Recent Work By Steven Arcieri

 

Returning from Dunkin’ with my daily order of large iced coffee with cream and sugar, large iced matcha with whole milk, everything bagel with strawberry cream cheese, hash browns, and the little bag they fill with small strips of seasoned bacon, I’d envisioned a Saturday spent watching the last half of the last episode of Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist then working on writing until it came time to sleep, but the sparrow that appeared on the ledge had other plans. I can’t pinpoint why I was in the kitchen but I was, the window wide open without insect screen. The sparrow and I sized each other up in a sick twisted game of What Happens Next? I itched for it to do something other than sit and swivel its head because I wanted to milk it for a more interesting image—it didn’t budge. This is an autofiction novel so I can invent sparrow fiascos whenever the hell I want but everything on the page so far, save an inconsequential detail or three, has been true, so it didn’t cross my mind to ascribe actions to a bird that hadn’t performed them; I started to craft a sentence about disappointment—then, in an awkward flapping fit, it pulled itself to the dish rack, did a shit, and flung itself inside the drop ceiling. It got in through the missing section under the fluorescents and I watched it skitter across the other plastic panels, splattering them with well over a dollar’s worth of dime-sized defecations.

 

This isn’t a history textbook but history is happening. It was convenient weaving COVID-19 into the narrative of my day-to-day as a universally relatable backdrop but this isn’t like that. The pandemic was and remains tragic but it’s the result of microscopic pathogens that cannot make logical decisions for themselves; what’s happening now in America is the result of millennia of horrors by way of the brains and hearts and hands of humans who have had millennia to witness the harm wrought and vow not to pass the hateful torch on to their offspring. But no such thing happened, the horrors so ingrained they remained fabric, breaking point after breaking point. I was raised in an overwhelmingly white part of a suburb, where parents accused Black kids of infiltrating from an abutting neighborhood to parasitically suckle from the teat of our top notch public school system paid for with our hard-earned tax dollars. I can only recall a single African-American student from elementary school; his house burned down from some appliance gone awry in the garage and everyone knew, even the librarian, who in front of our whole class, treated him with disproportionate cruelty over unreturned Goosebumps. All four elementary schools streamlined into a single middle school and I became friends with Marlon, the funniest kid I’d ever met, so capable of making my gut bust our Geography teacher had to alter the seating arrangement so we’d be as far away from each other as possible, but that was useless, all it took was a single backwards glance, him pulling down his eyelids with his fingers and puffing his cheeks, and I’d once again disrupt the lesson; toward the end of sixth grade, we signed ourselves up to perform improv in the talent show; per audience suggestion, we got on our hands and knees and became cows, we pantomimed chewing some cud, then I made the low-hanging joke that he produced chocolate milk; our peers laughed, shouted more suggestions, and we went on with our act–I’m not sure whether I felt off about it then, or if its offness only comes now, over a decade later, superimposing itself over the memory, but the joke had no basis other than me viewing my friend as my “Black friend.”

 

Something tragic must have happened but the sirens snapped me fast awake in a way my procession of phone alarms never do. A couple months ago, I started a daily movie discussion group that gives me passable doses of socialization and structure. Mumblecore is a film movement defined by low budgets, close-cropped shots of blackheads and the oily skin of actors who look like regular people, and loose scripts which give way to mostly improvised dialogue, all adding up to the closest narrative cinema has ever gotten to the pulse of real life, turning the tiniest emotional nuances into the end of the world. Joe Swanberg’s 74-minute-runtime Art History took me 4 hours to watch because I kept having to pause and sob on the floor. All day, I was pure Pavlov’s dog; the VEEDER-ROOT would beep until I silenced it so it was my job to jump from my desk and press the red button, soon impulsively jumping at different disruptions. It takes me two weeks to get adjusted to being at work and two weeks to get adjusted to being at home, which means I’m not. I have been eating, at most, one full meal a day. I spoke with my therapist about sleep hygiene and made the decision to stop using my bed for anything other than sleep. I didn’t follow through but did wake up reasonably early for a Saturday. A loud romantic argument went down at 4am on a work night and I looked outside to see both lovers were maskless. Minor daily frustrations, like a text message when I’m trying to focus, or someone nearby saying “Hello!” to a friend louder than needed, have the power to rattle and derail me so hard it takes upwards of 40 minutes of zoning out to regain composure and get back to what I was doing. When in the kitchen speaking on the phone with Jackie, one of my best friends, I looked out the window just in time to witness the act of a man pissing on the side of my building; he looked up and witnessed my witnessing while seeing his stream to completion. Regarding the piss man, I said, “This is it, this is my sentence for the day,” and Jackie told me to jot it down. 

 

Got slapped with a $150 fine because I missed a psychiatry appointment because my sleep schedule inverted because of this weird new life. I am biologically prone to exist nocturnally in the absence of external responsibility and structure. I work for a utility company, which is as essential to the upkeep of society as it gets, but my position is not essential. My department, however, which repairs its vehicles, is essential, and it was decided we split into two groups, switching off biweekly between who stays home and who comes in. I’m nervous that I must go out into the world tomorrow but count myself lucky I’m still getting a full paycheck. The windshield from the totaled truck looked like crumpled paper in the trash can. The businesses that remain open have large panes of plexiglass hanging from their ceilings to keep the cashiers safe from customers who have come for burritos or coffee. I’ve had to revise habits, such as shooting snot rockets and picking up and pocketing every coin I see glint from the sidewalk. Almost everything I see or hear or think can kickstart a train of thought that delivers me to Pola.

 

Pola said she needed space and time, then gave me the hat she had finished crocheting, which, I noticed, after she left, smelled exactly like comfort and security and happiness and her bedroom, so I stuck it in my bureau, so cigarette smoke or fresh air couldn’t take that away from me. One of the trucks from my job swerved and flopped onto its side, and there was footage of it on the internet which I watched over and over while intermittently looking at the truck itself standing upright in the garage with a gouge instead of a windshield. Whoever sequenced the stoplights and walklights at this intersection, did it with the intent of killing people. A part of me wishes I believed so deeply in astrology that I could explain this all away with mercury retrograde. When I listen to music in the shower in the morning, it’s often interrupted by alarms I neglected to turn off, and I get frustrated, but then I feel a little guilty because they were only trying to do what I instructed them to do, so then I think, “I’m sorry for getting upset with you. You were just trying to wake me up.”

 

Late into the night, the traffic lights outside start to blink, as if to say, “Go ahead, do whatever you want, I don’t care.” It’s easier to apologize profusely for my room being messy than it is to clean it. I remember two times I called 911, although there may have been others. The crossword clue was: “Message written on a car window” and my first guess was SAVE ME, and my second stab was CALL ME, when the answer was WASH ME. When I was on the cusp of graduating college, I ended up in a psych unit for three days instead. Pola and I walked down the same street in different directions so that we could bump into each other to walk in the same direction and it was dark and drizzling and the headlights and streetlights didn’t help so everyone walking towards me was Pola until they got close enough and were not her until it was her. People often give me the heads up that my fly is down. As of now, I think the most beautiful song lyric is: If being afraid is a crime, we hang side by side. I much prefer phone calls to texting. I had to explain the messy details all over again when I met with a new mental health professional. I’m not sure which parts of me are worth keeping secret. The olive oil sputtered and got me, and I held my fingers and arms under the faucet so I’d have smaller blisters to deal with. Learning that the name for something that has been happening with me is OCD, has heightened my OCD. We were watching Big and Pola fell asleep before Josh Baskin returned to the Zoltar machine so he wouldn’t have to be Tom Hanks anymore. In a coffee shop, Pola taught me the basics of crocheting, and a man in a wheelchair wouldn’t stop saying to me, “Yes, that’s a good thing. Crocheting is good. There’s nothing wrong with crocheting. It’s a good thing.” For months now, Pola and I have been stealthily planting two specific mayonnaise tubes on each other’s person each time we see each other and today I found one tucked inside my Zoloft bottle and the other fell out of my hat when I got back home. My belts break at a rapid pace. I dreamt that I lost my cool at work and when I told my coworker about it, he laughed. In lieu of dinner, I ate two Ben And Jerry’s. The scab from my blister got crusty and yellow and looked like a booger and even though I knew better, I fiddled and fussed until it fell off and now the exposed skin is tender and deep red. I’m much more embarrassed when the embarrassing thing occurs in private. But there are major drawbacks to having an audience as well. I think I may have just committed the most brutal act of self-sabotage that I have ever committed in my life. While I was sobbing in a Lyft, my driver made a fatal wrong turn and, at the end of the ride, he gave me three dollars from his own pocket and said it was for making me late to work but I choose to believe it was out of compassion for the crying. I bailed on the movie with Pola because I haven’t really slept for three days. How do I write definitively about something that’s yet to be defined? I’m learning the distinctions between unhealthy sadness and healthy sadness. My phone died and forced me to listen to the things I was thinking and feeling. Cliffhangers are devices used in fiction to keep audiences hooked, beside themselves with anticipation for the next chapter or episode, and a lived life can present you with things that feel like cliffhangers, you’re left wondering what will come next, what another person is thinking or feeling, it can drive you mad, but it’s best to keep in mind that life is not a structured narrative, it happens and it keeps happening, and so I cast off my frantic anticipation and sit here patiently waiting for tomorrow without torment.

 

 

A small black bird flew directly toward my window and settled on the ledge. Which, I suppose, is a testament to how quickly things can change. I still haven’t caught my breath. On the bus, I was so captivated by an article on “How To Make Your Relationship Better” that I missed the stop right by my girlfriend’s apartment and the stop after that and the stop after that. In my bedroom, I have a bed and a fainting couch. I was worried that a good night’s sleep would skew the data of my neuropsych evaluation. I’m my truest self while waiting for someone to show up. Each time I log into my email, I unsubscribe from a different mailing list. When my depression had more of a hold, I would sometimes find myself jolted into awareness in the middle of a street by the headlights and brake screeches of a car I subconsciously wanted to hit me. I’ve conditioned myself to always smile with my mouth shut because my teeth are yellow. Sometimes, Pola and I will use the third person to talk about each other to each other instead of the second person to simulate an element of jealousy in our relationship. I insisted that nothing was wrong and tried to keep washing dishes through the nausea. When I bit off the crescent of a fingernail, I felt a rush of synchronicity. If you happened to see me on the bus this morning, please keep it to yourself. The last thing I want to become is one of those people who will hold a door open, not out of the goodness of their heart, but a sick thirst for a “thank you.” Pola and I stood by her stoop in the cold and kept hugging and our shivers didn’t matter because the abstract kind of warmth was that potent. Before leaving my apartment, I fill my backpack with all the things I may consider maybe using while I’m out. When I google a thing to make sure I use the correct term in a short story, the internet becomes convinced that I am interested in purchasing one and inundates me with images and prices. I wonder who Leslie Walton is and if she knows about the roses addressed to her that have been wilting on someone else’s welcome mat for over a week. The smoke detector went off at the precise moment the timer to flip the chicken went off as if both alarms were conspiring to force me into a crisis and see how I would handle it. In high school, I had this nasty habit of passing off art made by others as my own. As I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams, I found myself transformed in my bed into a gigantic insect. A man said “Hey! How you doing man?” while I was selecting an onion but my recognition of him was vague to none so I said I was okay and didn’t engage further. At the feedback appointment for my evaluation, I learned that there wasn’t an easy fix. After paying a lot to look at awful art, we stepped outside and the heavy rain had stopped. I swapped backpacks with Pola to give her a break from the weight but it wasn’t long before the straps cut off the circulation to both my arms. I’m sick but not sick enough to shirk responsibilities. The misdelivered bouquet has finally been disposed of. My jaywalking made a car get stuck at a red light. My headache feels like it could explode into a star. My sense of humor entails resuscitating a horse so I can make it dead again.