Contact

We’re walking down the middle of a residential street, he and I, talking about some film adaptation of a book we both loved, the movie not so much, and it’s that pepto sky of a Chicagoland dusk. The competing streetlights on either side of us are moving our shadows as we cross them, this way and that, so our shadows keep touching even though we’re not.

We’ve been friends long enough where the discussion of plot can segue into analysis of our respective childhoods, our parents, where we came from and where we think we might be going. We’re both in college still, commuting to the city on weekdays, taking the el together and drifting away on our separate stops before meeting back on the train again after class.

We’ve got the routine down. I get on first, and there’s a few stops before I see him. I watch the circulatory system of the el as it breathes in new passengers and exhales others, the heartburn of the body around it: tunnel flashing in fits and starts from steel on steel. I think of contact. Of contact with him. I blink and it’s gone. I think of the midnight screenings, the Rocky Horror dress-ups on Saturday nights (whatever happened to them?), the couch screenings of cult classics like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine. After those films are over, we don’t bring the plot analysis into self analysis, even though I want to, even though I want to tell my best friend that I think I might be bi.

Then it’s his stop, and he’s asking how my day was, and I’m saying something, agreeing that I’m tired. There’s the intrusive thought that if I don’t tell him now, I’ll never work up the courage again. There’s watching Division come and go, then crossing over and into the light as the train takes us higher. There’s not knowing what to say, looking down instead, at the dirty train floor, where our sloughed-off backpacks are now mingling, touching, converging. He asks if I’ve had a long day and I say yeah.

After that, it’s people watching and listening to one half of phone conversations. Anticipating what the other person might be saying. He pulls out his notebook next to me and starts penning in possible dialogue, hands the pen over for me to continue. I make him laugh with a couple of my lines, and it’s that stifled, don’t-let-them-know-I’m-laughing thing. An intrusive thought, but just a word this time. Cute.

I hand the pen back to him, nod over to a different phone-talker. Far enough away where we can’t hear what she’s saying. What could it be? Our knees graze, my right to his left, every time the train jostles on the tracks, which is often, and I can’t believe I’m getting excited about knees.

He writes the phone-talker’s dialogue, something about a jilted lover, I don’t really take the time to read it like I should, to look for the subtext he’s hidden, because there’s always something else beneath the line with him. Most of the time I’m trying to figure out what he was trying to say without saying. He always leads the verbal dance.

There’s the sway of light as the train takes turns above the city, dust motes hanging in the air between us, and beyond that a transit map that hasn’t been snatched and put up on a dorm room wall just yet. A pre-recorded voice is announcing our stop next, reminding that doors open on the left at said stop. He hands me the pen and asks me what happens next. He’s still got the notebook on his knees, and I lean in close so I can write on it where it is. I think of the possible subtext. All the ways to hint at what’s on this person’s mind, what they want to say but can’t.

But you know what? Sometimes, fuck subtext. Sometimes you just need to come out and say something. I put my pen to his page as the train makes its slow approach to our stop. I scribble something just for him.

The Ghost of Our House

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?

The Ones You Don’t

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.

The Place in Which She Lives

The artist is forming a panorama of the place in which she lives. She is stitching together photographs with black thread and filling in the places she cannot access with watercolor, gouache, and oil representations. She pounds pavement all day and most of the night, looking for places she has not yet captured. The people she catalogs as well as the places, and she has no qualms about duplication, so you’ll see the same jogger first here, then there, as if cloned, or else stretched in time along the same road, a stop motion flip book that can’t be flipped but can only be looked at in sequence.

Her husband, the writer, before he died, had encouraged the project. He’d sat and gone over grant opportunities with her, a mess of takeout trash spread out on the floor in front of them like a made-to-order constellation. He helped write the grant with her, and when she got it, he raised a toast of water to her health and good fortune.

She came and showed him drafts all throughout dialysis, through the pained process of not-recovery, and the moments collected in the corners of all the rooms they inhabited, the space like something they hadn’t fully reckoned with until he was dying, until they knew that this place would soon only be hers. He told her to go out, to take pictures, to paint in the gaps that the pictures couldn’t capture, that she’d only get one chance to live out her dream, but what he meant was Don’t Remember Me Like This. He prepared for himself a deep dark cave where he could spend the rest of the time he had been allotted.

She prepared dark teas in the mornings without him. Dark teas and cold breads and birdsong emptied of music–only the untranslated calls for food and mate. The project was becoming a monster.

The place in which she lives includes her neighborhood, her city, and every house and apartment in it, so she spends her days in constant work, always walking, staying in one place just long enough to document it before moving on. She gets home cold, covered in tiny dead bugs, and dehydrated. She’ll put on another of her teas and catalog what she saw that day, try not to see the nights she’d come back and show him what she’d done.

She’s flattened out every dwelling, every place and person into a photographic melange, subtracting a dimension but adding something that never was there and could only be there now because of her. Buildings become exploded diagrams laid out in film and paint, till every square inch is covered in exquisite detail, without concern for scale. Street art is given equal billing to the buildings it’s found on, and every chewed-up and stuck-on piece of gum is captured. Building tops stretch sky that’s been patched together, because everything that means something to you is made up of still smaller things that mean just as much.

She comes back home every night in the quicksand of persistent exhaustion, having spent her entire day out there, returning to a bed that’s been halved, and now she’s remembering to breathe, to properly eat, to keep hydrated, because if his voice is no longer there to remind her, then her voice will have to suffice.

She’ll come back and she’ll spread butter on a piece of bread, and let her breath hitch in her chest, and look out at the far wall of her home, this place in which she lives, where the entire spread of the project is there, so far, even after all this time still a work in progress. The buildings and streets and trees meticulously studied and cataloged, and the people, when they show up, allowed to just be within this space. And there in one of them, only the one, is her husband. He’s sitting on a simple chair on their patio, looking out and down the side of a road that to him will never look like what it right now does to her.

Rented Space

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.

Finally a Reality

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.

Comings and Goings

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.

Morning World, Mourning Whirl

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.

Expiration Dates

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.

 

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Shapes and Patterns

It’s in the way you can’t quite see your reflection now, coming away, and the great undoing that time can be. It’s in the way we smiled past punched-out teeth in the backyard boxing ring we made, cleared the ground of obstacles and debris and hit each other on the grass, midday sun gassing us a little earlier than we might expect, and thinking then and now that whether we liked it or not, fighting was in our nature. It was in the lights coming on to signal the end of the competition, and going back inside our apartments with busted lips and swollen eyes, going back to some GBA or N64 game, finishing up homework and explaining away the injuries to our parents with something about recess football. It was in dripping bloody noses into mashed potatoes, green beans, tasting blood past meatloaf, and learning how to launder out stains from clothing. It was tossing out the gloves when we got bored of that, and finding a different backyard to fight in when Zuhaib’s dad got laid off and was home all day and might see us. It was sleeping with my head sandwiched between two pillows to drown out the sound of my parents fighting. It was getting up at 5:30 to be able to hear something approaching silence. It was staying out in the cold past curfew and plunging my hands in the snow so I might feel something, regardless of what that something might be. It was sneaking back in through the broken patio door, hands as iceblocks, and running them under hot water until the tears streamed down my face and mingled with the water to bring me my healing. It was of course the way that I would punch myself in the stomach, to toughen up when backyard fight club was set to start up again, and the way that I couldn’t seem to shake myself of the habit, or any other habit really. It was getting up even earlier to watch the cartoons I used to watch when I was really little, before the punched-out teeth and frostbit hands, the ones where the good guys always won no matter what.

And those action figures. The ones with the bendy arms and legs and the tacky paint jobs, and how when I broke my arm in a fight I tried to rearrange the arm into one of those impossible configurations, if only for a moment.

How I imagined a giant, invisible hand holding me, lifting me into the air. Rearranging my limbs and actions into their own pre-ordained shapes and patterns.

 

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