Old Moving Pictures

She said I talk like him, even though I never met the man. That I’m a lot like him. Her word was “disposition.” Ours were nearly identical, not the sharp contrast I always saw between my dad and I growing up. My grandma’s only surviving pictures of my grandpa are all black and white, an unfailing reminder of how long ago it was that he died, how much time could stretch between one life and another before common traits can pop back up again, out of the ether.

There are precious few photos of him, and the ones there are suggest a man who’s seeing beyond himself and the photo, maybe even into whoever’s looking. At least that’s the impression I get. How do you come to know someone you’ve never met, someone you’re apparently just like, even decades removed?

He was a dreamer, my grandma said. He was always coming up with new ideas, thinking of inventions or advances in technology that would soon come to pass. In the ’60s, when giant, boxy, wood-panelled, tube TVs were ubiquitous, he saw a time when TVs would be flat and wide, when they’d be able to display rich and vibrant color, and they’d be so light that folks could attach them to their walls, like pictures. He was a dreamer, my grandma said, but it was much harder for him to put those dreams into reality. He had all these concepts and plans, but he never seemed to have the time to work on them. There was always something to do, and he had the needs of his young family to think of.

I spent so long growing up piecing together the idea of who my grandpa was based on who my dad was. I hoped for a kinder, gentler version. Someone who drank less, if at all. A man with the loving kindness I saw in the precious few moments my father let it come through, and without the sudden bursts of anger that would balance them, the yelling, the railing against perceived enemies, the drunkenness and the fighting.

He died relatively young, of a heart attack. The knowledge that I’m only about a decade younger than my grandpa was when he died swirls in and pools somewhere between my chest and spine, tendrils out and settles deep in my stomach. I remind myself that grief is physical, and you can feel grief for someone you never knew. Someone you wish so badly that you knew.

Apparently, our similarities extended to our viewing habits. Well before the age of binge watching, he’d sit the family down in front of the tube for the latest episode of The Twilight Zone. His love for the show was deep, my grandma tells me, and I suddenly remember catching old re-runs late at night as a tiny kid, on my own. Then later, in the binge age, marathoning through an entire season in a day, till my inner monologue sounded a lot less like me and a lot more like Rod Serling.

I aspire to a lasting love like the one my grandma and grandpa had. He died nearly fifty years ago, and my grandma still talks about him as if he were here just yesterday. Her eyes still light up when she talks about him. She will love him until she’s gone, and beyond even that. Regardless of my own beliefs, of the Catholic faith that I questioned over the years and eventually abandoned, I have no doubt about that. There are some things that persist.

There’s only one surviving video of my grandpa, that I know of. It’s an old Super 8 that got converted to VHS and then later digital, so the quality’s not the best, and there’s the characteristic light flicker and jagged motion of old home movies from the projector era. It’s faded from light exposure, and worn, but there he is anyway, in motion, and living color, and if I take a journey into that wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination, same as Rod always said, I can almost see what it’d look like to see him in real life, right there in front of me. But for now he’s up there, on a TV that’s flat and wide, in the illusion of life that is a series of old moving pictures.

San Andreas Heaven

I remember back in the day Nick used to try to get to Heaven. Heaven was a glitched-out place in San Andreas where nothing made sense or seemed quite real, and Nick would come home most days, boot up the PS2, and try again to get into it. There was a specific building in San Andreas where, if you went inside and used a cheat code to spawn a jetpack, you could fly through a certain part of the ceiling that didn’t have proper clipping. There was just one spot where you could fly through, a place that the developers had overlooked. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. This wasn’t something you were ever supposed to be able to come across just walking and jumping around. But if you knew what to look for, and you did everything in just the right way, you could lift off and go through the ceiling. Fly right above the interior. From up there, I remember it looked like you had ripped the roof off a dollhouse and were looking down at its insides. And everywhere around the interior, where the outside world should’ve been, there was nothing but blank gray. Gray as far as you could see, in every direction. The way the game worked was that in order to save resources, only the exterior world or the interior world would ever be loaded at any given time, depending on what the character chose. The developers never intended for the player to see beyond the place that had been loaded for them, but Nick had found a way to clip through. He found a way to explore what shouldn’t be explored.

I remember every day he’d go straight back into that building and continue where he left off. You couldn’t save in Heaven, so he’d have to just repeat the glitch every time. There were no waypoints, no markers, so Nick would fly through gray nothing for what seemed like forever before coming across a new interior, some place he had never seen before. He’d go there and take mental notes of everything he saw, then fly back up through where the ceiling should’ve been and look for another place: a space explorer trying to chart new worlds. He’d find interiors you’d only see in passing in random cutscenes, abandoned test areas, and places you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the game. Many of these places were unfinished, so he’d land there and find himself able to walk through the walls, glide through props. It was like he was there but not at the same time.

And the wild thing is that he committed so much of that to memory. There was no real way to map all of that out. Once you were in the air, there were no landmarks to guide you, nothing but gray everywhere. If you checked your map in-game, it said that you were still at the building you’d originally entered. It was like you had never left. Like you were stuck, even though you weren’t.

I didn’t play San Andreas for years after Nick died. I had the game, had the old system, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do a lot of things after he died, but I definitely couldn’t play that game. It got so even if I saw it pop up in a video I was watching or something, I’d have to turn it off. I never really talked about that, but yeah. That’s how it was.

To have a brother gone is like how I imagine it when people describe phantom limb syndrome. It’s the times when you’re not fully conscious yet that it hits the hardest, when just for that tiny moment your brain tells you that it’s okay, that he’s still alive. Then you wake up a little more, and you remember that he’s gone. That he’s been dead now for five years, and that nothing’s going to change that. Sometimes I just wish I could sleep in. Just dream a little longer.

I booted up the old PS2 earlier today. It was too early, and the sun was in my eyes, and I still remembered how to set it all up. And the crazy thing is, Nick’s old save file still worked. I booted it up, and I went to that same old place, and I googled the jetpack cheat. I’m sure Nick would’ve had it committed to memory, but I needed a prompt. I got into that corner, this time from memory, and I flew. Straight up, away and past it all. Into the gray where the world you thought you knew wasn’t really there. And I went.

Composite Parts

I wanted to see trees the way that you saw them, not just color and movement, classification and function. I wanted to taste the sun in strawberry, see myself in others and have something like a life before my death. I didn’t manage that, but I have managed to draft this here, now, which will just have to be my consolation. I am collecting all the pieces of me from when I was alive, trying to find the leaves that serve the tree.

I saw you at my funeral. I wanted to say something, but:

1. I couldn’t,

and:

2. What would I say if I could?

Everyone’s words arrived like a fugue, their contrapuntal compositions echoing, and none of them could hear the melodies they were making. I saw something in your eyes then that I’d never seen while alive.

This is not much different than when I was here. There’s not a distinct boundary or separation. It’s a gradual process, and you don’t always know when that process has begun. I was in the process of dying for a long time before they put me in the ground, and it’s still not over yet.

I realize now that I had glimpses of it. Moments waiting in line at the grocery store, realizing that these signs advertising products will be replaced, then will be gone. These people will one day be gone, and the store will be as well. Time will sweep its dust under the rug of the world, and there will be nothing at all to see anywhere. There will be not even the concept of nothing. It’s like that, being dead is. It’s a strong dissociation, but it’s not a severance. At least mine isn’t. It’s seeing yourself see yourself, till it feels like you’re looking into a mirror that’s facing another mirror, reflecting ad infinitum. And I’m pretty much tired all the time.

I realized as I was dying that I didn’t want to die, but it had reached an irreversible point in the process, so I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to soon be dead. It just became a fact.

And then I went away, and my body was a collection of buzzing, brilliant things, separated by color and shape and size and weight, so it was like I was seeing all my composite parts. And there was my idea of you, alone in an unlit room in what used to be my mind. I never saw the fine details, you used to tell me. I’d never miss the forest for the trees, but then I’d never really see the trees at all.

Think of anything you’ve ever seen, and then forget it. Forget that you’ve forgotten. Anything Anthropocene is gone. Anything natural is gone. There’s something there, but it’s more like a vague feeling than an actual presence. There’s not really color. I don’t want to talk about it too much.

If I focus, I can almost see a world outside of myself, outside of what I did. I can almost breathe again.

I dream memories. When I dream, I’m back in the world of matter and color and wind on arms and light in bleary morning eyes. It’s nothing pivotal. It’s the small moments, the ones we shared. It’s waiting in line at the grocery store and eyeing tabloids, dollar chocolate bars, gum, the hum of the conveyor belt and the mechanical hey-how-are-you when it gets to our place in line. It’s crunching through fall leaves, adjusting steps to coincide, and the warmth of the sun past the chill, past the gray, past it all, and feeling that there only is just this moment. Only ever will be.

Out of Body

I’m reading up on out of body experiences, lucid dreaming, anything that might get me out of all of this and let me see my dead brother again.

He’s been dead five years, so I’m under no illusions that it’ll be a clear vision. I’m starting to forget his face, and even the pictures don’t help. So I’m banking on an out of body experience. They say that if you lie real still, and focus on your breathing, imagine that a rope is leading out of your skull and up into the ceiling, beyond that, up into the sky and beyond that, that you’re on your way to a bonafide OBE. There are no guarantees, but that seems like as good a place to start as any.

I was never one for meditating, but Nick was. My brother was, and I remember some of what he told me back when he was diving into Zen, going to the temple every week, etc. Sometimes I wonder about mindfulness, about why it couldn’t save him from himself in the end, and then I come back to the hurt, the “why”s that go nowhere, the feeling like you’ve knocked down a wall past reality, and now you’re in grayed-out backroom that hasn’t been rendered yet, the grief puts you out of the world, and it’s just you lying on hardwood in your apartment, trying to imagine a rope leading out of your head so you can see your brother again, and you’re trying not to tell yourself that this is fucking crazy, that this is going nowhere, because Nick always said that right when you thought you’d figured it out, that was the moment you had to start all over again.

When we were still kids, Nick would do stuff like stay awake for two days straight, put halved ping pong balls in front of his eyes for sensory deprivation, just to see what would happen, if he could write about it. He’d go a day or two without food, which, granted, wasn’t hard when there was barely any in the house, but he’d have nothing but water or tea, and that was before the eviction but not much before, and everything was still in boxes from the last place we had to abruptly leave, and I feel like he was starting to unravel then, even though it was still years before the eventual suicide, but nobody knew, and only in hindsight could we see all the distinct signs. I think back to the Other Side of YouTube videos we’d watch, before meme proliferation, before Vine and TikTok, back when you had to hunt down all the weird shit, and it seemed like Nick was always trying to find ways to disturb himself out of what he was thinking, what he was feeling.

I’m still trying the out of body experience thing, but I’m not sure I’m doing it right. My brain keeps reminding me of how he looked in that room, hospital lights too bright, metal table, and when you’re dead they no longer have to worry about comfort. Gray skin, and water bloat, and it’s him all right, and hearing yourself make the sound that you made, and seeing yourself from up in room’s corner is the closest you’ve ever come to having an out of body experience, perspective shift, and if you never have to feel that way again then that’ll be fine, if that’s the only way it’ll come, but you can stay awake in caffeine haze and have the heat off in winter, so the hardwood is ice cold, and it’s starting to hurt, and maybe you’ll see him one more time, face un-gray, un-bloated, like how he was when he was still here, not a body slab on cold metal in hospital light, and come out of this body, come out of your mind and allow yourself communion. Come apart and don’t worry about putting yourself back into that trauma body. You don’t have to remember everything all the time.

And floating now, over yourself, it’s not a rope so much as a hole in the ice bringing you out of liquid cold and into the air, away from where bodies can die and decay and be forgotten. And maybe your brother is in there somewhere, apart from any memories you had of him. He’s just there, inextricable from the way he ended up. You’re sliding out, away from your head, floating through the old mall you guys used to go to as kids, but now it’s closed down, and all you can hear are the hits they used to play, and the speakers are blasting out to emptiness and decrepitude, and there’s the place where you’d buy a pack of Pokémon cards for a few bucks, there’s what remains of the food court, just mold and not-so-drywall, and you can see your brother as you want to remember him, floating above the fountain at mall’s center, and you’re starting to gain self awareness in this thing, whatever it is, dream or real, but you decide to stay a while and watch as he floats, airborne, catching rays, rotating in the air, dancing through it, smiling all the time.

Dressed Just the Same

It’s not like I thought buying a tube of Wet n Wild would magically cure me of years of ingrained heteronormativity, but you have to start somewhere, and for me that somewhere was a deep red, a shade called Blind Date, that I thought and hoped would go decent with my beard and Lynchian undercut.

I go months between expressing my nonbinary-ness, vacillating between feeling like a fraud when I’m not and being self conscious when I am. To know that I can do these things and look this way, but that there will be that part of myself that was raised the way that I was, that I can be separated from that time, put hundreds of miles between myself and the old neighborhood, but the old mental constructs still aren’t so easy to shake.

The endless yearning, the wanting, the disparity between the me in pictures and reflective surfaces and the me in my head. How I come alive with makeup on, the wig out of the box, a flowy dress and a leather jacket. How my favorite movie going back to my childhood was always Rocky Horror, how something clicked into place when I heard Tim Curry’s Frank croon Richard O’Brien’s words, namely “Whatever happened to Fay Wray? That delicate, satin-draped frame? How it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry, ’cause I wanted to be dressed just the same.”

Even back then, knowing that I was different, that I wanted to look different, but never going beyond watching that same old VHS over and over again, till the tape was worn out from overuse and even then I still played it, could point out all the minute differences between that first home video release and all subsequent releases.

Then the midnight screenings as a teen, and diving headlong into glam, discovering T Rex with a friend, wanting to be Marc Bolan, watching Velvet Goldmine and being scandalized in the best possible way, playing that soundtrack out the same as I did with RHPS on VHS all those years ago, but now with CD skips the main degradation culprit, and part of me insisting to myself that I just love the music, that there’s nothing more to it than that, but good luck making that stick in the long run.

Even acknowledging what and who I am now is as freeing as those screenings were all those years ago. I am queer, I am bi, I am nonbinary. These are just facts. I might be a late starter, but at least I’ve started. So if it’s just the occasional Blind Date for now, well that’ll just have to be enough. The rest can come later.

goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

Translucent plastic box in the basement, plastic and lidded, light filtering through it, plants on top of it, sitting idly next to an old Windows 95 behemoth. Coming back home after so much time, now masked, taking precautions, and the last of your personal effects are in this box, the stuff you couldn’t sort through before leaving, the things that reminded you of him. Now just color values and physical description–blurry shapes of belongings past thick plastic, years of dust, incomprehensible lengths of time that don’t correspond to calendars, appointments, birthdays. You have moved on and yet here are these outcroppings of a you who hasn’t.

Opening the lid and starting right away, piles separated between keep, trash, and burn, and you’re surprised by just how quick that last category is filling up. The unending process of self-uproot, plant, water, uproot again. Of having no land to ever truly call home. Your roots are spread too thin, atrophying beneath you, crackling through sidewalk cracks in desperation.

When it all comes through, you’re lighting a barbecue of photos, mementos, hand-written love notes. Sketches of the two of you, his beard snuggling yours, not caricatured but on the cusp, and browning, curling paper, shifting down to deep black, ash clippings sprinkling themselves into grill ash, gray in all that red. All the little rituals we put ourselves through.

If you could find a way to Eternal Sunshine your way out of having to remember him, you think you’d do it, but it’d probably be an in the moment thing, impulsive, the Clem to his Joel, and even that movie is tainted now because of all the viewings the two of you had, watching it every few years, after the inevitable breakup and getting back together, seeing your mirror images committed to film, and vacillating between siding with Joel or Clem depending on the viewing, the season. Siding with neither, and wanting to erase your brain, to take it all away if it’ll mean you don’t have to live with this pain of being stuck in his mental and emotional orbit.

The early days, pre-coming out, when he was a good friend, then thinking it was “just” that you were gay, as if that would ever be a “just” where and when you grew up, and finding other people, other bodies after each break up, learning to fit yourself into the configurations you thought were expected of you, the shifting serpent of sexuality, probably looking just like the one from CCD as a kid, when they tried to convince you that we’re born doomed and need external help to be saved. You haven’t sat in a pew since the mid-2000s, have no desire to, but there’s that familiar old Catholic orisonic muscle in you still, even now, trying to get you to pray it away, give it over to god, and even turning that over in your mind makes you laugh away the sting, the frustrated tears, the way he made you feel and how that could be divorced from how much and how often he hurt you, what that consistent betrayal did to you in the end.

Or maybe it’s the change itself. The changing of colors, of minds. Taking something from one form to a very different other, and to be, somehow, surprisingly okay with it in the end, if that’s what it’s going to be for now. Because it’s as much the final shot as it is the repeat, over and over again, of that shot. It’s curling your farewells into the burning, till it’s all just goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

The Dead Friend

The dead friend shows up like a glitch in a poorly-tested video game, clipping through walls, lagging, animation wonky. He’d look real enough in a freeze frame, but in motion the physics are just off.

The dead friend shows up wearing the jacket he wore when he became the dead friend. The jacket is thick, and woollen, but its fibers cannot adequately absorb the blood from the dead friend. They were made for other things.

You can’t seem to get the attention of the dead friend, and you’ve tried everything. All that DF is capable of is to carry out glitched animations, cycling through the keyframes until he can start the next animation.

And here is the dead friend now, sitting on an invisible bench, talking into an invisible phone, asking inaudibly for help. And you can try to sit on this invisible bench with your dead friend, can fall back and onto the ground. You can crouch down beside him, get right in front of him, attempt a lip-read, wave in front of his eyes, call out to him. You can do whatever you’d like, but he won’t notice.

Your dead friend will come for you in the liminal states, too. Don’t think it will only be when you’re out and about. He will sit on your chest like some sleep paralysis demon you’ve seen paintings of, but you will only see the whites of his eyes, will only hear his underwater voice of regret, not words but still intelligible, because regret can never adequately be expressed in words anyway. How would you even begin?

Your dead friend has been dead long enough where the experience of being a person is clearly fading from his cellular memory. He has more in common with the fog coming up off the hills during your morning walks, sunlight breaking up the view through car windows as you pass, thinking always that you’ve seen him, that he’s seen you, that there is a way out of this paroxysm of grief.

Or maybe he’s not the fog, not the wind, but what’s traveling through it. A dream, something that’s been coming back night after night. Your friend is a kite floating on the wind. You are holding the string that is tethered to his foot. All of him has been hollowed out. He is paper-thin, and empty, and his eyes are holes that wind can get through if it must. You look up and the string you hold is tethered to two other strings. They connect to his arms, to the spots once cut, tethered to the places that untethered your friend from this world.

In the dream, you’re not sure how you know that things will be okay eventually, but there is this deep, all-abiding sense that that will be the case. You can bring your friend down and out of the wind, collect his string, and walk him back home when the conditions are no longer right for flight. You can both go back home.

Kinds of Stained Glass

Some days he felt his memories had been implanted in his skull, injected from somewhere near the base. It would at least explain all of the headaches. Makes the urge to drink a foreign entity that doesn’t arise in him. Something he picked up from another lifetime, one he can’t remember. Angling down and into sleep is languid and painful, like dipping toes into scalding water, then feet, then shins. He gives in sometime in the second week of this.

When he comes to again after so much time without it, one more big binge, he can almost remember the name from before. Rather the designation. To be held captive by drink is to not be alive, not really.

In bleeding early mornings he is alone. Times when his head will burn and the urge will come in like rolling sick deep in his belly, hands on knees, collecting air and hoarding it in his lungs. An image: big splasher flopping on a pier, gaggle of children huddled around it, in semicircle, watching. Waiting for it to die, and not knowing what they’ll do once it does.

The permutations of who he could be and could’ve been, dancing around him in the early afternoon, dew burnt off already, and he’s got years on his mind, ash in his hair, and he’s weighing himself on a scale he knows isn’t accurate but which he uses anyway. It’s just something he can’t seem to part with.

He’s trying to live in a way that will let him remember, after all this time forgetting. He’s trying to be a person again.

When he opens the blinds in the morning, he half expects to see the crowded block he used to live on, halogen lighting blinding at night, tracking the paths of strangers and their shadows coming in and out of view, when life wasn’t a series of days to be crossed off. He thinks he can see himself now, over there, just past the window. Can see, yes, the shape of unkempt hair, the mop of it, can figure out the era from this mop, estimate his age, through the window, and the whole block is lined with versions of himself at different ages, different branching pathways. “All the varieties of me that there might be.” He couldn’t really feel himself coming alive anymore, is what it had come down to.

He fell away into the bottle again, and when he came back to he was flat on his back in a bathtub that wasn’t his, shower curtain as blanket, and the light was on, and today’s repeat mental word was haggard. Haggard, and the songs his brain gave him, wanted him to sing, at least hum along to, and all the lyrics had to do with failing, falling, losing some intrinsic part of you in all that darkness. The way the water felt when it sputter-spilt out of limescale shower head was something like baptism, and there’s another image, of communion he’d refused after so many years of taking it, sitting in a pew he’d never sat in before, letting the late melody of half-forgotten hymns wash over, and the way to forgetting is the opposite direction of forgiving.

He goes back every now and again, to his old town, course charted, cautious turnings, changed directions, taking a roundabout way to get to his old block and only upon getting there realizing that he did it to avoid the old church. Of trying to remember these call-and-response words that they gave you there, of all the prayers and songs and affirmations that can be repeated like ingredients from an old recipe, rote memorization, and he’s pouring every bottle he’s got down the drain, throwing the last of them against church wall, and the spray that explodes on the side and even onto the window, a different kind of stained glass, and to be inside with the pain is like being an observer of an observer, a neuronal game of telephone you can never quite make sense of. He’s going to the broken bottle and grabbing a long shard, checking the way it looks against the smooth draw of flesh. Breathing. He is breathing now.

And when he’s done and it’s finished, there are carvings in the body of the old priest’s car. Words, and scratches, and reminders, all for him to find later. Something he wouldn’t forget.

Things will get better.

I want a time travel story like the thing that just hit me. I don’t want travel to dinosaur times or prehistoric man, although that would be cool. I don’t want splintering realities or historical hijinks or grandfather paradoxes. I want a book to appear, dog-eared, in the bottom of eighth-grade-me’s backpack. I want him to see his name on the cover and to wonder about what might be inside, what might be in store. I want him to sit, cross-legged on the floor in late-night TV glow, turning pages, reading his own words from fifteen years in the future. I want him to fall asleep with that story flickering through his mind’s projector, and a repeat message like a nightly mantra:

Things will get better.

Things will get better.

Things will get better.

They already have.