At the gas station, I wanted to disappear. A ghost made of tissue paper twisted from a tree branch. There wasn’t any wind, just normal air. It smelled like springtime, but it was October.
A man fell over on the sidewalk. He caused such a mess, it appeared eggs had fallen out of his pockets. I looked away.
An hour earlier I’d signed a lease on an apartment by the beach. The broker’s office had wood paneling. The world was scattered with long windows I couldn’t see through. Plastic batted against glass. Everything was a little smoke-damaged.
An SUV pulled up. A woman stepped out, messed with her purse, then got back in and drove off.
I paced a bit, picked a quarter off the ground.
I thought about trying to steal the gun from behind the counter. But what if they didn’t have a gun? I wanted to commit to something. I wanted it to be obvious.
I slumped against an air compressor, unwrapping a square of aluminum foil in my jacket pocket. I crinkled the foil and removed two Ritz crackers with peanut butter and cannabis cooked between them. Salt glistened in the sunlight.
I was still holding the edible when I pushed into the convenience store part of the gas station. I put it in my mouth. Behind the counter, the attendant’s name tag said ioryefhkjghlnwuivy.
I wanted to disappear, but instead I bought a car, a 2000 Buick Park Avenue with 4 SALE written in soap on its back windshield. It was under the tree, with spots of liquid or sap collecting on it.
Also, bark had been carved out of the tree. And there, someone had drawn the acorn-like outline of an alien’s head. The attendant gave me the seller’s phone number.
The seller was a mechanic from Bay Ridge.
―I’m from Bay Ridge, he said.
He had a cleft palate and a milky handshake. We met at the gas station, then later at his shop a few blocks away, where he put the car up on a lift and pointed at things I didn’t know about. In the trunk there was an torn open condom wrapper we circumvented mentioning.
And at the end of the month, my friend Alexander and I filled the Buick with my cat and possessions, strapped a mattress to the roof, and parked it on West 23rd Street.
My apartment was on the second floor of a two-story brick building with a small front courtyard contained by a chain link fence. The courtyard was divided by a green and blue picket fence.
We’d planned for it to take longer to move everything in, and the space already felt crowded, so we walked to the boardwalk. The sun was getting toward the horizon and the water looked like it didn’t want to do anything. Alexander seemed mad.
―If you, like, for some reason decide to change your mind about this place…
―I like it here, I said.
―Yeah. Well, if you decide you don’t…
We did a perfunctory gesture, similar to a hug.
Upstairs, my cat was hiding under the wooden bed frame, built into the wall, attached to empty bookshelves. Or shelves, I guessed. I didn’t have to put books on them.
I didn’t know where Alexander had gone. It occurred to me that it might not be my business.
In November, I went back to the gas station. I thought I’d say thank you. Not about anything in particular, I just wanted to be nice.
The election had happened a few days before, and everything had a sepia, terrorist attack look to it. A miniature golf and go-kart place off the Belt Parkway was keeping its flags at half-staff.
I handed the attendant a twenty dollar bill and said, ―Can I get fifteen on number two?
He was fumbling with an egg-and-cheese sandwich. This time, his name tag said Trust No Bitch.
―Hold on a second, he said.
He patted his cheek with the bulkie roll.
―I don’t have any fives.
―That’s fine… I’ll take ones, I said.
―I only have five ones, he said.
―Did you make that name tag yourself, I said.
―Yeah, he smiled. ―I’m the manager.
―Nice, I said.
I felt a square of aluminum foil in my jacket pocket.
―Do you want to use a card, maybe?
―Yeah… Doesn’t that make the gas more expensive?
―Just by ten cents a gallon.
He looked out the window. The tissue paper ghost was in the tree.
I hadn’t thought much about wanting to disappear since I’d called the mechanic, but I could feel it creeping back. Gas stations are places of possibility. They’re infinite. Everyone knows this, I thought.
―I need to think, I said.
He made a face like he was telling me, not unkindly, to take as long as I needed. I appreciated that and walked to the back, to the refrigerators, the rows of energy drinks and flavored milks and a dozen or so varieties of water.
I once had a girlfriend named Laura who kept her birth control in the refrigerator, I thought. I thought it like that, in that language, and felt weird. I saw my reflection in the glass and thought, come on, give us a smile, beautiful. Then I thought, just kidding.
I took a couple twenty-five ounce cans of Rolling Rock and walked them to the counter.
―What about your gas?
―I decided I’ll come back tomorrow, I said. ―You’ll have more change then, maybe.
―Maybe, he said.
He was missing a molar. I hadn’t noticed that before. I didn’t care. We smiled, and I walked back to my car.
I started the engine and looked into the windshield. Something wasn’t right. I looked at the tree and the ghost was whipping around like it was going to storm, but everything appeared normal, weather-wise, and humorless.
My eyes in the rearview mirror reflected back at me, and I thought, time to laugh! I started to make myself laugh, but couldn’t. Then stuff felt hilarious. Like a silent film, and I bit my lip.
I looked past the windshield and noticed my hood ornament was missing.
Before me, the apartment had belonged to my friend Tom. He’d moved in two years earlier while his divorce was being finalized, turned it into a wonderful, elaborate painting studio.
And when that was settled, he’d remarried. They lost the first pregnancy, but the second one stuck, and Tom and Claire decided to move upstate for a more commodious, ambiguous version of life.
They’d wanted to get out quick, and left a lot of holes in the walls. I supposed I was the most tentative person they could think of. I’d called the landlord, who had me call a broker, who told me her fee had nothing to do with knowing or not knowing the people who’d previously occupied the place. French tips clicked along wood paneling. She worked an old desktop calculator with her other hand.
I stayed up late that first month in Coney Island, ignoring the few text messages I received, hanging artworks and photos and paraphernalia, not caring if any of it was level, adjusting the radio antenna and listening to sounds from the broad, wayward alley outside my windows.
The apartment was too warm to close them, and there were birds and howling cats and possums and raccoons that got into altercations with the cats. Telephone poles leered. Vines and wires wove in and out of one another, then into the cracked pavement, the loose bricks and wrought iron fire escapes.
They were setting the foundation for a new condo building a couple blocks over, and pilings rose out of the boggy stratum of earth and brackish water. Each morning, a pile driver would appear, its tremendous weight thrusting and sighing, falling every one to two seconds, attempting to batter the posts into the planet’s crust. Still, by the subsequent dawn, many would’ve become dislodged. They floated out of the construction site, wedged at odd angles, occasionally toppling to the loose groundwork, until they could be repositioned, and the narrative resumed.
The song “Bad and Boujee” by Migos featuring Lil Uzi Vert had just been released. Escalades lingered across Surf Avenue, as I edited the novel I’d started writing at the corner of Montrose Avenue and Bushwick Avenue almost two years prior. Children marched through the alley wearing zombie masks and brutal clown makeup long after Halloween had passed.
I woke in the middle of the day. My cat on my chest and kneading her claws in me until I got up and fed her. Up to this point, for several years in fact, her name had been something else. But it was on one of these perplexing, idyllic, pile-driven afternoons that I decided to change it to Turmeric.
These were among the best weeks of my life.
Even as I harbored desires to fashion one of the thick, orange extension cords Tom had left behind into a noose and string myself up in the closet, I started to accept the soft futility of everything. Life would always be at least a little terrible, and I should just have a good attitude about it.
Nobody was out to get me, I reminded myself.
―Nobody is out to get me, I said.
I drove fast on wet, shiny highways cradling the south end of Brooklyn. The sky exacted these stunning blue-to-whites. Birds and speedboats darted in and out of my field of vision. Fog separated me from Staten Island, New Jersey, the rest of it.
I cooked a cannabis edible and stood on the beach, where the water sagged inert, and I cried. I watched the guys move pipes around the burgeoning shell of a building. One got up on a piling and sort of danced. He fell off. A bunch of fire trucks came, and someone covered his body, but it was still twitching when they carted him away.
Turmeric perched on top of the refrigerator and licked herself. A spider the size of a small onion dropped on my arm. I jumped sideways and pushed it off. I tore at my skin, and the spider scuttled under the refrigerator.
I went into the hallway, and downstairs, where it was cooler. I stood by the mailboxes. There were no lights coming from under any of the other doors. I tried to concentrate on disappearing. After a minute, a woman came out of an apartment and smiled at me. She picked at her teeth. She was wearing a see-through tank top and white cotton underwear, and let me admire this for a moment.
She said, ―What are you doing?
―Shrugging, I said. ―I mean a second ago. Now I’m talking to you… Any second and I’ll, like, be, um, done talking…
I made a show of opening and closing my mailbox, then padded up to my room.
There, I sat on the Moroccan rug I’d bought off Alexander’s ex-girlfriend. I masturbated, dressed, washed my hands, got undressed, took a shower, realized all my towels were dirty and dried myself with toilet paper.
I darted across the small square living space, naked to my mattress. I took the blankets off the bed, measured them up to my body, holding them there, and we all lay down as one.
A week or so later, the woman knocked on my door. I’d bumped a fair amount of ketamine an hour earlier, had turned up Kanye West or Panda Bear or something, and was starting to come back to the sharp edges of reality.
I stared through the peephole for too long, wanting to catch her in a private moment, but she just stood there, blank, until I opened the door.
―Hi, I said.
―Hey, she said. ―I’m Elaine. I live downstairs.
―I’m David, I said.
―Hi David, she said, extending a hand.
We shook, grinning, a little too enthusiastically.
―Well, she said.
―Do you want to come in?
―Cool, I said.
―I live below you.
―You do a lot of pacing around, she said. ―You clomp your feet pretty heavily. It was a couple who lived here before you, and they never made any noise. And there were two of them. So I’ve been, like, you know, naturally… I don’t want to say perturbed, but that’s all that’s coming to mind.
―Perturbed seems right.
―I’m a veteran, she said. ―And I thought maybe you were, like… Maybe you had something going on… I can sense these things.
―Maybe I do… But I’m not a veteran.
―I didn’t mean to accuse you, she said.
―It’s okay, I said. ―That night… There was a spider…
―Mm, she said.
She touched the door frame. Then it looked like she’d reconsidered. She withdrew her hand, studied it, put it behind her.
―You know, she said. ―The military takes flatfeet now. They’ve got these high-tech orthopedics.
―Well, see you.
―Bye, I said.
She had thick, gravy-colored eyebrows and no accent. I wanted to know what Elaine had been like, out there in that bleeding desert, but not so badly. I kept my eyes on her hips as they swiveled away.
Throughout November, I remained stoned, slipping most hours of the day through a loop I could see at the center of my mind with my eyes closed.
For a while, I entertained Elaine becoming my best friend. I mopped the bathroom floor and found I wanted to confide in her. I flushed the toilet ten times. I stomped around the apartment, played music a little louder the later it got. When she didn’t come by after a week, I experienced a bit of relief. I thought better. I turned down the music, lay on the kitchenette tile, doing stretches. It was simpler, I thought, and safer, to be alone. It was evident.
I was self-evident, and typed in word documents. I cooked heavy, complex meals: curries and tagines and stews. I let the blue light of TV wash over me, lowering the brightness and warmth incrementally, feeling my pupils dilate, and my eyelids relax.
I imagined Elaine blending celery in lemon juice. Sitting on the countertop, swinging her legs, sandals dangling from the ends of them.
For a brief stint, I thought I might be able to hear her thoughts. She was my double, she was telling me. Something from so distant a future, I could consider it the past, if I wanted.
I went to the bathroom as an excuse to touch myself. The walls were covered in faint scribbles of graphite I tried not to notice.
―How long have you been here, I said.
I imagined Elaine’s dad was a junkie. He’d left the day after her little sister was born, or something, only to reemerge fifteen or so years later as a wealthy, venture capitalist. He’d invented a type of barcode, sold the patent for a couple million dollars, had been fucking around with it, making the money grow ever since. When she was twenty, he’d offered to send Elaine to college, with the stipulation that she study art. In an act of defiance, she’d joined the military.
In the kitchenette, I opened a beer. I smoked the end of a roach. I set the oven to pre-heat and began to assemble an edible.
―Never mind, I said.
―Okay, I said.
I didn’t want to risk anything. I wanted things to stay tame. I tiptoed around my apartment.
On the internet, there was a lot of complaining. A lot of murmuring banter about suicide and murder.
In December, I ate psilocybin mushrooms. The boardwalk was empty, and I was so giddy. It was hard to tell if I got frostbite. I kicked around the cakey, frozen sand. I watched the water for probably five minutes, directed my brain waves to whatever hung above, repeating the thought Abduct Here, Abduct Here, then went back home.
I didn’t want a girlfriend, I told myself. Or sex. I’d had every experience I needed. I was chilling, working on writing, waiting for the next thing. I didn’t want to leave until I’d, like, evolved. It didn’t matter what into. Something before or after human, something with fewer desires maybe.
Twenty-six years and nine months earlier, my father and mother had sex in a motel room in Biloxi. They’d been visiting my grandfather in Sarasota, gotten bored and driven along the Gulf for a while. There, in one of the green, humid room’s two double beds, one or two of my father’s sperms fertilized either one or two of my mother’s eggs. A couple months later, an ultrasound revealed twins. And a month after that, a single bobbing shape: an early iteration of my own.
―What happened, my mother asked.
―It vanished, the doctor said. ―Happens all the time. There’s a few possibilities as to why, but we don’t know exactly, and in the end, does it matter? This one here’s a healthy boy. You didn’t really want two, did you? I mean, like, think of it this way, you just saved the next eighteen years of yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Six months later, I was born. I left the hospital five days before Christmas, and was readmitted two days later with jaundice. Had I been born a few decades earlier, maybe I would’ve succumbed in peace. Instead, they put me under sunlamps. I aged, went to college, had some difficulties with interpersonal relationships.
It was hard to tell if I worried about things or not.
I had an agent, but she wasn’t ready to sell the novel. She wanted me to fix it. She gave instructions, maybe a month’s worth of work, and when I turned it in, she’d send back mistier comments. Tell me to take another six weeks or so, that transcendence would happen on its own, as long as we promoted a safe and nourishing environment.
But I was impatient. I wanted money. I’d managed to convince myself that, though as good as no one in America could make a living off literature, I was only weeks from a uniquely and possibly deserved, independent, and ever-replenishing wealth. I figured I was writing the zeitgeist. That I just needed to focus.
I had a sometimes job with a sometimes boss named Brittany. The work was scarce, but, when the opportunity arose, I could swing around fifteen hours a day for however many days she needed me, transporting camera, lighting and art department equipment, building and breaking down sets, assisting in shoots, runway shows, going for crafty and coffee runs, allowing directors and property managers to yell at me, and generally taking the fall when things failed to go smoothly. And twice a year, during fashion week, I could put away about eight grand over the course of twenty or so days, making myself exclusively available to Brittany and her crew, foregoing the requisites of sleep, and propping myself up economically for long bouts of doing nothing.
In these downtimes, I’d get emails and calls from people who said Brittany had referred them to me. I considered taking each job for maybe a second before declining. I said I didn’t know any Brittanys.
I’d assumed that after the election, regardless of the result, the world would end so rapidly I wouldn’t need to ever worry about money again. And I’d made such a point in convincing myself of this, tamping it further and further into my consciousness, like it was something I’d always had with me, bred into my very chromosomal fibers, that it felt a shame to deny.
Car insurance, however, was more expensive than I’d imagined, and I kept having to order replacement hood ornaments for the Buick from eBay.
I got drunk and felt sorry for myself. I got stoned and forgot what loneliness was like. I called Brittany probably too late at night.
Immediately, I felt the vibration of a text, and became distracted. I missed whatever my sometimes boss was saying, and when I asked her to repeat herself, she said she didn’t have anything for me but would pass my information to her friend who was producing a music video in Queens later that week.
―That sounds fine, I told her. ―I have to go.
Laura, my ex-girlfriend who’d kept her birth control in the fridge, and who’d later moved to Philadelphia and was enrolled in her second year of veterinary school, had texted a picture of Tweety Bird covered in tattoos. It was supposed to be some sort of joke, or invitation, and I replied, aw yeah he’s a bad bird, bad gyal, i’m a truck, and threw my phone across the room, onto a pile of dirty clothes.
I wanted to run into Elaine in the hallway, but I didn’t.
Instead, I ambled along the boardwalk, arms crossed. Arm in arm. My shoes were too big for my feet, and I had to take these hurtling strides to make sure they wouldn’t slip off. By the time I got to Brighton Beach, my hamstrings were all pulled and gross-feeling. My knees popped every few steps.
A woman was looking in a cardboard bin outside a bodega. She’d touch a potato, put it back, touch another potato. She must have gone through ten or twelve.
Are you listening, I thought. My legs hurt.
―Huh, the woman said.
―I didn’t say anything, I said.
―Are you looking at me, she said.
She was touching another potato.
―Come on, what’s up?
―What, she said.
―We have something going, I said. ―Rapport, a little, maybe.
―What time is it, I asked.
―Are you going back to Coney Island, I asked. ―Do you want to split a cab with me? My legs hurt.
The woman sighed. She put her other hand on a potato, so she was leaning down into the cardboard bin, twisting her head back over her shoulder, to glare at me.
―No, she said. ―I’m going to go to that bar attached to that place where people play pool.
―Do you want me to come, I said.
―I need my alone time.
―I was on the phone with my boss, I said. ―I forgot to be polite. I forgot to say thank you.
―Did people used to tell you you should be a lawyer when you grow up?
―Uh, yeah, actually. They did.
―I think that’s probably made things difficult for you, in life… Really. Don’t take this the wrong way. I feel sorry for you.
―Hm, I said.
―What, she said.
―I said hm.
She went back to the potatoes.
―I just wanted to try it out. Saying it. We could say other things. Come on. I can’t afford a cab back to Coney on my own.
―Tough titties, she said, and she was right.
There was no use arguing that.
―Is Tweety Bird a boy or a girl, I said, two days later, around five a.m.
I was sitting in the cab of a twenty-foot box truck going over the Pulaski Bridge. A teamster was driving. We were delivering camera equipment to a music video set.
―Heh, I said.
The teamster looked over at me and mouthed something. He pointed to a headset he was wearing, and looked back at the road.
―Like, because I remember, like. It’s got that cute little lisp, like he’s a coquettish little girl, but I remember there’s, like, times when it’s like he’s interested in girls, like… Like Sylvester would paint his, like, thumb being a girl bird. Like with a bonnet or something, and Tweety would be into that. But, like, it just seems so soft, so generous, and for the most part, like… I don’t know.
―Can I call you back, the teamster said.
He took his hands off the wheel and fooled around with his phone. After a moment, he turned to me.
―Never mind. I got it. Tweety Bird is a boy. I knew that. It just still seems weird to me. It has since I was a kid. Birds seem feminine for some reason. I guess that’s my problem. It’s not weird at all actually. Forget it.
I put my head down so he knew he didn’t have to respond and took my phone out of my pocket and started opening and closing apps.
The teamster pressed a button on his headset and said, ―Hi, honey… Nothing… It’s… You gotta chill out, you know what shit is like and you’re being kind of a… Nothing… I wasn’t going to say anything… You’re being kind of a sweetheart, okay? That’s what I was going to say… Sweetheart…
He smiled, suspiciously, drinking coffee from a wax paper cup.
I thought, I know my life is gray and shapeless. Light shivered on the asphalt, reflecting off the river, buildings, technology. I watched through the windshield. A tiny seabird flew in front of the truck as we entered Queens. I felt my hand moving, like I wanted to touch it.
The teamster got off the phone and said, ―What kind of music do you like?
―Uh, rap, I said. ―Everything, I guess… What about you?
―Everything, he said.
―The very threads of existence could snap at any moment, I mumbled.
―Have you noticed, like, um, it feels like when something happens on the internet, it also happens off the internet… Like the world is merging into one thing… Like…
The teamster laughed.
―Sure, he said. ―I mean, yeah…
―I think I’ve been witnessing paranormal stuff.
―Oh yeah? What do you think set that off?
―There’s this, like, feeling… Everywhere I go…
―I’m writing a novel.
The teamster snorted, then seemed melancholy.
―My wife likes to read, he said.
―She likes to talk on the phone.
―Is being married good, I said, without really thinking about or recognizing the words.
Just let them happen, I thought. This guy and you, I thought. It doesn’t matter.
―I, he said.
The teamster paused, appearing to think hard about what he wanted to say, but then we got to an intersection, and he asked me which way to turn, and I took out my phone and opened Instagram and saw a picture of a girl I’d seen around, years ago, when I’d been more around, doing a handstand with her butt out, and the teamster made the decision on his own, and soon we were at a medium-sized Catholic School in a suburban-looking part of the borough.
The producer met us in the parking lot and explained some stuff to me while we were unloading the truck.
―Brittany says you’re a solid P.A.
―Only bad things, I hope, I said.
―Oops, I said. ―I thought you were going to say, Brittany has a lot to say about you.
―She didn’t have that much to say.
―Really, I said.
The producer adjusted her hair.
―I’m David, I said, and stuck out my hand.
―Andrea, she said.
And after the truck was unloaded, I walked around the school. I found the crafty table and drank two fast cups of coffee, then made myself a third. I looked in the cafeteria and the gymnasium. The school mascot was painted on the wall: THE VENUS FLY TRAPS, but instead of plants, the murals were all of aliens and flying saucers and ray guns eviscerating other anthropomorphized basketball players, like bulldogs and ladybugs and sharks wearing scuba gear.
I had a walkie-talkie clipped to my belt, and could hear the assistant director calling out, ―Last looks! and, ―Sound speed! and, ―Still rolling!
The music video was a parody of another music video. The rapper was trying to mock another rapper, ridicule him into taking his video off YouTube. It worked, and later this video we were working on would be removed too, and two rappers would make up over a series of Snapchat stories.
In the basement, there were signs for a FALLOUT SHELTER, and I followed all the arrows a couple times, continuing to end up in the same place I’d started, by the stairwell.
I sat down on the bottom step and typed a note on my phone about practicing patience and kindness. A thing of graffiti, done in tiny letters in faint ballpoint pen ink by my feet, said, I’m going to kill everyone you fuckers on the first day of school with a machete!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
―I want to party, I said quietly.
Then I texted Laura, i hate going to work i miss you
It was a little after seven a.m.
At eight p.m., she still hadn’t responded, and the final shot of the video was the rapper unzipping his pants and pretending to pee on the side of the school. Several kinds of lights and colors were strobing, and post-production would insert a giant 3D-animated penis coming from his pants. It would wrap around his shoulder twice and spray-paint the words PERSONAL PRIDE on the building.
When the director was satisfied, the assistant director said, ―That’s a wrap!
People clapped softly. I drank another few cups of coffee while collecting camera equipment. I woke the teamster, who was sleeping in back of the truck, and we loaded it up. I filled out paperwork, shook hands with the producer, and apologized.
―What are you sorry for?
―I don’t know, I said. ―It was instinctual… Will you let me know if you need me for anything else?
―Sure, she said, and I walked with her to the edge of the parking lot, where she got in an Uber.
Lying on the floor in my room, I texted Laura, i was too caffeinated and pitying myself. i don’t actually hate working… i did miss you a little, but not that much, i was just bored…
After thirteen minutes had passed, I texted, how are you?
She responded immediately, It’s no problem! I forgot to respond. I’m in Quebec
what? since when?
I was kidding, she responded. You can’t text me stuff like that. It’s a little fucked up
right, I sent.
Then, i won’t, unless i want to say smart things. things that benefit both of us. no one sided texts. nice texts that are nice ice
She didn’t respond.
versace merchandise, I texted.
I’m in Quebec… I’ll talk to you when I’m back
kkk, I typed.
And in the morning, there was a small, taut wire sticking out of the skin above my clavicle. I pulled on it. It was wedged like half an inch deep and looked like a piece of guitar string, and I worked on my novel for five hours, looking through Facebook messages from two summers earlier, studying the last months of conversation I’d had with my friend David, who’d had the same name as me, and still did, but was distinct from me in being dead.
When I finally decided to shower, I saw a few red welts, not quite like acne, positioned along my rib cage. I tried to scrape them off, then got distracted and forgot about them. I masturbated in the shower to memories of being a teenager. Walking through tall grass to a clearing in the woods and drinking vodka from a water bottle. A girl named Francis touching the crotch of my jeans, unclasping her bra, the bitten off stubs of her fingernails.
I grabbed my hair, imagining it was her hair. I imagined I couldn’t feel it.
A few days passed. My laptop froze while I was working on writing.
―Yeah, I said. ―I’m a computer. I’m very good at computing. I help David write things. I’m very smart.
I closed it.
My intercom buzzed. I was sitting in the dark, shades drawn, floor sprinkled with scratch-offs and Powerball tickets. It was a Thursday, so I’d made a stupid dent in my bank account the night before.
It buzzed again, and I pressed Door without asking who was there. It was Alexander.
―I’ll come back later, he said.
I stood up, sweeping around dust and sand and papers with my feet.
―Your timing’s perfect. I was just thinking about what I needed to do to fix this. I was remembering this time an upstairs neighbor got locked out of her apartment and I gave her a glass of water. Something is coming my way, I can feel it, karmically.
―I don’t know, he said. ―Nothing is guaranteed in life. You don’t have any upstairs neighbors anymore. You’re the upstairs neighbor.
―Exactly, I said.
―So, Alexander said.
―How was Quebec?
―Oh, I said. ―Oops! I’m confusing you with someone else.
―Yeah, he said.
I grinned at the floor.
―Coffee, I said as a question.
―Not if I’m going to end up like you.
―What’s up, I said. ―What are you doing here?
―I was in the neighborhood, he said.
―I mean… I don’t know.
―There still a pile driver out there?
―There sure is.
―I just need a million dollars, I said. ―If I get a million dollars I won’t have to work for twenty years.
―Are you sure?
―Spending fifty-K a year. I’d be spending like a rich man, and I bet you I still couldn’t do it. How could I spend fifty thousand dollars a year? I barely spend half that, as things are. I could probably stretch a milli for forty years.
―I don’t know if fifty thousand dollars a year really qualifies as rich man spending. I mean, like, you gotta take inflation into account.
―Sure I do. But, like. Okay, fine. So I could live for twenty years. I could stick to fifty thousand a year for twenty years. I think that’s reasonable.
―Then what would you do?
―After twenty years, Alexander said.
He’d moved to the refrigerator, was holding the door open, but looking over it, at me, racking up cents on the electric bill. I stood up. I was getting pissed, and I’d forgotten what he meant.
―Twenty years, I said, crossing the room, trying to understand.
―What, happens, when, you, spend, your, million, Alexander said.
This made it even harder to parse.
―Aren’t you acting a little comfortable, I said.
―What happens after twenty years?
―Oh… I could just die, I guess.
―You remembered my birthday!
―It was two days ago.
Alexander took yogurt out of the refrigerator.
―How many calories is this, he said.
―What does it say on the label?
He trailed off.
―What are you doing for Christmas, I said.
―Going to see my parents.
―I’m going to kill myself, I muttered. ―Carve up my wrists, then hang myself in the closet with an extension cord.
―Nice, Alexander said.
We didn’t talk for a while. I picked up all the lottery stuff and tossed it in the recycling bin. It was an empty prism of wood. Tom had made it for me, a gift.
―Did you get me a birthday present, I said.
―I did not. Should I have?
―Nah, I said. ―I wouldn’t have known what to do with it probably, and then I might’ve held that against you.
―I could get you a credit card. I keep getting, like, these things in the mail saying I should have a credit card. Like from my bank. I have a credit card from them, but they want me to have more.
―Get me an Amex, I said. ―A black one. Then I can really start spending. I’ve always been meant to spend, just nobody’s given me the chance.
―That’s actually probably worth it. They treat you really good. The best customer service. I knew this girl growing up. We played soccer. I, um… Her dad managed a hedge fund or something. He had a black card. They went on vacation to somewhere in the Bahamas, and her little sister got kidnapped, and when they found her, her throat was slit. There wasn’t a hospital on the island that could fix it, supposedly, and she was going to die. So they called the American Express people, and they sent a helicopter. American Express helicoptered her off the island to a place that could do the surgery.
―She was kidnapped, I said.
―How did they find her?
―I don’t know. I’m iffy on the details.
―They found her, and her throat was slit, and she lived?
―Listen, this is the story as it was told to me. The point is, having a black American Express would be good for you, I feel. One day you’re going to find yourself in that exact same situation. It’s, like, inevitable.
―I think it’s good they slit her throat, if it’s true. I mean it’s definitely not true, but if we suspend our disbelief for a moment. Rich people deserve to get some of that. Evens out their distortions of reality. Extreme highs demand extreme lows.
―You think it’s good a child got her throat slit?
―I think it’s good they all got the experience. A little dose of reality. None of it would’ve happened had they stayed put. That scenario wouldn’t have played out for a middle class family living in Iowa.
―Middle class people go on vacation too.
―But they wouldn’t have had the American Express card. See, now that would’ve been tragic.
―It doesn’t seem like you’re fully digesting what you’re saying as you say it. I don’t think you know what you mean.
―I mean, everyone wins! The kidnappers got to make their point, the father got to flex his money, the girl got to live. And we get the story! The story lives forever. That’s the best part of all. It’s a beautiful story.
―She’s traumatized for life.
―Life is temporary, I said.
―The story, I said. ―Forever.
―Listen to yourself.
―Can you blame me? Really? I had nothing to do with this. It’s a captivating tale. You knew it was when you told me. I’m blameless.
―I can blame you for saying offensive things.
―Oh, come on. The rich need a little trauma. Jesus Christ. You don’t believe that?
―I don’t think anyone needs to experience violence.
―Wow, okay. My downstairs neighbor went to war.
―Okay, Alexander said. ―Okay, I’m going to go now. Good luck with the million dollars.
I slumped on my bed.
―Stay a little, I moaned. ―I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get, like, morbid.
―Yeah, Alexander said. ―I mean no. I don’t know. I’m going to close the door now.
―Okay, I said.
On Christmas I ate Chinese food. I parked by the Manhattan Bridge, drank a little champagne and called Laura. We hadn’t seen each other in a year. I put the phone on speaker.
―David, she said.
―Merry Christmas, I said.
―Merry Christmas, she said.
―Are you doing anything?
―We went to the movies, earlier.
―My parents and my brother and me.
―You’re in Connecticut, I said.
―Yeah, just for the week… Then, I don’t know.
―How’s Philadelphia, I said. ―Veterinary school?
―Do you want to get off the phone?
―No, it’s okay… Sorry, I’m just distracted.
―Are you going to stop in New York at all?
―Maybe, she said. ―I’ll let you know if I do.
I listened to the champagne fizzing in the bottle between my legs.
―I renamed Turmeric, I said.
―The cat, I said. ―Turmeric.
―You renamed your cat Turmeric, Laura said.
The bottle’s label said PIPER-HEIDSIECK. It said EXTRA DRY.
―Well, I’d better get going, I said.
―Is everything all right?
―I’m going to say peachy.
I waited for her to react.
―Peachy, I said.
In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I experienced something I’d retroactively attempt to rationalize as a fever.
My mucus went hard and yellow and brown. My eyes hurt, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position to lie down in.
I went to the bathroom, drank from the sink, sweated through my clothes. I became aware of the red welts I’d noticed some days earlier. There were more of them, materialized like a string that ran the length of me, starting at my ankles, twisting up my thighs and ribcage and spine, coming to rest along my jugular vein.
I didn’t want to give it too much thought.
I took a shower, put on fresh clothes, did a crossword, putzed around with the novel. In one of the documents, I searched for every instance of a half hour and changed each to half an hour.
I put my head on the keyboard. The pile driver made a noise. My throat was tight and hot. I sat on the ground with Turmeric. She flicked her tongue. I put away dirty clothes, made the bed, opened the curtains and stared at the alley.
I turned on the TV and flipped around until I got something. On a local news station, a YMCA exploded. Somewhere else, a bird exploded in the engine of an airplane. A unicellular organism squirmed from the corner of a child’s mouth to a subway pole. Someone’s life was ruined. A refugee got away with something that made no sense why it was illegal to begin with. One of my Buick’s hood ornaments sparkled under a disco ball.
Almost seven billion people were having regular bowel movements, and blood was being spilled. A kid went into a kitchen. He thought of it as his kitchen. He set a newspaper on fire. It was the same thing everywhere.
And soon my shirt was on the floor. I was crouching, writhing at the mirror, fixated on the welts. How long had they been there? By what means? Did they itch, I wondered. I stood still, contemplating this, waiting for an answer. I itched a few. The result was unclear.
Over the coming days, the welts multiplied further. They cropped up on my chest, my arms. Like needle pricks. They were deadpan, tedious. They didn’t open unless I opened them, rupturing skin in bewilderment, digging at myself. They changed color in the light. About two millimeters in diameter, they went from red to brown to greenish silver.
They’d emerge, then dissipate. A few hours after a thorough self-examination, I wouldn’t be able to find them. I’d convince myself it was part of some long, recurring dream.
I’d go away awhile, do some ketamine, try to read a book by Bette Pesetsky, then drift back to find the welts had reappeared, in their same positions, like students lined up outside school, delirious in the morning light, returned, maybe not by choice, but blunt and resolute.
I documented their progress with photographs. I filled my phone. I shifted it around, under lamplight, looking for clues, new perspectives. I kept turning my phone, trying to get a better angle. Trails of uncertainty danced across the surface of me.
I could only gouge myself so long. I sat on the floor and watched, like a time lapse, the sun running along the wall, new welts springing forth from dank chasms of obscurity.
I scattered about the room. I took excruciating, drawn-out showers. A voice beyond the flapping water referred to me by using a slur. A not even accurate one, and I ignored it with nothing short of brilliance. But then it was saying more things. It said I was a liar. That I was trying to appease other people. I wasn’t isolated enough. Take a risk, it said. Experiment. The voice was lisping. It was goading me. It wouldn’t stop insisting I delete my novel, cut ties with everyone I knew. It said I was wasting my time. It said it was simply reminding me. I’d never find another one like… Then it petered off.
―One what, I said.
Whatever, it answered. And that I needed to change my perspective. It mentioned my parents. It said, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one form to another. It said my priorities were out of whack. That people can’t disappear. The word vanish refers to sight, not the four other senses. Not energy, not atoms. The redistribution of atoms was real, it said.
―Can you elaborate, I said.
There was a pause. Transmutation, it said. Phantasmagoria. It didn’t know what it was talking about really, so it got a little short and told me to shut up. I became dizzy. I saw the blur that precedes fainting. I saw a luminous movement behind my eyelids, like someone was in the room with me, and my mouth filled with salt water.
But when I opened my eyes, looked at the curtain, there was only curtain. And when I pulled back the curtain, there was bathroom. Wet ceiling. White bubbles in the paint. A shadow moving into a corner. Wet towels and odorless mold and something viscous on the toilet seat.
There was soap between my legs, and I was standing in front of a mirror. I could hear static like from the radio. Or, wait. Was I standing behind the mirror?
Also, when had I exited the shower? Had I left the water running? I remembered I’d closed the door, to keep steam in. Turmeric was gyrating in the litter box, and I thought about saying something, and I didn’t.
I dried myself. My mattress lay stripped, on its side, up against one of the walls.
The radio said, ―It’s official. Aliens are illegal.
I walked over to it, turned up the volume, but the radio was off. I turned it on, and it was static, and when I adjusted the antenna, I had to go to the bathroom.
Then I decided to shower again. When I got out, things had been moved around. The sheets were on the mattress, and the mattress back on its frame. Stuff looked stressed out. Gloomy swatches of oil stains, ribbons of duct tape brutal and here and there.
I opened the windows. My “fever” spiked. The welts on my arms billowed. A few were rearranging themselves, like constellations on a planetarium ceiling. I stuck my head outside. Everything blue and massive. An enormous creature sprinted across Surf Avenue.
My walls pulsed with shadows. I woke in the night to a wriggling. Gambols among my most vellus hairs. Damp, and tearing off sheets, the flashlight of my phone bouncing, waving shapes of my blinking cat and swinging room.
I wept. I threw up. I snorted ketamine, and there was a cosmic acceptance of everything. Fragments of sounds. Dissociation from the grasping muscles of reflexive hands. Buoyancy and righteousness and death.
And then I was back, alive as ever, searching for a skittering sound. I slapped a moth. I apprehended a red, circular beetle. I collected the bodies of every insect I could find, and it was surprising, once I started to look, how many there were. Still, never enough to explain what was going on. And never the same species. Even the moths looked like they didn’t want to associate too much with one another.
In the morning, there was a hole in the wall. An agitated nap later, and there wasn’t.
I dumped the jar that contained the red beetle. I put my thumb down on it, and it shivered, but didn’t crunch. No ooze or blood. It just popped back in place and commenced darting. Its movements were erratic, elliptical, and it scurried inside a book, which I dissected into a dozen or so pieces without finding anything.
The initial welts had faded, leaving behind skin-colored smudges like trickles of drool. I googled the bug, describing it as red rotund spider-like. It was, in fact, a spider beetle. Common to a cramped, dreary space such as my own, and I pulled apart the shelving in my closet.
I found bottle fly eggs and mouse droppings and cockroach wings. In my pillowcase, a couple shells of something split along one side, their contents liberated. Microscopic tendrils fluttered in the breeze from my open window. I tried to scratch a mole off my inner elbow.
The radio said, ―Never again. We are never, ever going to play that one again. And if you heard it, man, we’re sorry.
I unplugged it, ran to the window and heaved it overhand across the alley. Some children, dressed as Major Arcana from the Rider-Waite tarot deck and wielding garishly decorated meat cleavers, turned in my direction. Turmeric pretended to sleep.
I put all my clothes in a black contractor bag and flipped my mattress. On a pest and extermination forum, I posted several pictures of brown pieces of unidentifiable organic matter with the title WHAT IS THIS??????? URGENT!!!!!!!!
I googled white sesame seeds in sheets. Turmeric listened for the howling of other cats in the night. She chattered at the cardinals on our windowsill, and I rocked on my sacrum, counting seconds, hoping to fade to a darkness past black.
Many times a day I’d become enraged. Then helpless and pathetic. People moved in the hallway. The pile driver disintegrated, rematerialized a few feet to the left. An article said they were putting trace amounts of fentanyl in canned goods, to protect opioid industry people’s investments. I tried to email it to myself, but something kept failing. It said hospital toxicology reports were being revised by lobbyists before they could be released to families.
I watched horror movies, ate cannabis edibles, pushed ketamine around on my dresser, and woke in the middle of times I didn’t recognize, gray splashes of condensation suspended between the window panes. I felt safest in the shower. I didn’t have anything to take my temperature with, and when I was dry, I covered myself in black-markered dots, a last ditch effort to document the welts.
Eventually, they went down.
Smears of ink adorned smooth, unfettered skin. I stopped sweating. Objects took back concrete likenesses. I dusted insect casings into my palm and swept them out the windows. I closed the windows.
I monitored myself, waiting for a flare-up. I’d sprayed bleach over everything at some point. My eyes were bloodshot, swollen. They didn’t distinguish between natural and artificial light so effectively.
And it felt unlikely the relief wasn’t a trick. I’d submitted, resigned to the previous few days as a new and official benchmark. Perhaps, I thought, it had always been this way, where paranoia and imminent demise were like hands on a clock.
I left my room to move the car for street cleaning. I’d accrued a couple tickets, which I hugged to my chest. I stood outside Elaine’s door, trying to hear something. When I was satisfied, I bounded up the stairs, flinging the chain lock in place.
I made an edible. I jotted down some truths.
On Christmas, I noted, I’d been relatively okay. I’d gotten drunk. I’d driven home in a state of lucid repose. And at the time of writing, on the thirtieth of December, I seemed okay again. Was there a reason for this, I wondered. No, I decided. I wrote No. with a period at the bottom of the page, crumpled it up and recycled it. I changed the sheets on my bed and took a nap.
The following morning, I reviewed some of my texts. A lot had gone out to people I rarely interacted with. I’d messaged Lena, an acquaintance I’d supposedly impregnated almost two years prior. Since then, she’d gotten engaged, and had replied to my incoherences with subdued concern. I’d called Tom, my mother, and Matthew, a friend who lived in Detroit, a few times, but had no recollection of what we might’ve talked about.
Are you feeling okay? was the most recent message I’d received.
I texted my mother, doing better thanks
I put my phone on my dresser and imitated a person cleaning up his apartment.
I was in the tub when Alexander texted, inviting me to a small party at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Greenpoint. It was around six p.m., and I was turning a roach in my hand, sometimes putting it to my lips and burning myself, trying to drag in the vestigial glimmers of cannabis.
My laptop balanced on Turmeric’s litter box, my eyes flicking across it, catching bits of Annie Hall. I hadn’t realized how much I disliked this movie. I’d remembered loving it, and got tripped up judging myself, feeling something like grief, knowing I’d never be able to enjoy it again.
I sunk into the tub, keeping my hands above water. I smelled tea tree oil, and started to type did i take ketamine in my phone’s browser’s search bar. I wanted to be listening to the radio. I was a little mad, so I breathed slowly. There was some haze, and water was trickling down the drain. I turned the faucet on again.
who’s going to be there, I texted Alexander.
Do you really care?
i guess not… i mean… no, i guess i don’t
After a couple minutes, I texted, i don’t think i can make it
Perfect, Alexander responded.
There was another bottle of Piper-Heidsieck in the fridge, but it didn’t seem right to open. I tried to imagine the next time there might be an occasion. I masturbated half-assedly. It felt better not to finish.
And after my bath, I took a shower.
I could heard a faint voice, screaming from outside, ―If you an over twenty-five-year-old man and you don’t be eating pussy on the regular, please, kill yourself!
I leaned against the kitchenette counter, drawing penguins on a piece of cardboard from an empty box of Raisin Bran. Downstairs, someone was playing the song “No Heart” by 21 Savage and Metro Boomin. I brushed my teeth and stood in the hallway. The music emanating from Elaine’s apartment. I knocked on the door.
Between the hall and her living space, she threw her arms around my neck. She put her mouth on mine. I put my arms on her shoulders and stepped back, inserting a few inches between us.
―David, she said. ―Happy New Year!
―Happy New Year, I said.
―I figured you were out of town or something. You’ve been so quiet.
―Damn, I said. ―Really?
She nodded, pinching my clavicle and brushing something off my cheek, twisting my hair between her fingers.
―I’ve been home the past week. I haven’t left at all.
―Weird, she said.
―I have company, she said. ―You should come in.
―I don’t want to interrupt.
―Uh, I mean, you knocked?
―I just wanted to wish you a happy New Year.
―Well, okay! Happy New Year!
―Happy New Year, I said.
I drove to Greenpoint, and in long, rectangular ovals looking for parking near Alexander’s ex-girlfriend’s.
I called him.
―I’m downstairs, I said.
He buzzed me in.
―What time is it, I said.
―Not sure, Alexander said, and moved away, the door submitting to a floating arc of gravity, dipping back toward me, closing. I stopped it with my hand. A clock radio resting on top of the oven read, 3:41.
―Hm, I said.
―Who are you?
I turned to a woman in a bathrobe. She was late thirties or early forties, her hair in inky clumps, dripping wet, and she pulled it all in her hand and wrung it out in the sink.
―I’m David, I said. ―I’m Alexander’s friend.
The woman looked at me.
―We went to college together, I said.
I put out my hand.
―I’m Charlotte’s cousin, she said, wiping hers on her robe, then holding it up in front of her nose.
―Pruned, she said, then, showing me a palm of open sores and blisters.
The woman made a tight smile and looked in the fridge. Her head kept going deeper in, and I decided to take this opportunity to squeeze past, my jeans inadvertently brushing against her terry cloth, into the main part of the apartment.
I’d been there at least a dozen times, but I still had trouble understanding the layout of Charlotte’s home. It seemed much larger than the floor of the building, and there were two units per floor. There were two bathrooms. I wondered how the pipes were laid out.
People were dispersed in an unsettling way. I recognized Alexander. He was lying supine with his sneakers on Charlotte’s bed, a champagne flute dangling off the side in his hand.
Next to him was a broad, serious-looking man with a beard. Immediately I hated him. He seemed in the midst of a story. I found a spot on the couch, and started to listen.
― Most centers were, like, so focused on therapy and conversation and liturgy. But this most recent place was all about hobbies. They had this theory that drug use, or, like, addiction in general, was the product of an idle mind. They said it’s a lack of stimulation that causes addicts to seek out something. That we replace what might’ve been a very busy, conscientious, invigorated life with something that fulfills this notion of invigoration, albeit falsely, hollowly, temporarily. They say it applies to any kind of addict. Doesn’t matter if you’re a junkie living on the street without a penny or possession or responsibility to your name, or some high-power Wall Street executive mother of three, the role of drugs or gambling or what have you is to fill some physiological void. Some of us just require more stimuli than others to survive. It’s not neurological or genetic or anything, it’s just numbers. What we’re looking for is a chance to hone in on something, a realization, a meaningful fixation. Drugs become an obsession, but so does painting for great painters, or, like, bocce for some very specialized, ultra-elite league of bocce players, and nobody is finding a reason to throw those folks in a rehab facility. You see what I’m saying? So, like, what they wanted was for us to practice a transference. To relocate our stimuli-seeking apparati from whatever we were hooked on and place that concentration on a hobby. They had a lot of different workshops. Cars, furniture building, poetry, gardening, et cetera. So one of these folk, like, comes in one day to give us a lecture on ventriloquism. She’s, like, this big, fat, elephant of ventriloquist woman. You wouldn’t fucking believe, I gotta show you guys a picture of her, hold on…
He started going through his pockets.
―A ventriloquist, Charlotte’s cousin said.
She’d come out from the kitchen, and was dipping baby carrots in a tub of sour cream. Her robe had loosened. I could make out the subtle hue-change of an areola.
―Are you serious?
―Sure, the guy said.
―That’s crazy, a different guy said.
He was dressed up nice in a silk shirt, leather pants, snakeskin boots. He sat on a windowsill, smoking.
There was a teenager in the corner of the room, using a desktop computer with three tiered monitors, toddler bouncing on her knee. There were two or three women in their twenties also flopping on Charlotte’s bed, around the broad guy, who continued going through his pockets.
I kept thinking it was three of them, but then only being able to count two.
And there was a fastidious-looking person, carefully seated on the couch, feet planted parallel on the floor, drinking from a liter of Beefeater. I didn’t see Charlotte.
―I mean, it’s good, said the dressed-up guy. ―Just a little…
―What’s crazy about it, the broad guy said.
―Well, like. I don’t want to say too much before you get that picture for us to take a look at, but, like, I remember, like, in the early two-thousands, when I first moved to the city, my friend who I was supposed to be living with, at the last second she backed out. We’d already signed the lease on this, like, place in the East Village, and she just split and stuck me with this, like, whole apartment. So I was desperate. I couldn’t afford a two-bedroom on my own, so I took out an ad in the Village Voice, and accepted the first person who answered it. She was a ventriloquist. And she told me she was gonna have to use our apartment for work. That it was part of the, like, deal and stuff, and that she’d pay more than I was asking and be really respectful, but, like…
Alexander had come up behind me with a baggie. Inside, there were shards of brown and gray and pink. I licked my finger, dabbed, did a little scooping motion, licked it again.
Alexander sneezed a couple times, and someone touched the back of my neck. The guy stayed talking.
―Like, so at first it was just noises and stuff from her bedroom. It didn’t seem that crazy. I’d known my fair share of people involved in the industry, but I’d never been so close. But then, after a couple months, she started getting more comfortable. The noises got louder. Screams and crying and apologizing and stuff. She had these guys in and out, walking around our common space in harnesses. She called them slaves, and she’d be, like, laying out on the couch naked while they hand-fed her grapes and shit. I’d come home, and they’d be, like, mopping the floors, clipped to a leash she was yanking around, and whipping them with the other hand. It was, like, totally…
―That’s not a ventriloquist, Charlotte’s cousin said.
―You’re talking about a dominatrix.
―I’m… Oh my god. Shit! What’s a ventriloquist?
―It’s a puppeteer, the first guy said.
He held his phone up so the guy at the windowsill could see.
―The ones, like, where they don’t move their mouth when they make the puppet talk.
―Oh yeah, someone else said. ―I couldn’t remember either.
―So did you get into ventriloquism, Charlotte’s cousin said. ―At rehab? Did puppets help you clean up?
―Nah, the guy said. ―That place sucked. Relapsed the day I got out. Like I was trying to defy them or something.
Someone was rubbing my arm. She traced her fingers along my spine, up to my ear, then down to my hand. She squeezed my palm.
―Sup, I said.
―Do you want to go to your place?
―I live, like, pretty far away, I said.
―That’s okay, she said.
―No, I mean, like, it’s probably a lot farther than you think.
―I live in Mississippi, she said.
―I live in Coney Island.
―Oh, she said.
She sort of moved away.
At some point, I left without saying anything. I walked out of the room. People were talking over each other, mostly about different experiences with rehab, and I didn’t hear the door latch behind me.
Halfway down the stairs, Charlotte and someone else were collapsed in a kiss.
I went back to the apartment and fell asleep on the couch.
In the morning, I drank water. My vision obstructed and glittery.
On a Moroccan rug, someone arched her back and slithered into a pair of underwear, still lying down. She sat up, put on a t-shirt, stood on the bed and looked at some of Charlotte’s books.
―She reads a lot of crap, she said.
―Really, I said.
―It’s fine, she said.
―I don’t like Norman Mailer, I said. ―I have books by him, but I don’t like them. I don’t know why I have them.
―That’s all right.
―Have you read Mary Robison?
―No, the girl said. ―I’m leaving.
―Is it morning time?
She opened the curtains. Gray light began to work and undampen the room. I wanted to tell her to close them. I wanted to tell her other things, but not really so much. I knew I wasn’t being present. A few people remained, distributed about, mostly sleeping. My forehead strained. I relaxed it.
―Are you okay, I said.
―Yeah, she said. ―I just want to leave.
―Do you want a ride somewhere, I said.
―Do you have a car?
―That’s cool, she said. ―But I don’t need a ride.
―Are you okay, she said.
―I’m okay, I said. ―Are you…
―Yes, the girl said.
―No I meant, like… Never mind.
―I was going to, like… Gah.
―I was going to ask if I knew you, I said.
―Are you okay, she said.
―I don’t know, I said. ―It feels like I’m bracing myself for something.
Smile, mi amigo, I thought, later, swerving along the icy highway. I flipped on the windshield wipers, streaked the glass with salt and grime.
It was January.
A piling fell over in the sand.
The girl’s name was Kim. She followed me on Instagram. Her handle was unpaved_alien, and I followed her back. Occasionally we liked each other’s stuff. Sometimes we messaged, but never at length.
In February, fashion week happened, and days spilled into following days, and, before falling asleep, I’d think about my cat, hungry, alone, named Turmeric, and I’d wonder if Elaine might break into my apartment and feed her.
In the mornings, I’d forget all about this stuff, working and doing other things. I didn’t mind being miserable.
During a show at Milk Studios, where teenage boys crawled down the runway in raincoats, I messaged Kim, what books do you like if you don’t like the books charlotte has by her bed?
But she never responded.
I texted Laura, did you never come to new york?
I did, she responded.
Then, I’m sorry I didn’t hit you up
I scrolled through a PDF about the infinite-dimensional nature of “the universe,” as understood by studying the levator ani. Something else about how the president’s puffer jacket was lined with ground-up human slave bones. I ran out of ketamine. I masturbated, and I didn’t.
I took the Buick in for an oil change, and the mechanic said, ―You have a totally bent axle up here, and like, your pan and gasket are fucked, you’re leaking everywhere. We gotta flush this thing. You’re rusting out all over the place. You’re gonna need a new fuel pump, new front arms, your bearings are shot, that’s why the tires are wearing like this on the tread. You need new back brakes, and if we replace those, then we gotta do the calipers. Plus your hood ornament’s missing. We’re looking at like two grand’s worth of work here. When did you buy this thing?
―In the fall, I said.
―How much did you pay for it?
―Nineteen hundred, I said.
―You got ripped the fuck off, kid.
―But you’re the one who sold it to me!
―I don’t think so, he said. ―I’m from Bay Ridge. I sell a lot of crap, but I don’t think, conceivably, I could’ve gotten away with this. Do you wanna leave it overnight so I can make up an estimate for you?
―I, um… Let me, like. I need to think about it…
―Well don’t think too hard. You might just find yourself thinking on the side of the road… Sideways, in a ditch… Dead.
I drove to the gas station. I wanted to be buoyed existentially, but it wasn’t there. They were constructing a condo building in its place.
I parked across the street and watched for a while. There was nothing to do. The road was being dismantled, and guys in hazmat suits were hooking a tube up to an armored truck.
It was mesmerizing, seeing asphalt come apart in pieces like that. It looked ridiculously possible.
I turned my phone off and on. I refreshed my email and it downloaded something about a gallery’s spring season. I turned my phone off and stared at the tree. I looked away, got out of my car, hopelessly scanned the sidewalk for something I wasn’t sure existed, opened the trunk and rearranged things. I collected some trash from the backseat and glove compartment, then sat at the wheel.
It didn’t appear as though they were going to uproot the tree, but I couldn’t be sure. The tissue paper ghost was gone, of course. Every time I looked, it wasn’t there. I turned my phone on, texted Alexander, sup?
I put my head down and did some perfunctory picking at my fingernails stuff. I wanted a break from the gas station. Sometimes we take things in too fully. We lose the details, rather than get lost in them.
And I’d latched onto this thought that there was something I hadn’t seen. That I needed time to reevaluate. I counted to two hundred. I blinked. Maybe I hadn’t looked enough. I counted to two hundred. But when I did, it was the same as before.
I don’t know why I kept looking.