…We share a house & we share
a toilet seat
that grows warm with cold feet
the silence of morning coffee, thin walls, & an urge
to run the sink.
But I am not afraid
that I am not much more than a dirty
that shits & pisses & jizzes
and yet I still feel the need
to conceal the evidence
suffer from indigestion, & menstruation, & ugly disease—
the same things that define us as much more than machines—
and yet I admit I am
by the stenches erupting from
of morning breath & beer shits & discounted Kroger meats,
despite the awareness that
I love you &
you love me
not for what we can hide from one another,
not for how clean we can seem,
not the “flawless” personas we may present ourselves to be—
rather I love the acrid taste of sweat
on your skin &
your unshaven armpits &
the menstrual blood
on my dick &
all these things that make us such complex
human beings, &
at the same time
simple little beasts.
…The monstrosity growing inside me was to
manifest itself in an honest effort to change—
in the passenger seat of her cherry
red Mustang convertible
I leaned over so
she could hear me confide,
“I want to die, mother.
I wish to be dead.”
But I said no such thing as the
hot suburban wind was deafening, &
the way these folks were driving
with no concern for one
but only how quickly they might
reach their private destination,
rather I prayed that their negligence
in the destruction of us both.
The roots of my mental instability
stemmed from a lack of discipline &
working for the college’s clinical neuroscience lab,
I’d pissed my pants drunkenly
before interacting with
more often than I care
And today is the day that I concede with
an E-mail to confess:
"I’ve no desire for any of this, &
perhaps these last few years &
thousands of dollars spent
have been in vain, since all I really want
is have sex,
eat ice cream,
play with my dogs, &
write terrible poetry.
thank you for the opportunity:
but I quit.”
And sometimes I wish
it was that easy to quit
I probably would’ve quit it long ago
over something as small
as spilt cereal, or
the embarrassment of hearing a lab-worker say,
“did anyone else smell that
patient who pissed his pants?”
…I wrote some things to my typewriter last night, &
it wrote me some things in reply:
It wished me a happy birthday in ink, &
that I hadn’t gotten my birthday wish:
a hot bullet through
This typewriter is just as good, &
I love its giver enough to
stop & reconsider—
to blow out the twenty-two candles in my
all resembling headstones of twenty-two
iced over graves, &
wish for something more
realistic to attain:
a long, long, painfully long
with many more of these cakes
…It was a privilege to suffer. Joseph could cross over the threshold from comfort to anguish in an instant, by way of a mere flick of a switch. Its position UP signified a gush of cool, artificial air to flood his apartment and lungs. It meant the sleepy whir of a fan working to rid the room of hot energy. It meant his physiology would be settled enough to permit him a sigh of relief, and the concentration to focus on the work at hand. It meant Joe would not sweat, would not feel urged to chew ice cubes by the hour to keep cool, would not twist in his bed in resistance to the gaining heat of his sheets, would not resist letting a mere ankle or wrist touch upon the likewise burning body lying next to him, her exposed breasts sweating amid the stale-night air. The switch signified a binary between a comfort in life, and a comfort in death. And yet, still, it remained turned DOWN.
The cool, fresh air meant money spent—money that Joe did not have. There were other means by which to live, if not merely to exist:his body still occupying points in time and space, ignorant to the fact of whether or not he was contented to live then, or have lived at any point at all. But his body pushed on in command: bleed, consume, metabolize, defecate, sleep—no matter your mental suffering, life only makes sense to the living.
And so he did live on, and did suffer, and no matter how alive by definition he was, it still made no sense to continue on.
A cracking of knuckles came from beside him. The midnight darkness buried the orange stain crowding the blanket at his back, signs from last week when the bed’s other occupant pumped too much alcohol into her guts, and was then subjected to a riotous act of blistering, carnal back-and-forth motions—it was bound to make anyone sick. And it was only through the aid of alcohol that Joseph had finally managed to fall asleep for the first time since he’d moved in nearly a month ago; and it was only through the aid of alcohol that he was suddenly awoken to the feel of a microwaved, tin can of vegetable soup spilling out across his back, a hotter burst upon his flesh than a mid-day Georgia sun. And the words echoed throughout the apartment with a strange, novel sense of familiarity, as if life’s situation had turned itself inward, discovering its own appearance, and then pronounced its own name: Fuck…
The bedroom window was left open in anticipation of any breeze fortunate enough to find its way through the other complexes to Joe’s lone room, left open in hopes of a 4 AM rainstorm that might calm the roasting bricks and streets outside, permitting the humidity to cool and condense upon his skin. It was left open in sacrifice to other discomforts, as it allowed the noise of late-night dwellers, homeless, drunk or struck by insomnia, to pervade his room and upset the dogs enough to bark. It permitted the stench of a nearby dumpster to intermix and bake amid this conventional oven that he called home.
Every hour through the hours a cool drink of water would call to him, or rather coerce him by the throat to kick awake his idle legs and make way to the kitchen sink, entering with the weary, pressured eyes of those that had spent the last hour staring blankly at the dark wall of his eyelids, rubbing the natural glue of his eyes with one hand as the other reached out in memory of where to grasp for the cup left idly on top the stove—and a sudden sensation of scattering bumps along the glass from the nocturnal roaches who likewise sought to drink and relieve themselves from the heat.
Fuck this writing
…The light of a purple bug-zapper hung above her head like a bad idea, illuminating her in a rather critical glow. Every little stain appeared pronounced on her jacket, now bearing a shade of Creole mustard. Her face conveyed a look of both absence and impatience, as if one emotion was waiting on another to manifest itself first. She then pulled out her phone from her pocket, told the other end, “I’m outside, in the same place you dropped me off,” and hung up before making her way towards the street.
There was nothing really left to say, I knew that much. At least nothing that we both didn’t already know.
Sure, I could profess to her some more things that sounded romantic in my own fucked-up head, like: I know it wasn’t charming of me to flunk out of Spanish class, just so I could sob and write poetry about your hips, and clothes, and sexuality out in the grass—but old habits die hard, and I’d only just made a vow to stop acting like it was endearing to be shameful.
I could tell her I was going to make a drastic change, tell her: I’m done feeling inspired through dwelling in pain, done away with convincing myself of such ridiculous things as, “…it’s good for me to feel, even if only hurt”—but goddamned, if it didn’t sound so pathetic.
Yes, of course, I could always leave off tonight by saying something small, yet significant: See you in class on Tuesday, as if to suggest to her that, in some subtle way, tonight had served as a cure, a means of self-growth; that I am giving up this idiotic idea that distance between us might somehow help bring us together, so that we might once again try becoming friends—but why the hell should she even want my friendship, the man who finds it impossible to be “just friends” with women? Indeed, the man who acts as if he’s entitled to another’s affection, and acts out like a rotten child when he doesn’t get his way?—
Grow the fuck up already, was exactly what I needed to do.
So I resolved to just stand there, motionless, and say nothing to her—not a single word. Not even when Isabel turned around to face me before getting into the car, looked me straight in the dead eyes, and said: “Wolf.”
She called me, Wolf…
There was no blue post to denote the trail’s 7 Mile mark. There was only a green, chain-linked fence bearing a sign. It read this:
SIDE ENTRANCE TO BEAR HOLLOW ZOO
OPEN FROM 9 AM TO SUNSET, MONDAY - SATURDAY
CLOSED ON SUNDAYS
Still running in place, I took heed of my surroundings. I was no longer running in the woods, or on any type of trail at all. I appeared to be in a forest gap—the no man’s land of telephone lines that stretched far into the distance, with the green, chain-linked fence extending out parallel to them. All the visible terrain had been cleared out, but with no paths, roads, or indications of city-life in any direction. The sun was beginning to set into the open horizon, just touching down to balance on top a distant hill.
It was here, now, fully exposed to the sun and all its enduring October warmth, that I first took notice to the fact that I was neither tired, or out of breath, or even sweating at all. I placed two fingers to my neck. Over seven miles of continuous running, and yet my heart rate felt the same as at rest. If it wasn’t for the slight pulse in my bowels, I might’ve concluded that I’d become a machine.
But I am not a machine. I am not so much a human, either. At best I am a half-shaved wolf, whose taste in women creates an insatiable hunger.
I tugged at the rusty padlock wrapped around the gate. The chain hardly budged. I shrugged, pulled off my tee shirt from my head, and hung it on the fence before jumping over.
Then I ran on to where I belonged.
…I couldn’t tell Isabel any one of these things. They all might’ve sounded quite lovely, sure, and I imagined they’d look rather nice down on paper. But all at once I was struck by a deafening voice, louder than the entire show. It came from inside me, reverberating up the length of my slender throat like some forsaken child screaming from the floor of a well. Only the words were not a cry for help, but rather a call to action. They lacked pity, were full of self-assurance. If it was the voice of God, then She is a Woman with a tone as shrill as any fed-up mother. Since somewhere between this surplus of blood in my feet and the lack of blood in my head, the voice spoke to me clearly:
Quit acting as if life owes you anything, and grow the fuck up already.
I peered over at Isabel. She was clasping a fresh beer in one hand, her phone still poised in the other. She was motionless. Everything was motionless. There was nothing different about her, or anyone, and yet perhaps that was the point. For it was then I realized that what my life needed, more than anything, was not this constant distraction of falling in love. No. What I needed was to make a drastic change: to stop deluding myself with this poisonous belief that the world is a stage, and life is a script, and that I: special, significant, so-deserving-of-others’-pity-and-affection, Joe, am this film’s woefully romantic protagonist, a man whose heavy heart remains courageous enough to fight to earn another’s love…
Because I’ll say it again: what utter shit.
The truth was this: I needed love like I needed a new prescription—just another means to numb and disguise myself from the reality of things; the acceptance that, at best, existence may be a test as long and worthless as the S.A.T’s. And at worst, our existence may just be try-outs for galactic dodgeball teams:
Good vs. Evil.
Heaven vs. Hell.
I already knew where I was destined to go, and it really made no difference to me. If Heaven and Hell did truly exist, then I’d already experienced both. As I imagine Heaven as not too different a place as those stuck-up, gated neighborhoods I used to purposely speed through on pizza deliveries, just hoping to accidentally explode on-impact some loose, family pet. And as for Hell, I imagine it’s not much different than living here amid the endless, blistering summers of Georgia—if not a little better, since it’d be without all the unemployed, religious nut jobs screaming reminders of my place in Hell. Or maybe they would be there burning right next to me, I don’t know. Maybe God has a sick sense of humor. Or maybe we are nothing more than a floating ant pile in space, and God is a lonely, jaded child with the magnifying glass…
My thoughts were beginning to escape me. I felt overheated. Claustrophobic. On the near verge of death.
I’d stopped dancing, but it was already too late. Sure enough, by midway through the sixth song I was just another sweaty asshole lost among the dancing mob. Between the much-deserved pushes and shoves dealt to me, I watched Kalmia float across the stage like a pink ghost, her headscarf and dress flowing pretty behind her. Cancer was eating away at her ovaries, right then and there, and nobody cared.
Life owes you nothing.
I was too dehydrated to cry. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, in a melodic moment of bliss Kalmia tore off her headscarf to reveal the smooth, hairless scalp underneath. The masses roared. I thought I was going to puke. I wanted to escape but the crowd refused. The bigheaded man in front of me chucked his elbow into my ribs. I would’ve collapsed to the floor if my body hadn’t been packed like sardines in a can.
The band played on and on and on, until they finally stopped. But the crowd was relentless, began all chanting in unison: “ONE MORE SONG! ONE MORE SONG!—”
The band came back on. This time accompanied by four plain-faced men, altogether holding what looked to be a gigantic, purple, 15-foot-long inflatable dick. My eyes searched through the bodies for the golden jacket. Isabel was nowhere to be found.
“This here’s Party Worm,” called out Kalmia, “And do ya’ll know what Party Worm’s here to do?” She laughed coquettishly, rubbing her fingers along her polished skull. The masses howled out like a pack of dogs. “Oh yes, these folks already know it… Party Worm’s here to PARTY!”
The men then launched the worm into the air, raining down like meat to the wolves. The instant it touched down upon the crowd, the band was once more back into it.
They punched, and flung, and hurled that worm all over, its tremendous head whipping from one side of the venue to the other near instantaneously. It would linger, pause… then lash out in no predictable pattern. I kept my head low, and my eyes vigilant.
It took less than two minutes for it to muster up some casualties: Hammering itself right into the unsuspecting mouths of not one, but two young girls, whose only response was to then gush with blood. With red dripping from their faces, the girls managed to do what I could not. The violent slosh of bodies parted right down the center, permitting themselves to find sanctuary in the bathroom. I grabbed onto the shirttail of one of the girl’s and followed behind them, nearly swallowed right back up by the relentless, fleshy sea.
When I’d finally made my way outside, I found Isabel there waiting by the venue’s entrance…
* * *
…I grooved. I spun. I kicked, and shimmied, and bowed, and dipped, and shook my head in total approval of no one else but myself. A few times I caught eyes with the old geyser dancing in the tiny shirt by the door and shot him a wink. I clapped feverishly in-between songs, as if punishing my awkward hands for never knowing what to do. I stomped the heels of the bigheaded man in front of me, the one who’d shown me a rude eye earlier. I swung and shoved my elbows between his ribs. Called out hideous words in his ear, senseless things that would blend and waste away amid the competing uproar:
Clap! Clap! Clap! “DROWN ME IN GHOST JISM” Clap! Clap! Clap!…
He didn’t say a thing to me. No one did. Before the start of the fourth song Isabel turned my way and snidely mouthed, “Having fun?” I shook my head viciously up and down, yes, and told her I wished I could wear her uterus as a hat. She laughed and smiled as if in agreement, clearly oblivious to what I’d actually said. Oh, well. It’s not like any of it mattered. I hadn’t been listened to earlier, and sure as hell wasn’t being heard now.
All at once the strangest of mixed feelings hit me—elated, liberated, repulsive, corrupt… not unlike a man who finds himself conscious in his own dream, acknowledges the lack of consequences to ensue any of his actions, and right away sets about committing a whole mess of immoral crimes. Only I was then existing somewhere within the aftermath… in that anxious space of time where the man finds himself back in bed, yet still fresh with the memories of his lucid transgressions, and he wonders to himself, Why? Why when granted the free rein to do anything, is my first instinct always to be evil? Why when there exists no tangible repercussions do I no longer feel it so necessary to behave? Do I really only adhere to social law out of my own self-love, rather than some innate desire to look after the welfare of others? Is it only a matter of time before this bad blood of mine boils over to the surface of reality to inspire true pain? Oh, Christ, Joe, Oh, Christ…
In spite of such heavy concerns then crowding my head, I suddenly felt overcome by a sensation of weightlessness… as if floating high above in the venue’s rafters, peering down every now and again to find Isabel just a little bit farther away than before. Her hardened face illuminated by the light of her phone… her body, frozen stiff as a concrete effigy.
I knew right then I was not impressive to her—not as a spirited man, a self-assured man, rather as any sort of man at all. I was to be seen as nothing more than a dog off his leash. A child with a handgun. A violent uprising in a top-security prison… A manifestation of unbound energy, moving for the sheer sake of motion.
It was already over. I had lost it all. Here Isabel was, witnessing only a fraction-of-a-fraction of the terrible things that make up who I am, and already it was plain to see she hated my guts. I knew she did. She had every right to. But it no longer mattered, I no longer cared. Because I’m telling you: it’s only when you have nothing left to lose that there’s also nothing left to hide. The whole damn night had been one big joke from the start, if not for the last two months. I was more than happy to get it over with, and become its punch line.
Let all these folks be the judge of me. It made no difference. I still didn’t understand why they’d all shown up to this thing in the first place—to stand around and look pretty? To feel and look uncomfortable, inside-and-out? To pay money to drink booze to have an excuse to lose all sense of themselves? My reasoning for being there was beginning to seem less and less pathetic, all while my reasons for staying were almost entirely non-existent. By then I knew I was not to drunkenly recite some poetry and vomit on a stranger, as I’d aspired. I was not to expose my genitals, and perhaps punch out Isabel’s girlfriend. No. I was not to do any of these things, and yet I decided to stay. Indeed, if only because I had something to prove: my utter lack of care.
But I was not to prove my anti-care to Isabel, nor to any of these other folks. No, but only to myself—to prove to Joseph Metz that not every single one of his actions, impulses, or thoughts would amount to anything; that he was free to dream of horrible things, just as long as they stayed buried within his head; that he could confess to being in love, or on drugs, or depressed, or homosexual, or homicidal, to nearly anyone, and it would not matter the slightest bit whether or not it was true—the only thing that mattered was if such a person cared enough to believe him. Given that if any such confession were to make this person feel annoyed, or discomfited, or imposed on their easy-breezy life in any way—why… it’d make no difference what the hell you said. For there I was: half-shaved Joe having confessed to being in love with a girl—something he was, for the record, not so proud to do—and her immediate response was this: to deny, deny, deny…
“You don’t really love me, Joe,” she’d alleged, “You hardly even know me… You can’t truly love someone without knowing all the terrible things about them—”
Such a rare, isolated feeling as love, ripped out from beneath ne and shrugged off as naive… It’d given me hope about my future, about my own capacity to still feel things as strongly as I had prior to medication. And yet all I felt, right then and there, dwelling on this all amid a congested dance floor, was that I’d never been more alone…
I wished to tell Isabel that she was wrong—that she was a goddamn idiot with a gaping hole in her little theory: That in love, all those truly terrible things about a person really wouldn’t seem so terrible at all. For it’s those terrible things that are such an integral part of what’s made this person who they are: A grossly flawed creature, just like the rest of them; and yet still somehow incredible, and not like anyone else at all.
I wished to tell Isabel that my love for her had already stood the test of time—that there’d been countless occasions over the last few months, where I’d find myself pondering how many dicks it’d taken before Isabel had thrown up her hands to say, “enough is enough.” Knowing she used to date a sworn enemy of mine from my high school days, a taller blonde boy named Taylor Hogg, I used this as ammunition to destroy her pure image by forcing myself to fantasize of them two fucking, rough and violent—over, and over, and over. I’d picture Isabel still wearing that golden jacket, the inside-pockets coated with Taylor’s sperm, her smirking mouth stuffed full of him… I’d harness that pit in my stomach like a weight dragging my idea of her back down to Earth: She is not innocent. She is not unique. She is a human being with a past and an asshole, just like everyone else.
Perhaps it was a coping mechanism, I don’t know. More likely it was me just being a sadist. I thought it would help me to put things into perspective—that no matter how pure one’s dream girl may seem, there’s always some nightmare of dicks buried underneath. And yet, somehow these thoughts failed to faze me. Not even in the slightest. Rather, I began to relish this idea that she was just as sullied an animal as I. It meant there’d be less reason to ever make believe we were anything else. I didn’t want us to have to be dignified around one another. I didn’t want us to be polite, to shave and dress nice. I wanted us to be content enough with ourselves to wear the same low-thread, stained clothes every day of our lives, aware of the truth that we both piss, and take shits, and frequently dream of death. I wanted for us to never pretend to be anything we were not—to never be afraid to show all the horrors that we are.
I wished to tell Isabel that I still loved her, despite having now seen the most terrible thing about who she was—that she was, in truth, perfectly contented to live in a world of innocuous pretense, if it was to grant her the luxury of evading the horrors of reality. She was a pretender, who more than likely asked herself on multiple occasions how many people would one day show up to her funeral, and what nice things they just might have to say.
Indeed, I wished to tell Isabel that she was wrong about me not really being in love with her—that someone can, in fact, truly love someone without knowing all the terrible things about who they are—
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell her any of these pitiful things because, well… despite being an exceptional liar, not only to others but above all myself, all at once I was struck with the notion that what my life needed more than anything was not love, but rather a drastic change. Indeed, that I needed to stop deluding myself with the poisonous belief that this world was a stage, and life was a script, and that I—special, significant, so-deserving-of-others’-pity-and-affection, Joe—was this film’s woeful, romantic protagonist, courageous enough to fight for another’s love…
I’ll say it again, folks: what complete shit. But before a change could be made, I’d first have to come clean about a few things.
* * *
…Rather than have our reunion start off with all that stale, unnecessary talk—all those formulaic greetings of, How’re things going? How’ve you been? that initiate every interaction between acquaintances, or folks who’ve not spoken to one another for any extended period of time—all those empty exchanges made in an effort to express some sense of care for one another, despite the fact that both parties are simply too awkward or fearful to admit to the other that their lives are, in truth, still somewhere in the shitter—instead I decided to forfeit it all, and cut to the chase. So I walked right up to her, got right up in front of her, stood right on the edge of those gaping baby blue eyes and right out confessed: “I’m sorry for being such a dong these past few weeks. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me…”
There appeared that signature smirk of hers, followed by a half-hearted laugh.
“Well there’s nothing so wrong with you, Joe,” Isabel said, “But since this is how you want to start the night, that’s fine. I’ll just come right out with it—” She paused, took a last sip of her beer and tossed it away. “The true problem with you is that you’re a man who thinks and acts like it’s impossible to be friends with a woman.”
Whether I liked it or not, it was the goddamned truth.
“I know I am,” I told her. “I don’t want to be, but you’re right. It’s just… I don’t know what it is I have to prove. I almost wanted to blame you. To tell myself you came onto me first—”
“Even though we both know that’s not true.”
“I know it’s not. I’d be lying if I said it was anyone else’s fault but my own. I know you were just being nice—just as nice and friendly to me as to everyone else…” I raised the back of my hand to my forehead, wiping a bead of sweat before it dripped down to my brow. “I just don’t know what it is… why I have this compulsion to fall in love with every person who pays me the slightest bit of attention.”
A man in front of us spun around to give me a glare. I knew this wasn’t the place to have this type of conversation, but the timing was right. The sooner she heard it the better.
Isabel’s smirk dripped into a frown. “You think you love me?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I do.”
“Oh, come on, Joe… You don’t really love me. You can’t. You hardly even know me.”
“I think I know you pretty well—”
“No you don’t. Not at all! You don’t know anything terrible about me—about anything real.”
“Um, so?” I asked her. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
The smirk of hers returned, then ripped into laughter. Other than the sound and darkness, it was exactly the same as the five-second film. Only now it felt hostile. Aflemoon.
“Are you kidding? It has everything to do with it! You can’t truly love me without knowing all the terrible things—I mean… what do you really know about me, as a person? How have I appeared to you in that head of yours for the past few months?”
“Well, as always I picture you wearing this same dirty jacket,” I said. “You’re drinking those gross spinach smoothies and speaking terrible Spanish. I think of you telling the story of when you first went vegan. Your iron deficiency and what you refer to as your ‘birthing hips’—”
“Sure, sure. But those things are all right at the surface, right there for your pickings. You meet someone in a class, or on a bus, or they take your order over the counter at a coffee shop—heck, you only get to experience the best of them. And if you come to see them again after that first interaction, you’ll still only be exposed to the best things they have to offer. And the time after that, and the time after that. Sure, it may seem nice to think there’s nothing terrible to hide, but that’s just people—they show the side of themselves that’s most flattering, up until a point where it no longer matters. Maybe sometime around 30 or 40 years later, I don’t know. But that’s all you ever got to know of me, Joe. You don’t love me, I know you don’t. I mean… I’ve been dating Mallory for nearly six months now and still the best is all I’ve seen of her, and I promise that the best is all I’ve let her see of me.”
“Well, then what the fuck is the point?” I felt myself getting louder, and not only to speak over the crowd. It appeared as if it’d be any second now the band was to come on.
“What do you mean? The point of what, exactly?”
“The point of dating someone if all you ever do is pretend!” I was nearly screaming.
“We’re not pretending, Joe. It’s different. I’m not being anything that I’m not—I’m merely not being all that I am.”
“What?” I shouted. The crowd grew even louder.
“I said: ‘It’s not that I’m pretending to be someone I’m not, just not showing all of myself!’”
“I heard all that! That’s still dumb as hell!” All six members of the band came out on stage at once. The crowded exploded into a frenzy of cheers.
“WHAT!” she shouted.
“I SAID: ‘THAT’S FUCKING STUPID!’—” She turned away from me towards the stage. Kalmia, the lead singer with ovarian cancer, was wearing a pinkish headscarf covering her hair. She had long legs that hung from out a pink matching gown. Farthest from her left stood Trent: a stout trumpet player with cropped hair and a full mustache.
Trent and Kalmia we’re engaged. And in spite of the cancer their relationship was standing strong. Without the shameful knowledge of having researched them earlier, such a detail as this would be lost among an otherwise playful impression that the entire band shared with one another. I decided to keep this fact to myself. Not only because it had then become too loud for Isabel to hear me, but because it was worthless to know, and I was sick of trying to speak.
Isabel made a few hand gestures to signal to me: I’m going to the bar to grab a drink. I’ll be right back. She started to make her way through the crowd. Then she grabbed my arm and pulled me in close.
“DO YOU WANT ANYTHING?” she screamed, nearly busting my eardrum.
I pulled back and likewise screamed at her: “I WANT YOU.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“I SAID: ‘YOU!’”
“NO? NOT EVEN A BEER?”
“O.K.” She left towards the bar. At once it felt as if the night had moved from bad to all right very quickly, as if none of my being was to be taken seriously. By the time she’d found her way back to me the band had already played through their first two songs. Only a few drunken souls surrounding me danced, and one elderly man wearing a miniature tee shirt over by the door. It typically takes about six songs into a set before the more sober folks in the audience muster it up to start dancing. Whether that time is spent getting acclimated to the tempo, unlocking their arms and legs out of fear, or spent evolving from sober folks into drunken rug-cutters, varies from person-to-person. For me it was generally the anxiety felt for not knowing what to do with my hands.
But suddenly something came over me… like a sheet thrown over the body of a cadaver because nobody cares to look at it anymore. With Isabel standing back at my side—a beer in her one hand and her phone in the other—all I then felt was some sort of electric compulsion to break away from the monotony, the idleness, all the wasted time… to free myself of all concern, and to dance like an utter asshole.
And so I did…
* * *
…The band was just beginning their sound-check when I caught sight of her in my periphery. By the venue’s side entrance Isabel stood, having made her presence known to me by way of that violently bright, yellow jacket of hers… the very one that’d been stamped deep into my sub-conscious due to her wearing it to near death everyday, over and over and over, even throughout those scorching August mornings. She’d once asked me whether I found it gross that she appeared in the same clothes day after day. I told her I didn’t give a damn what she wore, neither should anyone else.
“It’s not like I don’t change my shirt underneath or anything,” she said. “It’s just that I’d really rather not have people find me attractive—I know, I know, that may sound pretty vain of me, but when I see some guys look at me I just know they have other things in mind… It’s as if their stares are tangible enough that I can literally feel them on my body. That’s why I cut all my hair off and wear this filthy jacket every damn day. Sure, I might look like some cartoon character, but at least I now feel like a human being.”
That filthy, yellow coat… I would’ve recognized it anywhere. I had nearly trained myself to always be seeking it out in the periphery, that shining golden color acting as some visual alarm, signaling to me in the classroom, in the hallways, up ahead the streets and the sidewalks downtown, of Isabel’s approaching existence. I’d learned it to be a color to avoid.
And yet it was inescapable—as yellow and blinding as the revitalizing sun. That jacket served as the one noticeable piece of Isabel’s clothing to appear in my head whenever I was to close my eyes and give in, surrendering my memory over to the love-sick artist within my brain, who would spend all hours of the night painting portraits of Isabel along the white canvas of my skull—but no, rather it all appeared to me more like a five-second film: A teasing image of her from only the armpits-up, the jacket nearly falling from off her shoulder to the floor as she displayed that signature smirk… followed directly after by a charismatic, yet silent laugh. Then the film cuts out. Starts over. Plays over and over again on an infinite loop.
The very jacket I’d read too far into upon first laying eyes on her as my mind assumed the worst: that this clearly oversized jacket of hers must instead belong to a man, a burly man who’s sticking it to her; that she must be parading it around like a nape of pride to ward off other men—strange men such as myself. And yet, this jacket’s large size was what perhaps first attracted me to her. The way she wore it slumped from off one shoulder blade, not so much provocatively as just plain careless. And so it’d fall down the length of her body, pressed down below her thighs among the weight of Isabel’s fists dug deep into those yellow pockets, and a splitting symmetry of its busted coat zipper that refused to rise higher than just below her ribs…
Goddamn that jacket meant the world to me. And there it had returned, still slumped over that malnourished shoulder blade just the same as in my head. But this time it meant more. It was real. It was tangible. Capable of both retaining her purity and stripping it all away.
But no, such thoughts did not then cloud my head. That golden alarm flickered in space as a weather beacon, vanishing and flashing back into view with the passing of each slouching body filtering in front of her. It seemed to call out to me as a mix of conflicting signals: Approach. Safe. Stay. Run. Hide. And in the midst of the dim light cast above the stage, the disordered noise of sound check, the darkened sea of limp faces and glistening beer cans, my Golden Isabel had become a glowing lighthouse, beckoning me to come home—shining her light through my cranial storm to guide this sinking ship to shore.
Goddamnit, Joe… what hollow metaphors. You sound like fucking Fitzgerald.
Isabel then looked my way. She must’ve felt my stares. It was now or never. Make a decision, make a move. My options were this:
1) Look away, but stay put. Wait for her to see you first. Make yourself conspicuous. Be approachable. Look like you’re enjoying yourself, that beer in-hand, not even surrounded by your friends. But won’t that make you seem lonely? No. Rather, it’ll show her that you’re an independent, self-confident. Dance to the music, even though everyone knows it’s terrible. It’ll show that you really know how to have a good time.
2) Approach her, but don’t seem too eager. Resist the temptation to tell her you think she’d make an incredible mother. Try not to begin the conversation by stating, “Two nights ago I shaved my body for you.” Or, “If I die tonight I want to be buried wearing your clothes.” A simple hello will suffice. Don’t let on the fact that you’ve been both dreading and dreaming of this night, this exact moment here, for the last two months. Act like you don’t give a fuck about her. Look her straight in the eyes, risk the possibility of seizing right there on the floor, and say this: “I would’ve never guessed you liked this kind of music.” If her girlfriend is with her, first gauge whether or not you could beat her in a fight. Then, either way, bite off her lips.
3) Run away. Run all the way home and never return. Masturbate naked in your leather desk chair, throw those remaining pills down your throat, lie down like a dog and call it a life—
No. I was sick of it all. I was sick of running away from all my problems. I was sick of the passive aggression. Sick of pretending to be okay with who I was. Sick of the balls between my legs despite never once feeling like I owned the pair. Sick of relying on others to give my own life meaning. Sick of chugging cheap beer to feel comfortable in a place I’d rather not be. Sick of all this self-torture just for the fun of it—for the sake of inspiration, for attention, to evade boredom. Sick of believing every moment had to be life-altering. Sick of feeling guilty for all the sexual fantasies of strangers, co-workers, friends, mothers, grandmothers. Sick of pretending to enjoy experimental music, abstract paintings, film photography, both the movie and show Twin Peaks, when really I just thought it was all pompous shit and that everyone else in the world likewise thought it was shit but were all too afraid to admit that we know nothing about true art, or what the hell it’s supposed to mean… I was sick of being the world’s unpaid actor.
I tossed my half-full beer can into the trash just as the last remaining lights above the stage faded into darkness.
I walked on.
* * *
…I arrived at the venue at a decent hour somewhere between the lull of the first and second bands, when all the smokers rush out the backdoor to fill their lungs, stand around, and make conversation… when all the drinkers flood the bathrooms, neglect to wash their hands, and make conversation. I was among a few friends who likewise felt inclined to be at tonight’s show, though certainly with more valid reasons than to win over the stunted heart of a lesbian.
The line to get a drink was long and aggressive. My friends immediately bum-rushed the bar, dollars in hand, waving frantically above the countertops as if they were all fighting to purchase the last ticket home from war. I got in behind them to blend in, taking a few minutes to gather my thoughts and try to find a state of comfort. It usually could be found by way of surrendering myself over to alcohol, permitting it to course through my veins and coerce any of my amusing, yet invariably rude actions. But as mentioned, tonight this was not the case. Nearly two hours of pre-gaming, pumping myself full of cheap drinks of beer and whiskey at a friend’s place, and yet it was as if my nerves were consuming it like ethanol, putting it all to good use. My testicles were in my stomach. My heart was in my throat. My mind was running elsewhere—somewhere hovering above me in the soundproof rafters, looking down on my raggedy clothes and reddening complexion.
It might be dark in here. It may be packed with other people, and yet everyone’s staring at you. It’s not because you’re beautiful. Nor because you play the role of carefree so well. No. It’s because they can tell that you’re nervous… that you don’t fit in here. They can smell the fear on you, strong enough to distract them from the stench of stale booze and salt. You’re not comfortable with who you are, with how you act, or even how you stand. And they all know it. The last thing you are right now is comfortable. The last thing you’ll ever be is content. Do you really think anything will change if she actually becomes yours? If you can lie well enough to convince her that you’re not only some half-shaved wolf, but rather unique and clever and handsome enough for her to suddenly start liking dicks? Oh, and so what if she then vows to love you? To never leave you, trusting that all your contagious pain is worth it, because beneath all that bad is just so much good? You’re a fucking disease. An air-borne pathogen. You’re making everyone in this entire venue sick. Go ahead. Lean your arm up against the bar. Gaze around the room as if you’re thinking of buying the place. Yes, just like that… You’re still not fooling anyone, you psychotic fuck—
“What’ou want?” mouthed the bartender, staring intently at me as she unconsciously opened three cans. I looked around. Folks were starting to filter back to the main stage.
“Nine dollars!” she shouted to the man on my left. She held up nine fingers. The man’s glassy eyes rolled down to his pockets as he pulled out a five and three ones, dropping them on the bar top before leaving without a word. She counted the bills individually to make sure she’d been short-changed. Then, for only a brief second, a thought crossed over her before forgetting it immediately to move on with her life. It was this: if the world was a man, it’d have one-too-many assholes.
She asked me again what I wanted. I shrugged. “I’ll take the cheapest beer you got.”
I figured that at least holding something in my hand might help keep me grounded, if not help manifest enough sense of poise to find a bit of comfort in such a situation as this. Social, stressful, loud, and hormonal—all the terrible qualities I’d used nearly every weekend to excuse myself for not leaving the house. Always the same story.
"It’s too crowded in there."
"It’s too loud."
"There’s too many folks binge-drinking, preying on and out-competing one another only to take a complete stranger home. Just a bunch of lusting, bloodthirsty animals. The peacocks dance and the rhinos fight. It’s like a goddamned watering hole, the whole thing makes me sick—"
But, hell… I was an animals just like the rest of them, only I possessed the hunger for a singular blood. I told the bartender to keep the change—a tip three-times the cost of the drink. I figured it’d be nice to have at least one person on my side after I’d inevitably went berserk. Maybe when the police would arrive they’d ask her for a personal statement and she’d mention that she saw me, sure, even served me a drink.
“And despite the fact that the guy got naked and started rubbing his genitals all up against our concrete floor, all while crying out ‘Isabel, please! Please, Isabel!’ so loud that the band had to quit playing,” she’d say. “For what it’s worth, officer, at least the guy knows to tip his bartender…”
And so I went in search for her, blending into the gathering crowd like a hunter dressed in camouflage…
* * *
…The end result of last night was, to say the least, surprisingly painless. I’d prepared for the night to end in disaster. In truth, a disastrous evening was exactly what I’d set out to make.
For weeks I’d played out this reunion of Isabel and me in my head. I knew she was to be there, at this venue downtown on this particular night, October 11th. One of her all-time favorite musicians was playing, and she’d asked me along months ago as a friend. I’d set the date in mind as the night to seal our fate—me and her, her and me… me and her and alcohol and music to touch to.
I listened to the band for weeks on end, leaving them to always hang on the cusp of my car stereo in case she ever needed a ride. Memorized every word to sing along with, every beat and climax and cadence to have a blueprint to dance to. Even read up on each member’s background, dropping in little personal details here and there in an effort to impress:
“It’ll be interesting to see how Kalmia’s been doing,” I’d say.
“Yeah. Wait, what do you mean?” she’d ask.
“Well, you know, because of the cancer. She’s been in chemo for the last month.”
“My god, are you serious? I didn’t even know she was sick…”
But it’d been weeks since we last spoke. The 11th couldn’t come soon enough. In the days leading up, its forthcoming seemed nearly unapproachable, so stagnant and remote. A landmark up head of the road that never appears to come closer no matter how long you drive—and yet I awoke yesterday, and there it was.
I’d recited a script of every which way our initial greeting might go. Nothing too heavy-hearted or long-drawn, not from the start… I’d have to tread lightly, bit by bit, in order to permit myself enough words to convince Isabel to shift her sexuality and abandon her Mallory, all for me. I’d make her girlfriend look like chopped, fatty liver… with dirty dreadlocks, and a hair-salon degree, and a fucking Ohm tattoo. Jesus Christ. All the while, I was to be clever, and coy, and comical, and compassionate, and rhythmic, and fertile, and male—to be everything she needed, everything she’d want me to be…
Aw shit, who am I trying to kid? I knew from the start that I was get myself drunk beyond all gentlemanly state prior to seeing her. To drink whiskey after beer after pocket-draining whiskey until my eyes were as sunken and wet as a hound’s, and the filter on my lips hung as loose as the collar of my beaten tee shirt—the same one I’d been wearing one week prior, tottering outside some hollow bar where some feminine specimen resembling Molly Shannon had the balls to tell one of my friends that, “she liked to talk to ugly guys sometimes, if only to make them feel better about themselves.” A real benevolent gal, who then turned to divulge to me that my shirt’s thread count was much-too low to ever attract her, or any other self-respecting woman at this bar, for that matter. So I called out to her: “I bet your cunt smells of cream cheese you bitch-faced Molly Shannon.”
She countered by clawing her pretty little fingers between my collarbones. Needless to say I went home alone that night, just as I had every night before that for the past two years.
There was much I’d been meaning to say to her, Isabel, since the last time I’d seen her magnificent person restrained among those four walls. As I’d been showing up to class late, or not at all, in any effort to avoid the strange feelings and urges brought on by seeing her: a desire to both kiss and cut up that symmetrical face of hers, lean cheeks crafted from good decisions and teethy smirks.
I was to tell it all—to stumble and slur and spill my guts out for her all over the venue floor, dancers’ shoes sticky with my saliva, semen, and hideously filthy thoughts. I was to manifest the messiness of my drippy-in-love head. I sought to humiliate myself beyond all recognition; to debase my good name beyond all ability to recover; to confess of all the poems I’d written for her, reciting a few cheap lines about how pretty I thought her name looked down on paper; to tell how hurt, angry, offended I felt by her sexual choosing… that she’d made the wrong fucking choice—
I was to be an embarrassment for my gender, right alongside all the muscleheads and objectifiers and right-wing politicians and parking-garage rapists. I sought to shove that unsolved vagina of hers right off the fence; to confide in her that not since I’d first laid eyes on her had I once masturbated to her, out of fear that even in my own mind’s eye I’d be an poor performer; that my feeble dick alone would be just another nail in the coffin to her fondness for trouser mouths…
Indeed, I sought to confess in a final gushy mess that, in a frantic moment of panicked nerves only three nights ago, I’d awoken in the dead of night and shaved half my body from chest-to-toe, to become a bit softer, a touch more feminine, just for her… And in my grand climax for all, I’d expose it to her, right then and there: to strip down in front of every witness to only my socks and shoes, to present my ill-timed erection, to prove that not all of my gender is so hideously dishonest by attesting my claims to having divided my hairy self from my sanity in one symmetrical line—
But no. I did no such things. For no matter what cascade of alcohol I forced down my throat, it was my body that did not permit my head to become the sick, trembling, romantic mess I aspired to be…
* * *
…I thought I’d write a novel, but instead went for a run. I strapped on my sneakers, scuffed thin at the inner heels. Pulled a sour, beaten tee shirt over my head. The same one I’d worn for the last three days. I pushed some water down my throat to moisten my bowels. I don’t know what it is, but the prospects of exercise always put my nerves on edge, urging me to piss and shit three, sometimes four times before I can even leave the house.
Wrecked nerves, a condensed chest, bloodless arms and legs, is merely my body’s natural state. Any telltale signs of last night’s events seem to be buried deep within my head, with no true physical signs other than the stale smell of beer still in my hair. I suppose that may be one of the few, decent side effects of the medication: I haven’t felt hungover for more than a year, and not for a lack of trying, either. It’s all these excess chemicals floating around in my head, not affording me the early-morning impression of a bag of rocks beneath my skull. Truth be told, I nearly miss it…
The toilet seat grows warm through countless re-visits, and after two more false alarms and a near-prolapsed asshole I’m ready to go. I step out into the living room to find a roommate, “Mustache Jack,” drinking coffee and recovering on the couch. He asks me what my thoughts were of last night, says it’s a bummer I got separated from them all.
Be honest with him, I tell myself, No more pretending for the sake of solidarity.
“I thought it was a total shit show,” I say to him, “and I’m glad I was left alone.” Then I’m out the door before he even has a chance to reply.
I get in my car to drive to a prime location. Some place to run among the woods, with many trees to reciprocate oxygen into my stunted lungs. A secluded spot, with less folks to stare at and judge the inexperienced stretching of my skeleton legs: Cook’s Trail.
I’ve been here before, a few times. The folks who run these trails are already set in their ways, already withdrawn from the rest. They don’t look you in the eyes when you move to let them pass by. They don’t wave back a hand in recognition of a fellow human being, one who likewise feels urged to bring pain and airlessness to their depreciating bodies. We’re all here torturing ourselves for one reason or another, and yet nobody cares to reflect as to why.
And so we don’t. We turn up the volume instead. We thrust those rubber headphones deep into the pools of our ears to flood them with sound. A steady beat at 140 BPM: a tad-bit quicker than the times we live in, but it propels our feet forward at an inspiring pace.
When I arrive at the park, I spend a few minutes stretching my legs across the lukewarm hood over a fresh-killed engine. An onset of tight pain to my thighs signals neglect, so I speed-count to ten: one two three four five six… to siphon some of the blood crowding my brain down to my limbs.
I needed a distraction from things—at its grassroots, that was the issue. I was hurting, and didn’t wish to recognize the truth that my pain was due to nobody’s negligence but my own. I knew this now, and yet acceptance of the problem had not served as the cure. Rather, I felt pained by this truth that I was both in and out of control. But I figured, Hell… this hurt might be here to stay, but at least it can be converted between means.
Which is what brings me here to this park at near dusk, seeking to exchange this vague pain still scourging my head into something more concrete—a pulled hamstring, a strained muscle, tachycardia, whatever. It all trumps remembering why I feel compelled to drag myself out of bed this morning, away from the fridge and television, away from the books, from the pen and paper to reveal my lacking talents as a writer, all while still questioning whether or not I’ll even make it to class tomorrow seeing as I’m still frightened as all hell—Why I find myself here in these poor-man’s clothes, meaning to manifest this inner urge I’ve felt to just run, run, run the farthest away, out of the fear that I might recognize that last night’s self-actualizations were really all just a bunch of empty talk—that there’s no way I’ll actually be able to fulfill these drastic life changes I’ve sworn to make since, not even 12 hours later, I am still haunted by this temptation to sweat, ache, and break anew my physique for the sheer effect of it… Figuring that if I cannot impress Isabel with a bright mind, then perhaps I might press upon her with a ripe body instead—
So I go. I wait for the appropriate song with an inspiring pulse, and then I just fucking go. My feet, rising to fall back to the earth like two magnets fighting for the attraction of its core. Whatever initial resistance felt is shrugged off at once, because it’s about time for a goddamned change.
What a waste it’s been. All these days spent sulking alone. Drinking cheap beer, writing poems and stories of love, and lust, and drugs, and glorified mental illness—all the shit that folks either will relate to, or wish to relate to, because apparently they make life exciting. While the good news is, each is certainly within reach to have in life, just as long as one is willing to forfeit a better part of himself to attain it.
“There are no fair trades in life. Only loss.”
That horrid verse crosses my mind as I’m coursing through the path, stomping down exposed tree roots like they’re the veins sustaining the world. Feeling momentarily free, I reach out my arms to finger the branched trees at my sides to appear like a bird in fight, like an asshole in mid-push. I imagine that’s just how I appear to the Mexican couple walking their dog my way: a swollen asshole. But I do not care. Sunrays touch down to illuminate the insect bodies trapped in a spider web before me. I run right on through—the bugs moving from near-death in this sticky web to guaranteed death in my greasy curls.
I inhale, “Smmmmffff…” and accidentally swallow up an entire city of gnats in just one deep breath. Some are preserved in my nose hairs, humming to get out. I blow out my nose over a bridge and continue on. I frown, regarding myself as a monster to all bugs.
I exhale, “Aaahhhhhh…” as a brief notion of self-love spills across my mind in acknowledgment of a beautiful feeling: empathy for the bugs. I think to myself, You’re a good guy, Joe. You’re okay—
Then I remember I’m suppose to be more honest with myself and the frown returns, regarding myself as a monster to all humankind…
Upon entering a clearing I experience a sudden rush of déjà vu. Indeed, I’ve been here before, when I first visited Athens two years ago during the spring of my sophomore year, back when I was still trapped in the Hell that is Kennesaw State. I’d been brought to Cook’s Trail by some mutual friends of Mustache Jack, all of which ad either smoked weed or ingested psilocybin right prior in tribute to the day. It was April 20th, 2012. And it’d been here, at this exact spot along the trail, that Tessy had opted to wander off into the woods in search of a barn owl he’d heard call across the way. We left him alone to explore the vast spread of wilderness, and miraculously intersected with him at sunset nearly three hours later. I’d spent those last few hours completely sober, due to an inherent opposition to all mind-altering drugs—the recreational drugs, unlike my anti-depressants. My psychiatrist referred to it as an “imbalance in chemical receptors.” That my head was making all the right stuff, but there was just no use for it anymore, alike some fruitless production line.
“That’s where the medicine comes in,” he’d said. “You should feel as if those dark thoughts are getting some light shed on ‘em. Give it a few weeks, you should start feeling like your normal self.”
I never did. Never returned back with an ordinary head. I had waited too long to speak up, and now the damage was done: my brain could produce all the chemicals it wanted, but they no longer had any use. Trillions of floppy disks and walkmans and pet rocks in my head. But things did get better, I suppose. I began to feel very little, less and less with each medicated day. And by a few weeks I’d become a cold machine. I didn’t know how to feel about feeling so little. I supposed that was the whole point of the meds—to strip me of my short-lived highs in exchange for all the crippling lows, so I might live in a safe middle of feeling nothing at all.
“There are no fair trades in life…”
And it was only after I’d moved that summer to Athens that I’d spoken up. Called the university’s clinic and confessed I was about to self-destruct… to take a big bite of dust. I was referred to the outpatient office of Dr. Mercyhurst, one of the worst practitioners of medicine, and most insensitive persons I’ve ever known. A few months later, then amid this newly formulated head, nothing had quite struck me as much as Isabel.
Isabel, Isabel, Isabel, Isabel, Isabel—the golden light to my dark thoughts…
I supposed at first we were both insane, as if that was something to bond over. Two distinct breeds of instability: She ate nothing apart from blended shakes of kale, almond milk and flax seed, was a weekday frequenter to the Atlanta rave scene, and was utterly clueless as to which way her sexuality leaned, as well as why it had to lean any way at all.
“I am just attracted to people,” she’d asserted with pride. “It’s got nothing to do with what goes on underneath.”
While I, on the other hand, hated everyone—
A post to my left reads 1 MILE in white letters against a blue pane.
But no one more than Isabel’s girlfriend, Mallory, who I dreamed of killing sometimes.
* * *
…Sadness, or something.
Drive home in a clean car. Watch the roads with tired eyes. Judge the folks with an angry mind.
Awake late to no alarm for the second time this week, the taste of Italian Crème cake on your breath from last night’s dinner.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong? Is it depression?”
Shut the fuck up.
Watch a construction worker waiting at a crosswalk with cigarette in hand with admiration. An impulse to arrive home, eat whatever food in the fridge is not mine, look up online: how to change one’s life for the better—
Delete for the better, and press enter.
An urge to fall to the floor and do push-ups. Gain muscles, adopt a new name, skip town and work on buildings in a foreign place for the rest of my life alone. Not so bad.
The girl you love is in trouble, deep mental trouble. Abandon her.
Re-watch a television show you’ve seen a trillion times before. Slap yourself in the face whenever you find yourself quoting lines aloud. Forget it, just fucking go to bed.
Wake up to a question: Are you still there? Shit, Netflix, I don’t even know anymore…
Go to work. Watch the clock. Count the minutes. Talk to all your fellow employees on the most superficial level: talk to them about work, and what it’s like to work right now—talk to the unschooled grill-man and when he says some shit you don’t understand, just reply: “Haha yeah…”
Piss off your girlfriend’s parents. Make them re-think ever turning a blind-eye to you sticking it to her.
Do something sweet to make it up to her. Envision it in your mind, all cheery and romantic. Execute the sweetness and find that reality once again does not live up to your or her expectations.
Look like a fool who isn’t trying hard enough, or look like one who is. Either way it’s the same.
Flood your ears with that signature tune, over and over, the song that makes you want to punch strange folks in the throat just for the fun. Get angry, get emotional, so that you can write some ambiguous mesh of words that amount to something about your dad being dead—
Get a new follower on Spotify and the sadness is gone. Inspiration is gone.