Journal #50 (in which said man finishes this)

There’s a campsite on Baker Lake that Brian told me about, some time ago now — he’d said out of everywhere he’s been, everywhere he’s traveled, this was his favorite spot. There was something about the place, he told me, something unique that he couldn’t quite describe. The campsite is right on the western edge of the lake, one of several free sites on the road between Boulder Creek and Panorama Point. I’m driving this road now, looking for this spot because—

Maybe Brian is there.

I think the owners of the farm were relieved when I told them I’d be moving out. When they first rented the room to me, I’m not sure they understood how little I’d be leaving the room. My presence was heavy, constant, and little by little I noticed them spending less and less time at the house.

Though spring had finally come, the relief of the sun seemed weeks away. I spent all my time writing, yet no matter how much I wrote, nothing seemed to work. I couldn’t figure out how to end this story. My mind wasn’t moving the way it used to. Thoughts were slow, a viscous sludge, sometimes never quite reaching their—

It took me awhile to realize I couldn’t end the story here, shut off in this room, away from the world. I would have to leave. It was the only option.

Somehow telling the owners I’d be leaving gave me the strength to practice. Leaving, I mean. I ventured into town, I revisited the bookstore, found nobody there whom I recognized or who recognized me. I ate alone in cafes, went on long walks, and all the while I’m thinking, all there was in my head was how to end this.

I considered drifting into the past, back to when I first met Brian, and staying there. I’d write about our early days, I’d write about the blog. I’d write about writing the first post, posting the first post, then my last post could simply be a reposting of this first post. Yes, Brian would like that. Because everything is cyclical, everything returns to its source, nothing changes, etc. But—

Why then does everything feel so different?

It was no good. All my ideas were copouts, try-too-hard-literary and lazy and shit. But also, I didn’t care how it ended as long as it was over.

I find the spot, and it appears he was just here. That’s how I know it’s the spot. There’s a dirt pull-off on the right and two steep paths down through brush to where the brush opens out to two empty campsites, a fire pit between them and the lake beyond them. I recognize a used-up joint, several actually, roaches surrounding the pit. Brian’s handiwork. Back up at the pull-off I see the tracks of another van in the dirt — Brian’s van. But the van tracks could be the tracks of any van, Brian may not have been here for some time. It’s only a feeling I have.

I don’t have a tent but I do have a hammock. I string it between two trees on the lake.

I wait. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for. I might just be waiting for the feeling to go away.

Before I left the farm, I ran into Jane at a cafe back in town, though “ran into” is probably the wrong expression. I was eating alone when I saw her there, also eating, but not alone. She was with some guy. The guy looked nervous, young. He was thin, one hand was on his knee, the other to the right of his plate as if he’d carefully planned it that way, but expected it to look different, more natural. This was a first date, I knew. Good for her. I felt nothing. I couldn’t eat. My stomach didn’t want the food. I got up and left.

Though maybe it wasn’t Jane. Maybe it was only someone who looked like Jane, and I was projecting, if only to tie up her loose ribbon, wrap her story up in a bow. I don’t know. It could’ve been her. Her hair was dyed something else now, but under it — maybe — I could see the lavender it used to be. When it still fell over my ears.

I had next to nothing to pack. Just my duffle and my sleeping mat and one trip to the van was all I needed — the room was empty. And the van next-to-empty. I felt weightless. The clouds were thin and the sun rolled through, light touching my skin.

There really was nothing left for me here. There was only the road now, the straight road, the mythology of greener pastures on the other side of the horizon where the horizon is anything but green.

After Baker Lake, I don’t know where I’m going.

The days are getting longer, the sun arcs wide in the sky. Long after the sun is gone the light lingers. I collect firewood, I stack how I’ve seen firewood stacked, how I’ve seen Brian and Tommy do it, but without proper tinder I can’t light it. I can’t keep away the bugs.

I throw on a jacket, it grows colder. The light shifts but I can’t see it getting darker. The wind picks up, coming in off the lake, then it dies. There’s a brief manic blast of rain, then it dies. The sky clears again, and there’s a changing in the light. The eastern sky grows navy above the mountains and washes out its paler shades. The air is still, the lake is still. And except for its changing, the sky is still.

I stamp my feet. I pace the campsite. Brian should be here. It’s the feeling, I tell myself. The feeling that says Brian should be here. The water laps the shore, the floating logs sounding hollow. Headlights filter through the trees along the road, but they never stop here. I stand on the shore as the night grows darker. The mountain across the lake grows black, as does its reflection in the water. They look like lips, I tell myself. The mountain and its reflection. Dark, full lips. The mouth of god. I shudder. Still the sky grows darker, but never as dark as these lips, and there where the eyes should be, the first pinpricks of stars open themselves — the eyes of this ancient, primitive goddess — and still darker grows her flesh, more faraway eyes revealing themselves and watching me, this many-eyed spider giant, her hair the leaves hanging over me. Where are you, Brian? Are you seeing this? All those eyes, those mountain lips— I don’t think it’d be a stretch for them to open up and devour me. It would only take a shrug of the earth, a splitting where water meets mountain and I’d be gone.

But in the morning I’m still here, the lips are gone and all I see are the mountains, the lake, the pale white sky touched with pink and the lavender clouds sifting across it. I drop a pill into my palm and swallow it. Before long I’ll forget what I saw, unfeel what I felt until there’s nothing left in me to forget. These moments’ll become fewer until all trace of the divine is gone. Driving east, I’ll fade into the surface of the world. I’m a hunk of meat surrounding a worm, coiled up inside me, driving east in a machine. Everything is surface except for the worm.

It’s the road. It’s the long road and the trees, the mountains, the pasture, the farmlands, the flatlands, all somehow soggy and still thawing after the long winter.

I remember wanting a better ending than this.

To what you’ve read. To what you haven’t read. To what happened in San Francisco. Brian told you the aftermath, but there was still the thing that happened. I can’t write about it because in a way it wasn’t real. What happened really happened but it was two other people who made it happen. We were both other people, tired and deranged from the road and willing to try anything to wake ourselves up. I wanted to wake up, Brian wanted to wake me up. He’d been pulling me further and further into the dream, trying to wake me up. I’m not sure he realized he was dreaming too.

The “DREAM” — I remember enough of it. The fog coming in off the Pacific, the silence as it surrounds us, closing us off, letting us know it’s just us now, that we really are who we say we are — and somehow we believed that. It’ll be okay, I remember him whispering to me. I can be someone else if you want me to be. I couldn’t believe what he was saying — What? I want you to be Brian, I told him. He looked at me, tilted his head. He knew what I was saying, I didn’t. He lowered himself — himself — onto me. Himself. He wasn’t being himself. I couldn’t breathe, the meaninglessness of it, of lips on lips and meat on meat and the despair one feels when it means nothing, does nothing, until later you realize — no, you already knew — it meant everything because it destroyed everything.

But who gets everything?

Brian, are you still reading?

There are other things.

There are birds.

There are power lines that, when looked at the wrong way, could be crosses.

There are songs and there are prophecies.

There are eyes.

There are voices in the dark.

There is the blue car on the horizon, might be following.

The same car that — the light hitting it the right way — could be green.

But there are also the pills, and these add distance. What’s out there can’t affect you because there is distance.

Even so, with the blue dot — the maybe green dot — always on the horizon, you have to wonder.

But it’s nothing more than wonder.

There’s always the next stop, the next nightfall. Swallowed pills and sleep. It’s gone, everything falls away and you forget there’s anything else but this. This place within you that nothing can touch.

But the pills do their work, and when you wake you forget about this place too.

And move through a world that means nothing.

🌎

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

I have no qualms.

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

[…]

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

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

“Hey,” I say, holding his phone.

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

“That was Tommy,” he says.

“I know.”

“He’s on his way.”

“I know.”

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

“Hi,” he says.

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

[…]

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

“There there,” he says.

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

Tommy and I are on Tinder.

[…]

“Is this her?” he asks me.

“No.”

[…]

“Is this her?” he asks me.

“No.”

[…]

“Is this her?” he asks me.

“I’m sorry it’s not.”

“Shoot.”

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

“Is this her?”

“It’s not.”

[…]

Not even close.

[…]

“Are we there yet?” Tommy asks.

“No,” Brian says.

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

“May I?” I ask him.

He nods, hands me one after lighting it.

I breathe in smoke.

“Doing okay?” he asks me.

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

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

[…]

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

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

Now I know, they were going to the bathroom.

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

[…]

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

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

I wake him.

“Brian is gone.”

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

“He’s gone.”

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

[…]

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

[…]

Note to self — Tommy seems unaffected.

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

[…]

Brian is [still] gone.

[…]

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

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

“Nothing. Just stuff.”

“Weren’t you writing a blog once?”

A fear rips through me.

“I haven’t read it,” he says.

“Oh.”

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

“Oh.”

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

“I’m not.”

[…]

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

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

“A key to what?” he asks.

“A lock.”

“A lock to what?”

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

🚗

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

Journal #32 (in which said man upgrades to Tinder Plus)

It’s not the unlimited Likes or the bonus Super Likes or the Last Swipe Rewind that attracts us to the upgrade — after all, what use are any of these when you’re only looking for one person? — but the Passport feature. “Match with people all around the world,” claims Tinder Plus. “Paris. Los Angeles. Sydney. Go!”

It’s the Passport we need. It’s the Passport we subscribe to. We’re only in Oregon, but on Tinder, we could be in Los Angeles right now. Right now we could be looking for Annie.

What I wasn’t expecting — what I should have been expecting — was the sheer number of people on Tinder at any one time in Los Angeles. While in Bellingham it wouldn’t take long to run out of people near you, in Los Angeles the well never dries. Though this depth is daunting at first, drowning even — what if Annie never comes across my screen, what if I never come across hers, what if, it only hits me now, what if Annie isn’t on Tinder at all? — I quickly rid myself of any doubt, of any question. If there was one thing I knew about Annie from the year I knew her, it was that she would be on Tinder now. Her antisocial, shadow-like behavior. Yet her constant need for validation. To watch without being seen. To be seen without showing yourself. To hide behind yourself.

Yes, she was made for Tinder.

It’s like what Joseph Campbell says of the acorn— “What is the cause, though, of the growth of an acorn? The oak that is to come! What is to happen in the future is then the cause of what is occurring now; and, at the same time, what occurred in the past is also the cause of what is happening now. In addition, a great number of things round about, on every side, are causing what is happening now. Everything, all the time, is causing everything else.”

This moment at the center of everything. I’m on Tinder for a reason. She’s on Tinder for a reason. Everything — a great number of things round about, on every side — is causing us to be on Tinder. Our future has been pulling our pasts together for so long. The sky lifts us toward itself, we reach out with straying branches, but our trunk is straight, at our center what we must become remains true.

Still, despite the certainty, uncertainty is also a certainty. I have to put down my phone. The brightness of the screen, the eyes of the LA girls, it’s all starting to get to me. I see spots.

I have to blink several times before Brian’s silhouette comes into focus. We’re both in the back of the van, propped up on opposite sides of the mattress, thick tapestries draped down all around us. Turning off my phone has left us in complete darkness. Brian asks if he can turn on a light.

I say okay.

He turns on a lantern. He’s half-naked, just pink panties and a white tank top and through it I can make out the shape of his breasts, the dark size of his nipples. His tin Batman lunchbox sits open before him, its contents strewn across the mattress. He draws testosterone from a vial into a syringe and places the tip of the needle to his thigh. He doesn’t look at me as he presses it in, a dimple forming where the needle disappears.

Outside, waves crash against the rocks, the wind blows sand against the windows. The occasional car passes, headlights playing patterns across Brian’s face. His unkempt hair falls before his eyes but he’s unable to sweep it away.

And just like that it’s over, he takes the needle out. No blood trails from the puncture wound I hesitate this time to even call a wound. He disposes of the syringe into a thick red plastic container and places the rest back in the lunchbox. He stuffs it under the mattress, atop his laundry, turns off the lantern and without a word lays himself back. Outside the ocean still beats itself upon the land.

I crawl under the sheets, my face near Brian’s feet, and turn back on my phone. I continue swiping through girls some 900 miles away. My phone dies as the sun rises, a pinkish glow seeping through the tapestries. It’s cold. I burrow deeper under the blankets, bury my face and curl into the corner behind the passenger seat. I shut my eyes just to keep them warm.

When I wake Brian is gone. Every part of my being feels thin, not quite there. But there’s a heaviness there too. I’m dragging it as I pull myself up. I give the sliding door a firm tug and wind whips the tapestry into my face. I pull it aside and tuck the bottom corner up behind the pinned top. Brian is leaning against the wooden fence that separates the pull-off from the short drop to the beach. He’s smoking a cigarette.

“Morning,” he says as I get out of the car. “Sleep well?” he asks.

I blink the sun from my eyes. “What time is it?”

He points to the sun, as if that means anything to me.

The camp stove is out and his percolator bubbles on top with the scent of coffee. He pours me a cup before removing his pan from under the mattress, and eggs and sausage from the cooler. All the ice in the cooler is melted, the sausages drip as he throws them in the pan and the pan throws back steam.

“Those okay to eat?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“The cooler is all water.”

“If you’re suggesting we waste food…”

I sip my coffee, and say nothing. He pokes the sausage with a spatula.

The waves sound just as violent as during the night, but when heard in this light, the violence seems inconsequential against the vastness of ocean and sky. The sun rolls above us, but the wind off the water keeps us cool. We eat leaning against the fence, watch as tourists pull over to take selfies, sometimes to climb down and walk barefoot in the sand to take selfies there.

Lincoln City is just north of us. To the south, more beach towns like it. We pass through these towns, shops painted in pastel shades of blue and pink and teal. Signs touting salt water taffy, fudge, caramel corn. Between the towns, road signs warn us when we’re entering and exiting tsunami hazard zones. Blue arrows to evacuation routes. West of the beaches, rocks rise from the water, the ocean breaking against them. Even further west, surfers lay in wait.

When we stop, Brian will bum cigarettes from the bums. He always knows where to find them. They’re not hard to find. I stay in the van during these daytime excursions, and his occasional nighttime excursions too. At a pull-off that may as well be the same as the last, I open up Tinder and once again start swiping. The sun drips down the sky and pools on the horizon. The orange lavender light bleeds through the tapestries until there’s not enough light to do so. Brian is still out there. Darkness again. Except for the light of my phone, I see nothing. Nothing but these LA girls. Names like Iris and Carina and Inga and Delaney and Bianca and Rianne and Shealyn and Blaire and Celery and I’m flying through them because there’s no need to look at photos or bios when you’re only looking for a name as simple as Annie’s. Still, the eyes get to you. The dark mascara and liner rimming them like bruises, empty in the middle, sun bleached blonde or hair dyed dark, features so perfect they look manufactured — might be manufactured — and everyone dressed up for this dreamy nightmare wonderland stage they’re living on. They’re all trying so hard to play the part, spines straight, shoulders back, stomachs clenched, painted lips. They come from all over — Paris, Prague, New York, Chicago — they’re all trying so hard but they don’t realize they don’t need to try anymore. The smog is already there in their eyes, caked over their blemishes as blush and well, what does it matter—

None of them are Annie.

Though there was one that looked like Annie. Same black hair, same black eyes, same fake nose though this one wasn’t broken. I have to stop on her, give her a closer look — Marilyn. All of her photos are the same, or may as well be the same. Selfies from around the city, not an acquaintance in sight, one on the beach, all with the same expression of pouted lips the same way Annie would pout her lips — no, purse her lips. Annie would purse her lips. Pouting gives away too much and Annie gives nothing. I’m focused so much on her lips that I almost miss her bio—

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

I scroll down but there is nothing. Common interests? Nothing. I scroll back up to her photos, back down again to her one line bio. I whisper it to myself, and finish the thought—

“You will know them by their hunger.”

Now her eyes really— no, it’s her lips that get to me. Her pursed lips — no, puckered lips — almost mock me, barely parted but not enough to let out her secret. She knows my hunger.

My forehead drips, my fingers tremble, my stomach’s growl tears through me. For the first time since Jane, I swipe someone right.

Outside, cars no longer pass. It’s the nothing hours between night and morning when nothing happens, nothing exists. Even the ocean is silent, the wind is dead. Brian however, is still out there. And though I have the entire mattress to myself, I curl up into my corner where the passenger seat meets the sliding door.

In the morning you have to wonder if it was a dream, I always do and always seem to figure it out. But this time I can’t. I remember Annie’s face, but the face from last night I can’t remember. I’m rested, I’m reasonably awake, but my thumb aches as it’s never ached. Endless eyes, dark lashes, rise to my consciousness. I taste smog. We’re only in Oregon and already I taste the smog.

🌆

join man next week for journal #33 (in which said man runs out of gas)

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

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

I tell him she took it just fine.

“Fine?”

“She’ll be fine.”

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

“How’s Tommy?” I ask.

“Fine.”

“He took it okay?”

“I haven’t told him.”

“But you’re going to tell him.”

“Yes. I’m going to tell him.”

“How are you going to tell him?”

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

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

And unusual.

Punishment, really.

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

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

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

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

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

Brian loves me.

Brian hates me.

Brian is bored.

Brian is impulsive.

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

Brian wants to see me destroyed.

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

One last identity— I’m fucking losing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cycle goes on like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚗

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

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

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

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

I’m trying to be honest.

I want you to see what I am.

I don’t want to feel this alone.

Because the gremlin is terrible company.

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

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

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

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

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

Like the time I was emotionally unavailable.

Like all the other times I was emotionally unavailable.

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

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

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

“Are you okay?” she asks me.

“Yes. Everything is okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

✉️

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“How do you know she’s trans?”

“I don’t know. She’s probably not.”

“Oh.”

Brian looks to his fingers before asking—

“So why did you make her trans?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. You’ve said this.”

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

“It’s just a story though.”

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

“I don’t understand.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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

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

“What are you suggesting?”

“That you find Annie.”

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

👹

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

Journal #26 (which spans over 2000 years)

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

I nod. It did.

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

“Yes.”

“But everything before?”

“Really happened.”

“So why the fake ending?”

“I don’t know.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“What?”

“It needs a better ending.”

“How so?”

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

✏️

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

MONARCHS

by XX XXXXXXX

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

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

I tell her I don’t follow.

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

Still don’t follow.

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

“Yes.”

“Anthony is in love with me.”

“Anthony?”

“Kiedis. The lead singer.”

“Right.”

“He’s in love with me.”

“Okay.”

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

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

“My psychiatrist.”

“And what does he say?”

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

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

“Help with what?” she asks me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

“So jump,” she says.

“Why do you think I’m here.”

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

“I’m waiting for the right moment.”

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

“I share with you.”

“Nobody knows your name.”

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

sorry I feel awful go without me

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

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

“I’m not—”

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise.

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

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

The track list for I’m With You:

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

“Hi,” I say to Annie.

“Hey,” she says. She takes the roses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” she says to me.

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

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

“What is it?” she asks me.

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

She asks me if I’m okay.

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

~

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

To confront.

To Create.

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

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

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

A week later, I text her: hey.

She texts me back: what’s up?

Either nothing happened or she pretends nothing happened.

We need to talk, I text her.

Okay, she texts back.

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

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

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

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

“What, like in Indiana Jones?”

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

“Okay,” she says, “that amulet.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me out of the car.”

I don’t stop the car.

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

I keep driving.

~

That’s the last time I see Annie.

~

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to tell her that’s not me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re sure everything is okay?”

“Yes. Everything is fine.”

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

ThursdayFridaySaturday.

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

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

A pale glow on the horizon must be the fire.

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

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

“I’m okay,” I tell him.

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

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

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

“Sorry,” I say. “Does—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Green okay?”

“Yes.”

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

The man waits, turning the mug in his hands.

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

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

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

“How are you?” I ask him.

“Well,” he says. “I’m well.”

“Still acting?”

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

I only smile.

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

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

“So,” I say.

“So.”

Another pause.

“Well,” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Better be off.”

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

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

🌹🌹🌹

🌹

manwithoutatinder will return in two weeks.

Journal #25 (in which Tommy Tinder returns home)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s true,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay, bud?” Brian asks me.

“Yes.”

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

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

“I have an idea,” Tommy says.

“What?” we all seem to say.

“I know some people who owe me money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep watch for what?” I ask.

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

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

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

“Do you smell that?” I ask Jane.

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

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

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

“What was that?” Jane asks.

“Did I say something?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“What? Where are you going?”

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

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

Still that smell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus, what is he doing?”

I am the One.

“Hey!” someone screams at me.

I am the One to save you.

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

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

“What are you doing? Let’s go!”

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

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

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

“Why the cow?” I ask anyone.

“Cows die,” Brian says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Annie?” I say.

“No. Who’s Annie?”

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

Annie is no one.

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

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

“Is it?”

Brian nods.

“Where’s Jane?”

“She thinks you have the flu.”

“And what do you think?”

Brian shrugs. He watches me carefully.

“Who’s the man in the hood?” he asks.

“Have you seen him?”

“Who is he?”

“How much do you know?”

Brian shrugs.

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

“You talk in your sleep,” he says.

“What have I been saying?”

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

I nod.

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

“What do you have to do?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Is Annie part of this?”

“She has to be.”

“Who is she?”

“Some girl.”

“From Chapman?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me about her?”

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

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

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

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

The end is here.

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

“Yes,” he says.

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

🐄

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” I say.

“It’s cold,” she says.

“Me too.”

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

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

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too.”

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

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

“No one,” she says.

I was right.

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

“I love you too.”

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

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

Nothing lasts forever.

But not in the way you want.

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

“I love you,” she says to me.

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“Because I love you.”

“But what does that mean?”

“It means I love you.”

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

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

“I love you too.”

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

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

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

I have to tell her.

“I don’t love you.”

“What?” she says.

“I don’t love you anymore.”

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

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

“No. I just don’t love you.”

“Did you meet someone else?”

“No.”

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

I don’t say anything.

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

“No.”

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

“You haven’t seen him since?”

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

“Did anything happen?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

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

“Nothing else?”

“Well—”

“What?”

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

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

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

“What did you do?”

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

I don’t say anything.

“I love you,” she says.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

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

“I am mad, but not at you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

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

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

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

“Did you say anything else?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

😐😔😴💤

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