Most people would rather convince themselves of being in love than of being happy, just as most people would rather believe they are talking to others when talking to themselves.”  –Sarah Manguso

 

Marfa 2012This story will end with two women naked in a bathtub. Let’s say that, for now, it begins with a drive to Marfa, Texas. I was with one of my best and longest-time friends, Kaitlyn, on our way to spend an annual weekend getaway there. As Dallas faded into a haze in the rearview mirror, we half-joked that this time we were going to Marfa to find ourselves, our “center.” What we meant was that we were looking for some kind of fulfillment or self-sufficiency—maybe happiness is the word—but the joke was that, in reality, we would have preferred to bring our boyfriends with us…except that we didn’t have any. “Finding ourselves,” whatever that meant, would just have to serve as a consolation prize.

The 21st century kicked off with as auspicious a beginning as one might hope for, in the form of a first love inviting herself into my life with a pleasantly unexpected phone call. She was a fellow student of my creative writing program whom I’d been acquainted with since freshman year, wickedly smart and suddenly into me with an intensity I was helpless to resist. Despite this, though, we were still just a pair of dumb kids, straddling that margin of post-adolescence where our hormones organized themselves into ranks and assailed the ramparts of common sense. Inevitably, I fell for her hard, and when she broke up with me after an old boyfriend reentered the picture I hit bottom with a thud so loud it echoed for a long while afterward.

Henry

By Kate Axelrod

Essay

Laura and I were sitting up front, and Henry was directly behind me. This was a couple of months ago and we were driving out to Westchester on a Monday afternoon. I was periodically checking on Henry through the rearview mirror. He was usually extremely talkative, bordering on manic, but his eyes kept closing shut and he was slipping in and out of sleep. He was middle aged but boyish in so many ways; today he looked like an overgrown teenager in a boy’s tee shirt and a baseball cap. I’d only known him for a couple months, but from the beginning I felt a tug of affection toward him—for the ways that he was forthcoming and insightful about his addiction and his depression, and how he confided that sometimes he honestly felt more comfortable when he was in prison than when he was out.

My memory works best when it can associate times and places with the music played. Like how I remember the first time I danced with a boy because the song that played was ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and Tiffanie became embedded in my brain alongside the awkwardness of having my arms wrapped around the neck of a boy who was a good six inches taller than me at the time.

This week, I find myself cooking out of habit, then eating nothing or just picking around the perimeter of each nicely plated meal before packing the remains in plastic tubs. I have no appetite but am fixing delicious things, increasingly complex productions that fill my dollhouse-size apartment with perfect smells. In an effort to rationalize this situation, I shift from stewing over heartbreak to focus on science. While earning a nutrition degree, I learned we crave fatty things for their esters – compounds that carry smell and impart taste. From smell and taste, we derive pleasure and comfort, and from fats we derive fuel. The stuff that keeps our mechanical bodies going also plumps our hearts like pillows, in the figurative as well as literal sense. Fats are comforting and clogging. I also learned we crave sugar when there is a lack of sweetness in daily life. All I can stomach right now are Pink Lady apples and endless cups of honeyed hot milk. This indulgence and dependence is risky – artificial sweetness is inevitably succeeded by a bigger crash

The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.

This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.

Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.

Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.

If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.

You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.

Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.

It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?

Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.

In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.

That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.

(Havelock, NC)

I lay on the floor and watch her disrobe, her naked body, hovering over me. She starts the shower. She soaps her hair and I watch the lather run down her curvy body, a bit irritated by the moisture since it’s taking years off of my life.

I go to bed with her. I rest on her chest as she sleeps and slowly make my way towards her belly as she lightly snores. Life with her is good.

(Venice, CA)

I giggle, knowing that you’re back home, struggling to pay your bills, knowing you can’t see all the nudity. I don’t need to go to therapy, drink, even in moderation and I stay 214 pages all of my life while you count calories and exercise so you can keep your 32 inch waist.

You don’t see the tears that well up in her eyes when Gabe is heartbroken. Or how she giggles when Gabe describes the world around him, pulling her in, making her care.

She threw me across the room because some lover betrayed her. I smacked that fucker in the head. Damn straight. Don’t mess with my woman, even though she makes me mad because she dog-ears my pages. She makes up for it by smiling when she reads a moment of victory. Oh her sweet dimples.

(Nanterre, France)

Not all is well for me. Sometimes you really wouldn’t want to be in the bathroom with these people. I won’t even discuss the toilet, but a fat English bloke peed in the shower. And the sex, there are some things that if you witnessed them they would turn you off of sex forever.

I sat on his lap for a full five minutes and he just looked at your name on the cover, trying to figure out if he’ll look more French if he brings me to a cafe. Yes, DuShane, it’s French, now open me up.

(Houston, TX)

I remember when she took me off of the shelf, stroked by tender hands. I was like an orphan looking for a parent. A dog with his paw to the cage. Me, me, me, I yelled. When she took me to the cash register I felt like I sent a farewell note to you. This is it. This is what you wanted. Good-bye.

Then I snicker because you will be judged. They do those little star-thingies on those book websites. What you put me through, what you put all of us through for three years? Back when we were naked, when we had no spine. Those days you just sat there and looked at us, half formed, deformed, a few of us characters bloated like we were force fed popcorn and chili. That wasn’t fun, but you wrote your way through that time and now I don’t feel like farting as much.

(Cleveland, OH)

I just sat there, not a care in the world and then this two-year-old kid showered me with a bowl full of milk and Cheerios. Nobody read a word of me and down the trash shoot I fell. Four stories.

By the way, there is an after life, and it doesn’t involve a heaven or hell or ghosts bothering humans or anything like that. Wait a second.

What? Oh, I can’t tell him. That’s funny.

(Brooklyn, NY)

I’m at another writer’s house. He’s good. I mean, wow, the wealth of material. I’m up against his manuscript. I know I can’t call you, but maybe there’s some weird shit in the universe that will make it to your brain and into one of my younger brothers or sisters.

(Halifax, Nova Scotia)

I heard you might adapt me into a film. I wish someone would throw me at your head, what are you thinking? They’re going to change things around. And, have you seen some of these films? I’m with a woman who insisted we watch Eat, Pray, Love. Twice in a row! She brought me into the theatre bathroom after seeing it once.

Yeah, I got to go into the women’s bathroom and I know you’re thinking there are a bunch of bare breasted women applying makeup, comparing their front bottoms and splashing water on each other, but don’t get your hopes up too high on that idiotic fantasy. She just sat there, looking at her ugly mug in the mirror, actually thinking she was Julia Roberts, or that she could be Julia Roberts. We bought two boxes of Junior Mints and she ate all of them before the previews, of course, and I had to watch that crap film again.

I swear on my holy…..if you…if they….if Julia Rober-…..I will hurt you. Somebody place me on a computer I will one-star-thingie the shit out of you. Amazon. Barnes & Noble. Powell’s. Goodreads.com. Why would I care, we’re done, I’m home and you’re back in San Francisco doing whatever you San Franciscans do when you’re not writing or waxing your hipster mustaches.

And, you didn’t have that mustache when we started. Yeah, I’m calling you out on it to the world. You were fat. You were a fat bearded fuck. 234 pounds. I know, you go on and on about how you lost 50 pounds and the first 20 pounds were easy because they were heartbreak pounds. What was that pithy little sentence you wrote?

“Divorce is the number one cure for weight loss without a prescription.”

Actually, that’s not bad. And it was good to see you get healthy. Well on your exterior since we both know your insides are just rotting guts and you’re still a tormented artist, blah, blah, blah. I wish I could write your next book for you and call it, I’m Tormented, Help Me.

Forget what I said about Julia Roberts, you and I spent so much “quality” time together, you know what I’m talking about you delusional sod, that I now want Julia Roberts to play the role of Mom. Yep. If I could call your agent and sound halfway intelligent with the limited sentences you gave me, I’d find out. But I can only say sentences the way you wrote them. Let’s see:

“Did you touch her?” Page 8. Not going to work.

“Shitfaced.” That’s a sentence on page 142. You’re not too shabby on the internal dialogue stuff when Gabe says what he’s thinking.

Okay, flipping through myself. Hrmm. That feels kind of good. Flipping through my pages. Flipping through. Flipping through. Flipping through. Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip, I’ll be right back.

I’m back. All of a sudden I feel a little tired. I thought I broke something there for a second.

“It was a very Norwegian way to communicate something that hurt too much.” Page 62.

Look, you’ve given me nothing to work with here so you’re on your own. I’ll never speak to you again if the world knows my story through some starving, numbskull actors who rubbed the right people the right way to get into the-.

Rubbed. They flipped through my pages. Flipping through my pages. Flipping. Flip, flip, flip. I feel a bit light headed. I’ll be right back.


As the U.S. soccer team desperately played for an equalizer in the waning moments of extra time against Ghana, I thought that the outcome of the game and my reaction to it might make for an interesting essay. In fact, I was already quite certain of the general tone and themes that would be presented in a piece about either a win or a loss. They went something like this.

Scenario #1: Victory

In this version of the essay, Team U.S.A. ties the score and goes on to win in a penalty kick shootout. I describe the victory with cheesy, predictable platitudes such as: you have to keep on believing in yourself despite seemingly insurmountable odds and success ultimately trumps any hardships one must endure.

The essay then diverts into a deep, introspective tangent, in which I have the epiphany that life trudges forward with predictable monotony no matter how joyous a single accomplishment is. I go on to describe how unadorned moments comprise the essence of existence, not the occasional supernova of the ego. I end this section by stating a maxim, for example: After the flames of temporary glory have turned to ash, one must resume the search for contentedness in the small, poorly-lit corners of life.

This version of the essay concludes with me witnessing something outdoors, for instance, a bird landing on the feeder and pecking at the suet. I smile and bask in the enlightened perspective that no great achievement can replace such a moment of simple beauty and connectivity with the universe. And then winning a soccer match doesn’t seem so impressive anymore.

Scenario #2: Defeat

In this version of the essay, team U.S.A. loses. I am crestfallen, which prompts a comparison between following a sports team and being in a relationship. I talk about how, with both, there is a strong tendency to root your emotional well-being in an externality. Then, I equate winning with being in love and losing with heartbreak by writing something to the tune of: When times are good, you feast with the gods. In bad times, all the world casts long shadows. I complete the metaphor with a witty one-liner, such as: But with love and sport, even when you direct a string of obscenities at your beloved, throw the remote control at them and storm out of the room, vowing that this time you’re tuning out for good, you sheepishly return and give things another shot.

After a weak transitional paragraph, the piece assumes an angry tone and I lash out against the profit-driven, mainstream-media-controlled consumer culture. I construct a pointed argument about how the sporting industry is just bread and circuses and Team U.S.A. is a bunch of gladiators used to distract people from the issues that really matter.

I can barely contain my rage; I seethe and flecks of spittle fly from my mouth as I write about America being currently engaged in the longest war in its history, the thousands of lives that have been ruined by pedophilic priests, and the millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, among other topics.

In the following section, the tone shifts from angry to somber. I realize that, in a way, this loss is an awakening. I declare that I now understand the proper function of sport is to deflect reality and will never again buy into the corporate-hype advertising machine. The essay ends with me characterizing the masses as bovine for continuing to be duped by the sporting world’s high-production stagecraft.

Scenario #3: What actually happened

Team U.S.A. loses. My friend shuts the TV off quickly, before we are forced to see the other side’s victory celebration. We sit in tense, awkward silence for a few moments and I break it by saying, “Fuck it. Good thing I bet on Ghana.”

On the ride home I can tell I’m a little tipsy because whenever I drive drunk the car’s hood appears superimposed on the road. When I operate the vehicle in this state I’m not really driving, but rather guiding the hood in the appropriate direction.

I arrive home tired from drinking midday beers so I take a nap. When I awake the sting of defeat lingers. To deflect it, I go for a bike ride, channeling my frustration into climbing the biggest hill in the area. It is a 15 minute uphill charge of pain and sweat and grimacing.

Upon cresting the hill I turn right around and fly down at breakneck speed. I yell out, “Fuck you motherfuckers.” But I don’t really know who the motherfuckers are or why I’m mad at them.

As I’m riding I wish I had a pen and paper because I have a wonderful idea for an essay. I want to write about the absurdity of predicting how you’re going to feel about something before it happens.

 

In New York’s Whitehorse Tavern there’s a table held sacred by many, table five. A quick glance suggests nothing out of the ordinary about this piece of battered furniture, its surface worn smooth by the bottom of countless glasses, its landscape dulled by the tears of broken dreams. However, this table holds a distinction held by no other table in the literary world. It’s the table that Dylan Thomas had his last drink at before being carried across the street to Saint Vincent’s Hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The Tavern has become a Mecca for wannabe writers and misunderstood artists, all trying to capture a piece of the agony that fueled their hero’s creativity. Pathetic hustlers of the English language, all trying to one up themselves by walking on the razor’s edge, flock to places like the Whitehorse. Those in the know want to sit at the table where the great bard himself finally met his end after playing a game of whiskey roulette with hand of death.

It’s sad that writers feel the need to emulate their idol’s demise, following in the footsteps of someone else’s self-induced madness. Many of us write, trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the emotional train wreck, begging fate for an end to the destructive storm that is our world. Our words keep us one step away from the darkness, those desperate hours that haunt us when the silence falls. We never get ahead of our insanity, always running in place and never going forward. One step from the madness and ten miles from sanity is where I stood at any given moment.

I sat at that table, whiskey in hand, not pretending to be a tormented writer, but because I wanted to toast the man who gave all of himself to his art until in the end, there was nothing left but the shell of a withering soul. I came because I was thirsty for something else in life. I came for the rightist of wrong reasons.

It was a cold winter night when I stumbled into the Whitehorse, desperate for something other than the void that my life had become. I was going through the motions, breathing with the shallowness of a man with no convictions. I was a man with no past or future, just a stagnant mechanized existence. I had just spent the better part of two hours listening to the relentless ranting of a fashion designer, a woman who went on and on about how brilliant she was. The first rule of literary survival I learned was simple; anyone who claims to be brilliant usually isn’t. They’re rubes, simpletons who’ve thumbed through college outlines of all the great books, higher learning through a series of Dummy’s and Idiot’s Guides. They’re pretenders to an intellectual throne far beyond their grasp. They’re the people that say all the right things at all the right times, always making a point to throw in the names of whoever is on the top of the avant-garde heap. “Blah, blah, blah… Andy Warhol. Blah, blah, blah…” On and on again until you want to die. “Blah, blah, I know more than you, blah.” My mind was spinning from an evening spent in a room full of cultural vampires. Enough was absolutely enough. Having told this room full of simpletons “I’d rather cut myself with broken car glass than listen to one more nanosecond of this dribble,” I was out the door and into the tavern in under five minutes.

The place was empty, as if the plague had just rolled through Greenwich Village. That was fine by me. I liked an empty bar, devoid of people working hard to preserve their livers in a bottle of whiskey. I didn’t drink a lot but when I did I didn’t need some buzz kill sitting next to me, waxing on and on about his broken dreams. New York is filled to the brim with tales of heartbreak and guaranteed schemes that fell apart just before the payoff. It’s a city that serves as a beacon to the mentally unstable artist and greedy yuppie alike, both of whom were big fish in the little ponds of their hometowns. Now they’re surrounded by bigger fish in the biggest pond of all, nasty giant fish with a taste for blood. In the end they’re eaten alive by the unforgiving nature of life in the city. The bowery is paved with the carcasses of some of the most brilliant artists I’ve ever met and the jails are filled with scheming yuppies. New York’s a town designed for hustlers and tricksters out for their own gain.

The waitress came back to the table with my drink, a double shot of Black Label Scotch, neat no ice. I stared down into the placid amber liquor, peering into its depth as if Buddha would swim to the surface with a lifesaving piece of wisdom written just for me. Nothing happened, other than the soothing smell of the double malt wafting up to my nose. “God I need some fucking peace,” I said to myself. My nerves had just started to calm down, as I lifted the heavy glass to my lips. The silence was perfect, dead like me, empty and void of the sounds of desperate bar people desperately trying to sound as if their lives had meaning. There was no blah, blah, blah to kill my buzz.

The first slug of scotch went down, burning my throat with that acrid warm feeling hard liquor has. My shaking thoughts suddenly started to smooth out like a plane after it’s flown through a turbulent patch of sky. I could breathe again, taking in the squalid barroom air with renewed faith. It was a perfect moment in time, one that could never be repeated, so I savored it with the enthusiasm of a man who discovers a hundred dollar bill in an otherwise empty wallet. For that brief moment all was well in my world. Everything was, as my wife would say, peachy.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the slamming of the tavern’s door. Looking up to see what idiot ruined my perfect moment, I saw him enter the bar, the worst possible sort to run into when you’re out for a quiet evening of destroying your liver. Sammy the Gimp scanned the room looking for a familiar face he could extract a free drink or dollar from. I quickly lowered my head but not before his eyes met mine. “Shit” I muttered. My evening would now be spent trying to get rid of Sammy. I looked back up knowing his smiling junkie face would be beaming in my direction. Sure enough it was, his scrawny wrist limply waving in my direction. No point in putting off the inevitable. I nodded which was the universal gesture amongst junkies to “come on over and waste my precious time.”

Sammy was one of those old time junkies that had the word loser burned into his forehead from years of failed schemes, broken promises and too much time on Riker’s Island. Getting involved with anything Sammy planned was a sure fire ticket to the joint. He was an idiot but he did have a certain charm. Sammy had an innocence reserved for the mentally retarded that made you feel bad for him, bordering on almost liking him. His toothless grin lit up like a roman candle as he limped over the table.

He got the name, Sammy the Gimp, after being shot by a junk dealer on Avenue A down in Alphabet City. He bought a large quantity of dope on credit and didn’t pay his bill on time. Unfortunately, the dealer had a large number of other deadbeat junkies also behind on their payments, so an example would have to be made. Sammy was that example, being stabbed 23 times. One of his injuries was a lacerated leg muscle that caused his cartoonish limp. When he was in my presence he was a nuisance at best. When he wasn’t around to step on my last nerve I felt bad for him. He was somebody’s little boy once, a son born to proud parents who could never have imagined their boy becoming a junkie. I watched, as if hypnotized, as his left foot dragged across the sawdust floor making the sound of sandpaper on steel. When he got to my table he clumsily pulled out a chair which sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard as it scrapped against the floor. He finally settled into it. God, this man was noisy.

“Johnny my man, how the hell are you?”

“Just fine Sammy. What brings you uptown? This isn’t your normal watering hole?”

“I was looking for you. Well, actually I was coming back from Harlem and I ran into that loud mouth skirt maker…”

“Fashion designer, Sammy, fashion designer, there’s a difference” I added.

“Yeah, whatever, she makes skirts, doesn’t she?”

It’s amazing how a simpleton like Sammy can somehow come out ahead in a conversation. He was right, the “loudmouth” did make skirts, and it was a funny thought to think of her as a skirt maker rather than that know it all fashion maven. I tried to keep quiet, as if my silence would propel The Gimp out of the tavern but Sammy picked up where he left off.

“Where was I? Oh yeah, I ran into the skirt maker and she said you insulted her then stormed out of the party over at Izzy’s place.”

“I didn’t want to listen to another second of those wannabe art-types rambling on about the state of art in New York, as if any of them really knew what was going on. Jesus, the shit that pours out of people’s mouths would lead you to believe that there’s a bad case of verbal diarrhea going round.”

“Verbal diarrhea?” he asked.

“Verbal diarrhea Sammy, didn’t you have something pressing to say?” I knew I was about to get the lowdown on some surefire scheme guaranteed to get me rich, loaded or both. Wanting to get it over with, I forced him to get to the point. There’s nothing worse than having to wait for a loser to spit out their plan knowing that you’d end up having to get involved in order to get rid of them. He continued, spitting wet lumps of peanut out of his mouth.

“Here’s the deal.” A chunk of gooey nut lands on my hand. “I was up in Harlem, going up there to cop this new shit that’s supposed to be off the charts but there’s no one home at the Buster’s place. I mean no one in sight. I knock on his door and nothing, not a peep. I bang on the door for ten minutes. I figure they’re in the back room so I try the door knob. The doors unlocked so I walk on in and guess what, guess what the fuck I saw?”

“Tell me Sammy, just tell me and get it over with.”

“Hey man, I’m trying to do you the favor here.” More peanuts fly out.

“Yeah, you’re right. Sorry Sammy, go on.”

“So I go inside and they’re all fucking dead. I mean shot up, guts hanging out, faces blown off dead. You couldn’t tell the boys from the girls.”

This was more than I needed to hear. The Gimp managed to show up at Busters after someone had put the fix on the dealer and now his big mouth is guaranteeing me a spot on the morning police report. This is what I meant about losers, they go to do something as simple as coping dope in Harlem and end up walking in on a gangland slaying. Then they start telling everyone who will listen, their tragic tale which eventually means that the guys who pulled the trigger will find out. They’ll start looking for Sammy which means they’ll talk to everyone who knows him with my name appearing first on their list. God damn gimpy footed little bastard had dragged me into his sad sack pathetic world once again. Even with my glaring eyes burning a hole through his forehead, my eyes saying “I’m going to skin you alive,” he kept talking.

“So I look around to see if there’s anything of value and I see a paper bag.”

“What paper bag?” I asked, knowing that the bag most likely contained drugs, money or both.

“The paper fucking bag filled with the purest heroin I’ve ever tasted.” My mouth dropped open. I was now officially sucked into one of The Gimps fucked up schemes because I couldn’t resist that damn drug.

I sat with Sammy at table five in momentary silence as if he’d shut up long enough for the enormity of his great fortune to sink in. To his left I could see the ghost of Dylan Thomas smiling as if egging me on to indulge my addiction. I’m sure Dylan wanted me to take my own version of that last drink and join him permanently at the table. The lure of drugs had overpowered the knowledge that anything Sammy touched turned to shit. All I could think about was that bag, that big fat bag.

“So Sammy, what did you do with the dope?” Saliva was now dripping from my mouth, slowly pooling on the table’s surface.

“What do you mean, I have it right here.” At which point he started to pull out an enormous freezer bag of white powder.”

“Put that away man. Are you crazy? You can’t walk around with that, you’ll get caught.” This was becoming a nightmare at a hundred miles an hour but I was too blinded by the thought of getting loaded to care.

“What am I supposed to do with all this junk man? Hey man, you want a little? You can have it for free since you always looked out for me.”

“Sure Sammy, I’ll take a little.” The drool started pouring from my mouth until I had to wipe it away with a napkin for fear of someone thinking I was having a medical emergency, a bad bout of dope-luster’s disease. Unbeknownst to me, The Gimp had prepared some “to go” bags of junk back at Buster’s place.

He signaled me to reach under the table, which I gladly did. My hand slid past a hundred years of chewing gum stuck to the table’s underside, past the rusting piss stained post that held it up until I felt the soft plastic skin of the bag. Taking a quick glance before shoving it in my pocket, it appeared to be close to an ounce. I looked back at Sammy who looked almost thoughtful yet resigned in the dim red lights of the bar. It was then I realized that Sammy wasn’t long for this world. His eyes were begging me to help him. Whenever drug dealers got shot up and some junky came along and stole their stash, they ended up paying with their lives. Nothing is free in this life, especially drugs. I felt bad and had to give The Gimp fair warning. As I started to say something Sammy cut me off.

“Listen man that stuff’s nearly pure so don’t use a lot. In fact, maybe you should smoke or snort it.” There was a glimmer of genuine concern in his beady little eyes.

“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind. Listen Sammy, you need to get rid of that stuff. It’s going to bring you a world of hurt. Someone’s going to be looking for it.”

“Yeah man, I know. I’m going to start selling it one dime bag at a time.”

“That’s the wrong answer Sammy. You’ll get killed if you try to deal it on the street. The first thing everyone’s going to ask is where a lowlife like The Gimp got such good shit, no offense.”

“None taken asshole” he muttered. I continued.

“Look, we need to take this to Nick the Wop over on Grand Street and dump it. He’ll give you half of a fair price but you’ll be alive to spend the money.”

“What’s your end of the deal?” There was a sudden note of hostility in his voice.

“You just gave me an ounce of primo shit that will keep me high for weeks. I also sort of like you and I don’t want to hear about you getting killed.”

“Everyone laughs at me Johnny. They call me a loser behind my back.”

“That’s because you are Sammy. We’re all losers. Look at what we do, swinging smack everyday at the end of a spoon. We’re all fucking losers, one no worse than the next.”

“You’re not a loser.  No one ever calls you that.”

“I am. You just can’t see it because I hide it well. Let’s call Nick and see if we can get this mess cleaned up. Go ahead and keep some for yourself and we’ll dump the rest with Nick.”

I left Sammy at the table, getting up and walking to the payphone by the men’s room. I got a hold of Nick and filled him in, giving him as little information as possible, saying my “friend” needed to make a fast transaction of dope for cash. He figured my “friend” was The Gimp. Nick agreed to meet us in an hour. After a little chit chat about Sammy’s ability to fuck things up, I said goodbye and walked back to the table. Sammy sat with a smile on his face and powder hanging off his crooked nose. The look of disgust on the bartender’s face filled in the missing pieces. In my absence, Sammy had snorted a pile of product in plain sight and was now in the twilight zone, the good twilight zone. I filled Sammy in on my conversation with Nick, having to stop and start as Sammy fell in and out of a heavy nod. After having tipped the bartender an extra twenty dollars, I had him call us a cab. As the Tavern started to fill up with the usual repressed homosexual college jocks desperate to save their masculinity through alcohol abuse, Sammy and I shuffled out to meet the cab. In a moment we were off towards Grand Street. I took a big snort from my bag of dope and within three minutes I was pleasantly numb.

The city at night, with lit up windows and neon signs, becomes a visual wonderland passing by in a blur. It’s like a perpetual string of Christmas lights spread throughout the concrete landscape, a warm fuzzy fist full of eye candy for those on the nod. Everything suddenly feels great. Everyone’s suddenly your best friend. Nothing hurts anymore and you become the dream of yourself you could never be in a state of sobriety. Everything is just a pleasant state of flux. Even riding in the yellow cab of death is fun. Even the driver amped up on crack for three days makes you smile. He’s your friend, your best friend. The normal potholes and torn up asphalt that jarred your kidneys to the point of no return feels like the gentle bounce of a trampoline as we sped down 3rd Avenue, towards Nick’s office.

Nick’s office was a loft space above a dim sum joint on Grand Avenue. While Nick was Italian, thus the nickname Nick the Wop, he felt more comfortable in Chinatown where, according to him, “everyone fought for a better deal but no one ever fucked you for a buck”. Nick was a connected guy, having worked his way up in a Brooklyn numbers crew, but was forced to quit when he got strung out. The Family doesn’t allow junkies. However, even without the Mob to back his play he still carried a serious reputation. Fuck with the Nick the Wop and you’d discover pain you never knew existed.

By the time we got to Nick’s office, Sammy and I were heavily sedated. Exiting the cab, I was hypnotized by the numerous neon signs, their Chinese symbols becoming more interesting when illuminated in a red or green glow. Sammy grabbed me by the arm as I started to walk into a Chinese record store in search of something other than what we had come here to do. Apologizing, in that whiney junkie voice we all get when smacked back, I turned towards Nick’s office.

Nick was in the business of fencing stolen goods. It didn’t matter what you had, from tubas to goldfish, from diamonds to women’s diaphragms, Nick could find a buyer for everything. Of course he’d give you pennies on the dollar but he assumed the risk and no one would ever know where the merchandise came from which was what I wanted. Sammy liked to brag about his big scores which usually amounted to nothing, except in this case. He’d be found out via the junkie internet, a series of payphones up and down Manhattan’s east side, within twenty fours which would earn him a trip to the morgue. Setting him up with Nick would keep him marginally safe.

To get into Nick’s, you had to walk through the dim sum joint, through the kitchen and up the world’s worst set of wooden stairs. This routine worked well since you’d never know Nick was here unless you had prior knowledge. After convincing Sammy that Nick really had an office here and he wasn’t being set up in some awful way, we made our way through the kitchen and its nonplused workers.

“You’re kidding Johnny, Nick’s back here?”

“Yeah I know, it seems a bit strange but it’s the perfect cover.”

“I don’t know Johnny.” He was getting nervous, like a cornered rat.

“I don’t know Johnny” I replied back, mimicking that dopey dog from the Davy and Goliath cartoon. “Look, I’m doing this to help you, you little fuck. I’m trying to save your sorry ass.”

He muttered something, looking at me like a broken hearted puppy which made me feel worse. Man, why did I get involved in this fiasco in the first place. I knew The Gimp was trouble and I still sat there listening to him. Before I had second thoughts, thinking about kicking him to curb, I smiled and pointed to the stairs. “Get the fuck up there Sammy,” bringing the kitchen’s conversation to a standstill.

We made our way up the stairs which lead to a large hallway covered in garish red felted wallpaper. Nick once told me that the rest of the building was a whorehouse and its madam had a thing about the color red. Everything was a shade of red. The hallway was lined by doors every twenty feet or so. However, finding Nick’s door was easy. We just looked for the door guarded by a three hundred pound gun totting thug. Straightening ourselves up, we approached the humorless man with the shotgun in his paws.

“What do you want?” He was brief and to the point.

“We’re here to see Nick, he’s expecting us.”

“Hey Nick,” the goon shouted. “There’s a couple of fucking junkies to see you.”

That’s great, I thought. Fifty nine minutes with Sammy and I’m lumped into the category of “fucking junkies.” Of course it didn’t help that I was nodding while I stood there, the perpetual string of drool now extending past my jacket well on its way to the floor.

“It’s alright Bruno, it’s just Johnny from Brooklyn and The Gimp. Let them in.”

“Get the fuck in there and don’t make any trouble, assholes.”

“Relax tough guy. I’m a friend of Nick’s.”

“Tough guy, fucking tough guy, you little shit?” The goon was pissed.

“Is there a problem out there?” Nick screamed.

“Nothing boss.”

Before the tough guy with the shotgun could do anything, Sammy and I slipped through the door. Nick smiled when he saw me, his smile suddenly turning to a frown when he saw Sammy. He didn’t like Sammy but business was business and this was well worth the trouble of bringing The Gimp along. I had Sammy hand him the bag of junk, which he immediately tested.

“Jesus, this stuff is nearly pure. How’d you get it? I hear that Buster’s place got shot up a few hours ago. It’s too bad Buster wasn’t there or you would have got away with it clean.”

My heart sank upon hearing those words. I assumed that Buster was killed since nobody would be stupid enough to steal from Buster unless Buster was dead. Nobody would be stupid enough… then there’s Sammy. Shit, I knew the loser’s credo, “everything they touch turns to rust, all schemes fail then crumble to dust.” Not only was I with Sammy now but I had an ounce of Buster’s product in my pocket. What the hell was Sammy thinking?

“Fucking Sammy, what the hell were you thinking? Didn’t you look around to see if Buster was dead? Do you know what’s going to happen if Buster finds out you walked off with his stash?”

“Relax” Nick said in his deep raspy voice. “No one is going to know anything about this. Here’s the solution, the fix to your problems.”

“Here we go” I muttered to myself. We were on the losing side of a coin toss and Nick knew it. We and I say we because I was with Sammy which made me guilty by association regardless of the actual facts, were screwed. There was one way out and I knew what it was even before Nick uttered a single word. We’d get to leave here alive and without fear of Buster ever knowing Sammy took his junk. The only drawback was we’d only get that out of the deal and nothing else. There’d be no money handed over, only the promise of silence. Nick continued.

“You’re going to give me the heroin and I’m going to keep my mouth shut, get rid of the junk and that will be that.”

“What about my fucking money.” Sammy whined.

“Your money you shitty little gimp? There’s no ‘your money’ involved. This stuff wasn’t yours to begin with and I’m doing you a big favor, saving your life by fixing this problem. Actually you owe me.” The Gimp looked like he was going to blow a gasket so I chimed in.

“Just shut up Sammy. Nick’s right. We walk away now and it’s a case of no harm no foul. Nick gets rid of this stuff and you’re off the hook.”

“Johnny, you told me you’d help me,” Sammy whined.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that Buster was still alive. You might have taken a look at the bodies to make sure he was among them. I’m sorry Sammy but this has to play out this way. It’s either that or Buster’s going to come for you.”

On that note Sammy started crying. Another great scheme fallen apart, burning the word loser just a little deeper into his soul. I felt bad, hell even Nick looked upon The Gimp with pity filled eyes.

“Listen Sammy, I’ll give you an ounce for your troubles. This way you can have a good time and you won’t feel so bad. You just have to keep quiet about this or I’ll kill you myself. Are we square on that Sammy?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I mean abso-fucking-lutely.”

“Listen Sammy, I need to talk to Johnny about something so go wait out in the hall and for God sakes don’t get Bruno pissed off, alright?”

“Okay, Nick,” he said in that damn dopey dog voice.

After Sammy left I sat down on Nick’s couch to talk to him. Sitting next to me, his expression told me the news I was about to hear would not be good. I knew Nick from the old days. He always took care of me and vice versa, but time had changed us both to a point where we ran in different circles these days. We weren’t as tight as we used to be. I couldn’t ask for the favors I used to ask him for. Sammy was headed for a fist full of hurt.

“Johnny, this isn’t going to bode well for The Gimp. I mean I’ll get this stuff out of here and more importantly away from you two but Sammy’s got a big mouth. I can’t have this blowing back on me. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I got it Nick. I don’t like it but I got it.”

“You’re a good kid Johnny and I’ll keep you out of it but you know what has to be done if push comes to shove.”

I knew what had to be done. I knew I couldn’t say anything to Sammy because I was a “stand up guy.” Mind your own business where I came from and you lived a long life. Walking out into the hallway and facing Sammy was more painful than I thought it would be. I wasn’t a thug and didn’t have the stomach for this life. I had one chance to do something right which was protect The Gimp. I begged Sammy to let me send him out of town for a few weeks, anywhere he wanted my treat. The only condition was that he left that night. He thanked me for the offer but said he wanted to go home, catch another buzz and think about it. What could I do? I couldn’t repeat what Nick told me because I gave him my word I’d stay out of it. On the streets you’re only as good as your word. When your word’s gone so are you.

I took Sammy home by taxi, offering to stay with him until I could convince him to leave town. He smiled and told me to go home, he’d see me tomorrow and we could have a good laugh about it then. I left his rundown tenement building on the lower eastside, knowing there’d be no happy ending yet silently praying for one. I made my way back to Brooklyn, finally nodding off at about five in the morning.

I awoke the next afternoon to the phone ringing, echoing through my empty loft, pounding my ears like a jackhammer on crack. Picking it up, I mumbled

“Yeah, who is this?”

“It’s Nick. I just wanted you to hear it from me rather than some fucking junkie on the street.”

My heart dropped to depths I didn’t know existed. I knew what was coming as if the story would have some other ending. I constantly played a dangerous game with people who played for keeps, playing it for years but always escaping injury and death. However, at this single moment it all caught up to me, all the close calls and narrow misses. It was payback time and it was long overdue. Someone had just paid for my fucking sins, Karma with a sideways payback.

“Buster’s people found Sammy this morning. They cut his fucking left hand off. They cut his fucking… they shoved it down his… never mind. I’m sorry Johnny. I know you tried to help him.”

“Yeah I tried but obviously I didn’t try hard enough.” I thought I was going to start crying. Nick sensed this as well.

“Look Johnny, it was only a matter of time before Sammy’s mouth caught up to him. This wasn’t your fault. You’re not part of this world kid, you’re better than us and that’s a good thing. You don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to be an animal, but you have to quit using dope. It will kill you in the end. I have to hop but I wanted to tell you that you’re not in the loop on this one. Buster was convinced that you had no part in Sammy’s bullshit.”

“Thanks Nick, I mean that.”

“Listen Johnny, I got more than expected for Sammy’s score. I felt bad about jerking you for the money but Sammy would have blown the deal back to me so I had to play it the way I did.  I left something for you in an envelope. Bruno stuck it under your door this morning.”

Looking across the room I could see the envelope near the front door. After hanging the phone up I opened it up, finding roughly four thousand dollars inside. I pulled out the ounce of junk I still had, poured out a line and soothed my trampled nerves. Calling a travel agent, I discovered that this was a great time of year to head west. Booking a one way ticket to San Francisco for the following week, I decided to go back to my hometown. Nick was right. I could get out of this way of life. I could go out on my own or in a casket, my choice. Sammy’s death was the final straw. I didn’t belong in a world were men’s hearts were tempered like cold hard steel. My metal was weak like tin, rusted from tears of regret and sorrow. Before exiting New York, I stopped by Nick’s and took him out to lunch. When we parted he said something that stuck.

“Kid, I wish you well out California. Go follow those dreams of yours. Write that book you keep threatening to write but don’t ever come back here again and don’t use my real name if you write about you and me. Don’t come back to where you don’t belong. Me, I don’t have the devil’s chance of leaving this life but you, you have a ticket out. Use it or the last thing you’ll see will be Bruno’s shotgun right before it takes your head off.” He didn’t have to say another word. I became a ghost and simply vanished.



LOS ANGELES – This morning started out like any other morning. Or maybe not. When your houseguest is not only on East Coast time but also in the middle of a nasty bout of bronchial distress, the chances are slim to none that you will be asleep past 6:30 am PST. Which proved true early, so early, this fine Tuesday morning. The hacking and honking reached a crescendo somewhere around 6:37 am but my lovely out-of-towner, considerate as she is, decided that instead of torturing us both with her frequent lung-rattles, she would just take a quick shot of the Delsym cough suppressant in the cheerful orange box sitting on the bathroom counter.

Bad idea.

Very, very bad idea.

Now it should be stated that my petite guest is not only a narcotics-newbie, but also that her cold drug of choice – which was purchased by yours truly – caused the checkout lady at Target to card me. And scan my ID. And now I’m on some potential government Watch List for Meth Lab Cooks/Cold Medicine Entrepreneurs. I wonder if they have a Union.

All of this adds up to some very serious relief-in-a-bottle. My pal had previously taken a shot of the juice before bed, but taking it in the morning was a whole different experience. When she came back into the bedroom I was too awake to fall back asleep. I was awake and annoyed that I was already thinking about him. Ugh. Had he really called me “mean” as I handed him a Trader Joe’s bag full of his socks (snuck into my laundry yet again), bootleg DVDs, and sweat-stained baseball cap? Mean? Me?

More importantly, was I?

I could feel the phantom pressure of an evil hand wrapping itself around my heart, but quickly forced it aside. My fun, cheerful Houseguest was here. We had plans to hike up a beautiful mountain. The world was not ending. I could relax…right? I hoped so. I closed my eyes.

For three seconds.

When I opened them, I was walking to my computer. Sitting down at said computer. And immersing myself into the very maze of paperwork and online drama I was trying so desperately to avoid. When did it all get so complicated? Houseguest, however, stayed in bed and checked her Facebook on my laptop. And then started to get very, very loopy.

“Hey!” came the cry from the bedroom as I was tackling the meaning of the Department of Water and Power sending me a check for $82.78. There had to be some sort of catch, right? Was it a trick to see if I’d cash it and then they’d laugh uproariously while they flicked some mystical switch that caused not only my apartment to go dark but my data to be erased from all of my computers? Hmm, file this check away for a rainy, flashlight-filled day.

“Heyyyyyyy!” the repeated cry echoed from the bedroom. Whoops, I hadn’t answered.

“What’s up?” I called back.

“I feel sorta….dizzzzzzzzy…” Her voice warbled a bit, then became muffled as she shoved her head under what I could only assume were my flannel sheets and blue comforter. “I think I’m gonna…”

The sentence was never finished but an IM or some other interwebular distraction on my screen caught my eye and I was sucked back into cyber world. For the next five hours. Five. Hours. When I glanced at the time in the corner of my screen, I was extremely surprised to discover that it was already 11:46 am. So that’s why all of my office-bound friends were now online and IMing their way through the boring day.

I, on the other hand, had powered through all of my bills, a bunch of customer orders, notes on an online video edit, and had even paid my company’s city tax (PS if your company makes under $300,000 a year the city of Los Angeles cuts you a break. Do any small businesses make OVER that amount? Just wondering…). It had been a productive five hours. Surely it was time to reward myself (and Houseguest) with a caffeinated beverage and a hike to the top of Griffith Park. Right?

And then I entered the bedroom.

When I had last left her, Houseguest was cozily ensconced on one side of the queen bed, covers pulled up snugly just under her chin. Not so anymore. Somewhere in the middle of her cough-syrup haze, she had not only turned all the way upside-down in the bed, but also taken off one sock. Just one. Her half-clad feet now rested on my pillow. The covers were crumpled and shoved to the foot of the bed. Her head and shoulders, I could only assume, were somewhere underneath them.

“Um…Houseguest?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I should nudge her or set off a few fireworks. I went for the leg nudge. Nothing. A little more aggressive this time. Still nothing. I started peeling back the covers until the shrillest scream ever to emanate from a human pierced the room.

“Noooooooooo!!!!!” Houseguest screeched and pulled the covers back over her head, returning to the darkness like a recalcitrant vampire.

“Come on,” I nudged again. “Let’s go get some-” I was interrupted by the sound of an early-90’s TV show theme song blasting from the living room. It was my phone, obviously. I grabbed it, not recognizing the 973 area code.

“Hello?”

“Hello dear, it’s [Houseguest’s Mom]. What are you and my daughter up to?” The Brooklyn-accented matriarch had been an inner city Vice Principal for many years, so even her innocent-seeming questions were really demands.

“Um…” I walked back into the bedroom and was part-dismayed and part-amazed to find Houseguest had- in the 16 seconds I had been gone- mostly emerged from under the covers but was now mysteriously sprawled sideways across the bed, feet hanging off one end and one arm oddly splayed off the other. She was most definitely face down.

“She’s sorta still asleep,” I offered into the phone. “Maybe I can answer whatever ques-”

“I had to take her stepfather to the dentist- he broke a crown, don’t ask me how- and we’re all going to breakfast at the hotel and you’re meeting us here so put her on so I can- ” Houseguest’s Mom was still barking orders at me as I pulled the phone away from my ear and placed it near Sleeping Beauty’s. She sort of snarfled into the mattress and then used her closest arm to slap me. Hard.

“Ow!” I cried. “Here. It’s your mom. Talk to her.” I gently set the phone down and then backed away like the guy at the zoo who has to feed the hungry lions.

Her answer was to brush my Crackberry off the bed, sending it slamming into the wooden floor. Its awesome red case burst off it into a few different pieces and the call from 973 was most definitely lost. Houseguest made some sort of vague moaning sound and then rolled over onto her back, squinting up at me.

“Time to go hiking!” I tried. “Up and at ‘em!”

She blinked as if I had just spoken to her in whatever made-up language the blue people in AVATAR speak. I tried again.

“Coffee?”

That got her. Sort of: “I’m nagh-huash for my to eghhh…”

And then she rolled over, causing her face to smash back into the mattress. I decided to leave the room and finish my last bit of work online. As I marched back into the living room, I barked: “Get dressed! I’m ready! Let’s hit the trail!”

“Noooooooo!” came the wail from the bedroom. “I cannnnnnnn’t!”

“Yes, you can! The sun is shining! The dog needs to take a crap! Let’s go!” I sounded like my mother…except for the dog needing to crap part. I decided maybe practical advice was the way to go.

“First thing you need to do,” I called out as I resumed my position at my desk. “Is sit up!”

I heard some sort of vague shuffling, thrashing sound and then:

“Oh noooooo!”

What did she break?

“I can’t feel my feeeeeeet!” If there is a humanly possible way to slur the word “feet,” Houseguest did it.

I got up out of my desk chair and ambled back to the bedroom, standing in the doorway, staring at the puddle of Houseguest in the middle of my bed.

“What’s that, darling?” I asked, none-too-sweetly.

“My…I…I can’t hike…” she started, building to near-hysteria. “Because I can’t feel my feeeeeeeeeeeet!”

Note: as she was saying this, she was wiggling the toes of her left foot. Rapidly.

“Come on, you’re fine. Let’s go!” I got a scowl and a weak attempt at Death By Pillow-Tossing. But then, miraculously, Houseguest started to pull herself to sitting. Halfway there, though, her elbow buckled as she groaned and flopped back onto the bed.

“Oh nooooo,” she cried. “My head! My head is underwater!”

“That is impossible,” I said flatly. “You’re just hazy because of the medicine. As soon as you get some fresh-”

“Ohhhh my goddddddd,” she interrupted, hands firmly clasped over her ears as she slowly sat up again. “I…I’m dying. I think I’m dead. Everything is wobbly. I can’t….no….” And she was back down.

Fifteen minutes of convincing and cajoling later, Houseguest had somehow managed to not only pull herself to standing, but also to slap on some sweatpants and tie a pink bandana around her head. Sort of. It actually sat more sideways so that the triangle flap part dangled over one eye. It was like a muddled, vaguely dangerous pirate inhabiting the body of a witty, loquacious New Yorker. And this pirate was hungry.

“I need…” she gasped as she wove her way into the living room, grabbing onto the couch for support. “a sammich. I need….need food. Sammich.”

I stood up and stretched my back. Things popped. “Do you want me to make you a PBJ?” I asked. “Fuel for the hike?”

With a surprising burst of energy, Houseguest closed the distance between us by scurrying over to me, slamming both hands down on my shoulders.

“I…am…underwater,” she intoned, locking eyes with me. Deadly serious. “Something is WRONG with….me. I may….yes, I may be…” Her voice lowered to a whisper: “…dying.”

“I highly doubt that.” I shrugged her hands off me and turned to go to the kitchen. She flopped down into my office chair, forgetting it was on wheels.

“My brainnnnnn! I think it’s…it’s on inside-out!!!” she wailed as she rolled across the hardwood floor, not noticing the movement. Until her head met my bookshelf. “Owwww!!!!” She melted down into the chair, sliding off the seat and crumpling onto the floor in a heap. I walked over to the pile of limbs, gingerly poking at it with my toe.

“Come on,” I said, frustrated. “You took cough syrup. You’re not dying. Get up.”

A hand shot up and grabbed my leg with surprising strength. The person attached to that hand raised her head and looked at me with big, shiny eyes.

“Something is wrong with me!” Her bottom lip quivered a little. “I really think my brain is on inside-out!”

“No it’s NOT,” I exhaled, annoyed. I started walking away. “You know what? Maybe I’ll just go on a hike by myself. I’ve been trying to get you up for-”

“You’re being so meannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!” she wailed.

The word made me freeze. Mean. Me. I could see his back as he walked down the street, carrying that bag, shoulders slumped. The sun was setting and he vacillated out of shadow and light as he made his way past the burned-out buildings and away from me. I didn’t cry. And I hadn’t cried since.

Until a tear slipped off my bottom lid and down my cheek. My hand flew up to my face, surprised. Houseguest, cough syrup crazed spidermonkey that she was, had stopped moaning and was staring at my watery eyes, concerned. It was like that moment when an Alzheimer’s-ravaged relative returns to their senses, if only for a second.

“You’re not,” she said gently. “You’re not mean.”

I couldn’t speak. There was still a hand around my heart, squeezing. Hard.

“Hey,” she said, lucid. “It wasn’t your fault.”

And the hand relaxed. Stopped squeezing entirely. I could breathe again. I looked down at Houseguest, wondering of how to properly verbalize the relief and welcome weightlessness of realizing that it really wasn’t all my fault. That there could be wholeness in solitude. And that one day, I’d be ready to try it all over again.

She grinned at me and as I was about to speak, she said: “You’re meat! Baby meat food!” she erupted into giggles. “You are baaaaaaby meat food!” She had returned to Delsym land. The pink bandana was now around her neck and I noticed that she still had only one sock on.

I walked into the kitchen and started making her sandwich, enjoying the new freedom in my chest cavity. As I spread chunky peanut butter on the bread, I heard Houseguest sniggering and singing a song about “Baby Meat Food” to herself. I smiled. There was a giggling, wiggling pile of Houseguest on my living room floor. But man did I love her.

Even if she was cracked out on cough syrup.


It was June. Anna was subletting from a traveling friend, hoping a strange city would inspire her to write and to reach a decision about a man. I was crashing on a friend’s sofa, avoiding a waning relationship back home and struggling with the early pages of my own book. Together, we slunk through a steamy New York City, lovelorn and confused and roasting in the heat.


Fourth grade, 1968. Ohio. It’s February and my hands are dry and caked with that elementary school paste we all love to smell and eat. Piles of red construction paper. Scissors. Scraps are all over the floor. We are making valentines for the whole class and a stack of crudely cut hearts was growing atop my little desk which doubled as a Duck & Cover shelter in case the Big One ever dropped.