Take things day by day is something they tell you when you’re visibly heading toward a future without days. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just weird that now that I actually want to be here, the entire world is crashing down around me. I go in the backyard, take a few laps, try to clear the sour taste from my mouth. When I inhale, there are notes I never sensed before, little hints of neighborhood post-crisis, and the birds are singing at night now. I’m putting down words, drinking down tea, lining up my queue and working through. I’m taking things as they come, another favorite from back in my therapy days. Scenes play out in my mind’s projector, flickering at twenty-four, showing what I’ll look like at forty-eight, then ninety-six, shuttling through the seams of life till I am the last person out in the world, streets empty, grass clear and tall, and all of the things that used to matter so much are no longer a concern, I’m just carrying on, ever-forward, designing and desiring times like these, as chaotic as they might be, even so, letting them be and become what they will. Counting each day down and watching in eon-time, using the distinctly human gift of forward-thinking. See the sprouts grow, reach their predetermined top, come back down once again, as the human rockets buzz and hum around, appearing and disappearing as the sun yo-yos up ahead, first up then down then up again, stars shifting, spinning the sky in time, and I am here again, all at once, locked in a painfully slow retelling of a life I’ve already lived and seen. These are the things that make up a life, reduced to their core functions, and here are all the rooms you’ve entered, the ones you can never enter again. Here are the people you have seen, none of which you can see right now, some of which you might never see again. Here is the great abiding grief that accompanies the ones who’ve already left you, the ones yet to leave. Here are all of the things you can feel, dry now, because you are sober and will stay that way no matter what, these things you’re allowing yourself, maybe forcing yourself, to feel. Here are all the things that make up your altered, segmented life, the segmented lives of everyone right now. Because there is no going back, and you’ve seen that for some time now, since this whole thing began, but quarantine wasn’t the beginning of the change. It was already shifting, imperceptibly, by degrees so small that you could scarcely notice. You are really alive here, even now. There it is. You’re even breathing, taking down that water, letting light refract and strike the wall behind you, picture-smooth, rippled grooves like vinyl as you wake and wait for the day to stop hitting. And here it is, as it is, right now in this perfect, terrible moment. In this snapshot that is all there is but not all there ever will be, and that’s okay.
I put the idea of you into a small locket that I’d never worn before, closed it up and wore it around my neck weekends before we couldn’t go anywhere, when I would go down to the things that were happening in the city that had been mine but was no longer, so I could let it glint a little in the sunlight before coming back home. I polished and shined the idea of you weekly, or rather I polished and shined the thing that contained the idea of you. I put it on my night stand before going to bed and smoothed out its chain on waking, set it down to rest just above my heart and watched the way the LCD screen on public transit went haywire, announced that the next stop was a series of incomprehensible pixels. I painted the idea of you in a self portrait after you went away, refused to take it off for the painting because it would be there if I weren’t painting, so it had to be there if I were. I sprinkled the idea of you onto the surface of my morning coffee and stirred it in so I’d have a taste of you for the rest of the day. I put the idea of you in between the layers of all of my dresses, one after the other, till I couldn’t be sure where I ended and the idea of you began. I clawed your name off the mailbox and poured isopropyl alcohol on it and set it ablaze for a flickering blue-fire moment in quiet darkness. It erased any trace of your letters. I put you into the cleanses that I drank morning after morning, intoned the shape of your face as toxin to be purged, rinsed it down the sink like the stubble shavings you’d leave behind every other day. I practiced saying all the sentences you’d shush, the barbs left unspoken if not unearned. And there were the gowns I couldn’t afford but which I would try on, looking for a version of myself I could be okay with, and the way that you didn’t want to talk or see me after you came, how you’d go in the other room and wait for my postcoital chase. I put you down in the poems of that time, clipped events and rearranged the names but kept the idea of you intact. Couldn’t do much else. In the end, I survived on pomegranates and apple cider. Thought I saw a glimmer of you in the pulp, but I decided to drink it down anyway. I was too thirsty not to.
Time stretched past a point, like pencil sharpener scraps in a plastic bubble, like grocery store quarter machines like stealing coffee beans from the aisle grinder like stepping on welcome mat and waiting for automatic entry. Back in the time when the missing were placed on the backs of cartons, and to see their face was to know them in a time pre-tragedy, when they could be you, and wasn’t that the point? He or I could be there in that supermarket, where the free samples were unguarded, just sneeze guard plastic lid, subsisting off supermarket hors d’oeuvres, and this is the same supermarket, same town, only the faces on the cartons changed, until his face was no longer shown, until no faces anywhere were shown, until The World Just Moved On.
Taking the coupons from the little red dispensers in mid-aisle, back when they used to be there, now taking out a phone and tapping on an app at checkout. The world just keeps going. Dented cans clotting at aisle end, some sputter-spilt, and swept, then mopped, then wet-floor-signed, contents tossed in the trash, then taken out, then collected, then transported, then left in a great heap in the sun. Age compositing the face of your missing friend, detail haze, polaroidic fade, sun rays, burnt out, there’s no face there, not really. Freegan dumpster diving at shop back, scurry into cracked door, sleep on bottom rack, behind toilet paper fortress. Stretch cellophane across face, gather monoxide, into gutter sleep. 17 Bazooka Joe to chew, comics on the floor, colors made of tiny dots. Crystalline sugar. Faith No More on a tinny winter speaker, quarters bouncing from it, pegging on rusty-chained bikes to walled convenience. Annihilate all memory of your friend and you annihilate the pain of loss.
Remember bottled days, then pilled days, injected and ingested and swilled days, newspaper clippings and papier-mâché faces, and what it means to blot yourself out for a time. Catching mirrored face as it talks with someone else, not in the room, not here, binding self to thought (you can’t forget it forever), open up tunnel drop under floor and light the way with store brand matches, cold breath, dank smell, run it over length of walls and study runes you put down, character (you can’t forget him forever), slept and kept in the underground service tunnel of a franchised supermarket in your hometown. Find plastic fragments, chiseled stone, and see bone, see skin, see all the Things You Want But Don’t Want To See. Magazine aisle, old Mad faces folded on last page/back cover to get a picture that wasn’t there before, solve the riddle, rearrange it till it makes more sense. To understand. To go down into the tunnels, the under, and to displace stale air, garbage stink, rotten tooth, spit it out, clean your head, and lie, and try to make a snowman in tunnel dust. To want to save the part of you that is still human, but trauma takes that from you.
Even now you can see yourself in the flattened-out cardboard of a decades-old carton. Can see the age progression that they speculated at in the torn-down posters. They looked out and around but never underneath. Never here. Your friend’s carton is older than yours, weathered, creased, speckled and warped by tears. Coming in and down, wracked, and sounding out “sarcophagus” with your friend, backlit CRT and Windows Ninetysomething, details clouded, and when his face is gone in memory, it gets superimposed with the carton face, creases and all, cardboard speckle. You vomit old milk into dust and go back to the surface.
And an old multiplayer game, obscure, 16-bit, too dark for your age but you both played it anyway, something that played with the form, and to win the game you had to play through with a friend, had to face every enemy together. And its unsettling approach to death. No Game Over screen but instead a portal to the aftergame, and having to go after your fallen friend to bring him back. You’d almost always do it, almost always succeed, but what happened if you didn’t? If you both got stuck in pixellated purgatory? Going after without another going after. Just going. Just gone.
Do you remember the way our shadows collected under the awning as the rain came out of pepto sky? And something like shadow puppetry as we waited for it to stop, boxes tucked under with us but getting wet at the edges? Or what about that night, with Twilight Zone sending gray light into our new place, TV on the ground, but the mattress was there too so it was okay? Or you wanting to christen the bed, the room, all rooms that were now ours, and how I breathed through the panic, yawned through it and said I was tired, maybe tomorrow? Do you remember how I suggested another color for the walls, and the way I stomached your disappointment because that was the color she’d gone with, the woman I was with before you, but I couldn’t tell you that just then? I’m sure you at least remember waking me up that night, telling me I’d been crying in my sleep, and was I okay, would I be okay? I remember being half awake, gathering the blankets under me, and waiting for the pounding to stop in my skull, acrid breath, and wondering if I was breathing underwater–did I ever tell you all that? I keep going back to that sulphur smell in our backyard, the one that wouldn’t wash away no matter how many times I dragged the hose over the lawn, and the way it seemed to have its own ecosystem, the trauma did, and I’d be out watering the lawn at 3 am; I’m sure you remember that? I wrote love letters without the sense of sight, and I hid them where I was sure you’d never find them, scrawled them out backwards so you’d have to hold them up to a mirror just to figure it all out, but I don’t think you ever found any? It’s that time I pulled up one of the floorboards, and I found a pit–withered, too large to be cherry, too small to be avocado, and you smiled a sleepy smile and said we’d turn it into a project before going back to sleep, do you remember that? And then how I spent a week in the attic, brought food and water for the journey and didn’t sleep for five days, and the way I spoke with you through the walls so it seemed like I could be the ghost of our house, and when you cried past the sleep, I tried to wake you with cooing songs? Or the way I floated down through the basement, edging past wires and pipes and nails to get at something like machinery-hum-quiet, and the more I focus on it, the more I realize you can’t see me, can’t really hear me, and I’m stuck here, without you? It’s seeing you come back home, dressed in black, finally putting my pictures away, bagging up my clothes, and wondering: Will you remember me?
I read a quote recently. It said that a book is a suicide postponed. The person who shared it hadn’t attributed the original author, and I didn’t bother googling it because I didn’t want to remember my brother that way. Because for him, it was the other way around. Because some neat little quote can’t contain all the permutations of mental illness. Because he’s not here anymore, but his half-completed manuscript still is.
I found it on a flash drive in his computer while we were cleaning out his stuff. I’m not a writer, but it didn’t take long to figure out his system. D2, D3, and so on for completed manuscripts. Tracked changes peppering dashes of red. This last one was a D1, and there were no changes. It just abruptly ended at page 150. He didn’t leave any notes, no explanation texts. What happened happened, and he went away. That’s it.
I couldn’t read those pages for months. Past putting him in the ground, past splitting up his belongings like a mis-packed school lunch on a field trip, because none of us wanted his things. We wanted him.
I kept the flash drive. Put it in a lockbox and forgot about it for a few months until one day I came to it fresh, cleaning out my stuff. Ever since his death, I needed my space to be empty and clean. Scrubbed and sterile.
I pull out an old guitar, one of the few things I made a rule to not purge, and I fill the space with sounds instead of things. Our childhood home was filled with mountain ranges of garbage, unwashed clothes, and rotting discards. Our dog would fish out these things, paw at them, and that would give us an excuse to throw stuff out, clean up a little until mom would yell at us to stop again.
So I play something that’s a little progressive. Hard to follow. Hard to play. It’s been a while, so the calluses aren’t there. I play till it hurts, and then I realize what I’m doing. I want to break this thing. I want to break everything that I still own.
I put the flash drive in my computer. It’s past three in the morning when my body starts reading. Whoever’s going over these words then relays them to me as I hover somewhere near the ceiling. And there’s seeing the way he looked in that box they’d put him in at the wake, then putting that away and having some of his story instead, sips of it, then gulps as the sun comes back up and I can’t sleep and this is the last thing he’s left, this is it, there’ll be no more of him beyond what I’m now reading.
I go out into a night that’s like pouring microwaved water onto yourself. I pull a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. I don’t smoke, but tonight I do, one after the other, until my fingers stink of chemicals and smoke and I feel I might leave what’s in my stomach on the roadway. There’s a wind coming in low, tunneling in past three flats and other vacancies. I go back in and read, come back out and smoke.
I look up story structure, plot, and dialogue. I try to understand what it is that I am going to do. Back when he was still here, people would mention how much we sounded alike, how it was hard to tell us apart on a phone call. So I read up about literary voice. I learn.
It doesn’t come easy. I can hear him tell me that it doesn’t go like that. That I’m getting it all wrong. I tell him I’ll smooth it all out in the rewrite. I can almost hear his laughter–the only giveaway that it was him, because our laughter couldn’t be more different. His like he’s laughing for the first time. Like this is a special thing that he can only share with you. My laughter always sounds forced. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I know where it’s coming from. You can never truly know the inner workings of another person’s mind.
When he was alive, he’d tell me about how you can always fix things in the rewrite. That the pages you have are better than the ones you don’t. Did he ever hear himself when he said that? Did he ever remember those words in a darkened room, where the only thing making sound was his breath, his lungs trying to keep him alive?
I get past another ten pages. Another chapter. I accumulate words behind me and climb the fire escape at night when my chest is heavy. I smoke these cigarettes that I don’t want. And when I’m too far into this adopted story to stop, I take it with me up to the fire escape. The screen’s glow lights up metal, a bit of brick. It makes them seem like they’re merged. Like they’re together somehow, and always have been. Always will be.
He used to work construction. Good money, decent contracts. A living. There was always another way to live, though. A golden, sloshing way to live. Sometimes a silvery shot, one then another way to live. A liquid friend till blackout came and got him through to another bleary morning. That way to live. His doctor, when he went to see him, called it alcohol use disorder. Or at least that’s what he put down on his chart in all caps, before he referred him to a couple organizations and groups that might be able to help. Charlie didn’t see that doctor anymore after that.
By degrees, it got to where after-work-before-bed drinks started getting earlier and earlier, blurry around the edges, and he’d put on a movie on Netflix, something he’d gotten into back in film school, when he was actively pursuing his dream. A wide-eyed kid, he’d say, shrug it off now, shrug off everything–working his way through college, moving and delivering pool tables, putting everything he had into this thing, making office hours and asking how he could improve as a filmmaker, all of it behind him now, flushed down the toilet with the booze from the last time he said he’d quit but just didn’t quite get there in the end.
The end. There’s something he hasn’t seen in a while. He used to draft scripts like it was his religion, taking communion in the form of late night Taco Bell and something with more caffeine than water to keep him going through marathon writing sessions, sometimes upwards of 40 to 50 pages at a go, slicing through entire third acts like it was nothing, and this wasn’t a late night cram, either. Not some procrastination thing. These scripts weren’t even assignments, just something he wanted to do on the side.
He’d write these drafts in a fever dream, no editing, just getting the words down on the page, sometimes writing for 12 or 13 hours at a stretch. When it was done, he’d get blackout drunk until all words, thoughts, and feelings escaped him. He drank till everything in and around him ceased entirely.
And that was it. At the start, that was the only time he’d drink. He told himself it made it okay to get it out in one big binge, that it was better than stringing along drunken moments until they became a drunken life, the way his dad did. Charlie wasn’t exactly living the unexamined life. He could see the parallels, the comparisons to be made. Could watch as those one-night-only binges became two- or three-night affairs, and this he justified by simply writing more, as if the output justified the input. He could sit, and he could breathe, and he could feel this for hours. This was his legacy. His family heirloom.
He remembered taking walks down by the river, catching the light-glint in his eyes, blinking past the migraine. He took the walks because he thought he needed to be outside, but taking them he realized that he needed to be outside of this.
So he’d walk down to the water, and he’d sit on the edge with his legs hanging over it, about a six foot drop and then nothing but retention wall and water. He thought of breathing, and what it felt like not to. What it would feel like to never breathe again.
Charlie could always just see what he had to do right before it became too late. Sometimes he acted accordingly. Sometimes he didn’t. He’d wake in the middle of the night and watch as the clouds rolled by his opened window, turn and vomit onto bed sheets where it’d then congeal, and he’d pass out and rediscover it in the morning. He stopped going to class, didn’t do his assignments. It’s not like he didn’t write. He wrote like mad. Just not what they wanted him to write. He shot films using scoured old stock he found in the film cage at his school, stuff that was no good but which he pocketed anyway. Didn’t realize at the time that he was staging reenactments of his childhood in front of the camera, but it turned out that way anyway.
The thing about radical honesty, or new sincerity, or whatever it is that he was going for, is that you’re going to inevitably over-extend yourself. You’re going to reach that hall closet of the mind that you haven’t opened in decades, and you’re going to have to lock yourself in it for hours at a time.
Charlie sobers up by the light of the morning, a sickly-sweet taste in his mouth, something that won’t wash out until he drinks again. He’s definitely in a motel. He checks the little mini fridge thing, but apparently he raided it the night before. There’s a breadcrumb trail of empty cans and polished-off bottles, maybe a handle left if he was really desperate, which he is.
Charlie watches the way the dust motes hang in the air like suspended planets in rented space. He feels the clothes on his body, the blankets under the clothes.
I feel like I’ve got everything I always wanted. It’s a strange feeling, a foreign one, of not wondering when the other shoe will drop, not even thinking about shoes, rather kicking them off to finally relax a little. It first started to hit when I withdrew my manuscript from every other place I’d submitted it to, when I let these places know that I’d just signed with another press. It was sending those withdrawal emails, and it was realizing that I wouldn’t have to send this novel out anymore. I’d done it. It was finally getting published.
I go back mentally to the places I was at when writing it, diving back, taking half my lunch break to cloister myself in an unclaimed cubicle at work and pop open my laptop, squeeze out a little more writing time before going back to administrative tedium again. It was finding gaps in the story, holes in the memory, and filling those holes with something, dirt if I had to, because having something to remember is better than nothing at all. It was taking walks till exhaustion and listening to the same hundred or so songs over and over until their rhythms and patterns were baked into the story, into me, and I could taste freedom from the pain if only I kept writing about it.
I can track mental states in the pictures from that time, in the drafts saved in sequential order, cross reference with journal entries if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, but really just trying to get a snapshot of where I was then and how I was able to sustain a mental deep-dive of myself for that long. Because it was one of the most useful things I’ve ever done in my life, but it also nearly destroyed me. And so I’d touch on those images in the book, looking back on the past and risking salt-pillar-transformation, writing and rewriting traumatic memories until dissociation became the norm and it was all almost normal. We return to the thing that hurt us because that can become all we know. And that’s the tricky thing, because that’s also exactly how we beat it. We face it, we plumb the depths, we walk into that great dark, and we don’t stop walking until we come out on the other side.
I came out on the other side with this book, and now it’s going to be published. There are professional artists, designers, and editors working to bring this to life. When that’s done, there will be machines that will print it, and digital versions optimized for people to read however they want. I have to say these things because the unreality is still there, shock in the best possible way, and to say it is to realize that it really is happening. After so much time, so much work, the thing that I dreamed about is finally a reality.
It’s seeing the spider-web fractals of light coming in, through his busted windshield, to wake him up for another day. Turning the key to check gas gauge but then shutting the car back off, hearing a brief interval of morning radio show before it all goes quiet again. He’s gone a distance of about 800 miles now, he realizes. Not all at once but piecemeal, day after day, parking somewhere farther than where he came from, putting it all together like a quilt he’d watch his grandma make way back when. He’s thinking of the nature of being homeless, and the myriad “Home is…” decorations that he’d find in the suburban homes of friends and girlfriends growing up, thinking then even when he had a house that he didn’t exactly find home there, but he didn’t see an alternative then, any sort of way out. He was just staying there till he was old enough to legally leave. He remembered looking up emancipated minor laws as he was studying for finals his freshman year, and the chaos that was his living situation: a house filled with mildew and garbage , with no utilities and barely any food, a mother monster who would berate him even as he shaped himself to be a model student and son. The old words and moments come back, but only just now. They’re hazy around the edges, indistinct. He’s remembering the lapses of good, back before the divorce, when his parents’ mental states were fragile but still intact. When they’d do things like shoot home movies on a clunky old camcorder and go down to a park or a pumpkin patch, depending on the season, an old Wolverine action figure in his hand, something from the dollar store, and they’d put off fighting for a bit, at least until the shot was over, and he learned to live in these moments of focused attention, these comings and goings of surface-level normalcy. He remembers more and more of these good times now, and he doesn’t know whether that’s a side effect of his current condition or just a side effect of getting older. He doesn’t really care either way.
Parabolic stories told in whispered corners of a broken-down house, where the moonlight creeps in like a suggestion and stays there, wandering, before dissipating just enough to let you sleep.
Ego fears and slipping between a version of yourself that you left behind and an uncertain future you find yourself barreling toward.
Approaching something like stillness, and training yourself to be okay with it, without trauma and learned internal violence.
Of entering conflicts only when needed, and even then with a distilled serenity, a weightlessness, and the calm that comes with being accustomed to terror.
Half-dreamt landscapes that won’t fill all the way in on waking but which leave impressions, visions of themselves, like an image burnt into a cathode ray tube, searching for the cells that make up this generational hurt, this wandering sorrow.
And it all seems so trivial now, the shouting matches, the screaming tears, doors slammed and feelings hurt, set against what we’re now fighting, all of us, collectively.
It’s in talking past the severed connections and getting at something like communication.
Not the way it was, but maybe the way it could’ve been.
Now it’s in sipping strong coffee in the morning, awake before anyone else in the house, and cherishing this newfound quiet as much as you don’t trust it.
As much as you fear it.
It’s being able to just sit, and breathe, and appreciate your cat as he sits in front of a window, unmoving, and the stillness of the morning world around you, the mourning whirl of grief coming in slow now, like the delayed pain of fingertip on stovetop, and wondering about the original order of things, if there ever really was such a thing.
And maybe it’s even making your own order, if you can, in the honey-drip stillness of a too-early morning, before the alarm hits, before the birds can really process things, awake in the undark, processing last night’s dream and the belief that it’ll fade followed by the reality of it fading.
Like a shadow yielding to light.
I saw the way we danced in the wobbly reflection of a public transit bus as it passed, and I laughed, and it was like laughing could expel both air and consequences, and the way my bones creak and ligaments strain and muscles ache, I feel like I’ll need a robot body if we ever get that far technologically in my lifetime, and you smile and call me old, and I know it’s a joke, and I know I’m 30 and you’re 25, but it stings just a bit because I’ve been realizing lately that all my pop culture references are dated now, and I go out of my way to eat healthy foods, and now I’m mentally reminding myself that when I get home, I need to open up the fridge, and feel the cool air for just a second, and check all my expiration dates just to be safe.