Journal #45 (in which Brian goes undercover)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I couldn’t tell him.

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

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

Approaching her, I asked, “Annie?”

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

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

“What brings you to Orange?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

She smiled.

OH. She was messing with me.

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

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

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

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

“You look nervous,” she said.

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

“It’s not that hot.”

“Not for you.”

“Take off your jacket.”

“I’m okay.”

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

“You write?” I asked.

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

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

“Different kind of rejection.”

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

I nodded, took another sip of wine.

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

“It’s all over the place.”

“Well what are you working on?”

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

“So what happens?”

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

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

“I haven’t figured out his name.”

“What are you calling him?”

“Just ‘Man.’”

“Oh. ‘Man’ is a good name.”

“Is it?”

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

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

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

“Sorry,” she said.

“What?” I said, almost annoyed.

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

I gave her a look.

“No, sorry. Right, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, she said. She didn’t mind.

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

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

“Great,” I said, and pressed play.

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

“What is it?” I asked her.

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

🍷

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

Journal #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 #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 #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)

Journal #19 (which involves said man and sexting, starved cats and sand castles)

I’m still on Tinder though I don’t still feel the need to be on Tinder. My need for Tinder fades because I think I’ve already met someone, someone I already knew. I’m talking about Mags. She hasn’t yet let me kiss her, she rarely responds to my texts. At work she ignores me and then she doesn’t. I try to control her but I can’t control her. She won’t allow herself to be controlled.

One moment I’ll give up and swear her off, then she’ll talk to me and I’ll pretend I never did. All the while I’m on Tinder, though not out of desperation. It’s the best of distractions when I’m bitter, when I’m ecstatic, when all I can think about is Mags.

I study Tommy’s Tinder profile. I pour through his messages, his opening lines. Whenever I match with someone new, I always ask Tommy what I should say. I no longer ask Brian what he’d say, his ideas of romance aren’t romance, his ideas are something carnal. Brian doesn’t know the meaning of desperation, he’s never really had to try. But Tommy, he’s a genius, a true poet. Here are some of his best opening lines, his greatest hits. In compiling this list I’ve considered frequency of use, frequency of success, originality, and ballsiness.

  1. hii
  2. your beard is best aha I like your beard. I want a beard like yours but I can’t grow a beard like yours can you show me how to grow a beard like yours… i want to get lost in your beard
  3. HI!

I read the conversations these openers turn into and I see the fluid, grammarlessness of his banter, how little he thinks of any of this. How desperately I must learn this! I need to let go. I need to try and be Tommy.

But when I try to be Tommy I freeze. When I try to be me I hate myself. There’s a definitive tone to his messages and it’s awhile before I figure it out—it sounds like he’s drunk without being drunk.

I’ll play that character. I’ll pretend to be drunk.

A late night, a match! I ask Tommy for an opening line. He goes with his tried and true hi with two i‘s. I take it from there. I roll with it. The conversation in its entirety is as follows. I’ve added commentary for your understanding.

~You matched with Angela on 5/1/16~

ME: hii

ANGELA: hey there*

*This clocks in at 53 minutes later.

ME: There hello

Can I ask you a question

ANGELA: Go ahead

ME: What are you doing do you like cardigans do you know what you are doing right now

ANGELA: what in the world

ME: Im wearing a cardigan and feel a little self insecure about it

ANGELA: haha cardigans are cool

Dont be insecure

ME: what are you doing

ANGELA: chillin in my bed

ME: me too* would you want to chill by a pond

*It’s important for me to note here that I’m not chilling in my bed, and I doubt that she is. At the moment I’m at my desk, sweating profusely over my phone wondering why this is so easy, why this is so hard, why I must sound like a drunk for her to respond like this. Because she’s responding fast, she seems interested despite the distance, despite or because of it. I imagine she’s alone, possibly with a friend, but she’s stuck in this Tinder web that she herself has spun. She’s stuck in the center and she’s the spider tugging on all the strands and everyone is stuck. I’m stuck on the very perimeter and I try to tug back. I’m not sure if she feels my vibrations.

ANGELA: not right now

ME: probably a solid idea

Id need more than a cardigan

ANGELA: haha a coat?

ME: a coat.. theres an idea for pond weather

why are you awake

ANGELA: Tinder is just so enticing

ME: isn’t it? Just a disaster you can’t stop watching I love it

ANGELA: Hahahaha!

Thats a perfect way to describe it*

*At this point I show Brian my phone as if to say: look how well I’m doing, she laughs at my funny! Brian just rolls his eyes and says, “Christ she’s dumb.” I’m not sure who should be more insulted, Angela or myself.

ME: Scale one to 11.. How much of a disaster am I

ANGELA: 12 off the charts

ME: I’m so proud

ANGELA: There ya go

ME: Long as you can’t turn away form this cardigan wreck I’m happy

ANGELA: Oh I can’t

ME: who goes to bed in a cardigan anyway. I’m not even horny*

*I am horny. This is my attempt at a power play.

ANGELA: haha honestly its comfy and damn your still on here?

ME: Are you implying that you are?

ANGELA: Aren’t we all

ME: well shit*

*This is where I crack, this is where I fall apart.

ME: well shit I was perfectly unhorny and at peace and now shit

ANGELA: really that’s all it takes?

ME: I don’t know I mean maybe? I had this image of you not horny and now this image is gone and I won’t be able to sleep this is a true disaster

I don’t get a response for some time. When compared to her usual rapid response, it feels like forever. Instead of sitting there, I have myself a cold shower. When I exit, dripping chill and shivering, I find this waiting for me—

ANGELA: Touch yourself, problem solved

It’s awhile before I respond. I wonder if this is her way of ending the conversation or her way of beginning something else*

*Sexting, I speak of sexting**.

**Sexting is defined by Wikipedia as “sending and receiving sexually explicit messages primarily between mobile phones. The term was first popularized in the early 21st century, and is a portmanteau of sex and texting, where the latter is meant in the wide sense of sending a text possibly with images. In August 2012, the word ‘sexting’ was listed for the first time in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Though my drive is gone, as the shower emptied everything from me, I respond with—

ME: I’m touching myself now 😉

I never hear from her again.

I try this same drunken strategy with others but it doesn’t work. There is an inherent problem with this strategy: if I continue to sound drunk come morning I appear to have a problem. It’s a problem.

But Tommy, he does this with such style, with such grace. He takes a pull from a Rainier. He tosses the can aside, gets back on his Tinder. It’s nine in the morning. It’s not until I take out the recycling the following week that I see Tommy does have a problem, that his poetics aren’t pretend. To him this isn’t a strategy. This is just him.

Brian and Tommy still go on Tinder but they go always on together. I get the feeling it’s some game between the two of them, some power play, some sexual fantasy charged with jealousy. They never meet up with their matches. I see them sabotage themselves, lose interest in a conversation just as it gets interesting.

“We’ve gotten really bad at this non-monogamy thing,” says Tommy one afternoon.

Brian only laughs, but it’s a forced laugh, I’m not sure what it means. There’s some unknown knowing in his eyes. I fear that he actually loves Tommy, but I know he doesn’t. He couldn’t.

You might remember Chase from 19 posts ago, the first guy that Brian meets up with from Tinder—well before the era of Tommy. Well, Chase has been texting Brian a lot lately, and though it’s clear that Brian is reluctant to meet up with Chase, Brian eventually agrees. He lets Tommy stay in the tent on our lawn while he goes off to spend the night with Chase. I see Tommy in my mind’s eye, staring up at the ceiling of the tent and I know exactly how that feels. That crushing loneliness one feels without Brian.

But Brian comes home less than two hours later, definitely unfucked, and rejoins Tommy in the tent, tells Tommy he couldn’t do it. I don’t know how that must feel, what that relief must feel like.

The story with Chase isn’t over. Chase invites both Brian and Tommy over for a threesome. Brian and Tommy go over and the three of them have some.

Now the story with Chase is over.

But nothing else is. Nothing is ever over. I’m still waiting on Mags for something though I don’t know exactly what it is I’m waiting for. Then I know. Mags agrees to come over. She comes over at night and the wind is howling. The trees are pretending to be the sea. Outside of Brian’s tent on the night of their threesome, I’m holding Mags in my arms and I’m holding her tight and still she won’t let me kiss her. I kiss her forehead and she says nothing.

“It’s cold,” I say.

Mags nods.

Now we’re lying on the silky floor of Brian’s tent where Tommy lives and sleeps. It smells like sweat and fish, it smells like sex dungeon. Both of us pretend not to notice. The wind rips over the pastures to the west and hits the tent at such a force, the tent fabric ripples like spacetime. It’s freezing. We burrow deep into each other. I ask Mags if I can kiss her now—on the lips I mean—and she stays silent for a long time. She doesn’t move.

I push myself away from her just enough to ask her what’s wrong. She shakes her head, tries to pull me back in so I can’t look at her. I don’t let her control me. I won’t let her pull me back in.

Finally, she rolls her eyes into mine. She finally looks at me.

“When I said I’d come over, did you think you were going to sleep with me?”

“I— you haven’t let me kiss you. Sleeping with you hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

She blinks twice.

“I don’t want anything resembling anything even remotely resembling any semblance of a relationship,” she says.

“We don’t need to label.”

“Casual,” she says.

“Sure.”

“Friends,” she says.

“Yes.”

“I don’t want to lose you as a friend.”

“Right,” I say. And I roll away from her, stare at the ceiling of the tent as the wind tears over it. A thought is bothering me but I don’t know what it is. I try to put words to the thought.

“Define casual,” I say.

She sighs. “Like, I don’t know. We don’t text.”

“Okay.”

“And I don’t know, I can disappear for weeks at a time without you getting mad.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want expectations.”

“I don’t expect anything.”

“I’m not ready for another relationship.”

“I know.”

We’re silent for a long time. The wind dies a little but a slow rain patters the outside of the tent, slides down it’s fabric. Everything still smells of sex.

“I’m cold,” she says.

“I know.”

“Are you upset?”

“No.”

“So, casual?”

“Casual.”

In the rain we walk back toward the main house. She takes my hand in hers and she squeezes. All of a sudden she is smiling and this makes me smile. There’s a skip now in her step and in the long grass I try to keep up. We don’t enter the cottage, we enter the main house where the landlords live but are currently on vacation and whose cats I’m supposed to be housesitting. Entering the house, the cats meow and claw at us, starved looks in their eyes. They hiss at each other. The litter box is full and the food bowls empty. We go straight for the couch. The cats follow us. It only takes a remote to light the fireplace.

She still doesn’t let me kiss her, not on the lips anyway, but she doesn’t protest my hand moving up her shirt. She even lifts her shirt, takes it off, unclips her bra without saying a thing. I kiss her breast. I kiss her other breast. I kiss the places in between. I kiss her stomach. She has a tattoo of the little dipper peeking up from her panties. On first glance it looks like a spattering of moles. I kiss that too.

The wind roars outside and the rain smacks against the windows. The fire inside warms everything. The cats circle the couch, eyeing us both with ravenous eyes.

We breathe on each other. We rub on each other. Still she won’t let me kiss her lips. She flips me over and straddles me. Jeans scraping on jeans. Her hands on my shoulders holding me down. Her hips gliding. Secretly, discreetly, I release into my pants. The feeling starts deep, the sensation congeals to a sharp point, then a flood comes creating a swamp in the places below. I’m glad I wore two pairs of underwear today. She keeps going, she doesn’t know.

The cats know. They hop on the couch as I try and catch my breath.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Yes,” I breathe. And I lean up to try and kiss her. To make the feeling mean something. She doesn’t let me kiss her. I feel empty, destroyed. She leaves at five in the morning.

On my mat back in the cottage, alone, morning light seeps in through the cracks. Outside, leftover rain drips from the gutters. I text Brian one word—

fuck

All I can think about is her breasts, making sand castles with her breasts, cupping them and letting go, letting them fall away into the sea of her skin.

Her eyes looking up at me, me looking at her, and she asks me—

“What is it?”

“Nothing.”

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I like looking at you.”

“Oh,” she says. “It’s not normal.”

“Looking at you?”

“Not like that.”

“Oh.”

So I look at her breasts.

I put my hands on her breasts.

I make sand castles, knowing full well the impermanence of sand castles.

😑🌅😐

join man next week for journal #20 (in which a raccoon nighttime…)

Journal #18 (in which said man and the lilac girl search for lilacs in the night)

The storm shatters itself against the windows. The trees shriek in the wind. Entering the cottage, I’m drenched. Brian is holed up under the desk, spooning Tommy. He looks at me, knows immediately that something is up.

“What’s up?” he asks me, which is good because it means he can’t see it in my eyes—the shame of it. I slip off my shoes, sprawl myself against the carpet. I tell Brian everything, just what exactly had transpired with Mags in the back of my minivan.

“It just happened,” I say to him.

“Sounds like you lured a child into your van with candy.”

“She’s a grown woman.”

“She’s a child.”

“She’s 18,” I say.

“18? Jesus, I thought she was 20. She’s a child.”

I don’t respond.

“You’re weak.”

This statement is not news. I am a weak man. We both know this, everyone knows this. Mags knows this. She knew this when she climbed into the back of my minivan, gave me the back massage, awakened the beast.

All the while Tommy just lies there and listens to me recount the tale, this young lady of 18 in the back of my minivan. Every time the number 18 pops up, his eyes widen, his cheek propped up against his tattooed fist.

“Mags,” Brian says. “Mags.”

“Mags,” I say.

“It makes sense. Mags. Yeah, I see it. Of course it would’ve been Mags. I guess it was always Mags.”

There was a time when I would complain about Mags, the way she just talks at you, the way she butts into any conversation and turns it into her conversation. The way she follows you around the store—gabgabgabgabgabgab—it’s exhausting. How clear it was when Brian would work a shift at the Bellingham location, that Mags would treat him like her token trans friend. She’d say, “I’m just so glad you’re alive, you know? I’m just so glad you’re still alive.”

“Yeah, sure,” Brian would say. “Sure thing.” And that would be his contribution to that conversation. And now Brian, as he sits here digesting the information I’ve thrown at him, decides that yes, of course Mags and I were meant for one another, of course I’d make a decision to walk willingly into this storm. There is something so truly vulnerable, so lovable, about someone so unlikable.

Brian chuckles. “Mags,” he says. And thats the end of that conversation.

Mags and I, we’re in the parking lot again and Mags lingers near the back of my minivan, our something of a conversation at a pause, an impasse, and I become suddenly self-conscious of the fact that I have no candy cigarettes to offer her this time, self-conscious of the fact that if I did, this would be how I’d lure her into the bed of my minivan. Brian’s words, they ruin so much. Brian ruins everything. I can’t get him out of my head as Mags asks a question I do not hear.

“What?”

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

“Yes,” I say, too fast.

There is a trail that leads from the bookstore parking lot down to the water and the promenade that reaches out parallel to the beach. The sky is dark now, a deep navy blue. The air feels like lukewarm water. There’s something about the air that feels stagnant. There’s something about my mind that feels festered, rotten, rotting, something deranged. I’m not sure if it’s okay for me to touch her, to take her by the hand, make terrible decisions.

I don’t take her by the hand, but I follow her blindly. I follow her like a dog. She’s wearing that summer dress again, floral prints, and her legs are like milk poured into night, into skin, though the lights on the walkway bathe them in a low yellow glow. The tide is low and smells like sulphur. She’s talking about something, could be anything. With no room to get a word in, this has become a spectator sport. No participation required.

Every now and again I’ll say something and she’ll laugh and I won’t know why. Her laugh, that shrill pitch stays with you because tonight there is no wind to carry it away. It lingers like a ringing in your ears. I fall back, hands stuffed in pockets to adjust a certain throbbing discomfort.

“Everything okay?”

I tell her that it is.

We’re at the point now where the walk ends, though it’s only half over because we still need to walk back. There is a little beach here and the water laps at the sand, though not really—it seems lethargic tonight, doesn’t really care about romance.

“Do you smell that?” she asks.

“The eggs?” I think she’s talking about the smell of low tide.

“No.” She pushes my arm, flirtatious. “No.” She sniffs the air. “That. That smell.”

I sniff the air. I only smell eggs. Dead eggs. Rotten ones. “No,” I say, “I don’t smell anything.”

“There’s a lilac tree somewhere around here, I just know it.” And she skips off, looking for said lilac tree, stopping only to sniff with her little sniffing nose. I follow her because I would follow this girl anywhere. I would follow her to the end.

“I swear we’re getting closer,” she says. “It’s somewhere around here, it must be.” She goes on to explain the smell of a lilac tree (sweet not sexy, spicy without stinging the nostrils), what a lilac tree looks like, what it feels like against your inner thighs as you climb it.

Though I’m prepared to search forever, Mags gives up, defeated. We don’t find the lilac tree. I’m afraid to tell her that I think it was only you, your shampoo or deodorant or perfume or whatever florality wafts off your skin. You were only following yourself, and I was following you.

We’re walking back down the promenade and neither of us are talking. I can tell she’s frustrated that we couldn’t find the tree. Neither of us know that in a few weeks’ time, when Mags finally agrees to come back to the cottage, she finds a lilac tree just outside the front porch.

“I didn’t know you had a lilac tree at your house,” she’ll say.

I’ll tell her that I didn’t know either, I really had no idea. My body will be bursting with the meaning of it all, the coincidence of it all, how there is no such thing as coincidence, no such mythology as chance. We’re connected, you and me.

We’re still on the promenade though, the black water below us like spilled ink. We sit on a bench that overlooks these waters and we sit there in silence. There’s a gap between us, I’m too terrified to fill it. The bench is in memory of two dead people neither of us have met, neither of us have heard of until now.

I open my mouth to say something, she opens her mouth to say something, neither of us say anything. My phone vibrates against my thigh. There is really only one person it could be.

“Hey Brian,” I say into my phone.

“What’s going on? Where are you?”

I glance at Mags, who glances at me. “Mags,” I say. “I’m with Mags.”

Brian laughs, his loud laugh that I know carries beyond me and my phone. “Making poor decisions, are we?”

“The worst kinds of decisions,” I say.

“Hey!” Mags screams and gives me a push before getting up. “So I’m a bad decision, huh?”

“No,” I say as I put the phone to my chest, a hopeless attempt to stifle Brian’s laughter. “You’re a great decision, the best of decisions. Top-tier.”

She skips away from me down the boardwalk. I turn toward her, my arm resting on the back of the empty side of the bench. “Mags! Mags, come back here. You’re the best. The top one percent!” And I know that means everything to her because she’s already turning around, making her way back toward the bench. She falls into me, under my propped up arm, and she nudges right up against my chest. I almost drop my phone. I feel her. I feel her breath before it leaves her lungs.

“Anyway,” says Brian in my phone,” I’m at the cottage now, because I thought you’d be at the cottage. I needed a break from Tommy and set him up at a campsite elsewhere for the night. I was assuming you’d be home. I hoped we could talk.”

“I’m not home.”

“I know, I assumed you would be though.”

“I know.”

Long after the phone call ends, I thank Brian for the phone call, for without said phone call Mags wouldn’t be nudged up against me now, both of us breathing into each other, my fingers skating the ice of her upper arm. We stare at nothing for some time.

Ripples approach us from the far nothing. An impossible shadow under the dark. I feel we’re being watched. “Hey,” I say. “Hey, let’s keep moving. It’s getting cold.”

Back in the parking lot, leaning against her car, we hold each other tight, holding off the temperature that continues to drop. Mags with nothing more on than that light summer dress. I couldn’t squeeze her tighter if I tried. She could squeeze me tighter but she doesn’t. Her arms are loose across the back of my neck.

“Would it be too much if I kissed you?” I ask.

She backs away a smidgen, her big eyes gazing into mine and full of water and the secrets waters tend to keep. Buried bodies. Creatures of the deep. Shipwrecks. She pulls herself back in, tighter than she had before, and rests her chin on my shoulder where my lips are a far cry from hers.

“What is it?” I ask and I feel her chin swivel, shaking the rest of her head. There’s rain on my back, but only on my back. Mags doesn’t mention it, she doesn’t mention anything. She holds me tighter, she leans into me. My hip digs into her car door.

“So just to be clear, I shouldn’t kiss you right now?”

She nods on my shoulder.

“Yes, meaning no I shouldn’t?”

She nods again.

“It’s okay,” I say. “I can wait.” And in retrospect I’ll know this was the worst thing I could’ve said, because in retrospect I’ll know how uncomfortable this patience of mine made her.

Mags says she should go. I don’t let go. We don’t go.

Mags says she should go. I let go. She doesn’t let go. We don’t go.

When she does pull away, she pulls herself back in because pulling away gives my lips an opening. Her lips are right there, out in the open. Then they’re not.

It’s probably 2:30 in the morning when she finally lets go.

I back away from her car as she gets in, starts the engine. I watch as she rolls away, the flickering of her taillights disappearing into the dark. I smell of lilacs.

When I get back to the cottage, there’s a text from Mags which reads—

Goodnight 🙂

I stare at that text a long while before I realize why it makes me so uncomfortable, and when I do it hits me hard. It’s the smile. That stiff yellow smile. The smile feels off, false, a fake, because that night on our walk along the waters, I don’t remember her smiling once.

🌊😔

join man next week for journal #19 (which involves the things that happen on the night of someone else’s threesome)

Journal #17 (in which a beast is awakened)

“That’s super inappropriate behavior,” Brian says to me after I tell him about the gentle caresses at work, her head propped up against my shoulder after we lock the doors, as I count the tills.

“So was swiping right on a coworker,” I say.

Brian waves that one off, sitting crosslegged there on the floor.

Tommy is steps away in the “kitchen,” pushing around diced potatoes with a spatula. The cast iron pan smokes. A desk fan sprays said smoke out the window, into the black. Tommy wears an apron over an otherwise bare chest, an Indiana Jones style fedora sitting loose atop his head. As usual, lipstick is smeared across his lips though this time it’s a pale shade of blue. He swishes toward me, hands me a plate heaped with midnight breakfast, scrambled eggs and cayenne potatoes, and pours me a glass of orange juice. I swallow my pride and say thank you.

The way Brian and Tommy eat next to each other on the floor, it’s too sexual, I can barely swallow. They can’t take their eyes off one another. They feed each other potatoes, chew their eggs for the other, transfer with open mouth kisses like birds.

In the morning, as I cross the gravel drive toward my car, I see Tommy out in the fields making phone calls to no one. He’ll dial a number, let it ring, crouch low and touch the earth. Pressing his ear to the dirt, it looks like he’s tracking something, some beast.

There’s an incessant buzzing in my ears. I wonder if he hears it too.

I pull out of the drive. The last thing I see is Tommy scampering toward the wood. The wood. My heart hammers.

It’s a relief to be back at work, watching Mags and waiting for her to mention our match on Tinder. On her break, sandwich in one hand, phone in the other, she swipes, she swipes, she keeps on swiping. I forget how buried I must be under other men—maybe she didn’t even realize that was me. Aside from the now frequent caressing and head rests, Mags treats me exactly the same. She never mentions Tinder.

Her eyes, more often than not, are red and puffy and tired. Bloodshot. Then one day, they’re not. She’s unusually bouncy, wearing this floral summer dress in Spring, and that’s the day she stops touching me. I could never take my eyes off her before but now it’s painful to. Her unveiled pale thighs and calves, smooth to the imagined touch.

She talks at me, never pausing long enough for a response which is good because I have nothing to say. My mouth is too sticky, too dry.

I wait for her to press up against me, for her fingers to graze my back but they don’t and I fear they never will again—her eyes are too clear, too awake, too conscious of what her fingers can and cannot do, what they should’ve never been doing in the first place.

A tension in my neck. It’s a slow night at the bookstore and Mags stands by the registers. Her dress hangs high, flutters when she steps back and I almost see things. I roll my skull over my shoulders, stretching and possibly tearing the web of muscle there. I groan, I rub the back of my neck. I groan louder so Mags can hear me.

“Ugh, I need a back massage,” I say in the most casual, unassuming way possible. I raise my arms above my head, arch my spine. It’s a cool beat before she speaks.

“If we weren’t here,” she says, “I’d give you a back massage.”

I swallow. I’m not sure I really expected her to take the bait on that one.

“You can give me a back massage,” I say, sweating.

“Not here.”

“No. Not here.”

Her cheeks flush pink and in her widening eyes I see the machinations of her mind backpedaling, as if she only now realizes whats being implied. But they can’t take back what’s already been said. Tears well up there and she turns away from me.

“I’m tired,” she says.

“I know.”

Back at the cottage, Tommy still searches the wood. I see him out there among the trees, drenched in the moon. He’s crouched on all fours with his eyes closed and he doesn’t move. Then he sniffs the air twice in rapid succession and his eyes shoot open. I try to sleep but I can’t.

When I ask Brian what he’s doing out there, Brian only shrugs.

Still, the buzzing in my ears.

In the parking lot outside the bookstore, I lean against the back of my minivan, a candy cigarette hanging from my lips, the kind we sell behind the counter. I lean there casually in wait, looking like some millennial James Dean with a salt breeze in my face and an uncharacteristic calm in my eyes.

Her voice on the wind. She’s just now locking up with the others. I chew on one end of the cigarette, take it out and flick it as if I were ashing ash. I place it back between my lips and pretend I don’t hear her coming my way. I pretend I don’t hear her little steps or smell her lilac smell, though when she says, “Hey you,” I’m truly startled, because she stole my line.

“Hey,” I choke, “you.”

I look into her. Her eyes are clear and her hair reflects the moon. The clarity of her eyes, I’m not sure this clarity is to my advantage.

“What have you got there?” she asks, saddling up next to me. I pull out my box of candy cigarettes and slip her one. She places it between her lips and leans against me, against the minivan. The two of us stand there, staring out at the bay from the parking lot, and from the corner of my eye I see her cigarette tremble. It’s not that cold. We’re looking pretty cool though, the two of us standing there.

“Wanna see something?” I ask her.

She nods, the cigarette nodding with her.

I open the back of the minivan, revealing the full-size mattress I have stuffed back there in place of the bucket and back seats.

“It’s beautiful,” she says to me.

I nod. “I had to take the backseats out when I first moved up here, to fit all my stuff.” As for the mattress, I explain, the cottage is too small to accommodate such a luxury.

“It’s beautiful,” she says again, now sucking on the cigarette end. She hops up onto the edge of the mattress, and I sit there beside her, our legs dangling out the back. Rolling my head over my shoulders, I once again rub the back of my neck.

“Sore?”

I nod.

“Here,” she says, and scoots behind. Her legs straddle me and her chest presses briefly against my back. I feel her breath on my ears. She starts at my shoulders and works her way down, kneading the emaciated muscle of my back. The way she presses down, digs in, I feel stale blood released and reintroduced into my bloodstream. A rocking calm takes me, her fingers massaging me into a state of rhythmic stillness, nodding with the waves of some sea. Her fingers grow more violent, press in deeper, scrape bone. And I’m not stupid, I know a storm is coming. Under the waters something stirs, some beast with nine eyes and the surface roils with its awakening. My inside sky has gone a pale shade of black and I fear for my life because I’m blind to what’s coming, because it’s only a girl and she’s numbing this very fear from my bones, the healthy kind of fear thats supposed to tell you when it’s time to flee, time to fly when the sirens sound, scream that the beast is coming. You can tell by the towering tsunami that precedes it, black against the sky, blotting out the stars.

A spit of rain against the windows.

A slow patter, a steady fall turning the ground a darker shade of everything.

Now it’s pouring.

“How does it feel?” she asks me.

“Good.”

“Not too hard?”

“You can go harder.”

I try to keep my back firm as she presses in, but I can’t stop from rocking, the bobbing of my head.

“Would it be easier,” I ask, “if I were to lie down?”

Her kneading slows, her fingers back away. I realize now how raw my back is, how much it hurts without her touch, because of it.

“Not tonight,” she says.

“K,” I say.

“Not yet,” she says.

My heart sputters at that—the ‘yet.’

She scoots back next to me, drops her head onto my shoulder. A curtain of rain cascades over the open door, separates us from whats beyond.

I think I hear it, that silence that comes before. I picture the tide suck itself back, exposing the reefs and the sea creatures too slow to find cover. The shadow, I believe I see it through the rain, rise and hulk into the sky. Over the sound of shattering drops, I’m sure of it, I hear it’s roar.

“Did you hear that?” I ask Mags.

“Hear what?”

Listening to her breaths, I say nothing. My mind retreats into itself.

Tommy found the phone last night. He found Brian’s phone buried in a ditch out back in the woods behind the cottage. Six feet deep, he said it was. None of us know how it got there. I sure as hell don’t know, I told them repeatedly. But the way Brian looked at me, still looks at me, I suspect that Brian knows. I still see him tucking his phone into his pocket, not even bothering to clear the dirt still caked to its screen.

😰

join man next week for journal #18 (in which said man and the lilac girl go searching for lilacs in the night)

Journal #16 (in which the earth beneath said man vibrates, violently)

I wake to the world vibrating. The earth quivering violently beneath me. In the next room I hear pots fall from the counters, books off the shelves. I hear Brian scream. Jolting up from my mat, I search for something to hide beneath, somewhere to protect myself from this. The room is so bare, really, there is nowhere to cower.

I stumble into the next room, keeping myself steady against the vigorous vibration of the floor. Is this it—the Big One? Or something deeper. The dawn of the living Tinder. I buried you, I swear. In the next room the ground is unmoving, but Brian is manic. Turning over tables and chairs and throwing out books, emptying drawers. He looks to me, his yes yellow and full of dust.

“You. Where? Have you seen my phone?” His hands are trembling. So are his breasts.

“Your phone.”

“My phone. Have you seen it?”

“No.”

I turn around, back to my mat in the corner where the ground still trembles with a low hum, where my pillow seems to be the epicenter of all this. Listening to the crash of everything in the next room, I carefully reach under my pillow. My fingers touch a phone.

My phone, clean. My phone, alive.

My phone, vibrating.

Flashes of the night. Dirt and shovel, gritty hands. A phone put to sleep, six feet under. The wrong man died last night. The wrong King put to his death. Brian, he won’t find his phone, not in there. I say nothing.

I look to my own phone. A survivor. Several notifications from Tinder. I scroll through them. My heart races, my palms grow sweaty. I thought I was done with this. Tinder informs me: you’ve been super liked.

Me. I’ve been super liked. Me, Super Liked!

An hour passes before I realize I’m reading the same line over and over again. Finally, I unlock my phone. Open the Tinder account that I thought was dead. It lives, thrives even.

When you receive a Super Like, it doesn’t place the person who Super Liked you at the top of the deck. You must swipe through other prospective mates first. I swipe. I swipe. I swipe again. Three cards down, I see the card highlighted blue that indicates the Super Like. Swipe. Swipe. Super Like.

My heart stops. My neck, paralyzed.

She’s terrifying.

Her hair is dyed red, her nose and lips and eyebrows all pierced. She’s a couple years older than me. Her name is Robin but her friends call her Bob. She cuts her hair like Brian cuts his hair. In one photo she wears a Batman onesie. In another she stands next to a bearded man with a knife. He wears the same onesie.

Later, when I ask Brian why someone like that would Super Like someone like me, he tells me that I’m their type, that they like the quiet ones. This Robin, she wanted to eat you alive, he says. She wanted to dominate.

But in the moment, I swipe her right because I’m flattered, because I’m curious, because I have nothing better to do.

She messages me immediately—

How goes it, sir?

I look at her profile again. It says she’s 12 miles away.

I return to the message, deliberate on what to send. What I send is this—

Goes well. Sun’s out, I’ve been super liked, I have no complaints. And you? (with super cool, casual undertones)

An immediate response—

Well, I missed most of the Sun due to work, but I’m off now, so I also have no complaints 😉

My god, I’m incapable of communicating this fast. I look once again at her profile. She’s now 3 miles away.

1 mile away.

Less than a mile away.

I put down my phone, look out the window. I bolt to the next room, look out that window too. Looking for red hair in the woods, in the reeds, in the pond. Nothing. Trembling fingers, I take out my phone. Using Tinder to triangulate my location, I fear she’ll find me before I respond. I type fast—

I type something about the weather, how the weather looks next week too, that it looks good.

To which I get no response. I wait there, heart hammering, searching the green outside for that splash of red. I wait. I look at my phone.

1 mile away.

3 miles away.

20 miles.

I never get a response, probably because I was talking about the weather.

In the living room/office/kitchen/entryway, Brian puts books back on the shelves, pots back on the counter. Both of us are trembling.

“Find your phone?” I ask.

Brian shakes his head. “What’s wrong with you?”

I shake my head.

I don’t yet tell him about the Super Like. The Super Like isn’t that important, nor the vanished possibility of my getting laid that night had the weather not been so nice and worth mentioning. What is important is what happens next. Because now I’m swiping again, now I’m getting used to the rejection. I don’t care, I just don’t care. Swipe swipe swipe. Wandering outside, eyes on my phone, swipe swipe, I don’t care.

Then there she is. I’m sitting on the porch now and well damn it, there she is. I stop swiping, I stare at her face on the screen.

“Brian!”

No answer.

“Brian!”

I get up, go inside. Brian is stretched out across the carpet, reading a book. Tommy is somewhere outside, roaming the fields, prowling the grass and talking with the chickens and cats and wild things, because that is what Tommy does. “It’s Mags,” I say to Brian.

Brian barely looks up from his book. It’s probably something by David Foster Wallace.

“It’s Mags,” I say again.

I show Brian my phone and he sees that yes, it is Mags. Mags with her dog in the snow and her blond hair of almost the same color. She looks different because she’s not wearing glasses. She always wears glasses at work. She also usually wears sweatpants, the tight formfitting kind with words across the butt. I never read them because I’m afraid. I never read them because there are cameras. I never read them because she is only 18. But at night, under my sheets I imagine what those words must say and what it would mean if the words weren’t there—by that I mean if the sweatpants weren’t there.

Mags doesn’t like it when I call her Mags but I still call her Mags. I don’t remember what her full name is. Something longer. Do you remember the coworker who caressed my back, way back in Journal #3, the one who smelled of lilacs and collapsed my knees?

That touch.

I’m gaping at my phone, at my Tinder, at Mags and her eyes without glasses, staring back up at me.

“What are you going to do?” Brian asks. “You’re going to swipe her right, right?”

“Should I? I was going to swipe her left, because, I mean, sexual harassment.”

“But, I mean, you’re going to swipe her right, right? It’s Mags. I mean… the Mags.”

And he makes an excellent point. It is the Mags.

Brian takes my phone from me, and he scrolls though her photos, reads her bio and laughs. “Aw she really worked hard on this one, you can tell. You need to swipe her right.” He hands the phone back to me, and I’m surprised he didn’t swipe right for me. I thought he was going to swipe right for me, that’s why I let him take it from me so easily.

“I shouldn’t,” I say.

“You should.”

“Sexual harassment,” I say.

“You’re not at work.”

“She might be.”

“It would be sexual harassment not to swipe her right. It’s Mags.”

It’s Mags. I walk back to the porch, sit down and lay my phone in my lap. I see Tommy out there, searching the fields, the trees, sniffing the dirt for God knows what. If Brian can find that on Tinder, I can find someone too.

I close my eyes, I swipe right.

Nothing happens. It’s not a match.

My heart feels weird.

The next day at work, Mags is working too. I watch her, I try to read her movements, her eyes, if her eyes are looking at me when I’m not looking at her, but it’s hard to tell because I’m not looking at her when I’m not looking at her. Also, most of the time I’m looking at her. Her hair is just short of shoulder length, white as starlight and yet it has streaks of something brighter. Behind her glasses her eyes are a pale blue. Have those eyes come across me on Tinder? Has she even been on Tinder recently?

Still, I think of that touch of hers. Sometimes when I see her coming I grab a book, any book, only to shelve it, only to turn away from her in the hopes her finger will once again graze that valley, make me weak to that lilac breeze.

She wouldn’t swipe me left, would she?

She’s awful at her job, worse even than me. She makes me feel like a good worker, top tier. She comes to me sometimes and complains there is nothing to do. I look at the books that need to be shelved, the shelves that need to be straightened, the stairs that need to be swept and I look her in the eyes and believe myself when I say—

“You’re right, there’s nothing to do.”

She scoots a stool into the YA section and opens a book and reads, her little chin propped up on her little fist. I then do the things that were the nothings left to be done. Shelve the books, straighten the shelves, sweep the stairs. All the while I’m watching her, wondering if she’s seen me on her phone with my shirt off, one claw out, in front of a fireplace on three of my fours.

My stomach roils with these thoughts, gives me diarrhea. Soupy poopy as Mags would call it.

It takes a few days for the match to come—

CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE A NEW MATCH!

—and yes, it is Mags. I see it in the morning, though it happened sometime in the night, somewhere between 3:19 and 3:20 am. I turn off my phone. I don’t message her.

That day I watch her more closely than usual. Her eyes are red, her sockets are swollen, she’s worse at her job than usual. I see her shelve a fiction book in the mystery section. In the mystery section! Later, I hear someone crying in the bathroom. Mags is nowhere to be seen. When Mags reappears and the bathroom is empty, I say nothing. The bathroom is wet with rain. I mop up the puddles.

I follow her at a distance. I wait for her to say something, anything, about our match on Tinder. She never says anything. She keeps sniffing. Her sinuses sound awful. It’s unattractive.

It’s after closing and the lights are off and I’m counting the cash in the registers when I sense her approach. That lonely lilac breeze. Then it’s still. Warm, stagnant air. I feel a hand slide down my lower back, a light body press up against me, a heavy head resting on my shoulder. Tears that smell of salt. Blond hair that smells of trees.

😥

join man next week for journal #17 (in which a beast is awakened)

Journal #12 (in which said man eats Thai food with coffeeshop girl)

As promised—a Thursday night. I stop by her place after work. She lives just a couple of blocks up the street from the bookstore. I’ve passed by this house I don’t know how many times yet I never knew this was the place where coffeeshop girl ceases to be coffeeshop girl. I knock on the door. When I stop, my heart is still knocking. Did I ever knock? I’m not sure. I knock again.

Then footsteps. Then the door, opening.

Her caramel hair is down, I’ve never seen it down before. At work it’s always tied up into a French braid, loose strands making thin shadows before her eyes. Tonight it is down and I feel I’m seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing. This is a sight not meant for her customers. Tonight I am not a customer, not a bookstore clerk who works in the same building.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey.”

She smells like lady showers. Her jeans fit her tight and so does her sweater the color of mustard. Shower water dampens the cotton, she only just got out. It’s Spring but the wind still feels like Winter. A light scarf loops around her neck.

“Shall we?” I offer her my elbow.

She refuses with her smile and a playful push. That smile. My elbow goes weak at the crook. She locks the door behind her.

Together we walk, side by side, to the Thai restaurant around the corner and I imagine we’re holding hands. We’re not holding hands though because that would be weird. Weird for her, not for me. My hand is a fist, gripping itself.

Somehow the air inside is colder. A black piano sits in the corner but no one plays it. Late 90s, early 00s music streams from speakers. Makes you think Thailand is a land of the past. Eight years for the music to get there, eight years for it to get back. Right now it’s “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. It sounds just like it did back then. Uncanny.

…she acts like summer and walks like rain… reminds me that there’s time to change…

It’s just us and the waiter here. I wonder if he’s also the cook. And it’s now that I should tell you, reader, that the name of the coffeeshop girl is KyAnne (pronounced like the pepper but spelled in a way a hippie would spell it if they were to name their child after a pepper). KyAnne was named after a pepper and her parents were hippies. I think one of them still is. Alive, I mean.

She orders a glass of Merlot and I order a beer and she says to me, “I thought you didn’t drink.”

I tell her I don’t, that the beer is for her.

“I’m getting wine,” she says.

“Oh.”

She stares at me, her perpetual smile. “So the beer?”

I chase down the waiter and try to explain to him in the simplest English I can that I don’t need beer after all and that the beer was never for me, it was for the coffeeshop girl named KyAnne—“that’s her, that’s KyAnne,” I say as I’m pointing to KyAnne—and now she doesn’t want the beer because she ordered wine and I don’t drink and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—

I’m on the verge of tears now, or long past the verge of tears and simply crying and I tell him, “I swear I’m not trying to get her drunk. I’m not. I’m not a rapist.”

He stares at me through his glasses and says in perfect English, “No beer?”

I nod, relieved that he understands, that I’m an understandable kind of guy, and that so is he. We bonded just then, we became something more.

I sit back down. KyAnne asks me, “we good?”

I tell her we’re good. Our waiter, my friend, brings us the wine and water and although he doesn’t physically wink at me, I know he winks at me mentally, because we’re soul brothers now, we’ve crossed cultural divides and found ourselves one.

Enter a lone viola, soul wrenching. What sounds like an Irish funeral dirge. A soft, slow piano like rhythmic drops. A voice like God—

When I am down, and oh my soul so weary… When troubles come and my heart burdened be… Then I am still and wait here in the silence… Until you come and sit awhile with me…

The next verse wakes me to the truth. This is not God, this is Josh Groban. You raise me up so I can stand on mountains… YOU RAISE ME UP to walk on stormy seas…

I watch KyAnne sip at her wine. I watch her eye the emptiness that surrounds us, listen to the vastness that Josh Groban’s voice fills. Most of the dinner we eat in silence. I don’t remember what I eat because I can barely eat. KyAnne has the yellow curry. She finishes it no problem. Every now and again I point out a song I haven’t heard in some time. Every now and again she asks me about Tinder. There isn’t much to say.

“Another glass of wine?”

“No,” she says, “one is enough.” Her gold cheeks are flooded pink. “I only need the one.”

We get separate checks but I tell the waiter I’ll pay for the wine. He winks at me again without winking.

Walking back to her place I again imagine we’re holding hands. We’re not holding hands though. That would be weird.

I lay my satchel down on the carpet. KyAnne is in the kitchen while my eyes roam the walls. Everything surprisingly bare, under decorated, a carpet torn and frayed. It’s quiet because the weird stuff is about to begin. Because I asked her to rejoin Tinder, for “research.” Because I wanted her alone.

KyAnne peeks out from the kitchen and asks me what kind of tea I’d like.

“Do you have Lemongrass Jasmine Green? But the decaf kind.”

—A short pause— “no.”

“What do you have?”

“Green, black, and chamomile.”

“I’ll take the chamomile.”

“Actually, I’m out of chamomile.” She shakes an empty box at me.

“Green is fine.” The realization hits that I won’t be getting any sleep tonight.

A kettle shrieks. KyAnne brings out a tray with a pot, steaming, and two empty cups. She places the tray on the floor and sits down beside me.

“So,” she says.

“So,” I say.

“We’re doing this.”

“Yes.” Though I forget what this is. I’m about to lean in to kiss her when she takes out her phone, activates her Tinder account. I forgot how easy it is, how quick it is to make yourself known to the world.

We scroll through her Facebook photos looking for the perfect Tinder bait, though really I’m just nodding, saying yes to all, because really I’d swipe right any one of them. My God, that smile. In the end she chooses photos of her rock climbing, snowboarding, shaping clay into something more. Then there is the picture of her with her roommates, and she’s wearing this little black dress I’ve never seen before. Her hair is down in the same forbidden way it’s down now. She’s about to let anyone see.

I tell her not to worry about a bio. She won’t need one.

It stuns me to see the men that fly across her screen. I feel like we just built a boat together and now it’s sprung a leak. Now we’re drowning in men. And I’m talking about real men with real men bodies. Looking at these men I realize that no, I’m not a man at all—I don’t know what I am. I’m talking men with chainsaws and hatchets and you know… abs. I’ve never held a chainsaw in my life and wonder what it’d feel like to start now. What’s even more disturbing is that she swipes most of these men LEFT, just a ridiculous onslaught of lefts. We’re drowning in men but she does what the drowning do best, sloshing pail after pail of men back into the sea. Eventually though, her fingers loosen up and find their rhythm and even a few right swipes. Her match success rate is somewhere between 85% and 97% though I’m no mathematician. The amount of matches she gets in a single hour destroys me, but this is what I wanted wasn’t it? To witness this flood of matches, to see what happens on the other side. She’s in the boat, I’m in the sea.

The way her eyes light up, I know she’ll swipe right even before she does. She swipes right for snow, she swipes right for mountains, she swipes right for adventure. For red hair. I watch as my competition builds up in her phone though I’m quick to realize they’re not my competition at all. These men are playing rugby and climbing K-9s and I’m masturbating in showers and playing frisbee golf alone.

I take out my phone because it’s all too much. I hope that if I start my own swiping I might make her jealous, but I see I’m not even on her radar—she’s in it now, I’ve reintroduced a Tinder addict back into the world of real men and musk. My Degree “Men” deodorant doesn’t even register. I get no matches that night (excluding the pity match that KyAnne gives me when I come across her phone) all the while KyAnne gets 23—make that 26—while being far more selective than I could ever be. Also, she gets four Super Likes in a matter of minutes. What have I done.

This wasn’t really supposed to be for research, KyAnne. I thought I was more transparent than that.

Her roommate walks in the front door and when she sees us there, on the couch together, she exclaims “OH!” as if she’s interrupting and quickly retreats to her room. And I picture how the two of us must have looked just then, and even now, the two of us side by side on the couch, our knees turned toward each other, centimeters from touching, both of us hunched over our phones—two halves of a broken heart, slowly, steadily, mending back together. I realize now that none of these men have the advantage that I have. I can smell her, I can feel her warm wine breath. Carefully I inch toward her, or maybe I just oscillate and don’t really move at all. I put down my phone and look into her eyes that reflect the men sprinting and doing pushups across her screen.

“Hey,” I say. “Hey.”

She looks up from her phone, faded eyes.

“You’ve been down there awhile,” I say as my arm crawls along the back of the couch behind her.

“You’re right,” she says looking back down at her phone, but for the time. “Yeah it’s probably time for bed. You should probably go.”

“Right,” I say (my arm retreats back toward me). “I should probably go.”

I don’t go though, at least not right away. We sit there drinking the cold tea we’ve forgotten about and when both of us have emptied our cups, caffeinated at all the wrong hours, she says— “yeah, you should go.”

And this time I do, but not before she stops me at the door. “There was one more thing you promised me though,” she says.

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Suddenly I’m confident in my lips’ ability to kiss.

“You said you’d let me read the rough draft of your first post.”

“Right,” I say, because at this time I haven’t posted anything yet, still processing the disaster that is Tinder. From my satchel I pull out five pages of dribble and hand it to her, full well knowing that I mention my obsession with the coffeeshop girl at the end of it. She’ll know she is said coffeeshop girl. It is that transparent, this here is my confession.

“Don’t think poorly of me,” I say, also fully aware I mention in it my habit of masturbating in cold showers. “Don’t think ill of me.”

She folds the pages and tucks them in her back pocket. “You really have nothing to worry about,” she says. She says it with that smile.

On the drive home, Train comes back on the radio. It’s one of their newer, more poppy tunes that sounds great but leaves you cold. I don’t know the name, I don’t listen to the lyrics. Because I miss the days when there really were drops of Jupiter in her hair, the songs that never change reminding you only of the things that do.

 

🎤😭

join man next week for journal #13 (in which said man has yet to come up with a title, but it involves coffeeshop girl and a dead man on a mountain)