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.

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.