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.”
“But everything before?”
“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.”
Brian picks back up the pages, flips through them, sets them back down. “Well shit,” he says. “Shit.”
“It needs a better ending.”
“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—
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?”
“Anthony is in love with me.”
“Kiedis. The lead singer.”
“He’s in love with me.”
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.
“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 Magik, One Hot Minute, Californication, By 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.
“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.”
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.”
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:
- Monarchy of Roses⭐️
- Factory of Faith⭐️
- Brendan’s Death Song⭐️
- Annie Wants a Baby⭐️⭐️
- Look Around
- The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie⭐️
- Did I Let You Know
- Goodbye Hooray
- Happiness Loves Company⭐️
- Police Station
- Even You Brutus
- Meet Me At The Corner⭐️
- 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 Faith. Brendan’s Death Song. Ethiopia. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“Well,” I say.
“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.