How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

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My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

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By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

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So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

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In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

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We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

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Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

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She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

I Haven’t Touched Anything Yet

As I write this, it’s March 14.  The world has just entered the scary phase of the COVID-19 crisis.  Over 125,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with it.  Over 4,000 worldwide have died from it.  In the United States, nearly 40 people have died, and most people expect many more.  Institutions are closing down.  On grocery shelves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are virtually unobtainable.  It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes.

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My 89-year-old mother has begun to isolate herself.  She smoked for 40 years and has lung disease, so she’s in an even higher risk category than other 89-year-olds.  Not only that, but she lives in Diamond Bar, where 80% of the population is Chinese, many of them Chinese nationals who travel back and forth from China.

Mom rarely goes out.  She shops for groceries only at 7 am, when the aisles are empty.  She uses hand sanitizer when she touches anything–the shopping cart, cans of food, the change she gets back, anything.  She doesn’t shake hands with anybody.  She doesn’t look at anybody.  She just returns to her house and shuts herself in.  She has a gate in her front yard that she keeps locked.  Nobody can even knock on her door.  Safely in her big old house, she has most everything she needs–television, a kitchen, a home office, everything.  She and her little Shih Tzu dog Phoebe are a population of two.

Two days ago, however, Mom realized that she needed to go to the pharmacy soon for refills.  She didn’t want to do it herself, though, so she called me.

“Can you pick up my meds?” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“And shop for my groceries?”

“Okay.”

I am so healthy and exercise so much that I’m a pretty low risk.

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“I’ll call you with a list, and then you can bring it to me without having contact with me,” Mom said.  “Call me from your cell phone when you’re outside and I’ll open the garage door.  You leave the grocery bags in the garage and go.  When you’re gone, I’ll pick it up and sanitize the bag and all the things in it.”

Everybody has to be careful in these Kafkaesque days. We are afraid of shadows because shadows are attacking us.

I’ve been visiting Las Vegas this past week.  I’ve been staying with friends, an eightysomething mother and a fiftysomething daughter, who aren’t paranoid about things.  They have a huge house with lots of rooms.  They do take precautions, but they don’t get crazy about it. I offered to cancel my stay with them, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re fine,” they said.

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I camped out in a lovely bedroom they made up for me.  I spent the week working here on my computer, but had only one all-important in-person meeting.  When I walked into his house, we didn’t shake hands.  We talked from a distance of six feet. We met for three hours, excitedly talking about our exciting ideas for business, and then I left without shaking his hand.  Once back in my car, I slathered my hands with sanitizer.

The next day, I was driving to the park to take a walk.  As I cruised along Pecos Avenue, I thought, “As long as I don’t touch anything, I’m okay.”  Cars were all around me, and people inside, but I wasn’t touching them.  I was happy.

I arrived at lovely Sunset Park and started exercising.  I walked around the lake, past geese, ducks, and even people, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.” People walked past me, but not within six feet of me. Our eyes met, but we didn’t touch. Then I walked away from the lake and into the desert trails, talking to a friend in Seattle on my phone through earbuds while passing desert shrubbery, jackrabbits, and the occasional human organism, and I thought, “I haven’t touched anything yet.”

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I didn’t touch anything for a full hour and eight minutes! Then I got into my car and didn’t touch anything that other people had touched, just the door handle and the steering wheel, and drove back to my friends’ house.  I walked inside and had dinner with my friends.  They suggested I go to a Vegas show, take advantage of discount tickets and low crowds, and I thought, “Nawwww.”

At dinner, they talked about one of their friends.  He is a divorced father.  He had a business trip planned for this week, but the event got cancelled.  He decided to use the airline tickets, anyway, to visit his daughter.  He hopped onto the plane and traveled all the way across the country.  When he arrived, his ex-wife said no, you can’t see your daughter.

“You’re a disease risk to her,” she said.  “You’ve just been on a plane!”

It’s been a bitter divorce.

After dinner, I got onto my computer, which nobody else had touched, and started working, because I always need to work.  Every so often, I got onto Facebook and socialized with people, saying hello, how are you, isn’t this weird, without touching them or being around them.

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Later today, I will get into my car and drive the five hours back to Los Angeles without touching anything that anybody else had touched. And if by chance I do, I have lots of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.  I will listen to Beck and Tito Puente and Sam Smith on my Bluetooth speaker and speed back home.  But there’s one nightmare scenario that I’ve thought about.  God forbid this tragedy comes to pass.  Please God, oh please, I beseech you, don’t make it so that I have to go into a public bathroom.

Everyone Dies

[This is chapter 9 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was driving on the interstate at 75, his mountain bike strapped to the trunk, having emptied a bottle of wine and another one open on the passenger seat.

“It’s the Russians again,” John was saying on the phone.  “You got five days and then we’re on.”

“All ri’,” Evan said, hitting SPEAKER and holding the phone between his hands above the steering wheel.  There was a wall between Evan and his body, and a ringing in his ears that reeked of sulphur.

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“But it’s a different deal,” John said.  “We aren’t in it to win this time.”

“Whaddyu mean?”

Evan had been drinking in his apartment when he suddenly wondered how fast his car could go.  He wanted a number.  It was a leech that attached itself to his brain.  At the steering wheel, he was still wondering, squinting his eyes at the speedometer.  Suddenly a car cut in front of him and he flinched and the phone clattered off the steering wheel and onto the car floor.

“I mean, this time we lose 75% of the time,” John said.  “Have you been drinking?”

“What, so I can’t drink anymore?”

Evan, still cruising at 75, one car riding his ass, was reaching down and feeling for his phone, swerving over the line, then glancing up and straightening up, then swerving again, but whatever, life is for living.

“I give you the signal,” John said, “and you fold.  You’re going to do a lot of folding.  And a lot of losing.”

Evan found the phone and lifted it up to his mouth.

“Why?”

John gave him his typical silence, and instead of trembling, the way Evan usually did, he had a mouth full of shit that he was waiting to spit out.

“Why do you need to know?” John finally said.

“Cuz I fuckin’ wanna know, what kinda question is that?”

“See, I wouldn’t normally tell a guy why.”

“Okay, fuck it, don’ tell me.”

Evan knew he’d overstepped some boundary, but fuck it.  Evan was amazed how much courage he now had against his uncle, although perhaps it wasn’t courage, perhaps it was an unbridled horse called rage, or perhaps it was just the wine talking.  There was a long silence, but finally, John took a deep breath and lowered his voice.

“Okay, I tell you this and you’re in on something,” John said.  “These dudes we’re playing next aren’t whales to take down.  The Russians have to get their money out of their own country.  They don’t trust their own banks, because they’re not really banks, they’re just people who take your money.  Plus, it’s not the Russians’ money to begin with, at least not legally.  So they come here with all their fucking cash and they lose it at our private

game.  If anybody gets wind of it, like really looks into it, we’ve got a couple of witnesses who are in on the game and it checks out.  So then they come to the casino and I’ve got another Evan to help win it back for them.  Minus a commission, of course.  It’s a fucking win win.  Except for the Russian people, but who gives a shit about them?”

“Laundering money,” Evan said.

“Oh, you own a dictionary.”

“The thing that Trump does.”

“Don’t slander my man, I’m warning you.”

“Got it.”

“So are you happy now?” John said.  “Now you know everything.”

“Ecstatic.”

Evan hung up and tossed the phone against the door panel.  That’s how it was now.  Everything was difficult.  The world sped by at 85.  His head seemed separated from his body, like Ichabod Crane’s headless horseman.  His mouth was emanating things that his brain couldn’t quite grasp.  He hoped John didn’t notice, but of course, John noticed everything.  He grabbed the bottle and took a swig.  His eyes felt puffy and tired.  He felt woozy.

Maybe I need eye surgery, he thought.

That was the last thought Evan had before he passed out, and soon after that, hit the center divider, ricocheted, bounced into a second car, and rolled three times.

Φ

Kara had called Evan ten or twenty times over the last couple days, no dice, straight to voicemail.  She hung up the phone once again.  She had been over to his apartment and knocked, but no answer.  He had been getting distant, but this was ridiculous.  It hit her deep.  She looked at herself in the mirror.  This was the girl that Evan didn’t want.  She slathered on the makeup as if it were a mask.  She drew on the lipstick with a hand that drew perfectly, but deep down, wanted to create just a red slash.  She imagined taking a razor to her cheek.  She imagined blood.  She didn’t know what that was about, never had, but it was never a good sign.

Kara slumped down on the sofa in her silk offwhite blouse, tight black skirt, and fuck-me pumps.  Still was hotter than August in Manhattan, but still and all, she felt ugly.  She had called Evan, but he wasn’t answering his phone and she knew she was heading for a dive.  “Downton Abbey” was playing on her widescreen, a show that always depressed her even more, pretty people in a simpler time, when Kara herself was just an ugly girl living in a lonely world, don’t stop, don’t ever stop.  Kara had tried calling Evan a dozen times or more, which made her feel like a fucking toddler.  Kara had been dealing with dives since adolescence, when they had first hit her bigtime, and she was experiencing a kind of déjà vu familiarity, thinking of Billy Meister, the first boy who messed with her self-esteem big-time.  Looking back, it must have been the narcissistic mother.  Or an asshole father.  Or maybe just bad chemicals inherited from her grandfather, who was sent to an asylum at age 17.

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Kara’s older cousin told her that in 1920, her great-great uncle Frank Elmer had committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun.  Four months later, his twin brother Orland Alexander had killed himself by hanging, despondent over his twin’s death.  Kara felt a bond there.

On a whim, Kara dialed her sister, closing her eyes while it rang.

“You can’t call me,” Kendra said, no hello.

“Kendy, listen….”

“You forfeited that right when you took what was mine.”

“Sis, I’m so sorry, I—”

“He was mine.”

“You took what was mine before that.”

“This can go back and back to Adam and Eve,” Kendra said, “so make it quick.  What the fuck do you want?”

“I miss you.”

“Apparently, your boyfriend does, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

“I saw him the other day.”

Kara sat up on the sofa a little straighter.

“You what?”

“He came into the office.  Wanted to talk about his new problem with his uncle.  You know his uncle?”

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“Yeah.”

“Yeah, so he told me all about it.”

“It is kind of a problem.”

“Yeah, the kind of problem that makes you want to sleep with your ex-girlfriend.”

It took Kara’s breath away, her eyes widening.  No matter that it wasn’t true.

Φ

Evan lay in a rotten Vegas hospital with a semicoherent elderly roommate thankfully drugged up beyond coherence, but a British nurse with an erect accent who was much too coherent.

“…Because I came here ten years ago, but I still miss my country terribly….” she was saying as she tidied up the room.

Some lovely painkiller was pumping into Evan’s veins to keep his mind off the broken leg, broken rib, and black eye, and one ragged, underfed coyote was running kind of sideways through his brain.  It was a complex coyote, even pointillist.  It ran like this:

Everyone has to die sometime.  Most people die for nothing, in convalescent homes or in traffic accidents or at dinner eating shrimp or peanuts.  They die of nothing and their life ends up signifying nothing.  They work at nothing jobs manufacturing nothing products for other nobodies.  Insurance, software, government.  They’re ball bearings in a machine that does nothing.

At most, they’re proud to be parents, that’s it.  They look deep into their children’s eyes, and in a cracking voice and with wet eyes, they say, “You are the best thing I’ve ever done.”  What bullshit.

But Evan had the chance to die for something.  The game was in four days.  It didn’t matter if he was healed.  He’d be there.

“…I was up in Leicester Square….”

In his morphine haze, it was like a dream, but it had been that way before the tumble.  There had been times in his life when nothing meant anything.  Climbing stairs was just climbing stairs.  Smiling at the woman in the next car was just smiling at the woman in the next car.  But this was not one of those times.  Now, focusing on the television was the effort of the mighty Achilles.  Smiling at a chatty British nurse was the mighty Achilles about to wield his fucking sword.  That weapon was brandished high.  There were classical brushstrokes on his face and body.  There was a gilt frame around the things that he had planned, and plaques beneath each.  He blinked.  He blinked again.  The morphine wasn’t enough to keep him down.  Everything was a pulse, his sanctified skin pounding with blood.

“…that the old English way of fixing Christmas pudding is best,” the nurse was saying now.  “In this day and age, it’s important to remember that there’s this lovely thing called tradition.  When you’re fixing your pudding, you have to stir it from east to west.  People ask me, they say, Why east to west?  That’s very important, east to west, because that is, of course, the direction that the wise men traveled to bring all their lovely gifts, their frankincense and myrhh, to the baby Jesus….”

I will meet him very soon, Evan thought.

Φ

The day of the game, Evan walked out of the hospital through the back door.  He threw a couple bottles of painkillers into his bag.  They’d taken away his driver’s license because of the open container, but he didn’t need a license to drive, he just needed it if he got caught.  He drove through the streets of Vegas wobbly, because the double-yellow line kept shifting like an article on fucking dailybeast.com.  When he finally got to Pancho Villa’s warehouse, he picked up the car and drove to the game with the Russians in his Mazerati.

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The doctors said that if Evan hadn’t been so drunk, he wouldn’t have survived.  A rib and a leg were broken, but he had ripped off the braces because that wouldn’t do in a real game.  He didn’t need any major questions.  He also didn’t need a slur in his voice, so he was letting the drugs wear off.  He’d explain away the black eye somehow.  As he drove to the game, he began hurting in a major way, in the way that people who are not used to pain realize that pain is a real thing and not just an excuse not to live.  He tried to suppress the pain, but it kept coming to the surface like a dead body.  He needed to weight it down.  If he didn’t, John would hear it in his voice and send him home because he couldn’t pull off the sleights.  He needed to pull off the sleights.  He needed clear elocution and a relaxed face, but without drugs.

Parking the car, Evan parked it against the grain, blocking 2 ½ parking spaces.  He was thinking it was good luck.  Everything was boiling down to premonitions and luck now, so he followed his instinct and parked the car east to west, just to snatch the luck of the baby Jesus.  That fucking coyote was running sideways through his brain again: Everybody dies, the coyote was saying, a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.  This is your moment to shine.

Evan opened the car door and faced the task before him, which was simply to pull himself out of the driver’s side.  He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth against the pain, and pulled his sore body up against everything that was working against him.  There were muscles all over his body that were spasming, but he held steady.  It was an incredible effort just to stand upright, and a separate Herculean effort to focus.

Finally, Evan just stood there and looked at the house.  He had it all planned out.  Swann’s pistol was in the trunk.  Evan would go into the game and begin playing his part, splitting his two selves.  He would keep an eye on Pancho, because that was his major impediment to pulling this off, plus the Russian bodyguards, and they were an even bigger wild card.  It was all about a moment, just like a magic trick.  You look for the moment when everybody was relaxed.  You made an excuse to go to your car.  A special bottle of Champagne, say.  An antique deck of cards.  He would come back shooting.  He doubted he would get out of it alive, but if he did, he would hobble back to the Maserati and hit I-15.  At the Summerlin turnoff, he would dump the Maserati and jump into a rental compact that was parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  He would transfer four suitcases that he had packed, two of which contained pounds and pounds of cash, in fact, nearly $240,000.  Then he would head east until he got to Arkansas and lay low.  Maybe Kara would be next to him, maybe not.

The drugs were wearing off.  The pain was coming back.

Φ

Kara was standing at the window watching Evan.  She felt like running out to him, but she didn’t want any more pain.  It was like touching a hot frying pan.

There were tears in her eyes.  She couldn’t figure out why he had a black eye.  Plus, he was standing kind of funny.  She knew he loved him because just seeing the way that he was standing hurt her.  She also couldn’t figure out why he was just staring at the house.  Something seemed terribly wrong, but she couldn’t figure out why.  So many things swirled around in her head, her sister, them fucking, Evan not talking to her, who he belonged to, DNA, who she belonged to, twins, everything.  They were swirling like blood down a shower drain.  She felt that her heart was collapsing, that she had never felt pain like this before.  She wished there was a drug that could fix it.  She wished she was anaesthetized.  She wished that she could sleep.

Mentone party 1979b distressed 1a

Kara placed her hand against the window.

That was the moment that Evan collapsed onto the cobblestone driveway.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

Dying Slowly in the City of Bad Thoughts

[This is chapter 8 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 7, see here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/hurtling-through-the-air-and-hitting-things-on-the-way-down/]

There were a few things Evan had to do before he died.  He had an aching in his heart for one more cupful of Rocky Road ice cream.  He hurt for one last glimpse of the colors of the Bellagio.  He would miss music worst of all.  He sat in the middle of his living room and listened to Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” five times and imagined that he knew Cat Anderson, the only one who could hit that high, high note.  It was the most incredible note he had ever heard.

And there was the girl.  He didn’t know her name.  The girl might not even remember him.  She probably wouldn’t even want to talk to him.

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She worked at an entertainment agency on West Sahara Avenue that booked Hawaiian entertainment, which was all the rage that month.  She was slender and dark haired but definitely not Hawaiian.  She wore the type of clothes that flattered her but didn’t make her look cheap, which was a tricky line to walk.  He’d first seen her in the darkness of a club with Bruno Mars blasting.  He hated Bruno Mars and all he stood for.  She had been walking through blue and purple flashing lights to shit music.  That was the vision, flashing lights and shit music.  The bouncer had told Evan a little about her.

“She ain’t a cunt,” the bouncer said, which to him was a supreme compliment, that’s just the way he was.

Nightclub 1a

It was a couple months before he’d met Kendra and he thought he should be cruising a little.  There was something in her eyes, it was hard to put his finger on, Evan seeing her only from a distance, but it was just in the way she talked over the house music to a friend, like, Don’t hurt me, not like anyone was about to hurt her, just that in every move she made, talking to this girl or ordering a drink or just taking in the dancing bodies, whether she was happy or having fun or whatever, there was always a little touch of Don’t hurt me. 

Five years ago, a girl had told him that he liked wounded birds.

“That’s not true,” he said.

“E, trust me, just look at the girls you choose.”

Φ

The agency was a small office in an industrial mall.  Evan walked in the door, but nobody was there.  It was just shelves full of DVDs and posters on the wall of hula dancers and luaus and big, fat Izzy.  Evan poked his head into an office door and there she was at a desk, dressed all professional, turning her head, her mouth and smile saying May I help you, but her eyes saying Don’t hurt me.

“Uh…I was thinking…” Evan started, then stopped.

She waited for him.  You could see in the set of her face that she had dozens of things lined up on her to-do list, but she waited.

“Luau?” he finally said.

“Okay,” she said.  “Have a seat.”

Evan sat down.

“So tell me about your party,” she said, her pen steadied above a clipboard.

“Well….”

Girl 3a

Evan knew he was chickening out, and he tried, like a lost motorist, to find a route out of his cowardice.  You just have to find a street that you know.  Follow that street.  You’ll come to something you recognize.  Evan looked at her hands.  He remembered those hands.  He remembered thinking at the time that they were short and ugly.  Not ugly exactly, but not gorgeous like the rest of her.  Months ago, when he had seen those hands, he had thought about mighty Achilles, who at birth had been dipped in the River Styx by his heel to make him invincible, but his mother had neglected that heel.  Evan thought, Those hands make her real.  It touched him.  Evan looked up at her.  Something had changed and she knew it.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m the guy.”

“What guy?”

“The guy who chased those guys off.”

She looked at him and her smile began to fade.  He couldn’t tell whether it was okay or whether she was going to call the cops.

Φ

It had been after 3 am, and he’d seen her a couple hours after his conversation with the bouncer.  Suddenly, he caught sight of her being rushed out a back door by two guys, and she didn’t look terribly ambulatory, much less conscious.  In all the noise and hubbub, nobody seemed to notice.  He walked over to the exit and walked out after them.  Suddenly, he was in a messy back alley.  They had her draped over a table in the dark and her skirt pulled up.  She was passed out.  Their eyes were turned towards him.

“S’none of your business!” one of them said.

“You’re saying my sister isn’t any of my business?” Evan said.

It was the first thing that came into his mind.

“She’s not your sister,” the other said.

“Yeah, she’s not,” the first one said.

“So get the fuck out of here.”

“Yeah, get the fuck out of here.”

Earlier in the evening, Evan had been doing this card trick.  You have a card chosen, signed, then returned to the deck, shuffled and lost.  You spread the cards out face-down on the table in a big mess—a shmear, as they call it.  Then you blindfold yourself and take out a knife.  Wearing that black blindfold, you are able to stab the signed card.  It’s a killer trick because of the knife.  Knives focuses the audience’s attention, as does fire, cursing, and flirting.  That knife was a crowd pleaser.

That’s why he had a 7-inch knife in his pocket.  Don’t hurt me was why he pulled it out.

Evan donned his best Raylan Givens face and strode purposefully towards them, his knife held in front of him at the ready, because he knew that attitude and intention were required to pull off this particular trick, although he had not thought through what he would do if they didn’t buy it, he just walked forward, knife in hand, on instinct.  The young idiots ran.

In the car, her eyes opened barely halfway.

“Thangew,” she said in a voice that was so soft and slurred that his first impulse was to turn up the VOLUME knob, and then he immediately laughed, because, as he termed it in his head, There is no volume knob on life.

“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.”

Some girls you really don’t want to see hurt.

Φ

“You were that guy?” she said.

“Yeah.”

She lowered her head.  She became strangely immobile and quiet.  Finally, she took a deep breath.

“It’s all a blur,” she mumbled.  “They must have slipped me something.”

“I figured.”

“You drove me home.”

“Yeah.”

“You tucked me in.”

“Yeah.”

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Finally she lifted her head.

“You put a barf bag next to my bed.”

Evan laughed.

“I was sure you would need it.”

“And you didn’t take advantage.”

Evan just smiled warmly.  Tears were filling her eyes now and she tried to wipe them away but they kept coming.

“I don’t drink anymore,” she said.

“That’s a good idea.”

“I wanted to thank you, but I didn’t have your number.”

“I thought it might embarrass you.”

She smiled, and it was a smile that, he realized, he’d been waiting months for.

“No, it doesn’t.”

Φ

When she got off work at 5:30, they caught a meal at the Peppercorn Mill on the Strip, with its screaming highway of blue and green neon lighting everything up.  They had great booths in there, cushy, curvy, and spacious.  Lilibeth had come to Vegas several years ago from Dayton.  She liked the lights of this city.

“Incredible lights,” Lilibeth said, “I mean, it’s the only thing, really, that makes me stay.”

In those days, Lilibeth was young and fun loving and even printed up a sign for her bedroom door, PARTY ANIMAL.  Gradually, though, she realized that wasn’t where she wanted to land.  People don’t always land on their feet.  Vegas will teach you that much.  So will a back-alley attack.

Evan showed her a few magic tricks.  He floated her ring, which was some costume jewelry she had gotten for a play she had acted in after college.  He brought out the cards.  They laughed.  Laughing with someone, Evan thought, is an extraordinary thing.  He was seeing everything differently now, as if he were a Martian who was examining Earth customs.  Laughing seemed like this incredibly intimate disruption of the face, an emotional explosion, and it suddenly struck Evan as the most wondrous event in the world.

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Lilibeth asked what it takes to be a magician.  Evan said it was a way of thinking around corners.  You had to have a sense of what was around that corner waiting for you.  It could be happiness or it could be a hole in the ground.  It could be anything around that corner and you had to be prepared for it.  To be prepared, you had to think of motivations.  That’s one thing his parents had never taught him, and they were still stupid about it.  You had to watch their eyes, because eyes tell you much more than you realize.  It tells you what people suspect.  It tells you how much a pushover they are.  Belief is a building, and you have build it brick by brick.

Then Evan looked at his plate, the food all eaten now, and from the look in his eyes, she knew he was going to talk about what had happened months ago.

“I saw it on their face before they even saw you,” Evan said.

“Saw what?”

“They just wanted to…fuck somebody.  Not necessarily sex, but fuck somebody up.”

“You could see that in their face?”

“I can see those things.”

She smiled, then placed her hands on top of his, their eyes meeting.

“You’re a good man.”

Evan hung his head.  Her words had triggered a small chain reaction in his head, and it was like somebody stepping on his neck while he was down.

“I don’t know about that.”

“I do.  I know it like I know how to breathe.”

Evan was quiet for a long time.  Part of him was savoring it, because he’d waited a long time to hear that, but part of him was ashamed, because he knew what lay in his future.

“Well, I have to confess something,” Evan finally said.  “Lately, I’ve been having bad thoughts.  I’m sorry, I just feel I can be honest with you.”

She squeezed his hands.

“Yes, but you’re capable of such good things.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Seriously, I’m not always good.  A few months ago, I made a compromise, and ever since, it’s affected everything that I do.”

“What kind of compromise?”

“In my job, we’re cheating people.”

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Lilibeth stared at him.  She was weighing and considering.  Finally, she lowered her voice and leaned in.

“Well, I have a confession, too.  In my job, we cheat people, too.”

“Trust me, we’re bigger cheaters than you.”

“Well listen, Evan, you know that this is the city of bad thoughts.”

“Sometimes, it seems like the only way to be good is to be bad.”

Evan looked at her hands again.  She didn’t paint her nails.  She didn’t grow them long, like some girls who wore lavender silk blouses and too-short skirts.

“You were good that evening,” she said.  “I know that you’re capable of being good.”

“It’s confusing.  What I’m saying is that maybe I don’t want to be good.”

“You’re not going to rape anybody, are you?”

Evan smiled.

“I’m not the raping kind.”

“Well then.”

Φ

They went over to the Bellagio and looked at the fountains.  Then they went inside and looked at all the Monet colors.  It was the most beautiful spot in all of Vegas, he told her.

“I like to just sit here for an hour or two sometimes,” Evan said.

“I know what you mean.”

“You don’t have to spend anything to be here.  You can be poor and still sit here and enjoy all the colors.  Sometimes, that’s all I need to be happy, is colors.”

“It’s so simple sometimes, isn’t it?”

Evan thought, There is no REWIND button on life, although he certainly wished he could play this back again and again.

 

Φ

By 1 am, they were at her apartment, slumped back on a dark leather sofa, Miles Davis playing in the background, and eating Ben & Jerry’s out of the carton, two spoons.  From the kitchen, she called out.

“You want a glass of wine?”

“I thought you didn’t drink anymore.”

“Wine doesn’t count.”

“No thanks.”

So Lilibeth poured her own glass of white and walked back to the sofa.  She stood above it for a long moment, looking down at him, an imposing pov that she held for the longest time.  It was like the Incredible Hulk’s daughter standing above him.  Finally, she downed the rest of the wine in one toss and sat down in his lap.  Evan breathed in the aroma of her makeup.

“Hello, sailor,” Lilibeth said.

She leaned in.  She tilted her head.  Then the other way.  Finally she kissed him, the empty wine glass still in her hand, her mouth relaxed and open and wet.  He went with it, but after the moment was complete, he gently pulled away from her lips and looked into her eyes, which were inches from his.

“It wouldn’t work,” he said softly.

Lilibeth shrunk back into herself.  It wasn’t so much Don’t hurt me now as much as it was Shit, I always screw things up.

“You’re fine, Lilibeth.”

“Not attracted to me?  I don’t see why you would be.”

“No, I am.”

“You don’t have to lie.”

“You’re very attractive.”

“Theoretically attractive, but you don’t feel it.”

“Fact is, I’m in love with you.”

That stopped her.  There was a question that appeared in her eyes.  She had wanted to make love in a teacup, while he was going to a place that was expansive and arid, like a desert, a road that suddenly had no road blocks anymore and infinite rainbow skies, a highway to all the secret places, that if she just looked, would reveal everything about him: his abomination, his shame, all the sins he intended to commit.  His voice was suddenly aglow with motivations.

“I’m in love with who you were that night,” Evan said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m in love with who I was, too.  And what I did.  I’m in love with it all.  And I had to come to see you.  I needed to fill myself up with that love.”

Evan grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“Then why can’t we do something about it?” she asked, and then she leaned her body into his and he felt the room go electromagnetic again and her voice became a pussycat whisper.    “I’m a hellcat in bed, I promise.”

“Hellcat?” he said, the smallest smile like a spider creeping onto his lips.

“That’s right, baby, hellcat.”

“Okay.”

“So why can’t we?”

“Because I’m dying.”

“What?” Lilibeth said.

“Dying.”

Evan watched her face change.  It was like the changing part of the day, dusk just before night, when you can see unbelievable shapes and colors move in and phase out.  He saw bruised clouds drift in front of her mood, darkness falling like a hammer, tomorrow crumbling like dried leaves.

“What are you dying of?”

Evan paused, then said, “You couldn’t pronounce it.”

There was a silence that sat down between them for a while.  She didn’t seem to want to let go of the intimacy, but after a while, it just died and she scooted off Evan’s lap and back onto the sofa.  After a while, she stood up.

“I need another drink,” she said.

Lilibeth walked into the kitchen again and filled her glass, downed it again.

“Man, you are full of surprises,” she said.

Finally, she sat down next to him again.  After a while, she reached out and held his hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I can’t seem to focus.  Is—is there anything I can do?”

“Well, in fact, yes there is.”

Evan reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a letter.  It was sealed and stamped, all ready to mail.

“When you hear that I’m dead, can you mail this?”

Lilibeth took the letter with a touch of reverence.  It was buff stationery and had red sealing wax on the back.

“Of course.”

“You’ll get a call about it.  I’ve seen to that.”

Lilibeth smiled, and this time, he realized, she had solar systems of expression in her face, it wasn’t just Don’t hurt me.  Some people, he thought, are infinite.  Or maybe all people, Evan wasn’t sure.  He hadn’t met everyone.

Φ

Eventually, Lilibeth left the sofa and visited the restroom.  In that moment, Evan got up and did what he had been waiting to do.

All those months ago, on that difficult night, Evan had helped Lilibeth into bed.  She had crawled into bed without removing her clothes and had fallen immediately into the sound sleep of the inebriated.  Evan had looked at her on that bed for a long moment.  He had a surge of emotion.  He wanted to make sure she was okay.  Then he wanted to disappear.  He didn’t need that responsibility.  Finally, Evan figured that she didn’t have enough blankets.  He walked over to the closet and grabbed another one.  As he was about to close the closet doors, Evan had looked up and seen something on the top shelf that caught his eye.  It was an old box with printing on the side— “Springfield EMP”—along with a photo of a small pistol.

While Lilibeth was in the restroom, Evan pulled the box down, set it on the bed, took the pistol out, and quickly put the box back.  He quickly glanced at the restroom door, where he heard noise, but the door wasn’t opening just yet.  Evan went back to the bed and stuffed the pistol into his waistband in the back, where it was hidden by his jacket.  Then he returned to the sofa and sat down.  When Lilibeth came back out, Evan stood up and said his goodbyes.  They hugged.

“Stay safe,” he said.

“You too,” she said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

Be the Pin, Not the Balloon

[This is chapter 7 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 6, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

“Why did we leave so fast?” Kara said in the car.

Evan, at the steering wheel and staring straight ahead with a strange look in his eye, mumbled something that sounded like, “Brad Pitt is thirty savior,” but really, could have been anything.

“Seriously?”

It was a long, quiet drive back.

Φ

Evan jumped onto his bike.  Knobby tires and shocks were his route into that sin.  Lift his all-terrain Bontrager onto a bicycle rack, drive out to Red Rock Canyon, pedal through the desert.  Three hours in the hot sun, skin slathered with Banana Boat, the sun flogging him, sweat dripping off his helmet, his nose, his chin, tasting the saltiness on his tongue, thinking about that sin.  Temps in the high 90s and climbing, he didn’t care.  He liked the heat.  One day, it was 101, the next day, 110.  When the sweat stung his eyes, he stopped, poured water over his face, and continued.  Bargained with the pain in his hams, his delts, his lungs.  Pushing and pushing, never backing off.  Single trail, sailing through saguaros and sagebrush, past hares and iguanas and rattlesnakes.  He liked climbing more than coasting downhill because climbing was pain and roar and coasting was a sign that you had given up on living, so never coast, only roar.

Evan needed high mileage to figure out his toe tag.

IMG_2004Once, pushing 110% or 111%, Evan went over a root just a tad too far to the left.  His balance buckled and he fell right, down a dusty ravine, over scrub brush and red sand, and all the way down, he was thinking, Good!  Bring it!  Fucking bring it to me!  He was hurtling through the air and looking forward to the things he would hit on his way down.  Finally, his left cheek hit the dirt and his bike landed on top of him.  At first, he lay still.  Everything is numb after a fall.

20160926_175033I must have broken a cheekbone, he thought.

After five minutes, Evan slowly clambered up.  Took inventory for an eternity.  Found himself astonished and a little disappointed that his only souvenirs were road rash, sundry bruises, and pebbles embedded in his forearm.  Dust in his mouth, spitting to get it all out.  He loved the hell out of every wound.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Kara said when she saw his cheek.

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20160921_174650cBut it wasn’t about answers, it was about looking for that high again, not whimpering, until he fell again.  He liked punishing himself.

Builds character, he thought while pedaling.

“Can I go?” Kara said.

But it wasn’t about being with a girl.  It wasn’t about going slow.  It wasn’t about chit chatting about the pretty Desert Canterbury Bells along the way.  It wasn’t about fitness and reducing hypertensive risk.  It wasn’t about reducing LDL cholesterol.  It was about abomination.  It was about sin.  It was about landing hard.  It was about the long, red, irritated desert stretching into the horizon of his heart, where the sun was dying of neglect.  It was about the raw, red skin inside his mind.

Bicycle gears filtered 1bThere is a moment when you say goodbye to someone and hug them.  If you hug them too early, it becomes awkward, because then, you have to hug them again.  So you wait for the last moment, and then you hug.  It’s just manners.  But Evan had missed that moment with himself entirely.  There were no hugs at all.  Hugs were for believers.

Φ

Kara was trying to get something out, but the crying was getting in the way.  More like sobbing or even blubbering, Babylynn thought.  Babylynn was sitting across from her on a chair, holding her hands, while Kara was bent over nearly horizontal in the seat across from her.  Babylynn didn’t want to say anything, because it wasn’t about talking, it was about being with her.

The sobs were coming out of Kara from a place way down deep, like a well with a girl stuck in it.  The girl had been waiting down there for years.  She was a-scared.  She had bad memories.  She had things to yell out.  She had wounds on her heart.  Kara tried to tell Babylynn that it was okay, don’t worry, that sobbing was nothing to be afraid of, it was just something she was doing, like breathing or starting a car, but just thinking about saying that made Kara cry even harder.  She was tired of excuses, even if they were her own.  She’d been making excuses all her life.  It wasn’t about apologizing, it was about what was she knew was going to happen because it had happened before and it was the deepest fear of the little girl in the well.

Distressed child 1bKara grabbed a Kleenex and wiped her face, but it took five or six, and afterwards, she was still blubbering.  Her aunt’s face appeared to her as if in a cloud.  It was from long ago, when she was six.  Her parents had sent her and Kara away to live with that bitch aunt.  She didn’t know why at the time.  Why was a fountain of pain.  Why was with her every day like a creepy old man.  Why had dismantled her piece by piece.  First, she lost the piece called safe.  Later, pieces that keep a boat from blowing out to sea.  Ever since then, Kara had always been prone to blowing out to sea, driven by currents and bad weather.

Much later, Kara pieced together that her mother had suffered what her hard aunt referred to as “a break” and had been checked into a hospital.  She had taken off her clothes in the grocery store.  She had sat down in the middle of the produce section, pulled her knees into her chest, rocked back and forth, and said, “Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.”  It took a year for her mother to stop rocking, and two for her to want her twins back.  By that time, though, the damage had been done.

Crying blur 1a

Kendra, on the other hand, had gotten stronger.  A fist to the jaw will destroy some people and galvanize others.  From the day that her mother had taken them back, Kara knew that she was of the former persuasion.  Like the cotton dress that she had bought in Tijuana, offwhite with little collections of flowers, something she looked forward to wear to tell her friends that she had gone somewhere, but after the first wash, it had basically fallen apart.  Kara was the type who needed someone or she was nobody, and nobody meant out to sea with no sunscreen.

Kara grabbed Babylynn’s arms again and looked into her eyes.  There were words she wanted to get out, but then the water works were coming again.  It always happened this way.  Babylynn had seen it before.  She took a deep breath and held tight.  They stayed that way for another twenty minutes, just holding each other, and then, an hour later, with the help of a couple pills that she had in the bottom of her purse, ended up nestled into each other on the sofa, Kendra falling asleep in the crook of Babylynn’s arm, and the words she wanted so desperately to say—I’m losing him—still buried deep within her.

Φ

One morning, Evan found himself knocking on an office door.  He didn’t know what Kendra would say.  He didn’t want to start trouble.  He just wanted to know things.  Finally, she answered.  It was strange to gaze at that face.  It was the same and yet it was so different.  She didn’t speak right away.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she finally said at a volume that would have fucked the sound man.

“Can I talk to you?”

“What I mean is, what in the holy fuck possessed you to come into my fucking territory?”

Evan looked down at his shoes.

“I don’t know.”

Kendra stared at him for a long moment.

“Does my sister know that you’re here?” Kendra said.

“No.”

“You should tell her.  You’re her poodle now.”

“Listen to me.  Please.  I need to talk to a professional.”

For a long moment, Evan thought she would hit him.  He didn’t care.  If he could fall off a bike, he could take a hit.  He tried to read her face, but it was all stone and flaring horse nostrils.  Finally, Kendra opened the door slightly.  Evan entered silently on radioactive wings.  He sat down in the client chair and Kendra took the therapist’s chair.  Then he realized the symbolism of those positions and stood up.  He didn’t want symbolism.  He didn’t want meaning.  He just wanted her to tell him what to do.

“I have a client in a few minutes,” Kendra said.  “So what the fuck do you want from me?”

Evan told Kendra about what he had discovered, everything.  Kendra’s eyes suddenly focused and everything changed.  He didn’t know how much time it took, but it was long.  He wanted to include everything.  When he had gotten near the end of his story, he looked up at her.

“So I’m, like, sick all the time.  Not virus sick, but, like, head sick.  And I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be sick.”

Angry Kendra 1a

Kendra said nothing.

“I need to talk to someone.”

Kendra took a deep breath, looked out the window.

“Why don’t you talk to my sister about it?  She’s the one who bought your contract.”

“She’s not up to it.”

“She’s not up to taking care of herself, even.”

Kendra glanced at her watch.  Her client had been waiting now for 20 minutes.

“Do you have to go?” Evan asked.

“So do you fuck a lot?” Kendra said calmly, as if she were asking about washing the dishes, like, Do you do the dishes a lot?

“My heart is sick.”

“Do you fuck at all?”

“Not lately.”

“Because she’s bad in bed.”

“No.”

“Because you miss me.”

“No.”

“Because you made the wrong decision.”

“No.”

“I’ve got a client.”

Evan looked straight at her.

“Listen, just tell me what it all means.  Am I a freak?  Like an albino?  Like a dwarf?”

“You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.  You’re not anybody else.”

“I don’t feel like Evan anymore.”

“I’ve told you what you need to know.  A good doctor would drag it out for six months, collect all that money, but hey, this is my gift to you, I’m laying it all out, like instant coffee: You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.”

“But I feel so awful.”

“I’m telling you what I tell all my clients: Don’t let it get you down, bro.

“You look like shit, too.  You’ve lost weight.”

“I’m not eating.”

“To be expected.”

“I’m not sleeping, either.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Kendra said.  “Now get the fuck out of here.  You’re cured.”

Evan stood up and started for the door.

“Hey, I’m just curious,” Kendra said.  “Why didn’t you just find an appropriate therapist?”

“What?”

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“Just pay $150 to another therapist.  Someone who wasn’t your ex?  Someone who would do the job correctly?  You’ve got the money.  You’ve got so much money, it’s killing you.  So why didn’t you do that?  Answer that question and you’ll know what’s really eating at you.  Now get the fuck out of here.”

Φ

Evan wasn’t much for kissing Kara when he came in the door.  It seemed cliché.  He didn’t like calling her sweetheart or honey.  What he did like was waking up in the middle of the night next to her, like 3 or 4 am, just barely awake, and whispering in her ear, I love you, you know that?  It was like talking to her unconscious.

“Really?” Kara said, bleary eyed.

“Definitely.”

“I thought you had gotten tired of me.”

“I’ll leave you a post-it when I do.”

IMG_5181c filtered

Kara smiled, then drifted back to sleep.  Evan couldn’t, just laid there.  He listened.  There were shadows within shadows cast across the ceiling.  The faintest humming sound in the wall.  When Evan was certain that Kara was asleep, he spooned up to her again, their naked bodies fitting each other perfectly.  He needed this.  He stroked her hair and then whispered in her ear again, quite softly this time, but still, out loud, as if that were required to make it real.

“I’m going to kill my father, okay?”

Kara’s breathing didn’t change at all.

“People been doing that for thousands of years.  Sons killing their fathers.”

That time, Kara stirred.

“What?”

“Okay?” Evan said.

Kara shook her head in confusion.

“Okay,” she said.

“All right,” he said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/dying-slowly-in-the-city-of-bad-thoughts/%5D

Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

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2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

Mouse Skeleton in a Trap

I was always missing the moment. Jane was a girl in my Christian youth group. While ten or more of us were talking, she reached over and secretly held my fingers under a jacket for a few minutes. I froze, didn’t turn my head or anything. Eventually, she let go. Nothing ever came of it. Another time, fifteen of us went to an amusement park. We were high school journalists from area schools. During one of the rollercoaster rides, one girl was forced to sit between my legs. The rest of the day, I guess she gave off signals, or that’s what my friends said. She was pretty enough. I was stupid. Didn’t go anywhere.

My religion didn’t help. I had a hard time crossing boundaries. I made hardly a distinction between seduction and rape. To make matters worse, my self-control was absolutely stonewall. Something to be proud of, really. I guess that’s how I reached my junior year in college with innocence intact.

College, I knew, wasn’t about girls. I had to keep my eye on the ball. It was about becoming somebody. You never knew who you were going to be. Lawyer, doctor, physicist, politician, psychologist, the die was rolling. Brilliant, tragically average, heroin addict passed out in an oily gutter, the die was bouncing. Sometimes, I looked into the mirror for clues as to who I was. Studied it. My facial expressions would give me a clue. The set of my mouth. Something in my eyes. Once, in the twenty minutes after answering a question in Victorian lit that drew a loud “Exactly!” from the professor, I knew I was a supernova, after all.

138 (2)

The guy next to me clearly wasn’t. Too skinny, not serious, denigrated the impenetrability of As I Lay Dying. When I got to know him, he gave a name to his chin: Hapsburg, after royal recessive inbreeding. We met in 20th-century American, taught by a bearded young prof in tight pants who smirked at the girls and thought that all literature, past and present, was based on the template of one poem published in 1922, as if that were Ground Zero of a nuclear explosion.

“Bullshit,” Nathan said, his footsteps echoing through the hallway. “What, all literature? J.D. Salinger? Zane Grey? Winnie the Pooh?”

“Give the idea a chance,” I said. “He’s the one who grades us.”

“And the day after the quarter ends, we never think about this shit for the rest of our lives.”

I didn’t speak Obscenity. It was another difficult boundary, as were kissing others on the cheek as a greeting, calling adults by their first names, daring to fill the air with words and convictions, and going outside with morning hair.

Nathan ate his sack lunch sitting on the wall outside Rolfe at noon, after morning classes. I joined him. One day, we bluffed our way into the English Reading Room, which was reserved for grad students. It was like King Tut’s tomb—“Wonderful things!”—packed with all the most esoteric and obscure journals. Nathan sat down with a thumbed copy of the PMLA while I immersed myself in a short story in The Sewanee Review. It was about Hitler’s whore. He made her lie face-up on the bed while he repeatedly defecated upon her, crying out, “Die, England, die!” My mind was being broadened.

Jacqueline was researching the Walloon poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. Nathan started riffing on Walloon, and within seconds, the both of them were laughing uncontrollably. The next day, Jacqueline saw us eating on the wall.

“It’s the Walloon girl,” Nathan said.

“That’s your opening gambit?” she said. “Girl?”

Which got us into an unfunny debate about appellations and the political sequeliae thereof. She preferred, when referring to a gender-neutral nonspecific pronoun, to default to s/he. Watching her essay volubly, short dark hair, light freckles, and slender frame, I mused over the length of a woman’s hair and how that told you something about her priorities, how many hours a day she wanted to mess with it. This literary goddess had opted for four minutes.

There’d been straitjackets and screams during the month Nathan had spent in a mental institution. He was fifteen and had taken too much LSD and couldn’t stop tripping. It went on for days, which the doctors hadn’t seen before. He’d be watching television with the other loonballs when suddenly, in his peripheral vision, another inmate would grow a faucet from his shoulder and brown water would flow out, or the doctor would tap him on the shoulder and he’d turn and see a Cyclops in a white coat. Back in his cell, there were padded walls and a sloping floor that led to a grating to facilitate the hosing down of blood and vomit. The amazing thing was that he seemed not just normal, but extraordinary. The paradox he embodied made us best friends.

Every day, we would all sit on the wall for a bit. Jacqueline had an ungenerous curl to her mouth. Nathan made her laugh, though. She had graduated with a class of only 100 from the Castilleja School in Palo Alto. I had rarely known rich kids—had gone to school with only one or two—and didn’t understand their complexions. I didn’t know the snakes that crawled through their perfect skulls.

“I’ve eaten Top Ramen for three days running,” Jacqueline said, shaking the bag. We were in her tiny kitchen. “This stuff proves there is a God.”

“I’m eating lots of Chef Boy-ar-Dee,” I said.

“You guys gotta be kidding,” Nathan said.

“It’s easy, cheap, and good,” Jacqueline said.

“You’d have to take upper-level chemistry just to figure out what various flavors of cancer you’re getting.”

Jacquie was wearing a blue wool pullover, and when she pulled it over her head to remove it, she had an unwanted encounter with her breasts.

“I hate these things,” she said, arranging her hair again.

“What things?” Nathan asked.

“Tits,” she said. “They get in the way.”

“I have to tell you, dear, that’s not the majority opinion,” Nathan said, smiling.

“And your clothes have to go over them. And men are always looking at them. Judging them. Like they’re trying to calculate.”

“Calculate what?”

“Whether they’ll fit whole inside their mouths, I guess.”

They weren’t that big. They weren’t that pretty.

Jacqueline handed me one of her poems. It cut a difficult path through the wild, the poet dodging meaning as deftly as she could, nonetheless turning some striking phrases. I looked in vain for sentiment. Upon second reading, the poem began to unfold itself to me.

“I don’t speak French,” I said.

She gave me a look that sunk its teeth into my self-worth.

“It means little breakfast.”

“Oh.”

She closed her eyes, saying: “I’d like to hear what you think.”

I paused for a long moment, looking at the page.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I have enough understanding of poetry to judge it. You’re obviously very good.”

My thing was fiction, so I became the fiction editor of Westwind. I never imagined how bad some writing could be. I was surprised that these students: a) thought they could submit something for publication so crawling like worms in a corpse with typos, and b) could express themselves well enough to order Tommy’s burgers. It buoyed my spirits. Clearly, I stood on a dramatically lit pedestal that towered far above them.

But other submissions were more puzzling. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Avant garde, plotless fiction, postmodernism. Character before story. Or maybe it’s like this: You’re holding a piece of excrement in your hand and you don’t realize he’s the next Kafka, but fuck, you say, who would want to meet Kafka, anyway, he’d probably just engage you night after night in long, draining conversations in the back of a smoke-filled Prague beerhouse about how many different flavors of shitty a person can feel, and no matter how much you tried to talk him down off the ledge, you couldn’t convince him that life was worth living—“It’s shit! It’s shit!”—and then one day you’d hear he starved to death in a Vienna sanitarium and you’d think, Well, who didn’t see that coming?

One manuscript blew my ducky out of the water. Eunice and her three friends were at the beach rummaging through the clothes of people who were swimming. They scored seventy dollars, five rubbers, and a class ring. Later, they were teaching these guys they’d just met how to play mumbledepeg.

“You’re pretty,” one of the guys said.

“You’re the Prince of Who the Fuck Cares.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, you’re the Prince of I Don’t Have a Fucking Clue.”

Using the blood from a knife wound, Eunice and her three friends pledged to tell ten lies a day. Swear, swear, swear, swear, like a knife stabbed between outstretched fingers, bam, bam, bam, bam. They were telling lies to friends, boyfriends, teachers, even parents and strangers.

I’m still a virgin, Momma

My brother lost his legs in Vietnam

My history teacher is from Africa and teaches us in Pig Latin

I have gonorrhea, you wanna have sex?

My mother isn’t dead, she’s gone back to her hometown in Mexico which is Mind Your Own Fucking Business

No, she didn’t feel any pain

I’m okay, don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right, I’ll be just fine.

Eunice’s wound got infected and she lost the ring finger. She didn’t care. Didn’t want to get married, anyway. She dared boys to touch the stub. If they touched it, they could touch anything else they wanted. Eunice looked in the mirror and decided to slash her face because for a moment, there in her eyes, she’d seen a flash of her mother. She wanted to feel the wound. She wanted to stick her fingers into it. She wanted to pull her mother out of the muscles and blood and slap her on the back and she would start breathing and crying. And Eunice would be free.

I kept the story with me in my bag for days, sometimes reading bits in the back row during boring classes. On the phone, the writer had a high, girly voice that made more concessions than Eunice ever did. I invited her to lunch. Cute didn’t begin to capture it. Angelique looked and moved like Geronimo’s daughter. Hair the same color, I’m sure, and long, too, twelve minutes a day.

“Did the stuff in the story happen?”

Her eyes tracked slowly, but by no means unintelligently.

“Some of it. It was a girl I knew in high school. She always wore short dresses. I never knew what she was thinking. Her boyfriend got a girl pregnant that I’d known since third grade. Eunice messed the girl up and she lost the baby. It was all about babies and dying.”

I had become a born-again at age twelve during a mountain retreat. Sometimes I think I accepted Jesus into my heart to impress this pretty girl in a peasant blouse. After she moved away, the religion took on a momentum of its own. By 17, born-againism had constructed an impressive Plexiglas box around me. Everything was always bouncing off it. Girls on rollercoasters, for example.

This guy Neil was leading Bible studies with me on Sunday mornings in an avocado grove. His eyes tended to get watery and his smile overwide with religious fervor and I wondered what he knew that I didn’t. He was the leader of a cult of one, I guess. I thought it was what my parents wanted, but they were secretly stunned by it. At my age, my mother was wrapping unsuspecting guys around her little finger and crashing motorcycles. My father was losing it in Koto-ri, South Korea.

I was writing a lot of short fiction. I had grown up studying piano, and knew that to play a Bach concerto, a Debussy arabesque, and a Beethoven sonata in recital, as I had in my senior year, thirty-three pages of patterned wheels within wheels within wheels to memorize and play perfectly, you had to start out at age seven with scales, work your way up through John Thompson, and toil for years in the intermediate coal mines before you tackled anything that made people gasp. Short stories made my hands black.

With each story I wrote, I tried something new. Experiment with pov. Tell a true tale of a horrific industrial accident my grandmother once told me. Describe violence. Each story had an objective. I would grow, but only if I had good feedback. Hence, my readership. Nate was a good reader, but always frustratingly unspecific. Mauro was excellent as far as his burro mind would carry him. Jacquie was excellent without reservation. Angelique had a quirky response that I couldn’t penetrate. Tom was eager but egotistical. He later became a personal-injury lawyer and made his first million at age 27 by paying kickbacks to tow-truck drivers.

Every couple months, I would type up the finished manuscript of my next short story, make copies, and hand them out. Later, my readers would give me their reactions in detail. I desperately wanted to know what my readers liked and didn’t like, but in the end, I disregarded half of their critiques. It’s like I didn’t know what I thought about my own story until they said something that I knew was bullshit. That’s how it was with the rest of my life, too.

I was changing and I knew it. One day when I was visiting home, Neil came over. We were sitting in the backyard in chairs where years ago my swingset used to be, among ghosts of my former self. I was wearing brown corduroy pants and no shirt. I said that college was teaching me things. Neil, with his towhead blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, said he was worried about me.

“Worried that I won’t believe the exact same things as you?”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“What is it, then?”

“That you’re following a secular humanist path. It’s not about me, it’s about the Lord’s plan for your life.”

“This is the same Lord that says it’s okay to own slaves, right? Or are you talking about another one that you’ve just invented who believes that all thinking is from Satan?”

“You sound exactly like a person who’s in the world.”

“That’s where I live, Tonto.”

“Jesus wants so much more for you.”

I had fallen for his liturgical shell game in high school and felt stupid for it now. Neil was already starting with the waterworks. His smile was turning into a metal claw. He had acquired those tools growing up with an alcoholic father.

“Why do you need to control everything?” I said.

“God isn’t about control, my brother, He’s about deep, overwhelming, overpowering love.”

“No, you. I’m talking about you.”

Neil never played defense. It’s not that he played offense. He just wanted the opportunity to scratch your face with that metal claw.

“I’m just afraid,” Neil said, getting up from his plastic chair, the gravest of looks splattered over his face like a cream pie, plus a touch of denigration that topped it off like a red rubber nose, “that your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may have lost you, and you’re so very precious to Him.”

Nate was rolling a joint. I remember thinking, I’m going to remember this, and here I am remembering it.

“When he’s onstage,” Nathan was saying, “Fahey plays these long guitar masterpieces that nobody never heard of before he rescued them from obscurity.”

“Every time a hillbilly with a banjo dies, man, an angel cries,” Jacqueline said, picking seeds out of the weed.

“He went door to door in Appalachia collecting songs,” Nathan said. “I saw him at McCabe’s last spring. In between songs, he spits into this bucket, I mean, these long, disgusting spittles easing down to the spittoon right in front of the audience.”

“He doesn’t care,” Jacqueline said.

We all toked up in Jacquie’s kitchen and walked the two miles into the village.

“Is it safe for me to walk all that way?” I asked.

“For Chrissake,” Nathan said, “I didn’t give you PCP.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Walking up the big hill, getting more winded than usual, feeling the dope descend like a cloud on my head, I suddenly saw my bare feet through my shoes. They were 7-year-old feet. The grass glowed and fluttered like radioactive jello. It all meant something terribly important.

Later, we all sat in the dark together. Jacquie loved Truffaut, but I was convinced they were all speaking Egyptian, so we left. In a village café eating French fries, I couldn’t stop talking. Expectations are what we all have in abundance, I said. Ambition is an expectation. Born-againism is a locust cloud of expectations. Virginity is the Everest of Unrealistic Expectations, the proof of which can be seen simply by tossing two bunnies into a cage. And it’s Everest in another way, too, because you can’t breathe up there. And what about parents’ expectations? You carry them around on your back like the bundle of firewood on the cover of that Led Zeppelin album.

“I’m never going to have an expectation for the rest of my life,” I said.

“Okay,” Jacquie said, grinning.

Looking at the two of them sitting across the table from me, the curly haired folkie and the small-breasted poet, an amused look on each of their faces, I suddenly blurted it out.

“You guys are like twins, you know that? Except you don’t look anything like each other.”

The next morning, I drove to the grocery store with my hands clamped tightly on the wheel, terribly worried that pedestrians were going to jump out from behind cars. I didn’t feel right for three days.

We all had dinner at Woody’s in the village. Nate and Jacquie were on one side, Angelique and my cousin Mauro on the other, ketchup and mustard and a couple of wrapped presents in the middle of the table. Nathan and Angelique had beers. I couldn’t have a drink till midnight.

I punched a Carpenters song into the jukebox and then walked back to the table. They all ribbed me. We all had guilty pleasures we had brought from our childhoods. I mourned the loss of sentimentality. As I learned from my professors to live without so much of it slathered on everything like ketchup, I began feeling differently about things. It was a different world, a lighter sleep, filled with surprising things like Thomas Pynchon, D.H. Camus, Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underdog, Michelangelo Antonioni, subtitled Swedish movies, moral relativism, alienation chic, sushi, eggplant, ennui, pi.

Mauro was talking about how marijuana was so much more natural than liquor, because it entered your bloodstream through your lungs.

“Didn’t you just try it for the first time?” Mauro said. “That must have been, like—how many weeks ago was what?”

“Two months.”

“Did you like it?”

“If liking it means being a week behind in my assigned reading of the Henriad, then yes, I loved it.”

“God, I’ve got a ton of pages to read, too,” Angelique said.

“First time I did it,” Mauro said, “I had profound revelations.”

“What, that you like potato chips?” Angelique said.

“No, just to live in the moment.”

“I’m always missing the moment,” I said.

Mauro and I exchanged glances. We had been in Boy Scouts together. We had taken the oath together. If I recall correctly, getting high isn’t found anywhere in the oath, correct me if I’m wrong.

“Did you ever drop acid?” I asked Angelique.

“Once. The stereo was on, and the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s songs were appearing on a ribbon”—Angelique raising her finger toward the spot—“high up on the walls.”

The way she said it, her hair falling down over her shoulders, her eyes filled with remembering, she suddenly seemed unspeakably beautiful.

“I was in a bookstore the other day,” I said, “and I thought, ‘What is it that I’d like to buy?’ And then it occurred to me: A novel written by you.”

Angelique seemed displeased. “You’re still high.”

By 12:01, we were in a dark nightclub in Hollywood with flashing lights and pounding music and I was showing my driver’s license to the bartender for the first time. Angelique watched, transfixed, as Bo Diddley played onstage. I couldn’t care less. His day had come and gone. I asked Angelique to dance.

“It’s Bo Diddley!”

“What?!”

“I’m listening!” Pointing to her ears.

Between sets, with canned rock ‘n’ roll taking over, I tried to get the ball rolling, but Angelique still couldn’t hear me. I leaned in closer and my lips touched her hair. Suddenly, everything that had been muddy became clear. The moment was no longer a problem. The thought of her hair on my lips was tattooed onto my loins. I had three more Rum and Cokes, and by two, Angelique was driving me home.

I tried to tell her about when Mauro and I were seven and he won a Halloween costume contest with a Raja toga and turquoise turban and he fell on his face when he stepped on his robe and chipped his front tooth, but my tongue was thick. I asked her to walk me up, but she politely declined.

“I ha’ some Kahlu’ and milk upstairs,” I said.

“Go to bed.”

I unpacked myself from Angelique’s old red Datsun and climbed the steps. Made it to the top and waved goodbye, watched her taillights drift down the hill. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.

Her high school boyfriend was still in the picture. He was living in Sonoma in an old house with a dog that she missed. Bastard had so much going for him. Hair that stretched all the way to Calexico. Attitude that spilleth over. Dope dealer. Or maybe he was just an excuse. Maybe he didn’t even exist, I don’t know. I was falling, I didn’t know what into, maybe a haystack of needles.

When I got to my front door, I couldn’t go in. Nobody in there but my roommates, two of whom hated me, one of whom hadn’t even talked to me for five months because I had blow-dried my hair on his bed and he hated stray hair and had jammed Spackle into the electrical outlet holes. So I took off my clothes, left them in a pile. Walked towards the pool, stumbled once, said to myself, Don’t worry, I got it, get your fuckin’ hands off me. Stepped onto the diving board, took an unsteady step towards the water, another, sat down, legs dangling, feet underwater. Looked up at the fifteen apartments that faced the courtyard. Two had lights in the window.

I knew what would happen. Some girl would look out the window, see me sitting there, and come down. She would want what I wanted. She would have been scribbling page after page of journal entries in a spiral notebook about how lonely she was. She would have been stuffing the pages into the crawlspace, hiding them but hoping they would be found. I had a name for what I was, and it wasn’t happy. Her name would be Carly or Sophia, but I would settle for Chloe. She would invite me inside. She would have silky dark hair. She would have an unexpected smile that no one had yet discovered. I knew it would happen. It was supposed to be a magical night. Everybody said so. Everything was supposed to happen tonight.

After a half-hour, I knew there wasn’t a God. The night was just one long, empty boxcar. I walked back to the door, let myself in, and collapsed on the bed. Fuck the caffeine. Fuck the moment. I went right to sleep.

The beach was nothing to speak of. Grey sand and lots of litter. We wandered back to the main drag, where a brown guy with only a few teeth in his smile and no English at all, I mean, not an ounce in his whole body, sold shark tacos on the street corner.

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“They’re fully cooked. You can see him cooking them.”

“Nate, you’re buying food from a guy on the street.”

We pondered where to stay. There was a $3 hotel, a $5 hotel, and a $6 hotel.

“Let’s try that one,” I said, pointing.

It looked like an American motel, with four floors, a new paint job, nice cars in the parking lot, and American families on the balcony in nice leisure clothes.

“I don’t want to pay that kind of money.”

“What kind of money? How much could it cost? I’ll go check.”

I walked over and talked to the clerk. Turned out to be $12 a night.

“Look, we’ve got a chance to pay only $6. You just don’t pass that up.”

So we went with the bargain basement. We checked in. The shower looked scary. The whole room looked like the inside of some fat slob’s dirty mind. I had wanted to read a little Hemingway on the bed—I was rereading his entire works now—but it wasn’t a pleasant place to spend any time. It was exactly what $6 bought us. We left our luggage, but when we were walking along the boulevard, I began to wonder about my stuff. Then again, what would they steal? My short stories? We wandered over to a bar that was famous, I don’t know what for, getting deadass drunk, I guess.

“You want a beer?” Nathan asked.

“Naw,” I said.

“I’m buying.”

“Every time I drink or smoke, I lose three days.”

“What do you want, then?”

“Coke. In the bottle.”

Nate went away and came back with a Dos Equis and a Coke in the bottle, the cap freshly popped. There was moisture around the lip. Imagining Montezuma waiting for me with fangs and talons, I left it untouched. I surveyed the room. It was filled with things. Framed photos of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata. American celebrities who had visited the bar. Men posing with huge swordfish and big smiles. There were two barefoot teenagers going up to each table with a wooden box and trying to sell something, I couldn’t tell what.

“Where’s Jacquie?” I asked.

“She’s with her parents till January 6.”

“Did you ask her to come down here with us?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I haven’t slept with her yet, if that’s what you were asking.”

“I wasn’t asking that.”

“She doesn’t want me.”

“There are guys who seem to know just what to say.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I’ve seen them. I wish I knew what those things were so I could tell you.”

“I don’t know if anything’s going to work.”

“I mean, they’re no more good looking than other guys. They just know what to say.”

The teenagers were suddenly at our table with the wooden box. The 14-year-old was speaking to us in broken English.

“You…real man?” he said.

“Who wants to know?” Nathan asked.

“If you are real man, you able to hold thees.”

“Do you understand the adverse sequeliae of chauvinistic appellations?” I said.

He made a face.

“You hold thees. We put electricidad.”

“You think I should try it?” Nathan asked me.

“What the hell for?”

“I could use some good shock treatment right now.”

“Don’t do it.”

“It helped Sylvia Plath.”

“Nate, Plath killed herself.”

Nathan reached into his pocket and gave the kids a couple quarters. He took a deep breath.

“How long seconds?” the kid asked.

“Thirty.”

“Are you sure?” the kid asked.

“Yes.”

The kid looked at me. “You should to bet. Five dollars he hold thirty seconds.”

I ignored the kid. Nathan took the metal rods into his hands and rested them on the table. The kid cranked up the box, and then suddenly Nathan got this weird look on his face, frozen, as if he had left the planet. It was a long thirty seconds. I sat forward in my chair. A muscle in his upper arm began to twitch wildly.

“Nathan!” I said and almost touched him, but pulled back.

I worried about doing something, or yelling something or anything. When he finally came back from wherever he was, he took a deep breath.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Nathan looked at the kids.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he said in a weak voice.

They took the box to the next table.

“Do you feel any better now?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Nathan kept shaking his hands out. After dinner, we went to a nightclub and met a couple girls from San Diego. I liked the Asian girl named Joanne and danced with her a bit. I looked over at Nathan dancing with the chubby blonde. He claimed to be a great dancer but he was actually pretty awful, and every so often, he would shake out his hands, which made him look like a bad dancer who had just finished washing dishes. They had the countdown to midnight and people blew horns and cracked confetti eggs on people’s heads and kissed. But I didn’t kiss Joanne and Nathan didn’t kiss his blonde. I wanted to be a gentleman, but I misunderstood the ground rules. Those girls had wanted to be kissed. When it’s New Year’s Eve, you kiss the girl. You always kiss the girl. I still hadn’t found my route across the desert.

It seemed crazy. It seemed like there should be some way to ask the question and get a straight answer, but there wasn’t. Would you mind if I kissed you? or May I have your consent to be intruded upon? Or some window you could apply at, fill out a form, like “Form 1492: Application for Consent to Physical Invasion,” or even work for it, like collect boxtops or green stamps or pull some weeds. I would gladly clear all of western Kansas if that were the reward. But to not have any way to ask was just crazy.

Three years later, Mauro recommended R.D. Laing’s work, and I sat down one afternoon in a hot tub and read with surprise his theory that all insanity is simply a sane response to an unlivable situation. Over the next few years, I began fitting my ideas about life into that construct, because that was the word for this way of living: unlivable. Two years after that, I visited Metro State Mental Hospital as a journalist and saw a twentysomething man walking around aimlessly in circles like a zombie, saying over and over again, as he had every day for the past fifteen years, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.” The nurse said that when he was nine, his father had shot and killed his mother in front of him, then turned to him and said, “You made me do this.” Then he killed himself. Unlivable.

By three, Nathan and I were driving lost through unlit suburban neighborhoods. We both had to take a leak. We got out in front of a wooden white house with a dead brown palm tree growing next to the curb.

“That tree needs watering,” Nathan said with a smirk.

Nathan was not a little drunk and got my light-brown Florsheims wet. I kept a lookout for the house’s owners.

“Listen, you’re twins, I told you that,” I said.

“We’re not twins. We’re strangers.”

“You just have to be more aggressive with Jacquie. Try to think like those guys who get the girls.”

“It’s worse than that. She’s a whacker and I’m a mole.”

“Why the negativity, man? Jeez, you sound like my Dad.”

“Because she wants you.”

“What?”

When Croatians wish you luck, they say, “Bowl of shit.” They’re a cynical people. They’ve been dominated for centuries by outside powers, Austria-Hungary on one side, Romans on another, Turks on still another. But sometimes, Bowl of shit is just what you get. I looked at Nathan uncomprehendingly for a moment, then looked away. On the one hand, it is sad to hear that your best friend is disappointed in love, and doubly so when the fault seems to fall on your own mesomorphic shoulders. On the other hand, it is not enough for one to succeed; one’s friends must fail.

“You should go after her,” Nathan said. “She’s a beautiful girl.”

I didn’t want to be impolite.

“Yes, she is.”

There was a difference, my fiction prof had told us, between sentimentality and sentiment. The former was a blemish, the latter, a mere option among many. What had moved me growing up had not, contrary to what I had assumed, been a formative experience, but instead, a juvenile response. Sentimental books—anything that made my heart ache or soar or that touched it in any way—were childish. But there was one thing I knew: I did not want to live in a world without sentiment. The prospect took away my joie de vivre. That was the world that Jacqueline thrived in. Or, as she would insist on putting it, in which she thrived.

“She said you look like her father,” Nathan added.

Opening up a whole other can of Freud.

“She asked me if I could set something up with you.”

I had begun to stop wishing for specific things when I threw a penny into a fountain. It seemed childish to wish for a job, or a car, or a girl. Those were things you earned. It was like a spoiled rich brat wishing for a pinball game for Christmas. And getting it. There was no guy in a big red suit. I always closed my eyes, cleared my mind, and just before tossing the penny, let one word flow through my head: Fulfillment. It meant there were no boundaries, no limits. It meant I was claiming everything, the whole world, without restriction. I hesitated, though, to claim black cats.

For months and months, I steered clear.

It was bothering me, though, why I didn’t have any luck with women. I thought about it constantly. It made me wonder whether I might fit into this new category people were talking about: gay. I didn’t think about men in an erotic way. The first time I heard the mechanics of it, I mean, really had it explained to me, I said, “What?! No! You’ve gotta be kidding!” But I did get terribly nervous when I was around girls that I wanted. And I never got any of them.

Susana was perfect. Perfect blonde hair and perfect blonde face. She went on one date with me. I called her the next day and left messages for the next twelve days in a row to ask her out again. I must have become the big joke around the sorority house: Another guy’s in love with Susana. So what else is new? Fiona was perfect, too, but in a more refined way. She sat next to me in the back row of Victorian Lit. We wisecracked beautifully together. On the last day of class, I screwed up the courage to ask her out. She beat me to it. Showed me her engagement ring. Never got any of those women.

There was an unconscious, Freud said, that gave you everything you truly wanted. But I didn’t get those women. Did I not want women?

“You’re too intense,” Nathan said. “Women like men who don’t care.”

“How do I not care?”

Nate and I had moved into a place together six miles south of campus. Once, I went down to the carport to my green Datsun and found behind my windshield wipers a couple pages torn out of a pornographic gay magazine. It was photos of naked men having sex with other men. On the bottom was scrawled: “This could be us.” That evening when I took a walk, the middle-aged dolt in the house across the street gawked with a grin on his face.

Nathan was in limbo. He had graduated, took a shit job at a clipping service, and was falling more heavily into THC. I would come home and he would be sitting on the couch with red marijuana eyes and an album cover in his hands, listening to “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry.” He had devised a plan to plant marijuana in his closet under grow lights, but I nixed it. It wouldn’t be good for either of us.

“I’m visiting my mother in Passaic all next week,” Nathan said. “You should call up Jacqueline while I’m gone. You’ll have the whole place to yourself.”

Our apartment was a two-bedroom in a cheap neighborhood. The bedroom doors were as thin as our voices were loud. The carpet was green, thin, and old. If you picture an apartment building that’s nothing special, I mean, nothing special at all, you’ve hit it on the nose.

I invited Jacqueline in without a kiss. She entered in ominous silence. I had spent so much of my life working hard not to think about the actual specifics of sex. What comes first, what comes next. We had no real furniture, only bricks and planks for bookcases and a mattress covered in an orange bedspread in the living room for a couch. I poured us both some German Riesling because that’s what you were supposed to do. As she walked into the bedroom, the dog in the yard below started barking. He was a vicious old black dog on a chain that barked all the time. Months later, someone shot him dead and the cops did nothing about it.

Jacqueline laid her purse down on my desk, a door laid across two used filing cabinets. This was before I had accumulated a lot of junk in my bedroom. That’s not to say it was clean. It was what a guy thought was clean. We took off our clothes in silence and laid down. We began to kiss and fondle, as I’d seen them do in Three Days of the Condor. She may not have been gorgeous, but she was pretty enough. I didn’t really know what came next. She put her hand on me. I reached my hand between her legs and it came back sticky, as if I’d touched jam.

“Uush,” I said.

“Well, yours doesn’t feel too good, either.”

And that was that. In a huff, she was out of there. I didn’t really see that I had said anything wrong. I was lost for awhile. Played some New Chautauqua. Read a few pages of something. Then went into the kitchen and turned on the TV, which was playing the 1958 schlockfest, The Naked and the Dead. Soldiers were fighting and yelling. War was hell. I sat down and propped my feet on the kitchen table. It was so difficult to tell if you had become a man. Nobody issued you a license. The tribe no longer gave you an initiation ceremony in which you ate panther intestines or spent the night in a sweat lodge. Seeing guys in khaki buoyed me. These guys were men. War had made them men. I wondered if what I’d had was sex, and whether that had made me a man. My father had been to war, but he didn’t say anything about it. Did he give me a roadmap to manhood? Was he going to help me? What would he say if I told him I’d touched it and said what I’d said? He’d say he didn’t want to hear about it and take a drive.

Two days later, Jacqueline called me. I wasn’t going to apologize.

“You get only one first time,” she said. “You want it to be special.”

Jacqueline and I had dinner at her place by candlelight. That was more the way it was supposed to be, she said. She was wearing a blue cotton blouse, and I was wondering whether it bothered her tits. I was wondering whether any of her other protuberances got in the way, too, like her nose or her butt.

“Where do you want to live when you get out of school?” Jacqueline was saying.

“I don’t know. Hemingway had four homes. I’d like that.”

Her eyes were lit up above the candles.

“Where?”

“He had a home in Spain.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve read a few biographies.”

“How many?”

“Twelve.”

She gave me a look. I had read the first biography, and at the end, wondered where the secret was. Because he knew something. I read the second and the third biographies, then just kept reading. It was clear in the very seams of his prose that he had an understanding. When Robert Jordan was preparing to blow the bridge and knew he would die in the act, the author knew something. When Santiago brought back the stripped carcass of the massive marlin, the author knew something. But the more I read of his life—which was a very different thing, something that couldn’t be revised and which you couldn’t change the events of to make yourself look heroic—the more I realized just how much of a prick he was.

“Have you ever been to Spain?” Jacqueline asked.

No.”

“I love Barcelona, especially Las Ramblas. Where else?”

“He lived in Ketchum, Idaho, which was great for skiing. There’s a picture of him skiing with Gary Cooper.”

“Do you ski?”

“A little.”

“We should go skiing sometime.”

“Okay.”

“Did he ever live in New York City?”

“No.”

“I want to move there.”

“Because it’s the center of the publishing industry?”

“Because there are so many things to do all day and all night. Plus, I can speak French and people will know what I’m saying.”

I had brought a record that I loved. It was Keith Jarrett, who played improvisational solo piano. Ever since I had broken the surly bonds of classical, I had luxuriated in improvisation. It allowed you to follow the music in your hands. Jarrett’s improvisation was the kind of music that, like Fahey, pulled you into an ever-deepening whirlpool. You could drown in it. Jacqueline dropped it on the stereo.

I was on top of her. It came more naturally this time. I said nothing about the jam. I wasn’t just listening to the music, I was the music, and it was a shiny feeling that I had only had in a dream, the white candles flickering onto the walls, lightly crackling, my innocence slowly burning off, my identity transmuting, because I was no longer the guy who was impossibly innocent, who couldn’t get the girl, who used Christianity as a buoy in open waters, who doubted his sexual preference, who couldn’t cross boundaries, couldn’t find a route across the Sahara, who was missing the moment, I was the moment, I was burrowed so far into the moment that I was emerging the other side, pushing my way out the other side like Eunice’s mother, when suddenly, as if someone were spearing me like a fish out of a stream, Jacqueline was almost shouting.

“This isn’t right, this isn’t right,” pushing me off her.

It wasn’t an easy thing to stop in the middle, I discovered. Energy wants to go from one place to another. The body doesn’t want you to stop and lay on your back. I was panting and sweating.

“What do you mean?” I said, nearly out of my mind.

She couldn’t immediately verbalize it. Her lips once again wore that ungenerous curl. It looked like she was trying to figure out who to blame.

“Why did you pick that record?” she finally asked in a sharp tone.

“Because I love it.”

“Why do you love it?”

“I don’t know. Why is this important now? I listen to it all the time.”

“Yes, but why did you think it would be good for lovemaking?”

I stared at her. “Because I really, really love it.”

“I think it’s because it’s a live album.”

“What?”

“At the end of every song, it has applause,” she said. “It’s for your male ego. Egoiste. You needed applause while you were making love.”

My father didn’t yell. When he was angry, he became quiet, walked out the door, and took a three-hour drive. I could feel my face tighten while I put on my clothes. I could feel myself become impermeable. I remember a panicked look starting to form on her face, as if she could feel me at the start of never talking to her again. She started saying things, but the sound was turned off. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. I was gone.

I didn’t see Jacqueline for years after that. It turned into a story, then a memory, then a static representation of an experience like an icon on my computer. It’s like when I looked into the attic of an old house I was renting and discovered a mouse skeleton in a trap. Nathan told me she was pursuing a master’s degree in poetry. She had married a fellow graduate student in the program. They didn’t move to New York City or Paris or Barcelona. They were having offspring. Apparently, he had brought a studio album.

But I knew what she had meant. I didn’t love her. I couldn’t make myself love her. But she and Nathan had been so insistent. Still, she made me think about things for years afterwards. At 29, I got an invitation to go home with an exotic but slow-witted lady named Tricia. We rolled around on her sofa for a bit, and then, out of breath and all lathered up, she seemed ready to kick it into the bedroom.

“I haven’t slept with anyone in ten years,” she said.

The look in Tricia’s eyes took all the wind out of my sails. It was like she looked into my eyes and saw the route to the next twenty years. I could have commandeered that toy boat, but I didn’t have the heart. I could see the wreckage before it even hit the rocks. So I didn’t let it happen. In the ensuing years, I became increasingly honest with myself. I wondered whether Jacqueline had been only the first in a series of casualties. I had often been so casual about sex. But after Tricia, I stopped sleeping with women I didn’t really want to sleep with. My heart couldn’t take it, and neither could theirs. It was like doing violence to someone.

In the ensuing years, small tragedies befell my friends. Nathan never said a word about what happened between Jacqueline and me. He turned out to have the biggest heart of all of us. His tragedy was that he fell in love with a girl who didn’t enjoy anything but her own misery. It helped him quit THC, but he wrestled with her misery for decades.

Another tragedy: Angelique landed a newspaper gig and never found much time for her fiction. A third: She went into therapy and learned how to be happy. She was never quirky again. In bookstores, I still long for the novel she might have written.

I became a magazine writer. Within ten years, I had written over 500 articles and felt like a writing machine. My religion became just another forgotten border crossing, my virginity, the lingua franca that I finally learned to speak.

But for years, Jacqueline remained a mystery. Then one night, I looked her up on Facebook. It took me a couple weeks before I got up the courage. When she friended me, I began devouring her profile. It took me days to fully grasp it. I walked around thinking about it all the time. At times, I was angry with her. Fucking ballbreaker. She had given up the poetry—given it up! Quel désastre!—to become a short-sale realtor. She had embraced her mother’s Judaism, and was now worshipping at a synagogue along Sunset Boulevard. Her three children were now nearly grown, and her longtime companion Susan was a choral director. In the dark of the night, my face lit up by the computer screen, I laughed. No more expectations, no, never again.

Something in Her Face Was Incredibly Alive

The other evening, we watched a movie that was pretty blah.  There were many things wrong with it, but the most obvious thing was the emotional texture of the film.  I always find the emotional texture of Ronald Bass films terribly false.  It made me think of a woman we met a couple years ago.

Claire and I were on our usual 35-minute walk together.  Toward the end of it, Claire said hi to a woman who was picking up the newspaper in her driveway.  Claire is sometimes too friendly, and truth be told, so am I.

“Hello,” the woman said back.

It was a sixtysomething woman who was picking up her Sunday newspaper from the driveway.  There was something in her face that was incredibly alive, and I wasn’t sure what.

“How are you?” Claire said.

That was the wrong thing to ask.

“I don’t know, not very good, I guess,” she said.  “My husband just died.”

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We stopped.  Given her tone, it seemed disrespectful not to stop.  The woman started talking, and I don’t know how, but we became planted there while she poured out the details about her husband.  She blamed it on some horrible consumer product that had turned his brain into Swiss cheese, just ate away at it so that he was a walking zombie.  What made that woman’s face seem so alive, I guess, was that she was staring directly into the face of Death.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” she said.  “We’ve lived in this house for 40 years, and now, suddenly, he’s gone, and he didn’t have to be gone….”

We stood there listening to her rail against the pesticide companies, talk about her outrage, her pain, and her grief, all in a tone of voice that could not be ignored.  Believe it or not, this conversation with a stranger stretched on for a half-hour or more.  On the one hand, it seemed like a little miracle, like we had boiled everything down to the essentials: three souls connecting, listening, consoling.  On the other hand, however, she was a stranger.  Our time was precious.  And we had a movie to go to.  Finally, I spoke up.

“You know, Claire, that movie starts really soon,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” the woman said.  “I don’t want to hold you back.  Thank you so much for listening.”

Perhaps her relatives wouldn’t listen.  Perhaps she was a bit crazy.  Or perhaps her cup spilleth over so much that even her family couldn’t give her what she needed.  At any rate, we went to the movie, which was also a Ronald Bass movie and wasn’t very good.  They say that he doesn’t write the scripts himself, but hires a committee of young writers, and then brings all their ideas together and chooses from the “best” of them.  But it was Hollywood emotions, not real emotions, and that day, we had seen the real thing.

And that night, when I laid my head down to sleep, all I could think of was that woman’s face, and how alive it had been.  And I haven’t forgotten it in the several years since.

The Whole Damn Thing

The other evening at the Magic Castle, I performed for a lovely young couple from Perth, Australia.They had flown into Los Angeles for their honeymoon and were dressed to the nines to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the magical capital of the world.

They were both beaming.  She was a pretty and chatty blonde.  She seemed like the kind of woman who isn’t quite beautiful, but through highlights and makeup, has turned into a fair approximation of it.  Most importantly, though, I could see some intelligence peeking out from behind the mask.  He was on the short side with red cheeks and a good physique.  Peeking out from behind his mask, I caught a bit of an inferiority complex, but he was charming, nonetheless.  I did a couple tricks for them, including a romantic piece of magic that gave them a souvenir.

“This,” I told them, holding up their signed playing card with which I had accomplished the impossible, “will remind you of this moment, 50 years from now, and you’ll say to each other, ‘Honey, remember this? It’s from that time on our honeymoon when we went to that Magic Castle place.’”

Word colored glasses smaller

It was so sweet.

“But how did you do it?” the woman asked.

“A magician never tells,” I said. 

“But I just don’t understand.  It was two cards, and now it’s one….”

But then, all in a moment, it all came crashing down.

“Just stop talking,” the man said.

“What?” she said.

“Just stop talking. You make yourself sound like an idiot.”

It was an extraordinary moment in which I saw everything converging at once: love, marriage, honeymoon, and divorce, the whole damn thing, all in a single moment.

Yikes! It’s Carnevale!

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Americans call it Mardi Gras, but Italians have a more elegant name for it: Carnevale.  This week, the fabulous restaurant il Fornaio imported me from Los Angeles to Carmel to perform magic from table to table.  It resulted in six full hours of gasps and laughter.

There was 8-year-old Emma and her 8-year-old friend Emma—“The Emma twins!” I exclaimed—who couldn’t get enough of the multiplying sponge balls.

There was the table of eight art students who came for pizza after art class.  When I magically made a half-dollar appear beneath a man’s watch, he said, “Either he’s really good or I’m drinking too much!”

There was the family of six that I approached whose father said, “Okay, one trick.”  I blew them away with that, and 10-year-old Rachel said, “One more!”  So I did one more.

“One more!” Rachel demanded again.

“You’re the boss, aren’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I am,” she said, a look of certitude on her face.

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Linda, the manager who orchestrated the whole event, was dressed in a fabulous silver and green robe that she expropriated from a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Macbeth and seemed very Carnevalesque.  I suppose the Shakespearean connection explains the lines she muttered continually throughout the evening with an evil cackle: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?  Mwahahahahaha!”

But the highlight of the evening was a middle-aged couple from Sacramento that seemed so happy with each other that they seemed like newlyweds (see photo above).  I was surprised to discover that they had been married for–get this–23 years.

“It helps to marry someone who’s smiling and pleasant all the time,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

There wasn’t anything else I could do.  I performed the Anniversary Trick, which is a trick that celebrates love.  At the end, they posed for the photograph, which inducted them into the Yikes-the-Magician-Freaked-Me-Out Brigade, not to mention the This-Is-True-Love-and-Don’t-You-Forget-It Club.