I’ve got fiction in here! It’s a piece about nostalgia and sexuality and lost love, and I’m really proud of it. Guest appearances by Angel Olsen, Q101, Gorillaz, and Chicago’s el. Huge thanks to Chris Talbot-Heindl for picking this up, and for fostering such an amazing community. 😊 Check out the full issue here!
AHH!! My story “San Andreas Heaven,” a piece on grief through the lens of video game glitching, just got accepted by Cleaver Magazine! This is a dream for me. I’ve been trying them for years, and this story is an offshoot of my WIP novel The Brother We Share. Actual tears of joy.
It took a revision to get there, but we got there. I don’t know what else to say, other than I’m so glad I didn’t give up:
The day after I graduated college, back in 2014, I started writing Here’s Waldo. Today, the day after moving into a new place with the love of my life, I started writing The Brother We Share. This will be autofiction, a novel that tracks my suicide attempt in 2016, only in this version of events, I didn’t survive. It’ll focus on my brothers and my friends who became brothers. It’ll be a story where my younger brother CJ found Here’s Waldo before I’d been able to finish it and decided to turn it into this book instead, a hybrid of that story and the intertwined lives of my friends, family, and I. I cannot express how thankful I am to be here and to have the life and the opportunities that I now have. Life is absolutely precious, and while this book will be hard to write, it’ll also be necessary for me. Thanks so much to all of you for supporting me on my journey, and an immeasurable thanks to the folks who kept me alive when I was barely hanging on. None of this would’ve been possible without you.
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 beginner’s mind, late at night, or something like that, the hours keep shifting around, but you’re listening to an old playlist and planning out scenes, lining up shots, storyboarding, then there’s fiddling with the camera, adjusting ISO, f-stop, white balance. Wanting things to be natural while meticulously planning every detail. You haven’t shot anything in a while, and it makes you antsy just to think about it. It was long enough for you to have to get reacquainted with the practice of filmmaking, the grind of it, the absolute exhilaration and mind-numbing boredom.
It’s always the poles with making movies, you decide–the highs and lows. You think back to one of your therapy appointments from years ago, when they thought your mind was governed by two poles, but the “mania” they pegged you for was something more approaching heavy rumination, trauma thought, turning over and over the past, drinking to sleep sometimes, being gripped by the spasm of physical remembrance, trying to stay busy to distract from the shit-thought buzzing around in your head, in those days, as it came, which was often.
So you start with a script, now, not green enough to be unaware of the ways that it will change, and that’s something in itself, isn’t it? Change. When you were green–the way that any rewrites or changes felt like a slow knife into your gut, and now rewrites feel like brushing your teeth or taking out the trash.
You get paralyzed by the page, sometimes, still. That’s still a thing, and the way your mind goes to all the dark, spider-webbed cracks and crevices, the barren wastes where you thought your fears and doubts disappeared but where actually they just went to sleep for a while. The thing about mindfulness, about growth, is that you go in with the false belief that all the bad stuff will just Go Away. That there will be a great Buddhic a-ha moment where it will All Make Sense and you will be permanently and irrevocably okay. You can’t believe now that you were ever that green to believe that.
What it is–what it really is–is a series of moments: a stumble-fall-rising, the getting up to fall down to get back up again, always getting back up, seeing past the aches and pains, the tired mornings, the shit pages and shit footage, getting a brilliant moment and taking it in your hands. Of losing it, and then finding another moment. Of being okay with failing. Of seeing it, finally, as an inexorable and integral part of the process.
There’s another side effect of getting older, and that’s understanding the perspective of your parents. You are now as old as they were when they had you, and even though you don’t want kids and will never have them, you can appreciate the supreme difficulty. You can watch in memory as your father would sketch and draw–impeccably detailed work, in the spaces between job and home responsibilities, and then how the drawings started to fade, replaced by cans and bottles of beer, until your father was in a single, sustained buzz for most of your childhood.
Your mother’s half-remembered dreams to one day act, laughing them away at first, but later trailing off at the ends of sentences, of her eyes growing hard over the years. Even now, you write for the actor. You craft for their craft, trying to never step on toes or overwrite dialogue. Even if you wanted kids, you couldn’t see yourself giving up on what you want to do for them, you couldn’t see yourself giving in and succumbing to the years.
It’s not that you’re now okay with the drinking and the yelling and the fighting, the divorce and all the rest, it’s that you understand it a little bit more. And these are all things that will go in your film, you suppose. You will color these moments with sustained shots and candid close-ups and clever mise-en-scène, if you can remember what that’s supposed to be, the stilted picking-apart that is serious study, breaking down each shot, each movement, all of it motivated, all of it meaning something. You’ll get final cut on your memories, or at least the renderings you make of them.
I used to try to track my dreams and force sleep paralysis. I’d do things like put on white noise through headphones and fasten halved ping pong balls over my eyes, to force sensory deprivation. When that did nothing, I’d keep myself awake for days at a time, blasting loud music and imbibing caffeine while making note of any aberrations in thought or mood.
I’d test my lung capacity and willpower by keeping my head underwater during baths, stopwatch ticking in my hand outside the tub. I’d go on fasts for days, taking in only water, not even tea, not even black coffee, dropping weight and going straight into starvation mode.
I’d bike for an entire day–twelve hours straight, then do the same thing but with walking. I’d spend whole days imagining life through the eyes of a city pigeon or a backyard squirrel. I would inflict self-pain in small doses (small at first), looking for the minimum effective dosage, journalling the process, always documenting, because if you’re documenting then it almost feels like you’re doing it all for a reason.
I’d spend entire nights outside, then days, at first trying to find out what the “homeless experience” was, but then of course discovering that there isn’t only one. Back at home, I’d do stuff like super glue my hand to the bathroom wall and see how long the adhesion would last. I’d put all my money save for five dollars in savings, then live off that five dollars for two weeks. I would sneak into a supermarket’s bathroom just before closing and see if I could go the whole night without being detected.
I’d rig an eye-opening device, like the one from that Kubrick horrorshow, and see how long I could go without blinking before my vision started to fade. I’d sit, and stare at a wall, and meditate for hours at a time, losing track of the passage of minutes, then hours, then days. I’d live in my closet for a week or so.
I had the idea that I was collecting these experiences for a book. It was fiction at first, but it became nonfiction eventually as time went on. Surprisingly, at least at first, the writing was undisciplined. There was no structure, no schedule, just word after word whenever they’d come. There was something about the truth, though, something lacking. You could spend an entire day looking at something and not really see it. For some of the experiences, I’d take them on for a month or more and have less than a paragraph to put down about them. Seeing is not reflecting. Feeling is not reporting.
I spend most of my days, now, eating when it feels appropriate, sleeping at night, and moving unrestricted during the day. I don’t write about this (I write about other things now), but I seem to get on okay. Sometimes, at night, images of experience will dance in front of my eyes as I try to sleep. I watch them pass as I breathe and breathe and breathe.
They told me, years later, that the guy had an entire galaxy in his mind. It was populated by nebulae and stars, planets and moons, some of them harboring life, others barren and wasted. He spent essentially all of his life cataloging his inner galaxy, and for all intents and purposes he was catatonic. His family took him for a vegetable. They’d pack him into the car for family trips and do things like sit him in front of mountain views, dip his feet in flowing streams, anything to get him back to the world, back to them, none of them realizing that he already had a world, or rather several trillion of them, and that every ounce of brainpower he had in him had to be devoted to exploring this galaxy, or else he’d be lost and insensate for the rest of his life. He’d tried to blind himself to the galaxy before, to come out and into the world, but he’d seen nothing but unending, featureless black. Heard nothing but the howling of an infinite wind. So he went back to his inner planets.
I guess I met him in 2005 or thereabouts, back when I was a grad student complete with bright eyes and bushy tail. They’d never gotten him beyond the occasional blink of his eyes, over there, at the center he’d been moved to, when his family had had enough of the family trips and the visits with experts and the hope that something would change. I’d take a lot of notes at first, observe vitals, notate scans, but eventually I just started coming to visit.
A lot of the technology was still nascent, and I remember picturing to myself, there at the foot of his bed, what this room might’ve looked like under the same circumstances 10, 20, 50 years before. What help could be given him, if it’d even be given. The doctors now did these scans mostly to placate the family, to assuage the inevitable guilt they’d accumulated after placing him in a home and coming first to visit daily, then weekly, then monthly, then only on holidays. I took to coming in on my days off from class, reading to him first from Kafka, then Wallace, then Murakami.
At that geologic scale of minute fluctuations of the body and micromovements, you begin to assemble in your mind a mental timelapse of the hours you’ve spent with the person, translating every twitch into something meaningful, prophetic even.
Sometimes I’d come in with a cheap bottle of gut rot and tell him about my day, pretend that he was drinking with me and commiserating, all the while popping mints after a finished bottle and accepting coffee when the nurses would offer it, not really needing it but not wanting them to smell the alcohol on me, to realize just how pathetic I was to be drinking midday and not facing any of my problems.
I’d been in and out of school, never settling on one thing in particular. Married and divorced before age 30. Aimlessly wandering in general, while doing my best to convince myself that the answer was right there, around the corner, or maybe after the next drink.
I knew this guy couldn’t really hear me, that even if he could it’s not like he could relate, but I kept coming anyway. I’d get a good feel for the nurses and orderlies as they’d come and go over the years, which ones actually gave a shit and which would be a problem–the ones who’d put him at risk of bedsores or worse. It sounds stupid, maybe, but he became like a little brother to me. I didn’t have any siblings of my own and had cut off all contact with my parents, so I guess he was really the only family I had.
He retreated from the world, physically left it, by degrees, intentionally, so that he could live in the world of his mind. I mean that in the literal sense. He didn’t wither so much as disappear gradually, nearly imperceptibly, to the point where I can hardly describe it even now, all these years later. But he did, he left of his own accord, bit by bit, until one day I came in and he was gone. He’d faded to the world inside his mind, physically departed, unalterably escaped, and he’d left me a note. Not a physical one, mind you. A mental note. He told me to find him. He didn’t leave coordinates; he left activities. He said I could find him in a night walk just past the edge of town. He’d be in the tire track of a motorcycle ride under open blue sky. Clear and vivid in the otherwise fading remnants of a dream broken by daybreak.
Casting a line off the edge of a barge micronation somewhere off the Adriatic, plum sky undulating like some childhood experiment with oil and water, and all of a sudden that seems so long ago, that 1990s childhood spent tinkering with PC parts, putting together your first computer, and now here you are thirty years later, in unclaimed waters, undisclosed location, starting some religion, maybe a country, you haven’t gotten that far, it isn’t clear yet, but it’ll be something different, whatever it is, so you return to these old practices and prepare the precepts for the initiates who will be here next day, their boat is coming in then and will promptly be destroyed upon their arrival, because there will be no need for transportation when everything they could possibly need is right here on this constructed island, when all of their needs can be met by the Almighty Godhead and all that he provides, on this barge that’s been assembled from the repurposed garbage floating aimlessly through the ocean, you’ve gone to great expense to have it collected, and you’ve studied all the major religions to make sure that you’re not treading over tired territory, that you haven’t accidentally plagiarized Zarathustra or anything, and you haven’t, not that you can tell, so you will now establish this colony in the ocean, this empire everlasting with yourself as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent leader who will rule for now and all of time, for you have teachings prepared on the nature of time, you’ve presented them to the internet and have been brutally ridiculed, but that’s the measure of a great idea, isn’t it, the ridicule of small-minded people, and that’s what convinced you that you were doing the right thing, convincing others to worship you as a god on a barge of garbage floating out in the ocean, this is what you’ve been working toward all your life, the unadulterated adulation of others, the drowning in their praise, happiness everlasting, it is all yours to take as you prepare your vestments you’ve created, a robe also made of reconstructed refuse, it still stinks even, but that is the last stink of the world to be washed clean from you, you’ve prepared the sermon, you can visualize the rite even now, with you and the others dipping into the ocean to rid yourselves of the scent of the world, to replace it with something unsmelled and unknown heretofore, it will be a glorious birth of a new state, a new state of mind and of being, you’re sure of it, or else you wouldn’t have sunk all your savings into this construction, wouldn’t have sold all of your things and left everyone you’ve ever loved behind, so you need to make something of that sacrifice, now, and here, you’re sure it will be worth it, so you look once more over that plum, undulating sky, that dark mass that will be either your salvation or damnation, and you sit on this barge, and you wait for the coming day, and you hope beyond hope that they will come.
Cigarette smoke filling in from out of frame, an ’80s filmic haze accentuated by a smoke break on a movie set, hair as big as her dreams as she reads her lines to her warped reflection in a pink-tiled wall, knowing that the plan is for her singing parts to be dubbed over in post but still hoping that the director will change his mind when he hears her sing, I mean really sing, not like she sang in the audition room, where her nerves messed with her pitch and she was too breathy but where she otherwise nailed the look, sound, and movement of the character. Up till now, they’d filmed a few of the final numbers, songs where her character was singing with much of the rest of the cast, where her vocals weren’t an issue anyway. But soon, just after this smoke break in fact, she was set to belt out her first solo. And the director told her to go for it when she asked if she could really sing it in the take. He didn’t exactly finish by saying that they’d just fix it in post, but the implication was there, that was certain.
The production has that New Wave feel that’s just now starting to come up, and she can almost see future shadowcasts playing her in sticky-floored auditoriums at midnight showings. Stranger things have happened, anyway. Everyone told her she’d fall flat after dropping her first agent, but that turned out to be just the push she needed to really put herself out there. Now she’s freezing her ass off in an on-set location with no heating in the middle of winter with next to nothing in the bank, but at least she’s living out her dream, right here, with tinny audio playback to get the timing right, wearing makeup and costumes she doesn’t think she’ll be able to afford even after she makes it big, which, let’s face it, if it isn’t this film that makes her a star then it’s just never going to happen, is it, and she has to push this thought away as she sings contralto in a corner, flipping script pages and letting the cherry of her cigarette burn perilously close to her fingers, holding the hand up, out, and canted on an angle like she saw in all those glamorous old pictures in the movie magazines as a little girl.
Her nerves are such that she has to periodically wipe her hands on something to keep them from soaking the script she’s holding, trying to remember not to wipe them on this expensive costume but more often than not forgetting, and so she’ll interrupt her own tiny-voice singing to swear at herself for ruining this totally bitching costume, sweating off her makeup and trying to convince herself that it’s fine, she’ll do a Nina Hagen thing, when in reality she knows she’s a mess, her nerves are shot, and it’s to the point where she needs a fifth of vodka every night just to get to sleep for the next day’s shoot.
She takes polaroids of her life on set and attaches them to postcards, sends them back to Kansas so Mother and Father can see just how big she’s made it, so there will be no doubt in their minds that their daughter has Made It and is Going Places. She’ll take these polaroids before going to the next party, her castmates treating every wrapped day like it’s a wrapped shoot, and she’ll take this powder she’s given at these parties, inhale this powder that she can only have at these parties because she couldn’t possibly afford to keep up a habit like that on her own, and she’ll catch her face in the mirror sometimes after one of these parties, try to avoid seeing it but sometimes do it anyway. She doesn’t like seeing her face most nights.
But here she is, turning the page, then putting the script down, getting the blocking right, seeing her movement in the frame before it happens, knowing every facial expression, every vocal flutter, all of it perfect, just as it’s scripted, a performance that’s apart from this long string of nights, that will transcend all of that, she can feel it, and her head is spinning from something, don’t know what but it is, and the mood in the room is shifting, the final preparations are being made, and she’s about to be summoned, will hit her mark and sing this song like she’s never sung it before, to the point where the director will have no choice but to keep her vocals in the film, she will so totally embody the performance that to segment it at all would ruin the whole thing.
She turns, and she walks, and she moves to a staccato beat in her head to where she needs to be, a true moving picture.