A man is following me through a congregation of sightseers who’ve got no idea I’m about to be murdered. Shy is awestruck with the hundreds of gelato flavors and says, “Look! There’s one that tastes like blood…” but I can’t look because the guy is just beyond the open door, staring. He wants to kill me because when he got emasculated by a sort-of mime who made a slide-whistle noise while running a balloon sword up the inside of the guy’s thighs, everyone in the Piazza della Rotonda laughed, but I laughed closest, so I was his prey. I tell the scooper I would like half-pistachio, half-blood. 

 

***

 

Pool water wet, I weave through olive trees desperate to nab the pet-shaped blur I let escape out the villa door. All the others are jet lag napping and you and Chelsea are approaching fast so there’s nothing to do but fess up. You laugh and say no, there’s no dog, but, Chelsea asks, did it happen to have udders, which yeah, come to think of it, the dog mooed. 

 

The plumber’s pantomiming freestyle swimming and then he’s pantomiming a plumber who is shivering so hard he’s gotta grab his own arms tight or else he’d Energizer Bunny the fuck up, out, and away. He is doing this because, although my appearance says otherwise, I cannot speak his language. But little does he know, I’m from Boston and drink Dunkin Iced Coffees when it’s negative degrees, in fahkin Fahrenheit, dude. You’re around the side of the house, cracking up so hard, you’re a yellow rubber chicken that can no longer scream, just wheeze.  

 

The panic entered its crescendo the moment Therapist materialized on the screen. Sarah said a phone call would suit the conversation best and I said yes, that’s why I’ve been calling. Conflict, huge or puny, needs to be resolved quick–even at the  other party’s expense. I dislike the small cruelties I do when I’m not understood. Shy texted an axolotl and said she’d been meaning to call. Sarah understood “you don’t have to” as “do not” when I said “you don’t have to” as in “you don’t have to call although it’d mean the world if you did.” I sent Shy a string of  voice messages to demonstrate we weren’t having the conversation she thought we were having. I felt no coldness against my tooth, no electricity inside it, so I must get a second root canal before my cheek bulges with more pus. I messaged Jackie on Facebook: 

yo i cracked code of why so many of my friend being weird and cold 

it’s so simple it is dumb 

i need to express: “you hurt me. but not through anything actively malicious on your part. don’t hold any animosity toward you. it will take me some time to heal and regain trust but you are my friend and i am yours and i love you and things are normal.” 

And people don’t listen why i try to communicate that. there’s a talking over, cutting off, defensiveness

which frustrates me but my frustration isn’t directed towards them but rather just the situation of not being able  to make myself heard 

which ends up just reinforcing each party’s false  

perceptions 

(my friends are being neglectful and careless / steven is irrationally upset with me for something i have no control  over) 

when neither is the actual case 

but they become the case because i can’t express that they aren’t 

 

The alley I walk most mornings was, this morning, puddle blocked, so I assessed, testing different spots with boot, each spot equal in coldness, in depth, so I stood strategizing way longer than it would’ve taken to just walk around the block and avoid all three  miserable, wet, leaps. I vented an indescribable emotion to a friend who, after hearing my description, said, “That’s just longing,” and I said, “Oh yeah, duh.” The Uber driver spoke so soothingly a language through Bluetooth, the hangup cut sharp–I  wanted him to call someone else, it was the only thing today that calmed me, but he didn’t, and I didn’t strike a conversation because what would I say? I haven’t been able to read books for over a year, haven’t been able to watch films for over a month, so, for the first time ever, I’m listening to every album I’ve never heard. In therapy yesterday, we hit an impasse when she asked if there was anything I could tell someone that I wouldn’t write here because that might be a way of achieving the form of intimacy I need, and I said no, because there isn’t. It seems a senseless timewaste to be anything but transparent and fully vulnerable. The American economy is designed to make people pay for their own sadness.

 

Most everyone, myself included, considers each new year the blank slate it isn’t. Yesterday, I woke in the afternoon, Green Day’s Dookie playing on loop from my iPhone; I listened to it 4 times through, then turned it off, then did nothing. New Year’s Eve, I’d passed out, listening, apparently, to Green Day’s Dookie, after reading the first twelve months of this book to a muted Zoom room. Moments I’d forgotten, or else repressed, caught me off-guard and I choked with the onset of potential unraveling—then read the next sentence, and the next, until the feeling left. I’d been sipping beers so I burped a lot as I compacted my 2020 into under two hours for the audience—an act I’d expected would be cathartic, an act that was cathartic, but also not. Today, a girl on the bus flicked through Twitter, briefly enlarging a photo of a man hanging a Celtic-cross-repurposed-as-white-supremacist-symbol flag from a column inside the US Capitol, then exited the app to open Candy Crush. It’s terrorizing, how many times I’ve seen this face-painted doofus Viking, versus the video of the journalist yanked and dragged through the murder-eyed MAGA mob, or the photoset of the DC woman tortured on her walk home, both of which, only once. How convenient I enter my worst headspaces on Fridays when therapy’s on Thursdays. An Instagram with an Aahhh!!! Real Monsters profile picture DMed to say they’d figured out how they knew me—it involved a party, an old friend, alcohol, a conversation about writing, a red kitchen, and a cool bathroom. I’m going through something I’ve named The Thought Crisis which, when thought or talked about, only reinforces itself.

 

1. Don’t Die

2014. My dad calls to tell me about a sheep hunt he’d been on with an old fisherman friend in the interior. He tells me to call this friend because I’ll be working on this friend’s fishing boat this summer. “You’ll either be with Andy or his identical twin brother Pete.” Two people I’ve never met or heard of before. Fishing after high school is a mundane fact in coastal Alaska, but when I tell my friends I’ll be fishing they don’t believe me. The cognitive dissonance of imagining my 18 year-old-self working on a seine boat is too much and everyone worries for me. The most common two words I hear before I leave the first time are “don’t die.” 

 

2. Cordova

So I fly into Cordova to fish for a man I’ve never met, with a backpack full of books I think a recently graduated 18 year-old should read. I won’t read any of them, and later in the season I’ll wish I used the backpack space for more socks. 

Andy and his wife, Mel, pick me up from the airport. Andy has a lazy eye and a limp and he says it’s because his twin beat him up in the womb. Andy seems a little shy at first so Mel does most of the talking. She wears wire transition lenses, and chain smokes Marlboro reds. She is a born and raised Cordova girl.

Cordova had a railroad in and out of town, but now there’s a 30 mile stretch of dirt road where it used to be, ending at a bridge which was swallowed by the unforgiving Copper River during the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. Now, Cordova is cut off from the Alaskan highway which would connect it to other parts of Alaska like the city of Anchorage. Cordova doesn’t want this road to the city. They fear a road will take away what is special about Cordova which is that it’s really only fishing and things related to fishing. There are bumper stickers on lots of cars and businesses around town “NO ROAD.”

1989, thirty years after the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, and seven years before I am born, the Super Tanker “Exxon Valdez” runs aground on Bligh Reef and spills over 10 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound. After the spill kills the fishing industry, financial anxieties, spikes in substance abuse, domestic abuse, and suicides plunge Cordova, a town of 3,000 (mostly fishermen), into chaos. Twin fishermen and lifelong Cordovans, Andy and Pete move south along the coast to Sitka to continue fishing in waters untouched by the oil.

 

Andy’s boat, The Ace is brand new, fresh from the boat yard in Washington. Unlike other boats in the fleet, the living quarters are comically small. It’s the first thing people comment on when they step inside for the first time. “Oh it’s like… really small.” Andy designed it this way so as to not invite any other sort of leisure or unnecessary passengers (like his wife). “It’s a work boat, not a piano.” Andy also takes this as an excuse to keep the boat as messy as possible. The deck of The Ace is spacious and incredibly efficient in its operation. Andy likes to make sets fast. The more sets you are able to make in the fourteen hour fishing periods, the more fish you catch, the more money you make. The price of the salmon varies year to year. That’s one tactic Andy uses to keep me coming back. He keeps predicting how high the price is gonna be. “It’s gonna be the biggest year, pricewise, you’ve ever seen.” And usually it’s not and it’s a lot lower than he predicts. He makes up for this by always being one of the top three boats in the Sound. Some years his twin beats him.

 

3. Thom, Ethan, and Paul

Thom has minor gauges in each ear and wears a red knit cap with devil horns. He’s one of the boat builders and is on the crew to help fix and finish the boat since it was rushed out of the boat yard. One day he runs out of chewing tobacco. I hand him a slice of pizza at the end of the fishing day and he throws it in the water. He teaches me mechanical things, but it is confusing because he compares everything to jerking off. Changing oil? Just like jerking off. Tying lines? Exactly like jerking off. Unbolting a piece of equipment? Just think of it like jerking off. I don’t remember any of the practical knowledge.

 

Ethan was recently asked to leave his Christian college in Homer, Alaska because the administration found out he had sex with his girlfriend. He says he was called into the dean’s office and they asked him if it was true he had had sex with his girlfriend and he said yes because he was worried being caught in a lie would be worse for him. 

 

Paul is basically the co-captain and Andy’s oldest friend. Paul is patient and teaches me a lot. Each piece of the boat is designed for a specific part of the fishing operation and I have no idea what any of it is. I’m told to do things like “shorten the purse line” and “change the oil,” “pull up the bunt,” “pop the release,” and I have no idea. Eventually you learn things until one day you understand. It took me two summers to understand what each part of the net is for. There’s the corkline, the lead, the lead line, bunt, web, breast line, purse line, rings, king ring and so on. One day it all clicks. 

 

Dear Syd, 

I didn’t know your friend, and I’d fail if asked to list five simple  biographical facts about you, but I know you–maybe you know  me too, maybe not. And I understand this “you” is not you, but  rather, my perception of the version of yourself curated for the  amphitheater of social media, as it’s cropped up in my feeds from  Tumblr to Instagram to Twitter, among fields of people I know  IRL, which is likely the root of this intimacy I feel. Although I  believe you and I are similar insofar as our membranes between  public/private are thinner than most, I know there are things I  don’t or can’t know, but I’ve always found you interesting, likely  had a large crush on you at some point, and your tweets about  your friend’s death hurt my heart like it wouldn’t have if I didn’t  know you. Your commentary while watching the highly esteemed  Saw franchise for the first time earned its place in my Internet  Hall of Fame, and it was a little disorienting, yet in retrospect  made perfect sense, for me to laugh to the point of pain at what  you had to say on the spectacle of gore orchestrated by dying-of cancer John Kramer, because I know you, or this image of you,  built from the way autumn sunlight kisses the angles of your face,  the Edwardian dresses you pose in, the melted glacial blue of your  gaze, how you inhabit the mundane in eternal photoshoot; it was  natural incorporating your funniness into all this, not as revision,  but as something there from the start. Part of me feels I shouldn’t  be writing this letter to you—who am I to intrude upon such a  highly intimate moment when I’m not even remotely an integral  part of your life? Perhaps the urgency I felt to write to you isn’t  sufficient enough an answer, but it was intense enough for me to see this through. Freshman year of UMass, around the time you  and I first connected, I think, I was friends with this girl, Nina,  who lived in my dorm, who’d see me pulling all sorts of stupid shit  (i.e. piggyback riding some guy through the halls, knocking on  each door to offer a spoon-fed glop of Nutella to whoever opened)  and tell me, bursting with giddiness, “You really need to meet my  boyfriend, you’d love each other.” One weekend he visited and  proved Nina right—Jake and I were so same-wavelengthed  hanging out was like sitting next to a mirror–but more than that,  here was this whole other human who saw and understood me,  who I saw and understood, better even, than we saw and  understood ourselves. Another weekend, I hadn’t known he was  coming until I heard TONIGHT WE RIDE! right outside my window, in his best imitation of the La Dispute vocalist; I threw on shoes and rushed outside to tackle-hug him.

 

I’ve never, and will never, fit the skin of my father’s name. People call him Steve, and when people call me Steve, I tell them I prefer Steven. Steves are the all-American in their varsity jackets and high school sweethearts and salaries, while Stevens are just Stevens. The day I was born, A Bronx Tale, a film so important to my father he watches it weekly, was commercially released, so he saw it the first time while I was a pudgy pink infant spitting up breast milk, with no clue as to how it’d define his relationship with me. The day I was born was also my parents’ third anniversary and a weird one in terms of when I’d start kindergarten— my parents were conflicted but decided I would be a year younger than my classmates, which hardly mattered because things consistently came easy: I aced quizzes and tests without studying, finished cross-country meets as a high school freshman short seconds after our captain, read every book I could. But while I exhibited ability and potential, clinical depression and anxiety bubbled under the surface. I ran cross-country for the endorphins and friends, so it hardly mattered when other runners outpaced me; I discovered authors like Palahniuk, Robbins, Hesse, Kundera, so it hardly mattered what was on the curriculum; I didn’t live up to my previous report cards, which hardly mattered because I was filling journals. My parents swore I was on drugs because they couldn’t think of anything else– but I’d known early on bad things happened in my brain and I refused to take or drink or smoke anything that might make things worse. They were so ashamed their first was a black sheep, they’d tell white lies to protect me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dad grew a pandemic goatee. 

 

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

 

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