The opening sentence I first wanted to run with was: “I may have inadvertently endorsed an actual cult.” Then, I thought: “I would like to take this opportunity to close the curtain,” would be more fitting. Although both true, I don’t wish to bring further attention to my potential cult endorsement, and I forfeited my right to privacy when I decided to write this book. But more importantly, neither sentence does the work of kicking off a month in which—for the second time in my life—I thought, “God is happening.” Disclaimer: I don’t believe in God, neither do I disbelieve in God—it’s not a question I’ve ever found vital enough to answer. The thought popped up only because there aren’t words to describe what occurred to me at night, October 7th. Things got set in motion, a smidge more than a week before, when I woke to a text from Pola: Hi Steven, happy birthday! Hope it’s a really nice day for ya. It was the first time, I think, she’d initiated contact since February, aside from the time I sobbed so hard I puked blueberries and unfollowed and removed her as a follower on Instagram because a photo she posted of herself and Bella forced me into the moment I felt closest to her—we’re on our stomachs, trying to lure the skittish and wide-eyed cat from beneath a bed, when Pola says, “It’s okay Bella, we’re your parents now.” Days after the birthday text, I pinned down why it disquieted me. Blind to everything but the short story I was working on, Sarah J. texted she was close by and wanted to do schoolwork on my couch while I wrote at my desk, something we’ve been doing weekly, and I said sure, just gotta shower first. A drop of lavender Dr. Bronner’s cupped in my palm, collecting water to dilute it, and no longer thinking of the divorced dad narrator and his weekend with Audrey, his daughter—something gave: the whole of the relationship, the breakup, the bereavement, caved in on itself and buried me in its rubble. I didn’t cry until I dried and sat naked in my desk chair, but it wouldn’t stop once it started, regardless of the Klonopins and the mindfulness exercises—I texted Sarah J. over-apologetically asking to postpone.

 

The dreams I’ve been having have trickled into reality in the hides of false memories. At work, all the electricity went kaput and I bushwhacked the dark to find the urinal. I’m unsure where the mice are getting in from but a strong guess is the extinct fireplace. When Under The Skin was released in 2014, a mouse in the theater darted past my socks. I remember that so vividly but not simple things like I have to eat meals. The people from apartment 1 and apartment 3 and apartment 4 have all vanished. Unsober, I floated through the rooms of 4 and discovered a replica of my extinct fireplace. Their kitchen lent more counter space and their bathtub had claws and a window beside it. Now, I refuse to be dead before eating raspberries in my very own claw-footed bathtub. In January, the roses addressed to Leslie Walton died on 4’s welcome mat. A subscription service meal kit got delivered to 3 and it’s been rotting in the vestibule. Someone moved it to the stoop then someone moved it back inside then I threw it out. Sarah J. said she didn’t have the attention span for movies, so I eased her in with short ones. We watched Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall and the first segment of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. We came very close to swapping out a tire, we went out to her car and everything, but didn’t. Storytelling is a fitting preface for the remainder of my year because I’m taking 2 workshops. I enjoy Chelsea Hodson’s course because it’s pushing me deeper into what I’m already doing. But I won’t write about the most emotionally intense moment I’ve experienced, it isn’t mine. Just as I won’t describe the plan I’ve devised to get to the life I want to live, in case I can’t. 

 

How could I have anticipated becoming friends with two Sarahs in less than a year? In July, I wrote 31 sentences about 11 hours because the timespan unfolded into a tidy narrative. But I didn’t write about meeting the second Sarah and I didn’t write about drinking humongous Bud Light Oranges on her roof, the overlap of our Venn-diagram so fat we both kept saying, “Wait, wait! I got a story about that,” and then never telling any of them. I began writing this novel January 1st with two parameters: 1. I’d compress the primary occurrence, thought, or theme of each day into a single sentence 2. If anyone is mentioned by name, I must get their green (or, in some cases, yellow) light prior to publication. I ditched the first rule in lieu of the linear essays I wrote in June and July and I’ve abused punctuation to turn full paragraphs into sentences and there are a slew of other ways I’ve circumnavigated to allow myself greater narrative freedom and, if I’m being completely honest, to save my ass from habitual procrastination. But I’m committed to literary consent because no sentence is worth bridge-burning or hurting someone and I’m committed to real names because if someone says they’re comfortable only if I pseudonym, they’re not comfortable. First Sarah has been mentioned twice so her name will remain “Sarah” while second Sarah will appear as “Sarah J.” I think often of the sentence couplet in Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book where he writes: “She had a brother named Jack who I never liked but who I always said I liked. I never liked him though and I’m not putting him in my book.” I didn’t write about the divorce my coworker is going through, how his wife blindsided him one day with “I don’t think I ever loved you.” And I didn’t write about how he discusses it in such a water-cooler way even though it’s gotta be weighing on him. Or how I could never be like that, my interior life on full display even when I’d rather it not be.

The Walk Home

(after Julian Schnabel’s “The Walk Home”)

I may be wrong, Dad, but I think that you think I don’t think about you. I can sense it when you leave that rare message on my phone, as if I choose not to pick it up, and your voice goes tinny and far away: “Well, I’d like to hear how you’re doing. I love you, son,” with a lilt in your voice right at the end, an ellipsis, as if you think I would hesitate to say those words back to you.

What are you afraid of?

 

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.”

 

Nat is pregnant. Nothing remarkable is happening to my body besides the fact I’ve gotten fatter. We’re all used to that now. This started well before the virus. It’s her body where things are happening: my pregnant wife. There is a 6-inch boy-to-be somersaulting inside of her right now. That’s my kid in there. Life. 

 

We’ve been quarantining with my parents for over two months. Two months is how long it takes to be in a room watching a movie together, hear your father fart and have no one feel the need to remark on it. I could cry, or at least mist up, probably, if I kept really thinking about it. The closeness. All of us on pause from the inertia of before, with nowhere to be, in a room watching something dumb. Remember, we’re all going to (you know what)

 

We garden too, me and my dad. Dig out dirt from under a pile of dead leaves. Worms are a black gold bellwether. That’s what he mutters when I pitch some good looking soil into the barrel as he sifts through for rocks. Black gold. Black gold. We take turns wheelbarrowing the stuff to the little, planting square. Pick up speed with the barrel on the approach to the little hill. Watch out for the lilies, son. We plant rows of breakfast radishes that the deer won’t eat.

 

Dad grew a pandemic goatee. 

Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is partly about being raised by a father who taught you and your brothers to be hypochondriacs. What’s it like living during a pandemic?

At first, I felt like an expert at handling the anxiety because I’d been worried about diseases taking me out all my life. But this is  a hypochondriac’s nightmare: a disease that behaves capriciously, that causes no symptoms in some and total organ breakdown in others, a virus that is so tiny it can float in the air for hours or linger on an innocuous looking surface. Just the words CYTOKINE STORM — when your own immune system goes into overdrive and kills you — puts my nervous system into overdrive. 

Prologue

Present, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, Tuesday, 1:00 p.m.

The three psychiatrists and I sit at the conference room table writing trauma case studies. As the professional writer in the room, my job is to smooth out the prose, prune the jargon. We’re writing about children to whom awful —sometimes unspeakable things—happened. The psychiatrists would say these case histories are factual, but I know they are stories and, like all stories, have inciting events, climaxes, and resolutions. Readers long for epiphanies and revelations, redemption, and happy endings. But shift a few words or reorder paragraphs and epiphanies  evaporate, redemption erodes to reveal darker currents.

 

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. 

On May 8, 2020, Juliet Escoria, Scott McClanahan, and Joseph Grantham decided to liveblog in solidarity with Megan Boyle. You may read the results below:

 

Scott McClanahan

 

 

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.

 

Christopher and I saw it running across the street in a neighbor’s front yard. At first, we thought it was a large cat and didn’t think much of it. There are stray cats in our neighborhood. They run in people’s yards. After about 10 minutes of the animal appearing in and out of our window’s view, I was annoyed. I walked to the window and saw that it was a small black dog, trotting diagonally down the middle of the street with its mouth open. It didn’t seem totally aimless–I got the sense that it lived within our crescent shaped street’s selection of houses. A red car drove by and the dog started chasing the car.  I got our dog’s leash and Christopher went ahead of me to try to get the dog’s attention.

When I walked down the street, Christopher was talking to the dog, with it standing about 5 feet away from him. He had a red collar on, and the collar had a tag. The dog eventually approached us and we were able to look at the tag. The owner had put the dog’s license for the county on but not a tag with their name, phone number or address. The dog was fine with us putting him on a leash and wanted to keep walking. At this time, the red car that the dog had been chasing drove by again, and I waved at the driver in case it was the dog’s owner searching for the dog but missing it both times they drove past, and they did not respond. We called the dog shelter and it was closed.

 

I did a bunch of demerol when I was 13 years old. I was in a hospital in Plano, Texas, and I had both feet. 

 

I still have both feet, but at the time, it came as a shock to me. 

 

I got hurt playing football. 

 

I played strong guard for the Wilson Rams, and my running back, Jessie, was a dipshit. He tripped and speared my lower leg with the crown of his helmet during a trick play.  

 

Essentially, our coach sent in every running back we had—loaded the backfield, if you know the lingo—so that the Renner Raider’s defense thought we’d be running. 

 

The center hiked the ball to the quarterback. He handed the ball off to the halfback, who faked a handoff to the fullback before pitching the ball to the tailback, who then passed to the quarterback who had made his way downfield and assumed a receiver’s role. 

 

Trickeration, some people call it. Gimmickry, others say. 

 

The whole point is deception. 

 

But Jesse, my dipshit fullback, tripped on his own feet, ended up head first in my lower extremities, and  I came to on my back with my right leg in the air, and my foot wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and wherever it was, I couldn’t see it. 

 

Boom.

 

My mind went wild—the broad October sky shined black above me. 

 

Under the Friday lights of a Texas autumn night, I screamed, “My foot. My foot.” The crowd fell still and some of my teammates were puking. “Where’s my foot?” 

 

My hands searched the ground for my torn-away part. My heart beat my brain with blood and my breath felt frantic.

 

One of my coaches—I can’t remember their names—screamed into my helmet, “Shut the fuck up,” and I went still, and my body thrummed in the tangy, grass-scented air because maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I could hear the crowd holding their breath.

 

“Think it’s just dislocated?” someone said. 

 

“Hopefully,” was the answer. 

 

My foot was still on me, just hanging the wrong way. 

 

“What’s your name?” they asked, I guess wanting to see if I was addled beyond comprehending myself.

 

“Brian Carr,” I told them. “Did we get the first down?”

 

Everyone—but who were they?— laughed and things felt easier, and then I was in an ambulance, and then I was on a bed, and then I was listening to directions, and then the true pain came. 

 

The night cut in and out. My whole body quivered like the ribs of a kicked dog. 

 

“We can’t put you completely under,” a doctor said. I was bathed in light, but maybe my eyes were closed. “We have to turn your foot back around, and you ARE going to feel it.” 

 

The twisting began. 

 

Even now, I can hear the gnash of the process. The same kind of noise any accident makes. Drop a glass on the tile floor. Rear end another driver on the highway. Bang and crunch and fuck and shit. 

 

I yelped curses at God, bleated like a dying goat, lowed anguish unintelligible. 

 

A great darkness pulled across me. The world rattled closed in heaves. 

 

When I woke up, they gave me a button. 

 

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.”