagine how anyone sleeps, but they are asleep. Asleep in the Toyota, in the Odyssey, the Accord, the many Subarus, the blue— wait, no, the man in the blue Honda isn’t sleeping. He’s sitting up in the front seat, his windows down, and his pale eyes watch me. I dip down below the window and lie back beside Brian who I know isn’t sleeping either. I can tell by the way he breathes.

My heart pushes my veins to capacity.

I whisper to myself, “You and I both know, everything must go away, everything must go away, everything must go away…”

Brian groans and rolls away from me.

“What do you say.”

The first time I wake up without Brian is in a Walmart lot just outside of Portland, which shocks me because to wake means I was actually asleep. I stretch out across the mattress before the panic sets in—BRIAN??? Cars are parked tight around the van, it must be a weekend, and I have to stand on top of its roof to see across this vehicular sea. I see no one. By that I mean there are plenty of people, but no one of any importance. No Brian. No man in blue Honda.

I shout to Brian from the rooftop. I call Brian’s phone but it goes straight to voicemail, and his voicemail isn’t set up. I check the bathrooms, the boys and the girls, I wander the Walmart aisles but Brian is nowhere to be found. I return to the van but Brian isn’t there. I curl up in the back and whisper to myself, I sing to myself that everything is going to be okay, I sing the Chili Peppers—

“Do you want it all the time? But darkness helps us all to shine… do you want it? Do you want it now?”

Later, late in the afternoon— a tapping on the window. Outside, a figure leans against the back. I smell smoke.

I open the side door and crawl out. Brian peeks around the back, a cigarette hanging from his lips as if nothing happened.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” I say.

We both sit down on the mattress, our legs hanging out the open door. He falls back and spews smoke throughout the van. I do my best not to cough.

“Where were you?”

“Couldn’t sleep. Went for a walk.”

I nod.

But I don’t believe him. I smell the sleep all over him. Oh you slept, you slept all right, I want to tell him. Your eyes are too rested, too calm. And so are mine, for that matter, because without you here, I slept too. I eye the phone in his hand.

“Ready to go?” I ask him.

Brian sits up. “We need to get off this road,” he says.

I look around us. We’re surrounded by roads. “What road?”

“I-5.”

Brian is already on his way to the driver’s seat. When he looks at me his eyes are so rested and content, I can’t bring myself to argue.

“C’mon. Don’t you want to see the ocean?” he asks. “Let’s see the ocean.”

I’m afraid to leave this road, the straight road, but there is someone following us and I suspect Brian knows this too. It’s that blue Honda, that blue dot always balanced on the horizon but never falling away. We take the 26 out of Portland till we reach the 6, drive southwest to and through the Tillamook Forest. Brian snakes the road like a devil, but that blue dot is always there. If a curve swallows it, that curve spits it back out. Douglas-firs tower over us, block out all horizons. Brian blows smoke out the window, I turn up the volume and blast the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway album, and take solace in that it’s trying to tell me something—it must be telling me something, a new album, now? as all this begins again?—though no matter how many times I spin it in my head, none of it makes sense. I find no depth in the lyrics. There’s nothing there.

The forest opens up to farmland just as the sun loses itself to the horizon. Everything fades to silvers and blues, little lights flickering. We reach the 101 and the 101 takes us down, down, still inland until Oretown where beyond the road an emptiness opens up to the West—an infinite blackness of night upon night. We find a pull off and stop. Headlights pass on the left. Waves pound to the right. Brian gets out of the car.

The ocean.

It’s as empty and lonely as I’ve ever seen it. The air, the little that got in from Brian opening the door, is alive with sea and salt. I don’t leave the car. Outside, Brian struggles with his lighter in the wind.

🌊

join man next week for journal #32 (in which said man upgrades to Tinder Plus)

Journal #30 (in which said man hits the road with Brian)

I don’t know how it reaches us, but a letter reaches us on the road. I find it tucked within the pages of Brian’s battered copy of Infinite Jest. It’s an envelope without a stamp, without a postmark, addressed to BRIAN, SOMEWHERE ON INTERSTATE-5, and inside that is a newspaper clipping from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Brian’s hometown paper. Sweat damaged from too much handling, the clipping tells of a string of murders in the greater St. Louis area, linked to a few more out of state. All victims were of the name Jonathan Johannesson, the name of the second person who raped Brian. Though no real suspect has been named, many of the Jonathans died during or shortly after a Tinder date, all with the same person, known only as Tammy, 23. The clipping includes a picture of this Tammy— pale skin, flowing red synthetic hair, and a darkness to the cheeks only I see as stubble. No such Tammy has been found.

I also receive a letter, also without a stamp, also without a postmark, but instead of Brian’s name is my name. I find it tucked under the driver’s seat. When I ask Brian about how this could possibly have reached us, he plays dumb. When I ask him about the handwriting, he claims ignorance. When I question him about the letters he’s received, he says he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t open the letter addressed to me, SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF THE OREGON BORDER. The letter carries too much weight to open it, thick it is with who knows how many pages. I stuff it in the glove compartment and forget about it.

But I don’t forget about it—I’m haunted by the question of how it reached us. This comes first before any curiosity of what may be inside. Because I remember clearing out the van before we left, taking out anything expendable. I emptied all pockets, cleared all nooks, all cupholders and crannies, wiped all surfaces clean before we (Brian) built the platform to support the mattress in the back, before we stuffed our entire lives into this van, the contents crammed tight and spilling into the other’s. I remember all of this, and there was no such letter.

Before we left, long before the letters, Brian didn’t ask many questions. He seemed resolved to keep his mouth shut and his mind clean of whatever was/is contaminating mine. But as our departure loomed, and having found himself in the wake of his break with Tommy, Brian’s silence came undone. Outside the cottage I find him in the van, seated on the raised mattress in the back, and he’s smoking a cigarette.

“What is it?” I ask him.

He shakes his head.

I’m about to shrug it off, just walk away, when he asks, “Who are you? Who are you really?”

I tell him.

“No shit,” he says. “But who are you?”

“I don’t know what you’re asking.”

“You’re leaving because of who you are. And I’m coming with you, leaving everything too. So I need you to tell me straight, who do you think you are?”

I—

“You wrote about it, you showed it to me, and I know who you were then. But who are you now?”

I tell him I’m the Christ. It sounds weird saying it out loud.

Brian relaxes, places the cigarette back between his lips as if he expected this.

“And what are you here to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“The road trip, what are we doing?”

“Finding Annie. You know this.”

“And when we find her, what are you going to do? Will you do what needs to be done or will you do nothing? Do you even know what you’re supposed to do?”

I tell him I don’t know.

“Well you need to figure that out,” he says.

I nod.

“That’s all,” he says and then waves me off with his cigarette as if excusing me from his office.

That was then.

And so it goes now, we go, we go, the road unfurling before us, leading us downward along the northwestern coast of America. We pass cities and towns, farmlands and brown rivers. A homeless man gives me a thumbs up, and I give him a thumbs up too.

We take the wheel in shifts. We stop often. We pee often. We sleep less than I’d like to, though I try. I try so hard, but I can’t get a wink of it with Brian sleeping next to me. I think he’s awake too. His breathing is awake breathing, not sleep breathing. We’re not even outside Washington.

He seems to want to take his time. My time. Most days we go nowhere.

His eyes. They’re irritable.

“Wait,” he says somewhere far south of Seattle. “Stop the car.”

I stop the car. We’re stalled on the side of the interstate. We sit there silent and listen to the

tick

tick

tick of the engine cooling.

“How are we going to find her?” he asks.

“Annie?”

“Annie.”

“In LA.”

“Where in LA?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. All you say.”

“I don’t though.”

Brian pulls in his bottom lip, rolls down his window. The scent of tire and tar fills the van like pudding.

“We’ll find her,” I say confidently. Though thinking about it, I’m not confident about it at all.

“Facebook?” Brian asks.

“She’s not on Facebook.”

“Or she blocked you.”

I say nothing to that.

Brian rests his arm where the window used to be, raps his finger on the door.

Cars scream on by. The minivan shakes at their passing.

Brian pulls out his phone, flips through his open apps, opening new ones, closing old ones. His eyes don’t leave the screen, and I realize he’s right. How am I supposed to find Annie? What exactly was I expecting?

The road is still. What was once mania begins to peak, then pause, then slide toward it’s inevitable descent. Tick.

Ticktick.

 

Tick.

 

Tick.

 

“Tinder?”

 

“What was that?”

“Tinder,” Brian says again. “Find her using Tinder.”

“Using Tinder.”

“Yeah.”

I can tell by his voice he knows it sounds stupid too, but what else about this hasn’t been completely, altogether downright—

“Tinder,” I say with almost a laugh. “Well…”

And instead of peaking, my mind continues it’s ascent.

TICK.

TICKTICKTICKTICKTICKTICKTICKTICKTICKTICK—

And I start the engine.

Everything comes to life.

As I glance in the rearview mirror and pull back onto the road, Brian’s still on his phone and he’s on Tinder, swiping, swiping, relentlessly swiping and I see that devilish smile of his creep back through the corners of his lips for the first time since we left, since he left Tommy.

Interstate-5 pulls back under our wheels, ripping that horizon toward us. Jagged evergreens salute as we pass, as the road whispers: Prepare ye the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.

The road is straight.

My road is straight.

Behind us, the dome of the world falls away.

Eventually I do open that letter from Tommy. If just to taunt me, the glove compartment seems to rattle more than usual, until everything is rattling: the cupholders, the seats, the rearview mirror. Even when I’m not driving, even when I’m in the back trying to sleep, I dream of that glove compartment and it’s rattling, jamming itself against its lock. When I wake the glove compartment is open and inside is the envelope sticking out like a tongue. To shut it up, I tear out that tongue and slit it open and of course, this is unmistakable, vintage Tommy, classic Tommy-Tinder-style, saying so much with so little. This is what he says:

☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠…

This goes on for 39 pages.

I read it twice. It kills me, it really does.

💀

join man next year for PART IV of MANWITHOUTATINDER. Coming in January.

Journal #29 (in which Brian leaves Tommy, finally)

Brian is still awake when I get home. He’s curled up under my desk, buried in blankets, and he asks me how she took it.

I tell him she took it just fine.

“Fine?”

“She’ll be fine.”

He nods, rolls onto his back and crosses his arms.

“How’s Tommy?” I ask.

“Fine.”

“He took it okay?”

“I haven’t told him.”

“But you’re going to tell him.”

“Yes. I’m going to tell him.”

“How are you going to tell him?”

“I’m going to tell him,” he says, and rolls away from me.

And Brian does tell him, but he doesn’t tell him right away. It takes awhile. He goes through the motions with Tommy, prepping for their tramp trek across America, all the while Tommy unaware that Brian is prepping for his own trip down the coast to California with me. If I wasn’t so happy about this, I would have seen this as cruel.

And unusual.

Punishment, really.

I don’t know what happened on the dead-cow-night, when Brian and Tommy broke into the house of Mother and Father Tinder, all I know is that Tommy has money again. All of it going to beer, and weed, and a new tattoo: this one of Brian’s vagina in the cave of his armpit. He shaved his armpit for the occasion, then let it grow back wild, staying true to Brian’s vagina. Hairyhairyhairy. Of course it is.

I’d like to think that they found Mother and Father Tinder asleep in their separate beds, unsleeped them, and ushered them to the garage where they tied the two down surrounded by Father Tinder’s paintings of the burning world: signs that scream REPENT OR BURN! and then there’s Lucifer covered in Christ’s blood. I’d like to think they gagged them, and robbed them of the money that was rightfully Tommy’s plus interest, but I really don’t know. I’m not sure Tommy would’ve had it in him.

To make their life on the road more comfortable, Tommy wants them to trade in their two cars for a minivan. Brian pushes this off as long as he can, until he can’t, and they trade in their two cars for a minivan. A green Honda Odyssey which Tommy dubs the DREAD NAUTILUS.

Still, Tommy isn’t stupid. He sees the change in Brian, in that when they fight, the fights don’t last long. Brian lets Tommy win. It’s as if Brian doesn’t care. Tommy finds me at the bookstore and in tears asks me if I know what’s going on with Brian, but I tell him that I don’t know. I don’t know Brian anymore, I tell him. Who can say what’s going on in Brian’s head.

Which isn’t a lie. I really don’t know what’s going on in Brian’s head. Although I know that Brian plans to accompany me to California in my quest to find Annie, I don’t know why he’s doing this. I don’t know why he’d throw everything away just to help me. I have my theories, but they all conflict. None of them hold up against the others.

Brian loves me.

Brian hates me.

Brian is bored.

Brian is impulsive.

Brian is the Devil leading me to the Devil’s daughter.

Brian wants to see me destroyed.

And as much as I don’t know why Brian is joining me, I don’t know why I’m joining him. This was, after all, his idea. I know I need to find Annie, but to what end? I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do. My mind cycles through its identities— I am the Father, I am the Son, I am the Holy Ghost, I am the One.

One last identity— I’m fucking losing it.

Maybe if I just see Annie, tell her I’m sorry, that’ll snap me back into place, the place I was between this madness and the last.

That last madness made sense, it had purpose and drive and meaning up until the very end. This current madness, however, is diluted with the sanity that ended the last one. Or maybe the sanity was actually a madness between two sanities, and in that case this returning sanity is diluted with that madness (see sanity).

In the five-year period of sanity (or madness) that split the two madnesses (or sanities), I read up on delusions of grandeur of the Christ variety, of those other poor souls who also thought they were Gods among men, and I found plenty. The affliction is not uncommon. This disheartens me for two reasons: either we’re all crazy fucks, or my dreams back then were true—the dreams of me on the cross 2000 years ago and knowing I’ve failed, having succumbed to the temptation, having slept with Magdalene the Slut and thereby trapping the blood of the one God on Earth—and all of these crazies, these schizophrenic megalomaniacs, are all my descendants who see the truth. They have these dreams too. We’re all God after all, there’s just more than one of us.

But we’re blind to this: the plural God. Our ego convinces us that this racing lightness we feel belongs to us, and us alone. Instead of enlightenment, realizing we all carry this seed of God, our ego tells us we’re the only one, the center of everything.

I try to crush my ego, push it to the depths of myself, the place between and behind my eyes I cannot see, until my self is gone and all purpose of my mission fades along with my will to live. Even food and water seem an addiction created by this world of things. So I stop eating and allow the waking dreams to come of the Earth eroding all around me and my stomach that consumes itself, caves in on itself, when the addiction to everything has been conquered. There I am outside of myself, watching my skin turn to the color of nothing and flake away, fall into the dirt, and from my bones the mud and green grass rises and dies with the seasons and still I am watching until even my bones are gone and only then am I free— one with the shit of maggots and the breath of the world.

But I never get that far, because with the first pangs of hunger, my ego kicks back in and says enough, you are enough, you are here to save, but first you must save yourself. So I crawl back from my depths, Brian holding my hand and feeding me soup and placing tea to my lips, and I see it in Brian’s eyes, that he’s been here too. The memory of his light is there, I see it like you can still see a star that’s long since died, but his light is gone, someone crushed it, and Brian wants to believe that although his light is no more, my light can go on. This, I believe, is why he helps me. He fans the flame of my light, and with the growing fire, so does my ego grow and grow until once again I am the Christ and he is nothing, and not just nothing, he is less than nothing, he is the Devil leading me back into the world of things and sin when really I should be dying, becoming nothing myself to become one with everything. Again I stop eating.

The cycle goes on like this.

Moments of sanity (or madness) sprinkled within its opposite.

And there’s still Tommy, whom I pity as I pity all sentient beings, but especially Tommy because Tommy loves Brian. They’re down the gravel drive, just out of earshot, and I see Brian whispering to Tommy. He’s saying what must be said. It’s not just Tommy’s weakened posture, even the light in his eyes seems to go out—a sacrifice that must be made for my own light. I’m then distracted by the wind combing the grass and the birds twitching the trees and I’m in awe by all I’ve created. A quiet settles in, as if to say SHHHHLISTEN, but I’m not listening to anything outside of myself, my beautiful thoughts. I don’t see the paper that Brian slips Tommy, I don’t see the kiss he plants on his cheek, I’m ignorant of everything until I hear the word “FRIEND” spit straight at me from Tommy’s lips. From the back of the DREAD NAUTILUS Tommy grabs his masterpiece, his manuscript of yellow faces, and throws it at my feet. He lights it on fire and tells me it doesn’t mean anything, it never meant anything. The pages burn, turn black before my eyes. The ungrateful little shit, after everything I did for you, after I created you, you destroy the one thing left in this world that still had any beauty, the one thing you’d ever given back to me.

And like that Tommy is gone, he takes the DREAD NAUTILUS and drives away. I’m on my knees before what Tommy’s burned and Brian is right there, staring at me. He’s wondering, he must be wondering, I feel like I’m reading your mind, Brian, you’re wondering: My God, what have I done. And you see me for what I am, the maggot shit of the earth, and you turn around and disappear into the cottage. When I follow you inside you’re curled up under my desk but I don’t hear you breathing.

When I dream that night, I dream of my birth and Annie is my mother and when she screams lightbulbs shatter and I’m my father watching this mess, my arrival into this world, and I take my shit-covered self into my hands, look into my eyes.

It’s not my wailing that wakes me, but Brian standing over me, silent, nudging me with his foot.

“It’s time to go,” he says, and he says this with words that feel like the final spadeful of dirt on my grave.

“Okay,” I say. “Okay. I’m up. Let’s go. Let’s hit the road.”

And honest to Myself, I can’t for the life of Me remember why.

🚗

join man next week for journal #30 (in which said man hits the road with Brian)

Journal #28 (which ends with the death of Queen Jane)

Sometimes I wonder if editing our thoughts in writing (be it online, in blogs, in books, wherever) is doing the same thing that photoshop is doing to the self-image of young girls. We pick and choose the correct words to make us, to create us, and we show these words to the world as if to say, Look at me! I’m awesome, I’m a good person. People read these words and think, “Oh he’s awesome, he’s a good person, but he doesn’t think like I think. He doesn’t have the darkness that I have. Don’t look at me, I’m alone, I’m disgusting. Don’t look at me.” I often wonder if writers are dangerous. If they do more harm than good. We’re not just lying to everyone else, we’re lying to ourselves.

I want to be honest. I do. I don’t want to sugarcoat who/what I am. But somewhere deeper, beyond my reach, there’s the gremlin editor and it hides my true nature from me. It scrubs my thoughts, rationalizes my actions, and keeps me in the dark. If I were to ever see the truth, the gremlin fears what I might do. Because if I go, the gremlin goes too.

I’m trying to be honest.

I want you to see what I am.

I don’t want to feel this alone.

Because the gremlin is terrible company.

There is the sickness you are conscious of, then there is the sickness that you’re not—you think you’re sane. Slowly, steadily, I devolve into the latter. Which means I feel better. I am better.

I ride this better feeling into the mania that it is.

Times like this, with the revving of these first-class feels and inertia that won’t stop skidding with thoughts way too optimistic, it’s easy to focus only on the good times, the good things between Jane and me—like when I told her I loved her and she told me the same and the time we made love in the woods under the sunlight that fell on us like rain and the time we burrowed deep under the covers and ate kettle corn there and I can remember how happy we are and how we’re supposed to be soulmates for forever—but I think it’s healthier to focus on the bad times because there are plenty of those too.

Like the time we fought over the meaning of being on time. When she finally relented to my being right and she said she was sorry, I took her in my arms and whispered, “It’s okay.” And she asked me if I was sure. “Well, you could make it up to me?” I said with a sly smile. She gave me a look, and I diverted that look to the growing bulge in my jeans. Then she shoved me away and started to cry. And I became the sorry one.

Like the time I talked her into a jealousy-charged game where we’d both go on Tinder, side by side, and compare the Matches we’d get to make each other horny. She didn’t want to do it. She told me it wasn’t a good idea, I’ll give her that. Lying together in bed, she got flooded with Matches, while I got none. I begged her to stop but she didn’t stop. “This is what you wanted, wasn’t it?” she asked me. I told her no, it wasn’t. This is not what I wanted at all. I was pretty sorry about that too.

Like the time I was emotionally unavailable.

Like all the other times I was emotionally unavailable.

Like the times when we’re having sex, and I have to picture Brian under me, as opposed to Jane, and in my head I’m calling him Brianna, as opposed to Brian, and I must do this in order to get off.

The point I’m trying to make is that this is not a romantic comedy, and it’s important for me to remind myself of this too. I refuse to let the gremlin turn this into something it’s not. Real life may be sprinkled with romantic moments, but the rest is really shitty. Most of romance is pain. I have to tell myself this in order to justify what I must do, what I’m about to do.

I’m not sure she knows it’s coming. I very much doubt she believes I had the flu. She had seen it in my eyes on the dead-cow-night, and I’m sure she still sees it now, that something behind my eyes grows stagnant.

“Are you okay?” she asks me.

“Yes. Everything is okay.”

“Okay.” She wraps her arms around me and I feel her tears wet my chest. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I just worry sometimes.”

I hold her tight and tell her not to worry. I’m fine.

Meanwhile, I’ve been removing my things from her place: my clothes, my toothbrush, my books, anything I’ve left there over the past months. In the far corner of the room she has a bookcase that’s backed with a mirror, only I didn’t realize it was backed with a mirror because it was filled with stuff. Once I remove from the shelves everything that’s mine, I’m startled because there’s nothing left. Well, not nothing. In the mirror, there I am, staring back, and I’m forced to wonder: what happened to my eyes?

I won’t tell you what I write on the note that I leave on her bedside table because it doesn’t matter. Also, I don’t want to talk about it because it’s none of your business. I sweep the room one last time, careful not to look at the bookcase, and I confirm there’s nothing left of me here. I leave her house as quietly as I can. I don’t even hear myself leave over her breathing.

Across the street is the blue Honda and the man sleeping inside. The silver cross and chain dangles from the rearview mirror, glinting in the streetlight. Under the windshield wiper I slip him a note too. It says that I give up, you win, man-in-blue-Honda, I’m going to find Annie. But in finding Annie, I say in the note, Jane is off limits. You can’t touch her.

As I walk to my own car parked just up the street, I’m surprised to feel the first drop of rain spot my forearm. When I look up all I see are stars—constellations that remind me of freckles—but no clouds. My cheeks grow wet, my chin drips. I didn’t realize Jane would have this effect on me. It’s hard to say if it’s my love for her, or her love for me that’s causing this. It could just be the image of her waking up with no trace of me or anything that was mine. She’ll search for proof I existed, still exist, but she’ll find nothing. Her eyes will land on the bookcase, and in its emptiness she’ll have to face herself too. She’ll know I’m gone long before she finds the cliche of a note on her bedside table.

It’s not a cliche because it’s heart wrenching and us writers like to wrench hearts, it’s a cliche because in the end we’re all cowards. We just want to slip away, detach ourselves from what we leave behind.

✉️

join man next week for journal #29 (in which Brian leaves Tommy, finally)

Journal #27 (in which Brian recommends an ending to all of this)

From Brian’s headphones, I hear him listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Songs like Monarchy of Roses and Annie Wants a Baby and Meet Me At The Corner, all of them from their I’m With You album. When I ask him about this he denies it.

I don’t like that he’s listening to these songs, but there’s also a comfort to this. Last time I was alone in these thoughts, but this time I have him. Brian takes an interest in whatever is going on inside my head, and outside of it.

“Have you contacted Annie at all?” he asks me. “Have you tried to talk to her since that night in the car?”

“No.”

“How do you know she’s trans?”

“I don’t know. She’s probably not.”

“Oh.”

Brian looks to his fingers before asking—

“So why did you make her trans?”

“I don’t know.”

Brian nods, but the way he nods, I know he knows. I know he knows I’m lying.

Of course I know why I made the Annie character transition to a man. I could’ve told him but I don’t. I could’ve told him it’s because he reminds me of Annie. That in a way, he’s replaced Annie. That he was the only way I could complete her story. I could’ve told him that although everything changes, nothing really changes at all. Friends come and go, but the friends that come simply replace the ones that go. They might as well be the same person.

If I look at the texts from early on in our friendship, I’ll see texts very similar to those texts five years ago between Annie and myself.

Texts such as “meet me at the corner?” followed by our meetings at said corner, followed by our long nighttime walks to anywhere, a platonic love that goes nowhere.

With Brian playing the role Annie relinquished, filling her gap, it’s weird to think that she’s still out there, someone else replacing me.

But at the same time, Brian’s interest in Annie defines his role as someone outside of Annie. “So I was thinking more about your ending,” he says. “The ending is no good.”

“Yes. You’ve said this.”

“Yeah. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it’s sad. And sad is okay for the story, but not okay for your life.”

“It’s just a story though.”

“Right. But if you don’t come up with a new ending now, or soon, that ending will become true, it’ll be you. You’ll get married into a life with kids and a mortgage and always you will think of Annie and you’ll be trapped. And it’s not a matter of you not loving your future wife, whoever she may be, but you will always doubt your love for her because there’ll always be Annie.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“You’re saying Annie will transition to a man?”

“No, that part is bullshit. I’m saying you’ll never be happy unless you create an ending that’s not in your head.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“That you find Annie.”

“Oh,” I say. “Good.” Because now I understand. Now I understand the role that Brian is playing. I think Brian might be the Devil.

👹

join man next week for journal #28 (which involves the death of Queen Jane)

Journal #26 (which spans over 2000 years)

I hand Brian the story.* 20-something pages. He reads it in one sitting. At one point he looks up, around page eight, and says, “Did this really—”

I nod. It did.

Brian continues reading. When he’s done and he sets down the pages, he’s silent for some time. Then he says, “So obviously everything after the car scene is fake.”

“Yes.”

“But everything before?”

“Really happened.”

“So why the fake ending?”

“I don’t know.”

“No, I get it. The real story didn’t have an ending. So you made one up.”

“Yeah.”

Brian picks back up the pages, flips through them, sets them back down. “Well shit,” he says. “Shit.”

“What?”

“It needs a better ending.”

“How so?”

“I dunno. A real one. Yeah, it needs a real ending.”

✏️

*The story is called MONARCHS. For the reader who needs to know (and if you’ve come this far you need to know), the story, unabridged, is as follows—

MONARCHS

by XX XXXXXXX

2010. Annie tells me that music speaks to her, songs tell her things, little secrets, and I tell her that music speaks to me too. I love music, I say.

Sitting crosslegged on the carpet, Annie shakes her head. “No, you don’t understand. Music SPEAKS to me. Not in the way you mean, and not all music, just music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

I tell her I don’t follow.

She explains further: that the songs are written for her, they’re about her.

Still don’t follow.

She asks me, “You’re familiar with them, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Anthony is in love with me.”

“Anthony?”

“Kiedis. The lead singer.”

“Right.”

“He’s in love with me.”

“Okay.”

Annie goes on, explains that this has been common knowledge for her for some time now: that Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer, has followed her since her birth and has written all of his songs about her, that he’d record them with his band in the hopes that one day Annie would hear his lyrics and know much he loves her.

“Have you told anyone else about this?” I ask her.

“My psychiatrist.”

“And what does he say?”

She doesn’t say anything, but she gives me pills.”

I ask her what the pills do for her, if they help.

“Help with what?” she asks me.

“Do you still listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers?”

Annie says yes, of course she does because what kind of person would she be if she didn’t listen to songs that were written for and about her.

“Then what are the pills for?” I ask. “What do they do?”

“OCD,” she says. She says she has OCD.

I nod. Her eyes are somewhere between black and brown, scary deep, and vacuumed inside is some sort of malice. From the way she stares into me, I realize those eyes will be the last two things I see before I die.

She pushes herself up from the floor and through the open bathroom door I watch her wash her hands. I’ve never seen anyone wash their hands like Annie washes her hands. She rubs them raw, the skin scrapes off, blood pools to pink and dances in the drain. I’m told this is part of her OCD, but her roommates believe it’s an act, a show for attention. I think she’s scared of her own skin, wants to wash it away.

In my own dorm, in my own bed, I listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers alone. Skipping their first three albums, I start with Mother’s Milk, released the year of Annie’s birth. Then it’s Blood Sugar Sex MagikOne Hot MinuteCalifornicationBy The Way, then finally, Stadium Arcadium. I follow the lyrics but hear nothing about Annie or anything that could possibly be construed as some secret love between the lead singer and a child. I tear off the headphones, listen to the heat of the Southern California night slide off the windowpanes. My body cascades into thin sheets, damp from sweat. It disturbs me, Annie’s constant need for attention: her stories, her lies, her black hair.

~

Outside the dorms there is a parking structure. The structure is six stories high. High enough that, jumping off, you could very well die, but low enough that you’re playing a game Russians play. You could live.

Often I climb to the top level of this structure and stare across the campus where the streetlights of Orange, CA fight through the smog that drifts down from LA. The smog reaches out with ghost tendrils and overtakes the campus, students pushing through and leaving a spattering of sweat in their wakes. Up here you can see the fireworks from Disneyland, feel the thudding bumps subdued by gelatinous air.

Annie joins me on the top. Without my having to explain why I’m up there, she understands. She sees the shadow fall again and again in my eyes.

I don’t look at her when I threaten to jump.

“So jump,” she says.

“Why do you think I’m here.”

“If you were going to jump you would have jumped.”

“I’m waiting for the right moment.”

She sighs and looks over the ledge, tells me I just want the attention, I want to be the brooder, the mysterious one in the dorms. She tells me it’s not working. “You’re just the loner,” she says, “the antisocial pothead who doesn’t share his weed.”

“I share with you.”

“Nobody knows your name.”

I want to tell her this isn’t news, this is one of many reasons why I’m standing up here looking six stories down. My toes inch closer to the edge. The rising air tastes like tar.

Suddenly Annie takes hold of my arm and whips me toward the drop. But she doesn’t let go. She holds me back.

“What the fuck,” I scream at her. “What the fuck are you doing?”

She lets go and I scuttle back from the ledge. The corners of her lips rise into a smile.

“Stop wasting my time,” she says, “and your own as well. Just stop it.” She shoves me back then walks away, disappears down the stairwell. I’m not as dark as I make myself out to be. She’ll sleep well tonight.

~

I hate Annie. She’s not my type. Her skin is either splotchy or plastered in makeup. Her hair is ratty unless straightened. Her breasts are too large. She demands my time, my thoughts, and I’m left with nothing. I once heard she liked me, after orientation, but now she pretends she doesn’t. She says she’s bisexual now, that she’s tired of men, but I don’t believe her. I know about the guys she brings back to her room. I hear this from her roommates Sam and Brit who get locked out on these nights. They sit outside in the hall and wait, listen to her screams. I beg them to explain, to tell me what it sounds like—is she faking—how long do they last—does she love them—does she even like me at all.

~

Annie and I bond over something though it’s hard to say what it is. It would make sense to say it’s our love of film—she’s here studying to be an actress, I’m studying to be a screenwriter—but that’s too easy, that’s just how we met. Bonds like ours are made from deeper things. It’s in her eyes. It’s in her detachment. I suspect she’s a sociopath, that she admires sociopaths and recognizes them when she sees them. If she were to ask me, I’m not sure what I’d tell her, if I’d tell her the truth or only what I believe to be true.

Her dorm room is a miniature city one must navigate as a giant: stacks of books leaning like buildings to graze your thighs. Pictures of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson and the serial-killer-like stare up from most. One book in particular disturbs me. It’s a book called Helter Skelter, Manson’s eyes burrowing into you from its faded cover. He looks like Jesus. For all I know he is Jesus, because if God had come back, seen what we all had done, I imagine he’d do just that, treat humanity like straw dogs.

For a long time I thought I understood her obsession with Manson, that she related to his cynical, paranoid view of the world. But now I believe it’s more than that: she wants to be a victim in one of his books, her death immortalized within its pages. The way she looks at me, the way she peeks over her books, I know she think I’m the one who’ll snap, the one who will cut her into little pieces and tetris her parts into a garbage bag. Throw her over a pier or bury her. That’s her fifteen minutes of fame.

~

One time she really screams at me, just tears into me. I have this habit of committing to plans and then backing out at the last minute because I want/need to be alone. I do this with passive texts like—

sorry I feel awful go without me

—and then I turn off my phone and stare at the wall. I’m staring at the wall now. The wall quakes, there’s a banging at the door and it’s violent, followed by Annie’s unmistakable shriek. She screams my name, again and again and it’s a good while before I realize opening the door would be less painful than this.

I open the door and she pushes past me. Her eyes fire across the bare walls and unmade bed, she sniffs the air. Finally, her eyes land on mine. “Put on your clothes,” she tells me.

“I’m not—”

“Put on your goddamn clothes. You’re going to Disneyland with OUR friends, because you were invited and you said yes and made a commitment.”

“I—”

A sigh is all it takes to interrupt me. “Just put on your clothes,” she says.

This anger scares me more than usual. She’s never shown this side of herself before. It’s as if she actually cares, wants something more for/from me, that maybe she loves me after all. My shoulders cave in on themselves when I tell her I’m sorry.

“Stop saying sorry. You’re always sorry.”

I slip on jeans and roll on deodorant and decide that my shirt is clean enough. She watches me. Not once does she blink.

Most of the day she pretends I’m not there. Sometimes I see her looking at me with eyes I can’t comprehend. They long for something but clearly it’s not me because every time I look at her she looks away. I follow her and the others like a beatdown dog. On this perfect, beautiful day in Disneyland, I don’t know what OUR friends think of me, because really they’re her friends.

~

The first fantasies of Annie arrive—she’s violent, dominant, the sex is painful—but when I’m with her, I want nothing more than to hold her. Also I hate her and think she’s a true bitch and tell her so when we fight. We fight often. And then we swear off each other forever.

This one fight was particularly bad. Usually they begin with her berating me for God knows what, me always on the receiving end, until I say something unforgivable and then walk away. I never remember who says what to whom and why. Anyway, this one fight, the bad one, I don’t walk away. With the back of my hand I break her nose. I think it hurts me more than it hurts her. Her nose isn’t real. It’s a nose job.

We don’t know if we love or hate each other. Passion is passion and often you can’t tell the good from the destructive. We always come back to each other.

After the bad fight, the one where her “nose” breaks my hand (the X-rays show several fractures in the metacarpals), I don’t see her for 11 days. Besides my roommate Mike, I don’t see anyone else either. I don’t think Mike likes or respects me. Because on the 12th day, he invites over his girlfriend and to my disgust Annie enters with her. I know this was planned by all of them. When Annie looks at me I know she knows she’s not welcome here by me. She sits down anyway and I have to look away, but I know she watches me. I stand up and tell everyone I need a smoke, I need a goddamn smoke. At the bathroom door I stop and look at Annie and say, “Well, are you coming or what?”

Annie doesn’t say anything but she does get up. Together we enter the bathroom and together we place towels against the opening under the door. She turns on the fan. I grind some bud and pack the pipe. I hand it to her and she takes it, lights it and inhales, stands up to breathe smoke into the vents. She blows the spent ash into the toilet and repacks the pipe before handing it to me. I take a hit, very much aware of her eyes on me. She sits on the bathroom floor against the door, her face softening in the swirl of smoke that the vents may or may not be sucking into the rest of the dormitory. Anyway, it was probably nothing. Whatever we fought about, it was nothing. She props her tilted head against the door. She purses her lips, she smiles.

This happens so often we call this our peace pipe. We fight, we get high, all is well, and this is all. We never talk about what happened, what went wrong, the bruises.

~

Toward the end of the semester it all gets the better of me. In the furthest corner of my lowest dresser drawer, under the yellowy stained briefs, I still have a stash of expired Xanax in case of emergency. It’s not enough so I have my sister mail me some of hers from back home. Even with the pills I can’t sleep.

Dead week. Finals week. Looking at the exam questions, I see the words but no meaning. Tears spot the paper, bleed the ink together and finally I see the truth: it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything at all, I tell my professor, tears still crawling from my eyes. He guides me into the hall, but leaves the door open just a crack. I’m really bawling now and stuttering with quick staccato breaths because I can’t stop the flood and my classmates are looking up from their exams and watching me explain to him how nothing it all means, what nothing feels like. It doesn’t matter that they agree, they’re laughing at me.

In the waiting room for the school counselor, medical questionnaire in my lap, I check the box that says I’m having suicidal thoughts. I hand it over with a smile and hope the receptionist can see the dried tears on my cheeks when I do. The counselor sees me right away. I think her name is Brenda? I’m not sure because I think I lied when I checked that box and feel too guilty about it to listen. She’s patient with me as I talk about Annie. Only when I mention my parking structure habit do Brenda’s eyes grow serious. That’s when I realize there’s no reason for me to be here, there’s nothing Brenda can do.

~

Annie and I keep in touch over the winter break. I go home to Sunnyvale, she goes home to Philly. We Skype, we text, we say how much we miss each other. When she returns she’s in a long distance relationship with some kid from back home.

~

2011. I go after her roommate Samantha. Samantha is shy and simple and I know she likes me. I remember, somehow I’m in Samantha’s bed and we’re just lying there. She’s much more my type but I want nothing to do with her. Her sheets are too pink, too clean. She positions her face to make herself easy to kiss. I don’t. Faint, minuscule blonde hairs on her upper lip. I don’t know how I get myself out of that bed. I honestly have no idea.

I move out of the dorms and find off campus housing. While Annie had been getting together with whatshisname, I had been getting together with my old psychiatrist and we decided to go back on the Paxil, and the Xanax. And welcome back Serotonin Boost and cycling thoughts. They cycle AnnieAnnieAnnieAnnie I want her. All I want is to be with Annie and all Annie can talk about is Philadelphia whatshisname on our long, stoned, nighttime walks to nowhere. I take my pills, slug my water, smoke my joints and drink my drinks as 5 pm edges closer to morning. I drink all the time. Take my pills, slug my water, smoke my joints, drink my drinks, repeat. I smell the black rubber skid of my thoughts.

Everything I’m about to tell you is such shit. I don’t know how to explain the buildup to the climactic end of Annie and me. A lot happens outside of Annie and me that ramps up a certain mania that facilitates the breaking between us. I will be honest, my mind fails me even now. Thinking of her, all I want to do is to relieve this lower tension. These fantasies of Annie haunt me and my heart beats faster than it should and scatters blood to places where I don’t usually feel anything. My mind blocks me from what happens next, there are gaps in my memory and these gaps are necessary for the context of what’s to come. I need water. My throat is sticky and Annie, Annie, what have I done.

~

Several months pass before the music starts to speak to me. And it’s not just music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it’s all music. In the night they tell me their secrets and I listen with open ears to hear. I take it all in. They tell me the truth of my world: who I am, where I come from, what I’m here to do. The truth comes in splinters, fragments from music, movies, brief eye contact with the hooded man always parked in the blue Honda across the street. Alone, these pieces are meaningless, but together they find their glue beneath my skull, and there my past, present, and future—the big picture—coalesces. What the big picture says is that I’m at the center, I am One. At this point it’s not necessary for me to tell you how it all comes together and at what point I realize I’m the Second Coming of Christ, what is necessary is that you know what’s going on, that sometime over these past few months an electricity has torn through me and I’ve come to know—in the deeper parts of myself I’ve always known—that I’m of royal blood descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene Themselves. If I slit my wrists, you’d see God.

A reoccurring dream: I’m nailed to a cross and the sun’s heat weighs on my shoulders and I feel the life escape my veins through the holes in my hands, the puncture wound below my ribs. People stand below me, watch me die. I know I was wrong to put myself in this position, play the martyr, because when I meet the eyes of my wife Magdalene, I see Annie’s eyes and they’re wet with tears. She holds her gently protruding stomach and my son who sleeps inside her. The last remnants of moisture leave my lips, throat like sand. I’ve made a mistake. My son. No, my son is the One. What have I done. My Son is the One. And you, all you ridiculous people, you expect me to save you. I shut my eyes, see nothing, open them to the great blue breaking sky and before I fall into this great ocean I whisper, “Forgive me Father for I have sinned,” and then the sky opens up and takes me and I wake up, drenched in that ocean above and I know what I must do.

MARK 1:3: The voice of one calling in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.

Annie calls me up in tears. She had broken up with hometown Philadelphia whatshisname some months ago so I know that’s not why she’s crying. She’s crying because she just found out the Red Hot Chili Peppers are to release a new album next month on the 30th, and in her voice I know she knows what this means.

“We should listen to it together,” she says.

“Do not under any circumstances listen to it without me,” she says.

“You won’t listen to it without me will you?” she asks. “Promise that you won’t.”

I promise.

The album is to be entitled I’m With You. They’re back from the underground, risen again with new work to let us know that they’re with us. Other artists rise up the same, because they know we’ve found each other: their King and Queen, together at last. August 8th, the release of Watch the Throne, the anticipated collaboration between Kanye West and JayZ. Any doubt of my mission fades. I revisit albums previously released this year—Foo Fighters, Stevie Knicks, Gorillaz, Paul Simon, TV on the Radio—and to anyone with ears to hear, they’re all saying the same thing: WATCH THE THRONE. Through media the way for the Lord is prepared, all paths have been made straight.

Now I understand why Annie told me about the songs that tell her things, she wondered if songs told me things too. Now I can tell her all the things they tell me and she can tell me what they really tell her and we can compare notes. I wonder how much she already knows. I wonder if any artists besides Saint Anthony Kiedis have reached her.

The track list for I’m With You:

  1. Monarchy of Roses⭐️
  2. Factory of Faith⭐️
  3. Brendan’s Death Song⭐️
  4. Ethiopia
  5. Annie Wants a Baby⭐️⭐️
  6. Look Around
  7. The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie⭐️
  8. Did I Let You Know
  9. Goodbye Hooray
  10. Happiness Loves Company⭐️
  11. Police Station
  12. Even You Brutus
  13. Meet Me At The Corner⭐️
  14. Dance, Dance, Dance

I’ve starred the titles that stand out. It’s clear from the track list that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have pulled out all the stops, all ambiguity—the impossible subtlety of their previous albums gone. It doesn’t matter if other artists have or haven’t reached Annie, because this is the album that will enlighten us all, destroy any doubts of blood legitimacy that remain.

Because I’ve spent enough time connecting the dots of my history to know there are other dots too, other connections and contesting claims. These “royal” bloodlines weave through the centuries, drowned in dark ages, records lost-burned-destroyed-(and forged), wars fought and sacred blood spilled. These bloodlines rise again, and two legitimate claims to the throne remain: my house, Annie’s house. Once rivals form a truce.

If it wasn’t for this oceanic feeling of oneness that shamans and buddhas and schizophrenics describe as enlightenment, I would think some mistake has been made.

~

August 29. I download the album at midnight and listen to it straight through without her. The man in the blue Honda parked out front, he’s asleep. A cross dangles from his rearview mirror.

On my desk there is a box of red wine and I refill my mug, slug it down fast as I play the album again. It’s the only way to slow my thoughts enough to make sense of them, to slow them down just enough to find the truth. I turn on my desk fan, light my pipe and watch its fingers of smoke pull into a night that borders on morning. By the end of my third listen I’m convinced, there can be no mistake.

Dawn turns everything the color of dust. The man in the blue Honda stirs but doesn’t wake.

~

August 30. The late afternoon is hot, sky still smog and blue. I stand on the doorstep of the condo Annie now shares with Samantha. Sweat pours from my skin and spots the ground, patterns that fade before patterns take form. I knock again. Waiting there, roses in hand, I don’t know if this is romantic. Romance requires some level of spontaneity that is impossible here. All of this has been planned, preordained, and I’m not talking about fate. This meeting between us has been foretold long ago, and it’s not foresight or omniscience but simply a desire to make it so. The underground societies that protect us, that pull our strings, have arranged for Annie and I meet to here. In their high castles, in their cavernous rooms, they whisper, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” Because Jesus wasn’t born to be King, he was made by men to be King to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah. Mankind creates God, not the other way around.

She opens the door. Her face is smothered in powder. Her lips are painted deep red and she smells like roses, but maybe that’s just the roses.

“Hi,” I say to Annie.

“Hey,” she says. She takes the roses.

Dinner is a simple spaghetti dish and we eat in silence. Fifteen minutes consisting solely of chewing, forks on paper plates, paper towels dabbing lips. My throat tightens and my stomach is stone. It doesn’t want the food. My bowels want out. She smells it on me, she knows I listened to the album but she’s polite enough to say nothing. This is the night this is the night this is the night this is the night of the great conception. My thoughts repeat too fast and my body can’t keep up with their momentum, I see the crash and firelight burn before it happens. When it’s clear that neither of us will eat more than a few mouthfuls, I follow Annie up the stairs and watch her hips, her bones lock and sway, lock and sway, a mechanism so smooth I can’t hear them click. I can’t take my eyes off her.

The floor of her room is covered with unpacked cardboard boxes. Her bed is the only made structure in the room. A mattress without sheets, her beat-up copy of Helter Skelter by the pillow. There he is again, that killer who looks like Jesus. I sit down on the mattress, turn that false prophet facedown. I wipe my sweaty palms into the fiber.

Annie takes the record out from its sleeve and places it on the record player. She stands there for a time, her back to me and I can see how heavily she’s breathing. She holds the sleeve before her: the artwork an empty white except for a lone pill in the bottom corner, I’M WITH YOU inscribed on one end, a fly perched on its other.

The wheel turns and the needle touches down on vinyl to bring in static, then music: scattered drums and guitar shred. She takes a step back, a deep breath and falls into the bed beside me, her pale legs draped over the edge. Anthony’s altered voice sings:

THE CRIMSON TIDE IS FLOWING THROUGH YOUR FINGERS AS YOU SLEEP / THE PROMISE OF A CLEAN REGIME ARE PROMISES WE KEEP / DO YOU LIKE IT ROUGH I ASK AND ARE YOU UP TO TASK

I can’t take my eyes off her. Rigid on the bed, spine straight, I see water bulb in the corners of her eyes before trickling down her cheeks. Sobs storm her chest with the rapid rise and fall of her breasts.

THE CROSS BETWEEN MY FORMER QUEEN, HER LEGENDARY STARE / THE HOLY TEARS OF IRELAND, A LOVELY CROSS TO BEAR

I lean back beside her and do my best not to touch her, though my hand is all too aware if its proximity to hers. I don’t speak. She doesn’t speak. We listen to the music, the gospel of Anthony Kiedis.

Factory of FaithBrendan’s Death SongEthiopia. I turn to her again when Annie Wants a Baby comes on and I see her cheeks are streaked. Still she doesn’t look at me. If it wasn’t for her flowing tears she could be a corpse.

COSMA SHIVA, GOT OFF MADE YOU A BELIEVER / I DON’T NEED TO, TEND HER / WHY DO I BELIEVE YOU / ANNIE WANTS A BABY NOW / ANNIE WANTS A BABY ANY WAY SHE CAN

The mattress goes dark with her tears. When the song ends she’s trembling. She tries to keep herself still but she can’t. The next song comes on but I don’t hear it. I’m leaning over her and forget to close my eyes. I’m close enough to see the cracks in her makeup. She blinks, realizes what I’m doing and lurches left and I fall into the warm, wet spot she just left behind.

She doesn’t say anything. Now it’s me looking at the ceiling, my legs draped off the bed. I feel her eyes on me and the tears that must be crawling down my cheeks. The music still plays.

“Hey,” she says to me.

I ask her why not and she says that she can’t do that to me, that she cares too much about me to hurt me. Because it wouldn’t be fair.

Fair, I don’t know what she means. I blink the firewater from my eyes and stand up.

“What is it?” she asks me.

I walk to the edge of the room, stare at the wall: the simple intricacy of the stucco, the way it could mean anything.

She asks me if I’m okay.

That does me in. Am I okay. Am I okay? I laugh. My chest explodes with laughter and I laugh all the way down the stairs, out the door and I no longer hear the music or smell roses, only the humid stench of my car. The trash shifting at my feet.

~

It might be that night when I attempt suicide though I’m not sure. On some night anyway, I tie a jumprope to the ceiling fan and position a chair underneath. I’m about to slip my neck into the noose when through the slats of the blinds, I see the house across the street closed in by a white picket fence. Painted white stakes crossing painted white boards, creating crosses. A cross on the door. A cross on the window. The power lines and poles, every vertical structure out there, crossing the blinds of my window, all crossing to create crosses. To cross is to create, I say to myself. To cross is to create.

To confront.

To Create.

From the window of the picket fenced house, an old man watches me. He sees me, brings his forearms together at a perpendicular angle to form a cross. Outside, the man in the blue Honda checks his watch.

I don’t know what time it is. I take down the rope and step down from my chair. With every slow breath I reclaim my life.

Actually this night might’ve been before the music started to speak to me, before I tried to kiss Annie, long before the coming days and nights I stare into my phone waiting for her to text me, for that familiar message that reads: peace pipe?

A week later, I text her: hey.

She texts me back: what’s up?

Either nothing happened or she pretends nothing happened.

We need to talk, I text her.

Okay, she texts back.

I drive to her place after sundown, the orange ash of sky sliding down the horizon. My car idles before her complex. I don’t go inside, I text her that I’m here and wait for her to come to me. Her heels clack against the pavement, her purse clutched at her side. She taps on the window. I wait an aggressive second before letting her in. I unlock the door. She gets in.

We drive in gravelled silence, meander the side streets near her complex, never straying too far. I don’t know where to begin, how much to tell her. I wonder if she knows anything at all, or if she still believes Kiedis is singing about her, about his love for her and not my love for her. I start by motioning to the amulet that hangs from my neck—a silver cross I received on my first communion—and ask her if she knows what this is.

It looks ancient, with a faded etching impossible to read. I don’t know who it came from though I imagine it must be from the man in the blue Honda or the society he serves. He would never admit that much. He’s never actually admitted anything.

To my question, Annie shakes her head. No, she doesn’t know what this is. I try a new tact, I ask her if she’s heard of the Holy Grail.

“What, like in Indiana Jones?”

“Yes, I mean maybe? I— but no.” I don’t know what to tell her. The car rolls slow through the dark streets, the orange horizon having long ago given way this. She’s missing the point and I try to explain further: this cross has been passed down to me through the centuries, in and out of public eye, from heir to heir from my first Father, my first blood. I tell her that wars have been started, cities burned and destroyed, over this amulet.

“Okay,” she says, “that amulet.”

I try to stay calm. She thinks I’m only talking about the amulet, she doesn’t understand what I’m saying. She can’t piece together what I’ve pieced together: this narrative of Jesus and Magdalene, how their offspring were the Merovingians, the Fisher Kings, the protectors of the Holy Grail. I explain to her, almost patronizing, the legends of the Grail, you do know about them don’t you? Arthur, Perceval, Gawain and the Green Knight? I even trace my bloodline back for her, in the air with my hands, to George Washington to the British Monarchs to the Merovingians to Mary Magdalene. I lay out the betrayal by my own church, how they assassinated Dagobert II to snuff out my line, destroyed all the proof. I explain WWII for her: how Hitler believed so strongly that he was of this royal blood that he started a war, a holocaust to exterminate any bloodline that would claim themselves as the true heir. He searched so tirelessly for the Grail, this cross here. He never realized the Grail was never a thing at all, but a person, the Son of the Christ.

Annie reaches for her phone in the cupholder between us, holds tight to her purse. I’m barely watching the road.

“Don’t you have any idea who you are?” I ask her. “What Anthony Kiedis has been trying to tell you all these years?”

This upsets her. Because we haven’t talked about this since she first brought it up, when I was staring at her the same way she stares at me now—like I’m crazy, like I could kill someone.

I smile at her. Her hair black against the haze night, her skin pale against her eyes. I talk faster, words slurring together. I’M-TRYING-TO-EXPLAIN-ANNIE-WHY-WE’RE-BOTH-HERE. AT CHAPMAN. CHAPMAN is just a stage, don’t you see, a neutral meeting ground set up by the societies that protect us, so we could come together. Everyone is in on it—fake classroom and students and professors—they wait for us. We’re the last two legitimate bloodlines, get it? And now we’ve found each other, just in time too, because disaster is coming, The End, haven’t you noticed? The brushfires, the earthquakes, the madness in the Middle East, the world loses its mind as the end of the Calendar approaches. I thought I was Jesus, I say with a LAUGH, but I was wrong. Our son, Annie, our son will be the One. Our Son will be the One to save us. I see in your eyes how frightened you are, Annie, but I assure you that it’ll be okay, this is a good thing because we will always be taken care of. We’ll live as King and Queen until our son comes of age. Our lives have been a setup, everyone already knows who we are. They’ve been waiting so patiently, Annie, we can’t let them down now. You know who I am. Don’t you know who you—

“Let me out of the car.”

I don’t stop the car.

“I want you to let me out of the car.” She grabs at the latch and thrusts the door open. She unbuckles her seatbelt and grabbing her purse she drags her heels against the sliding pavement as if that will slow the car. She swings her other leg out and stumbles into the street just as the door slams itself shut behind her. The car keeps rolling and I have no intention of stopping. Barefoot and heels in hand, she runs down a perpendicular street. Blood drips down her shins.

I keep driving.

~

That’s the last time I see Annie.

~

When she jumped out of my car to carve the road with her heels, she disappeared from my life.

I sometimes wonder if she was afraid of that, and that’s why she left her phone in my car. Before she stepped out she had the chance to grab it, I saw her eyes on it, but she hesitated, she chose not to grab it.

She needed insurance that this wasn’t over, that I would follow her.

Needless to say, I didn’t follow her. I left the phone on her doorstep and drove away.

~

2018. I don’t live in California anymore. I live up in Washington where the trees are green and the air smells like air. I’m seven years sober and married with a child on the way, but I don’t want to talk about that. Because now I’m just like you, and nobody wants to hear about you and your life.

There is so much else I want to tell you about the gaps in my story, the things I’ve left out, but not all of it would be true. Not everything I’ve told you is true either. What lies I’ve added were necessary to make sense of the abstractions. The truth was just as mad.

Once I thought I was the Christ, then the Father of the Christ. Now I call myself a writer. Delusions come in all forms. Say it: I am a writer. I am a writer. It’s an easier pill to swallow but still it’s a pill. Your senses will ruin you.

Somewhere out there, Annie’s heart still beats, and until her heart beats its last this story isn’t over. The night in the car when I last saw her, I packed everything into my car and left the City of Orange for home. I’ve never been back, though I’ve often craned my eyes south to look.

The dreams still come with the weight and the heat of the sun and breaking blue sky, but when I look down at the masses who watch me die and I see Magdalene my wife, I don’t see Annie’s eyes but the Devil’s. This She-Devil clenches its stomach, bearing my child and I know I’ve failed, I’ve given into the temptation of the flesh and my mission here’s been forfeit. I’ve scattered the blood of the One God across the Earth, and in doing so, imprisoned Him here. I look up into the great ocean above and ask my Father for forgiveness but no forgiveness comes. No sky comes down to claim me. It takes several hours for me to die.

In the months after moving back in with my parents, I convinced myself that Annie was this She-Devil all along, and that this time, this life, I escaped her grasp. This time I won. But no society came to reveal itself, no keeper came to give me the keys. I never again saw the man in the blue Honda. As the dark of winter rolled in its clouds, 2011 flipped to 2012 and nobody arrived, the reality set in that maybe I wasn’t chosen after all. It was a mistake. It’s not sanity that gripped me initially but the realization that the society that’s long protected me has collapsed, sick with shame now that they know two millennia of following this bloody snake has led them to nothing: a nobody college dropout who smokes too much pot, drinks himself to sleep and fears to venture beyond the high nested walls of his parents home. They brush their hands clean of me and I have no idea if I was their last hope, if they even had a backup.

I don’t think of Annie anymore, yet sometimes, late at night when my wife is asleep and I don’t know what I’m doing, I find myself scrolling through Annie’s photos on Facebook, the public ones that anyone can see. She looks how she looked then. She hasn’t posted a new photo since 2013, two years after the car night. No new statuses, nothing.

It hits me now how she must think of me. She must still think that’s me. The “me” with the wild eyes in the night, the maybe killer who thought he was Christ. They say first impressions are everything. I disagree. Last impressions are what last.

To her I’m still the emaciated youth who thought he died on a cross some 2000 years ago.

I want to tell her that’s not me.

But even as I tell you that was someone else, I know I’m lying. Deep in the locked corners of my center, I still know I’m the Christ, the One to save you. But the forces of evil have drained me of my will, my ability to believe. Darkness convinces me that this life I’m living is reality. This life being money, clothes, mortgage payments, 9-to-5 jobs, cars, gas, health insurance, loneliness—these are the real things. Belief in anything more is delusion.

Saturday. On Saturday’s I go jogging. I jog down to the water to watch the sun set over the islands. The temperature drops, my breath comes out in clouds. Music plays through my headphones and a familiar song greets my ears… PLEASE DON’T ASK ME WHO, WHO YOU THINK I AM, I CAN LIVE WITHOUT THAT, I’M JUST A MODEST MAN

When the song ends I take out my phone and click repeat. I’d recognize that album cover anywhere—the housefly perched on a pill.

RECEDING INTO THE FOREST, I WILL LAY AROUND AND WAIT—

HEY AND I TURN, I TURN MY HEAD WHEN I THOUGHT I SAW A SIGN FROM THE GODS, A SIGN FROM THE GODS THAT YOU WEREN’T MEANT TO BE MINE—

The song is called Meet Me At The Corner and I remember all the nights Annie would text me just that.

When I come home, covered in sweat, my wife is asleep. I don’t know how late it is or how long I’ve been gone. In the shower, the hot water falls over me. That song still on my lips… meet me at the corner and tell me what to do ‘cause I messed up on you and had I known all that I do now I’m guessing we’re through now— I cover my mouth. I have to hold in my breath to get it to stop.

Sunday. On Sundays I tell my wife that I’m out with the guys but there are no guys. I’m at the airport watching the rise and fall of planes, a ticket to LAX crumpled in my hands, though I always return the ticket and go back home.

Monday. It’s 3am when I give up. There’s no point in trying. I roll out of bed as not to wake her. In the next room I open our laptop and visit Annie’s page and click the button that says SEND ANNIE A MESSAGE. I write:

It’s me. I’ll be in LA this weekend and would love to see you. Please let me know if you’re free. Hope you’re well.

I snap the laptop shut and go back to bed. I lay there still and watch the ink of night splotch the ceiling.

Tuesday. Annie responds. She says she’s well and that she hopes I’m well too. She sends me her address. She says nothing else.

Wednesday. Though I never drink coffee, I’m drinking coffee. My wife finds me in the kitchen and asks if everything is okay. I say yes, everything is. I take another sip of coffee. She watches me, holding her lower back like expecting mothers often do, her stomach protruding.

“But,” I say, “I need to fly home for the weekend, see my parents. Just for the weekend.”

“You’re sure everything is okay?”

“Yes. Everything is fine.”

She places her hand on the kitchen table, other hand still on her back, and she leans in to kiss me. I close the distance and peck her lips. She smiles, says she loves me, says she’s going back to bed.

ThursdayFridaySaturday.

Sunday. It’s an odd feeling, flying back down south. The plane rises, rises, rises, and breaks through the gray wisps of ceiling until the sky finally takes you and there it is: the breaking blue clear you’ve been waiting for and below you is an endless landscape of blinding tundra, all canyons and hills and flow of white rapid waters carving through white rock, but it’s only clouds. Annie, I don’t know what I’ll say to her.

When we land I have an UBER pick me up. I had forgotten what this heat feels like, the weight of it all and the dark grit of the air. I give the driver Annie’s address—there were no bags to give him—and we drive through the pit of the city I’m convinced must be burning. The ash in the air sweeps across the windshield. I see only red bumper lights, starting and stopping, flicking on and off, for miles.

A pale glow on the horizon must be the fire.

We pull off the interstate and I know we’re be getting close—the weight of the air just feels lonelier. We pass a little shop and I ask the driver if he can pull over for a second, just a second. I go inside, grab what I need, and reenter the car. “Sorry,” I say.

“Okay man, okay,” he says before the car starts moving again. “You okay man?

“I’m okay,” I tell him.

He drops me off in the parking lot of a pale, rundown apartment complex that likely looked classy in the 50s. It’s not that it looks old, it just doesn’t look new. Somehow it fits with what I imagined of Annie’s life. Of course she would end up in a place like this. With her dreams of being immortalized as Hollywood royalty, this is what her dreams have given her. The place reeks of it—this drowned youth. Living here could mean one of two things: either she has given up, or she hasn’t.

I walk up a flight of stairs to the second level and knock on 209. It takes everything I have not to turn around and run, fly back home to a comfortable life where the absence of love makes one feel safe.

The deadbolt un-clunks and the door creaks open. There in the doorway is a man I’ve never seen though I swear I recognize him. The way he looks at me feels indifferent and yet there’s something else in his eyes that I can’t place. The man is sweating more than me in his plain white tee, jeans one size too small with his belly spilling over.

“Sorry,” I say. “Does—”

The man says my name. It could be a question.

“Yes,” I think I say. I nod, at least.

“I thought so,” he says and lets me in.

I slip off my shoes with my heels as I take in my surroundings: the overgrown carpet, the walls bare as if Annie and this man only just moved in, or are too afraid to commit so they put nothing up. A black cat slinks through the dense growth of carpet, eyes narrowed on me. Another cat watches me from the armchair of a recliner, which disconcerts me, the absence of a couch.

The man leads me into the kitchen where the cabinets have one too many coats of white paint rounding the wood to an unnatural sheen. When he opens a cupboard, it makes a loud unsticking snap. He asks me if I want tea and I say sure. I look around for Annie, for any sign that she lives here and I’m about to ask him where she is but I don’t want to sound impatient so I say nothing. The man seems set on avoiding eye contact as if he knows what happened between Annie and me so I avoid his eyes the same. I watch his meaty forearms covered in long streaks of black hair and the pink, burned nature of his skin, the way he scrubs the mugs clean in the sink as the water in the kettle comes to a scream.

“Green okay?”

“Yes.”

He places a teabag in a mug, pours hot water over and slides it to me. He sits across from me and only now do I feel the heat of his eyes. I stare into the mug where the tendrils of steam flutter. I blow into the water. The man leans back, props his elbow up on the back of his chair. I crane my neck over my shoulder, into the living area. My eyes linger for any sign of life besides this man and his cats. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but…”

The man waits, turning the mug in his hands.

“I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“Andy,” he says and when he says it I see the night in his eyes and I get it. The way Annie would wash her hands back then, how she’d rub her skin raw, scraping it away as if bit by bit, she hoped to wash it all away. Looking at this man, at Andy, it seems she finally has. Washed her skin away, I mean.

I look now into his eyes and see her eyes because there are some things you can’t wash away. And his nose with the crook in the ridge I know I must have put there. Some things you choose to keep. I extend the fingers of my right hand and feel the bones that fractured there the same split-second his nose got its crook.

“How are you?” I ask him.

“Well,” he says. “I’m well.”

“Still acting?”

He only smiles and asks me if I’m still writing.

I only smile.

I don’t bring up our last meeting and neither does he. I’m not sure if it was as big of a deal to him as it was to me because it seems he had larger things to worry about. He asks about my wife and my daughter on the way. I ask about his cats and he says they’re just fine. We ask if either of us still keep in touch with others from Chapman and we both laugh at this because there was no one else. There was never anyone else.

A long pause. I sip at my tea and he sips at his.

“So,” I say.

“So.”

Another pause.

“Well,” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Better be off.”

“Yeah, about that time.” He puts his meaty fists into the table and pushes himself up. I thank him for the tea and slip back on my shoes and tell him if he’s ever in Washington that he should look me up and he says he will. The black cat slinks toward me and I bend down to pet it but it won’t let me. It darts to the kitchen.

At the airport, in the terminal as I wait for my flight, I watch the planes ascend into the smog, disappearing as winged silhouettes and gliding into nothing and appear again from this same nothing. Rising and falling, rising again. The dust of their wings left behind like black pollen in the wind. The heat here is thicker than it should be with the loud whirring of the AC, and still I’m sweating. My heart beats so fast, my limbs rigid, my breaths shallow. I have to lean over and look at my hands and the bouquet of roses I bought on the way to Annie’s—I mean Andy’s—and they’re still clenched tight there in my fists. I never let them go. I watch as the heat wilts the petals and their slow descent to the white tile floor and the wind of AC that nudges them along but they don’t go anywhere. Rain seems to fall on these fallen blooms to wilt them further, drowning them in this storm of heat and stale air and salty tears. I watch as time turns the petals to pale crisps and then to dust and sitting there, watching this decay, I don’t know by how long I miss my flight.

🌹🌹🌹

🌹

manwithoutatinder will return in two weeks.

Journal #25 (in which Tommy Tinder returns home)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s true,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay, bud?” Brian asks me.

“Yes.”

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

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

“I have an idea,” Tommy says.

“What?” we all seem to say.

“I know some people who owe me money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep watch for what?” I ask.

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

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

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

“Do you smell that?” I ask Jane.

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

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

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

“What was that?” Jane asks.

“Did I say something?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“What? Where are you going?”

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

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

Still that smell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus, what is he doing?”

I am the One.

“Hey!” someone screams at me.

I am the One to save you.

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

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

“What are you doing? Let’s go!”

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

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

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

“Why the cow?” I ask anyone.

“Cows die,” Brian says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Annie?” I say.

“No. Who’s Annie?”

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

Annie is no one.

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

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

“Is it?”

Brian nods.

“Where’s Jane?”

“She thinks you have the flu.”

“And what do you think?”

Brian shrugs. He watches me carefully.

“Who’s the man in the hood?” he asks.

“Have you seen him?”

“Who is he?”

“How much do you know?”

Brian shrugs.

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

“You talk in your sleep,” he says.

“What have I been saying?”

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

I nod.

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

“What do you have to do?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Is Annie part of this?”

“She has to be.”

“Who is she?”

“Some girl.”

“From Chapman?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me about her?”

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

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

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

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

The end is here.

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

“Yes,” he says.

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

🐄

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” I say.

“It’s cold,” she says.

“Me too.”

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

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

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too.”

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

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

“No one,” she says.

I was right.

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

“I love you too.”

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

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

Nothing lasts forever.

But not in the way you want.

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

“I love you,” she says to me.

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“Because I love you.”

“But what does that mean?”

“It means I love you.”

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

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

“I love you too.”

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

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

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

I have to tell her.

“I don’t love you.”

“What?” she says.

“I don’t love you anymore.”

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

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

“No. I just don’t love you.”

“Did you meet someone else?”

“No.”

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

I don’t say anything.

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

“No.”

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

“You haven’t seen him since?”

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

“Did anything happen?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

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

“Nothing else?”

“Well—”

“What?”

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

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

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

“What did you do?”

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

I don’t say anything.

“I love you,” she says.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

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

“I am mad, but not at you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

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

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

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

“Did you say anything else?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

😐😔😴💤

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

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

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

An emoji is this: 😀

Or this: 😟

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

This is also an emoji: 😮

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

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

“You could write a novel with just emojis.”

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

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

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

I play it cool when I hand it back.

“It’s good,” I say.

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

“How much is true?” I ask him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I say.

“Are you sure?”

“No.”

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

“He hasn’t said anything to you?”

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🔥 📖 🔥

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

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

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

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

*silence*

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

*silence*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. 11. 12 matches strong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallow, give her my short list of 20.

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

and you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do.

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

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

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

I nod.

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

“Someone is talking to me on Tinder.”

“Oh.”

“Like, they’re responding.”

“Ah.”

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

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

I nod.

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

“This weekend.”

“And she knows about this?”

“She does.”

“And she’s okay with this?”

“She is.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” he says to me. “Hey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” His logic sounds shaky.

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

It’s 3:52 am.

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

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

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

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

💧

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