Short & Sweet As I Can Be: Why I’m Leaving Facebook

leaving-facebook-1024x576Four years ago, I came home shockingly sober from the wedding of two friends and, on what was the third day of finally living alone again for the first time in eighteen very long months (after a streak of fifty-one months alone, a condition to which I had very much acclimated), I reluctantly joined Facebook. I had a list of decent enough reasons, but that didn’t make it any easier. It was something I’d been putting off for weeks.

Maybe I did it that night because I had for years found weddings inherently depressing. There’s the cliché “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” I never even seemed to make it that far. At the wedding from which I’d come, I was at least not “begrudgingly invited.” But in general, I seemed to be “always the acquaintance it would be rude not to invite, never the bride.” Groom. Whatever. In all the weddings I’d ever attended, I never once even bothered trying to use my “plus one.” But in the end, maybe what shot me up that night was the coming home alone after a nuptial shebang, sober enough to hear all the silence.

In that list I’d already written, it was a business decision. This website, which I’d initially planned on updating incessantly (and which I’d hoped would become an interactive ‘net locale), was in the works, and I was about to release my first collection of stories using it as a bookstore, thus I needed somewhere public to mention this hocking of my wares. It would be irresponsible of me, I’d reasoned, as an independent businessperson, to not have a Facebook account.

Besides: I could have my agent maintain it for me after the ineluctable and effervescent ascent to international fame coming with the sudden, serendipitous discovery of my book by a McSweeney’s intern, mistyping a search engine query while hitting a bong in the office. I would only have to deal with the social network for a short while.

In the past, I’d joined and retreated from MySpace more than twice between 2004 and 2008. It had alternately consumed and defined me. I remembered that feeling of seeing comments left by some hipster-chic for an ex or an “I wish” and obsessing for hours about what they might mean. I would look at my page and wonder what it was I could do to change who I was, make him more appealing. A new quote, maybe? No, I remembered that mindset too well and, terrified of collapsing back into it, I wanted nothing to do with Facebook.

The business aspect was a big motivator; the fact that a Facebook-inspired film was about to be released and it was scored (with Academy Award-winning music, mind you) by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross softened the blow. And, like anything any organization any single guy joins, there was the id’s mumbling that there’s always a chance I’d meet a girl.

But after I signed up, I found myself surprised. Facebook was not MySpace and not at all what I’d expected it to be. I was able to engage with it in an entirely different way and (thank you, iPhone) always at my convenience—not having to wonder what was being posted for me, nor having to wait to post something I deemed important was actually a rather incredible feature. The former was the difference between having voicemail in your pocket and dying to get home to check the answering machine; the latter was like having that a cellphone and fumbling through pockets and under car seats for a quarter, then realizing you had no idea where to even begin looking for a pay phone.

Besides that, I found the ten people from my past whom I had actually missed while simultaneously managing to elude the other 16,990 I hoped never again to see. I was better able to be a decent little brother to the tiny blood family I had left—if only through the regular posting that pretty reliably proved I was in all probability alive. That doesn’t sound like much but, really, it was much more assurance than they’d had from me between 1999-2010. I got a tiny window into their distant lives; they got a tiny window into mine.

I left MySpace in the heyday of the Top 8. Facebook, thankfully, had no “Top 8″; no public array of featured friends to cause cattiness—or, in my case, chest-compressing pressure to be betterbetterbetter and somehow win that very visible catbird seat in the hearts and minds of everyone ever for all the world to see. And if someone started to annoy you—click—and you’ve disappeared their dialogue from your feed.

Also, not insignificantly, the first person to “friend” me turned out to become a rather good buddy.

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I will certainly never say that Facebook  never did anything for me.

But here I am, a month shy of four years later, and I find myself disenchanted. Feeling weighed down. Anyone who’s lived enough can tell you that, if you spend enough time with any person or thing, if you’re not careful, you may start to see only the negatives. I suppose this is what they mean by “familiarity breeds contempt.” To me, the feeling is summed up best by what I think was an episode of Daria that featured a phrase that has repeated in my mind for fifteen years now: “If you look close enough at anyone’s nose, you will always see clogged pores.”1 I have now stared too long at the nose of Facebook.

As the title of this missive implies, I’ll keep things short and sweet because like any social networker, I imagine, I could go on forever about the deleterious ways in which said network has affected my life. But not only would that bore you, reader, it would bore me. In a nutshell, here it is:

Fact #1: And this is a big deal to me. There is a one-to-one correlation between joining Facebook and no longer writing fiction. Correlation is not causation, I know, but I don’t like those odds and I have sneaking suspicions that the ‘book might certainly be a contributing factor. In 2014 I put out a second collection of stories. They were all completed before I joined Facebook.

Fact #2: Facebook may not be MySpace, but it is a political creature. I cannot imagine this will be a surprise to anyone using it. There are obligatory “friends.” There are “frenemies.” Even blocked from one’s newsfeed, one still knows they are there. And I cannot even begin to imagine what would’ve come of me if, BX,2 I’d fallen into the trap of looking at the pages of the ex-girlfriends with whom I was not still friends. That was a rule from that first night: Never, ever look up an ex.

Fact #3: Speaking of lovers and such, if at one point Facebook served as my primary prowling grounds for potential mates (and it did), that ship has sailed. And in so doing, it rendered me totally incapable of creating anything but the most confounding of mixed metaphors.

Fact #4: If I had to this minute write a psychological study on the effects of Facebook on its users, I think I’d focus on the phenomenon of what some people call “Vaguebooking” and how, I swear, social networks have made us all more passive aggressive creatures—even in real life. And if there’s one thing I fucking hate, it’s passive aggression.3 I am not immune to this phenomenon. This means that, in the end, I think Facebook has made me—at least in one way—a worse person. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone act as if Facebook were a crowded middle school lunchroom and he or she were standing atop a lunchtable screaming a litany of his or her nameless, but sometimes not exactly anonymous, friend’s sins. And I don’t want to tell you the number of times I’ve done this exact thing. 

Fact #5: And this is maybe the most important. We are all excellent at seeing one another as objects. As extras, or bit players, or leads in our lives. There is an unfinished scene in an unfinished story of mine in which a man, smoking secretly outside his home, sees a plane flying overhead. And it occurs to him for a moment that, like him, the maybe 200 people on that plane—from pilot to the impatient three-year-old in the back—is goddamned certain that he or she is the center of everything, and that everyone else is an extra, or a bit player, or maybe even a lead in his or her life. He draws deep on his cigarette, wondering if this is the one that will give him the cancer that no one on that plane will ever be aware of, but which will devastate the family he has sleeping indoors. People whose universe he is most goddamned certainly the center of—and it will never feel more that way than when he’s dying.

But the pilot, the toddler, the man—they can’t all be right.

Long before Facebook, or MySpace, or Friendster, or alt.whatever chatrooms, human beings had mastered the skill of reducing each other to beasts less than themselves. In the minds of most Democrats, Republicans don’t really mean the things they say—they can’t. How could they be so evil? So ignorant? Of course, in the minds of most Republicans, the same applies to Democrats. And on a much smaller scale, we all do this to each other. Everyone forgets that every other person is, in all probability, leading a life nothing like the one you think he or she is leading—one as rich, and complex, and problematic, and dull, and beautiful as your own. And thanks to Facebook, we can all help perpetuate this image for other people. If we work hard enough, maybe we can even control it.

You can be the harried or wonderful mother. You can be the life of every party. You can be the enigmatic magnet girl or the suave yet macho boy you always wanted to be. And I can be (can try to be)…whatever creature it is that I’ve created to represent me on Facebook. Erudite and romantic drunk? The lexiphanic depressive who is still somehow funny? Devout husband? don’t even know. But I assure you, I’m more complex than that. And so are you. And I’m sick of convincing you and being convinced otherwise.

And with that, I bid au revoir to the ‘book. I’ll be gone in the next ten days. I make here and now what will possibly be the entirely empty promise of keeping this website, sesquipedalism.com, more updated—maybe making it more blog and less essay collection. That would be more likely, if more people commented on things. I can always be reached at sesquipedalism@gmail.com and I suspect than anyone who wants more contact information from me already has it. But if not,

 

And if you really miss me, you can always find me at the bar I’m opening this fall—which I never specifically mentioned on Facebook. A nerd-themed atmosphere, craft cocktails, and tasty small plates. It’s called Nox; it’s in the Village Gate; it opens this October. Webpage will be noxcocktail.com, when it’s online.

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1) The internet tells me that I have entirely misremembered the entire scene from which I must have plucked this line and the corresponding image. So, since I rather like the line, I say this: Patent fucking pending, potential plagiarists.

2) BX signifies the period Before Corinne, but instead of the “C,” I choose instead an “X.” Buffy fans will understand. And my wife will maybe wonder why I’ve just more or less referred to her as Xander.

3) My favorite scene in Fight Club will always be when “Jack,” having just been told he’s asked Tyler for a beer in order to wrangle an invitation to stay at his place, replies “…would that be a problem?” And Tyler replies, “Is it a problem for you to ask?”

 

Building a Dictionary

I knocked so many things off of my to-do lists today that they were actually smaller in the evening than they were in the afternoon—a real rarity these days. As such, I decided to treat myself to a little playtime. Inspired by John Koenig’s “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”—which is bloody brilliant—I spent an hour or so with a cocktail (or three), coining words. After all, why should kids on the internet, Koenig, & Shakespeare get to have all the fun?

 

Aetacatella: (n)

The chest-top deadweight that accompanies consciousness of the outrageously high probability that, barring unfortunate accident, escape, or the consequences of your own advanced age, you will live to see your pet’s death. You will have to watch as this wholly dependent friend—who cannot tell you where, why, when, or how much the indignities and aches of illness or senescence embarrass or cause pain—suffers, for lack of options (in the wild, an inability to feed itself or maybe predators would have taken it ages ago) or for love, until one afternoon you notice a conspicuous absence, and after a hunt, you find the creature having hidden itself under the dust ruffle of the daybed in an unused room, chilly and still, curled into the shape of a nautilus shell. Or worse: You will outlive your pet because you were the one who murdered it, because you had to be the one to say enough is enough when it was unable, when killing became a kindness, because you could see in its eyes and hobbled stride that the delicate mess your pet had become would never stop trying to find its way to your side, even if its limbs gave in and it could only whimper to be picked up in order to get to you, even if, with every step closer, its bones continued to crumble to dust beneath its matted fur and now visible skin.

 

Melamisio: (n)

The awareness that a high—any high: the delectable adrenaline rush drawn from a roller coaster or horror flick; the buzz from a half-dozen rum-runners; the crisp, implacable mind and soul momentum sucked from a puff of meth; the wonderfully blunted edges of every sense, each briefly wrapped in the warm, red velvet of Percocet—is fading and the concomitant desperations to, a) hold onto it; b) find more, take more, and, if you must, come back down quick to do it all over again; and c)to repel, to forget entirely the inkling of awareness that a life—your life—spent in pursuit of a succession of such highs, is an implicit demonstration of a belief/fear that the world is not enough, that whatever it is that might actually satisfy is something other than life, and that the only thing other than life—the only “not life” (what, from deduction, you must want)—is death.

 

Nonaltiorem: (n)

The soul-crushing understanding that whatever takes place—a kiss, cunnilingus, lovemaking, or an ungentle fuck—the penetrations that take place during the variegated stages of sex are as close as you can physically get to the object of your amorousness. That no matter how much you love this man or woman, you will never be further blent in the physical sense than when you’re pressed together, electrons jumping from him to her, her to him (and what worth is a hundred electrons swapped? a thousand? a million?). You will never get to live within this individual’s skin or cerebellum, to experience a different incarnation in some ultimate act of intimateness.

Disorder

exploding-heart2This afternoon one of my best friends posted a link to an article about things you shouldn’t say to people who suffer from anxiety. In order to put off writing out performance reviews for restaurant employees—a task which I have for months found one semi-legitimate reason or another to not complete— I began glibly responding to the article in the comments section of her Facebook page, but after about an hour of typing and editing, it seemed like I should probably gracefully admit the truth and allow my “quick response” to turn into something more substantial—which it had, anyways.

The article is a decent enough piece that focuses on those oblivious Janes and Joes who are coming from a “good place” and trying to help an acquaintance with serious anxiety issues. But I think it misses a very important point which happens to be right up my alley: A whole lot of the difficulty surrounding this issue—indeed the very reason an article like this needs to be written—is that everyone talking about the subject is using the wrong words. I think part of the problem people have in interacting with us—because I am certainly one of those trembly folks who suffers from some flavor of anxiety or panic disorder—is that “anxiety” and “panic” are things everyone suffers from. If you think you’re being followed by a mugger, the appropriate response is panic. Same, if you think you maybe locked yourself out of the house while your kid is roaming free inside. If your wedding is tomorrow or, hell, your sixth date with someone you’re still not even 100% about, the appropriate emotion is anxiety. Anxiety and panic are part of the normal spectrum of human emotion, so people who have to admit “I have an anxiety/panic disorder” aren’t viewed by the, uh, mentally healthier, as people with any legitimate immitigable problems that they themselves don’t have because their understanding of “anxiety” and “panic”—both words with denotations that they can grasp and emotions that they experience from time to time—eclipses the more important word in the sentence “I have an anxiety/panic disorder”:—disorder. This also happens with “depression.”

“Disorder” is the most important word there because it explains the problem: Such a person’s body is not chemically performing in the way it’s supposed to. Such a person’s body is failing them in such a way that he or she cannot process anxiety/panic the way a “normal” person can. There is absolutely no difference between an anxiety disorder—often caused by low levels of GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid; a chemical that helps manage stress levels) or serotonin in the bloodstream—and diabetes—caused by a pancreatic inability to produce enough insulin, or because cells don’t properly respond to the insulin produced—except the specific chemicals involved and their effects. But most diabetics don’t have to contend with people saying “Have you tried just not being diabetic? If you just relax your blood sugar will go right down and you’ll be fine.” “I’m feeling diabetic” is not a common colloquialism.

And in the end this polysemic confusion ends up really screwing with both the people who have to deal with loved ones who suffer from anxiety disorders and actually confusing the unwell themselves. This misunderstanding—anxiety=Anxiety Disorder; depression=Depressive Disorder—in my case, led to me avoiding medical treatment for fourteen years, because I assumed I was being just what most everyone had, for years, suggested that I was: a pussy. I hate using that particular word in general, much less in a pedantic sense (I usually go out of my way to avoid misogynistic language), but I think the lip-snarling and demeaning connotations it’s picked up over the years make it really the only suitable word to describe what, at sixteen or twenty-two or even twenty-eight, I thought I was. I was the creature pictured next to the word “pussy” in the mental dictionary of the date-raping, brain-dead, football scholarship college kid that’s pictured next to the phrase “frat boy” in my mental dictionary.  The word “weakling” doesn’t cover it. “Invalid” isn’t demeaning enough. “Wimp” isn’t emasculating enough. Thus, I use the word: pussy. So, I spent fourteen years avoiding medical treatment, trying to buck up, pull myself up by the bootstraps, look on the bright side, get it together—wait.

No. Let me start over.

In the end this polysemic confusion led to me avoiding legitimate medical treatment in favor of a syncretic, self-designed course of medicinal somethings I bought in an abandoned ATM vestibule from a woman in jeans three sizes too small, with a lopsided, unkempt afro and a shitty handgun under her windbreaker. Something—over the years, various somethings—I always had to acquire at an outrageous price (cash only; even with iPhones, most dealers refuse to take your Mastercard) from someone I couldn’t stand the sight of and whom I was somehow definitely not like. I might have been doing cocaine, but I was somehow different from the cokehead I was buying from. I might have been trying to pick which of my roommate’s smoking devices we should use for, like, the seventh time today, but I wasn’t like him. I wasn’t a pothead. And I might have been waking up so hungover that I had a fever and wounds I couldn’t explain and, thanks to the unreal discomfort I felt under even indirect sunlight and the place I’d awakened, I briefly considered might be the result of werewolves, but I wasn’t a drunk. I could make these distinctions, but I couldn’t discern between my seemingly severe anxiety and depression and those felt by everyone else.

And yes, the werewolf thing really happened. The previous evening, I’d been in unfamiliar woods with a 1.75-liter jug of Black Velvet and a hippie chick who wouldn’t quit talking about how haunted the area was. I woke up on what was that summer’s hottest day in a tent (for the first time in my life) when it became unmoored and started rolling down a hill into the road. The werewolf thought occurred to me later on, while I was half-asleep, sure, but it still occurred to me.

Moving on.

I waited over a decade to seek legitimate medical treatment for this legitimate medical condition that I didn’t understand was a legitimate medical condition. I didn’t get that my anxiety, my depression, was any different from the anxiety and depression of my coworkers, lovers, or friends. I assumed my powders, plants, pills, and booze would take care of my issues enough that I’d be able to function, even if I was a pussy. I had to repeatedly plan my suicide, at one point hilariously fail in a very real suicide attemptOD a handful of times, and drop out of a really good grad school before I was ready to try medication that actually came with directions from someone with a medical degree from an accredited school.

And all of this because of words. If, when I was fourteen, when all of this really started, someone—maybe not even necessarily a doctor—had said to me “you’re depressed” or “you have anxiety” in a way that carried the same gravitas as the phrase “you have diabetes” carries, I would have asked “So, what’s the treatment?” A doctor would have suggested that we replace the chemicals my body was lacking—the cause of my body’s failings—by adding them back in. He or she would have suggested doing this with pills that contained these chemicals (or helped manage them), just like how the diabetic boy on the bus took insulin. I would have taken this advice and said “What next?” And I would unquestionably be living an entirely different life. Yeah, I think the biggest problem with the way anxiety and panic disorders are handled is that we need a new word—actually, a cornucopia of new words—for the feelings that we, people who suffer from an anxiety/panic disorder, at least semi-regularly feel.

Perhaps you can help me come up with something.

See, sometimes, my coping skills don’t cut the mustard when someone tells me I shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff.” The tiniest spark (“Shit, that table of four over there questioned whether or not I’d remember their order if I didn’t write it down and I did, I totally did, but I absolutely forgot to bring the second extra sour cream, and now they probably think I’m a degenerate, garden-variety over-tattooed, cretinous barkeep who must have really fucked up his life to be doing a job like bartending at 33; they wouldn’t guess and, even if I could prove it right this second, they probably still wouldn’t believe that a guy like that has three degrees, and graduated first in his undergrad and grad classes [and if I brought it up, how defensively desperate and insane would I fucking seem‽ am I really that in need of validation‽]; so, shit, do I mention that I remembered it and apologize or hope they don’t recall ordering it or what‽”)—can set off an gunpowder cache I didn’t even know was there. And I start to feel something inside my head. It feels a little bit like something Tony Soprano described as “ginger ale on the brain.” I start to feel this weird pop/crackle when I move my left arm which is definitely not a heart-attack (except it might be a heart-attack). Because, now that I mention it, I do feel like I have a little cramp in my heart, or my liver, or my kidney. And I am breathing a little weird.

Lying in bed later that night, even though I’d been feeling much better and I know I’ve likely slid into ridiculousness (“Self, dude, bro, it’s really hot and you can’t sleep, and though it’s creaky and old, even if you turn the fan up to the highest setting it will not fly out of the ceiling, even considering the fact that there’s significant water damage in the area, and hit you right in the spine, paralyzing you [unless, of course, it does—someone out there has to be the 'one' in every 'one-in-a-million' shot]“), finding the borderline between “ridiculousness” and “realism” is like wandering in a fenceless, grassy field, out of sight of any houses, and I’ve lost track of even the crudest approximation of the line where my property stopped, and my neighbor’s property—my neighbor who might actually shoot me for trespassing—began. My eyes are a bit itchy and my hands have this sweat-not-sweat that smells like pennies—they’re not clammy, they sort of smell like blood which, I mean no way I’ve got Ebola, but why would my palms smell like blood? What does that even mean? When I rolled over to look at the clock even though I know I shouldn’t (I had to put on my glasses even though the clock is close to the bed because I’m close to -7.00 in each eye and I know that if I’m ever forced to contend with nature for any significant length of time—like if the apocalypse happened or something [and to be fair, I've always wanted the apocalypse to happen since I saw Steven King's The Stand miniseries in 1994, and I still sort of do, but once I had this dream where it had happened and everyone had some skill that was useful—even the hot paralegal chick—but when I said I was a writer, and they said "Who's going to read your stuff now? Everyone's dead and it's not like you can build your own book-bindry and worldwide distribution network," I was so sick that I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep until I drank most of a bottle of Ny-Quil ((which I knew will inevitably wreck tomorrow for me, and I have the day off and I want to be able to enjoy it, but I probably wouldn't be able to if I didn't drink the stuff since I'd be sleep-deprived))], I will not survive; something will most definitely eat me after I stumble into a branch, or down some loose scree, or I slip on a mossy rock and end up creekside, with a greenstick fracture that has bugs crawling in it that I can feel, but can’t see without the glasses or contacts that have probably long-since been destroyed), I noticed that pop/crackle in my back has returned and then the inside of my nose itched like I have too much hair in there, so I went to the bathroom and ripped it all out with tweezers, but it still itches. Oh, and I also noticed that it’s too late to take an Ambien or anything, but it’s also so late that I have to get back to sleep like right this minute, or—wait, yes, I know that, yes, statistically speaking, yes, probably “everything will be alright,” I’d better pee sitting down because that ginger ale in my head is back and its fizzing could very realistically make me lose equilibrium and wobble into something, or pass out completely and crack my skull open on the way down—which would lead to medical bills, or, fuck, maybe even dental bills (which are always outrageous and never covered by insurance, because everything—even my missing front tooth when I work in a customer service/sales field—is considered “cosmetic”) if I hit face-first and crack teeth, too—and probably a disfiguring scar, and that’s if I don’t lacerate something major and someone finds me in time, and I haven’t broken my neck in the process.

Are you, dear reader, finding it difficult to navigate the labyrinthine sentences above? With their multiple broken clauses and brackets within parentheses within em-dashes? Are you finding it hard, when a set of brackets, parentheses, or em-dashes closes, to remember what in the blue fuck was back on the other side? Good.

This is an approximation of how anxiety is different than whatever it is that people with Anxiety Disorders feel. Except most of these thoughts and feelings overlap, the sentences don’t necessarily ever complete themselves, you just get the gist of things, and none of it matters anyways because you feel sick, dizzy, sore, tight, terrified.

Where was I?

So, if I make it through a sitting piss and then make it to the ground before my fizzing head disorients me too much and I can start a somewhat frantic grasping for deeper breaths in order to possibly stop my heart from the uncomfortable hyperpounding that feels to the organ not like the steady thump after a good bike ride, not like the bewildering internal punches after rough sex, but instead like a travesty of a heartbeat which is only trying to take place while it’s in the position of a stretched washcloth mid-wring. And maybe (please, please, please) by inflating my chest every time as big as I can, I can loosen the string of muscle tension or what-the-hell-ever it is that’s making it feel like I’m, trapped, stitched up backwards in a Victorian-style corset made out of my own meat. I cannot stand this feeling. I’ve looked at human anatomy on all sorts of charts and I cannot find any set of muscles or tendons that would cause this, but I’m not a doctor (but I am reasonably smart and, if no anatomical explanation is out there, that means this is some sort of insane psychosomatic bullshit which, actually, would make sense since I am so suggestible, but is also maybe worse since it means that I can’t ever get rid of it unless I’m on some sort of opiate that blisses me out and shuts down my higher brain, because overcoming psychosomatic sensations involves not paying attention to them and you can’t try to not think of something without thinking of it). And I just touched the cold edge of something with the middle of my left arm, so now I have to do it with my right. I scratched my right leg; have to scratch my right. I can feel the aglet on the end of my hoodie’s drawstring on my collarbone; I have to feel it on the other side, too. Motherfucker. I can feel the seams in my socks. My eyelashes itch—is that even possible? When I had long hair, my hair used to hurt, but now I’m bald. Well, not really, bald enough. Disgusting. It’s unfair that I can’t have hair and rapists can. My skull itches and my hands smell like pennies and my chest feels like it’s laced up and my heart is a cheap, wet washcloth that might snap if I don’t get this under control. Get this under control.

But sometimes I can’t make it to the ground—if I’m at work, say—and I have to try to “tough it out” “like a man.” I have to try not to collapse and die—or worse: end up with medical bills. Yes, the disease can creep on me this far while I’m at work. I’m a great liar. I have a better poker face than most people would ever guess. I can sometimes push through the discomfort, straight-up pain, and the weird need for symmetry (well, I have to placate that one), and the itchiness (which makes me look like I’m on crack if I itch anything other than my eyes, and if I itch my eyes, it makes them red, so I look stoned, like a loser bartender who must have really fucked up his life to be so old and bald and still doing that job). I can deal and still talk to people. I just look insane or drugged or diseased. Thankfully I’m married or I’d never get laid again—the only bartender to never, ever get a number from someone—and I can’t blame the women: I look like a cautionary poster for Tourette’s or meth or crack or baldness and, motherfucker, everything hurts. Why does my body feel like it’s bending through itself?

So, yes, let’s say I find my way through that cerebral ginger ale—which eventually turns into a much worse ginger beer that feels like bees behind my eyes and under my hot skulltop—and manage to keep moving in the meat corset, I know I if tell anyone what’s going on, I’ll get embarrassed, which will make things exponentially worse because I hate, despise, loathe embarrassment—no, it’s shame, I’ll get ashamed, not embarrassed; embarrassment is when you turn away from something you want, shame is when you turn away from something you do not want. I’ll end up ashamed and they’ll either end up extra-judgmental, or (worse) condescending, or even worse, kind, and I’ll feel like a invalid child, totally responsible for wrecking their good night, but if I don’t open my mouth and at least just scream, I won’t be able to stop thinking about how great it would be to just be fucking dead, for this all to be over, to never have to worry about ever feeling this way again; if I don’t scream—and I can’t scream, I’m at work, for fuck sake—and I think about being dead, I’ll become noxious to myself, I’ll end up queasy and angry at me—like this “me” is a very unwelcome, interloping third party—because I will very quickly realize what an asshole I am to even allow that kind of shit to flash in my head because my death, especially my death by my own hand, would probably do to my wife what her death or suicide would do to me, and that’s fuck me up in a way I can’t imagine in the same way I can’t really imagine what a trillion of something would look like.

Well, those are the times—if my medication (which I really hate taking and don’t want to take because, among other reasons, withdrawal from it is terrible [coming off of it I once hallucinated as hard as I ever did on LSD] and, unlike any other withdrawal except alcohol, can actually kill you, so what would I do if I were on a plane that crashed somewhere and I had to go cold turkey?) doesn’t kick in fast enough (the long-acting stuff definitely won’t and the fast-acting stuff never seemed to, anyways, but also left me feeling increasingly like, well, THIS, every five or six hours, because doses didn’t really overlap in the bloodstream) and if I am at work—I have to hope like hell that it’s past closing time so I can grab a bottle’s neck and start pouring 2oz portion after 2oz portion, which not only costs me money, but makes me feel like a pathetic wretch, a real live drunk, an alcoholic loser who deserves the dissatisfying life he’s got (because, really, everything except his wife and cats is just awful; he can’t remember anything else that isn’t terrible because music is stupid and no one will read his books, and even if everyone reads his books, who cares because universal heat death is a thing and nothing matters anyways), because who chugs liquor because everything ended up out of control after someone you’ll probably never see again returned a drink and suggested that you don’t know how to make a decent manhattan? Was that it? Was it something about sour cream?

Maybe it was nothing at all.

Sometimes these feelings, this whole thing, it all comes on for no reason. Out of nowhere. During a perfectly lovely autumn afternoon. Right before a bath that was supposed to be relaxing. In the middle of eating sushi that had just been perfectly delicious, but has suddenly become cold, dead fish that will probably give you ciguatera anyways. All of these thoughts and sensations just rush up to pummel you like the stones of an August evening hailstorm even when you’ve taken your antidepressants, your anxiolytics, and had plenty of exercise. Even when you’ve been Gallant, not Goofus, for days and days.

See, I know you have anxiety. We all do. I have an Anxiety Disorder. Somehow, I don’t really feel the phrase does it justice. Yeah, maybe we need some new words. Maybe you can help me think.

The God-Shaped Hole Visible from the Center of Time

holeAnother piece that came into being during those rough, first few years when I was just figuring out how the hell to write fiction. It was published in a community college’s literary magazine and I felt content to let it rest there. It’s a transitional piece—if you look at the earlier, staccato-voiced stories and compare them to this, you can see I was trying to branch out.

Or you might more clearly see that I had quit wanting to be the next Chuck Palahniuk and moved onto wanting to be a more somber Tom Robbins. It was a while before I decided to try being just plain James Black. From 2003.

___________________________________________________________________________

Here, under the apricot syrup of the afternoon sunlight, is the Shrine of Anamnesis. Here is where I am in my most perfect moment, and you’d think I would miss this, would miss the significance of this perfection as it unfolds itself, but I don’t.

This is the last moment and it stretches out to encompass surrounding moments all at once. A temporal cannibalization, time eating time and becoming both infinitely dense and distilled. A mutant cluster of temporal cells; a time tumor. It is the longest second.

This is a precarious balance atop the fine edge of teeth within the maw of sleep.

This is the center of a ripple, like the place where a sunk skipping stone finally says goodbye to the trailing, dotted surface of oceanskin. This moment is a satisfied gulp: plunk. From here, time radiates outward and speeds up through the line of my life and over distance. People and events further away from this moment move faster and more frustratedly. And so do I. Past or future makes no difference from here. Fast: me, twenty minutes ago. Faster: my six o’ clock self. Faster yet: tomorrow’s me.

But right here I am at rest. My momentum is dampened and I am stuck to right now.

This isn’t so much a ripple as it is a model of an atom, a map of electron paths and all their different orbits. A three-dimensional asterisk. I sit in the core chamber, the nucleus, the very bowels of fission. I am the innermost flame at the center of a starburst.

I don’t expect anyone to understand. Description is irrelevant. This is not a place you can go looking for, but you will know it when you get here. On the precipice of sleep, heavy and featherweight all at once, I cannot give. I will not. I have to remind myself to exhale at first.

My most perfect moment; this is the Center of Time.

And the smell of your hair holds me here.

* * *

Outside the window I’m under there is an oak tree. Last summer, I watched an albino squirrel swing from its branches. It wasn’t collecting food, wasn’t escaping any predator or scuttling away from greasy, phlegmatic car exhausts. Swinging acrobatically, he played.  Enjoyed just being himself, a creature with only the slightest smattering of self-awareness. Our eyes met midswoop and he stopped on the next branch. We stared across and both felt ambushed. We held the moment and agreed that he could be an animal out of character if I could be a voyeur, and it would be okay with both of us. We promised and it was our pact and secret.

It was almost enough for me. Simplicity: what I could have, what I needed. I felt ready to forget the tedium of everything else. Dash all the trappings we had invented and swing, barely self-aware, like the squirrel.

Your arms came around under mine, so for a minute my pulse broke stride, and I felt ambushed all over again. You kissed my neck, asked “what are you doing?” and I realized I was out of character and you were a voyeur.

That was when I knew for sure I didn’t believe anymore.

* * *

I have flown so many times in my dreams; caught updrafts to spin and kick off of car sides and mountaintops. I’ve spent a quantifiable percentage of my lifespan aloft, blasting out into the distant blue spaces that are clear up close. I have flown so many times in my dreams that I can remember the feeling any time I want, but no matter what I do, my body will not reenact the dance.

This is not for lack of effort. Ceteris parabis, I should be able to fly.

Five minutes ago, I remembered what it’s like to push off with my hidden legs, appendages normally tucked away in my mind like wooly sweaters condemned to attic-bound cedar chests. I can remember the liquid feeling of everything as it runs across and past my skin like cold drips of watercolor paint on upright, slow drying canvas. Now, with my eyes drawn shut, I felt this distinctly, unmistakably, completely.

No matter what my stubborn meat will or will not do, I remember. And in the amber light glowing through my eyelids; in the shuffle of fresh leaves on that tree; under the window and on the couch I hold that feeling, but not my breath, inside of me. In the humidity snaking around the apartment’s corners—first the shower stall, then the bathroom door, finally the living room wall—your hair is redolent; it traps me here.

I sink into it. I am wet-sealed eyes on the paper cut edge of an envelope of sleep.

* * *

We both agreed that there should be more than just this. We both felt cheated and slighted every time we called out names at the phone’s chirping ring and answered to find our ‘premonitions’ merely guesses. I think we both felt the curious absence of God as we held amethysts and opals, passing them between our hands saying “you think?” and, “yeah” and, “you really think?” then, “I don’t know.”

Shoulders curling forward prostrated themselves to doubt and concession. Moments like this ran downhill through our life together and filled a reservoir of resent to half-full. It fumed and sat in deliquescence until it was a struck match away from cataclysm. We spent years in its fog. And soon, I was no longer fighting for proof of what I didn’t know. I fought for disproof of what I did.

I remember the first confessions, the very first hints. Our visits to Lily Dale and the psychics there who botched all the details of our pasts, never mind our futures.

“Your parents want me to tell you they love you, they don’t feel that they affirmed this enough beforehand,” said a slug like lady, her entire body looking mammary and pale, barely sheathed in a blue, daisy print dress. Her tortoiseshell glasses perpetually sliding down a nose that oiled itself through thick, almost clownish foundation.

“My parents aren’t dead.”

“Yes. But before you left them. They felt shocked and threatened by your independence.”

“My parents drove us here,” you told her and then both agreed to keep all the details of the session quiet for a refund, gift shop gift certificates and the shard of rose quartz she wore around her neck.

Whether we hated her more for being a hack, or she you for being the one who reminded her, I don’t know. But it was these moments, instants in time, a series of numbers and swoops across a clock face; tumblers in the lock that opened us up and spilled the dead leaf sludge of our hope down into that reservoir cesspool.

Water into acid.

These moments were tumblers in the lock that opened up into Capone’s empty vault.

* * *

We both needed that hurricane to end when we commanded it to. Basement walls damp and cold, but not too damp or cold—the comfortingly consistent way all basement walls always feel—we weathered the storm in a postmodern dungeon. Almost underground. We had sage grass, had wormwood; we had white, brown and gray candles. A book of spells by a woman calling herself Lady Silvia Fox-Dove. Our backs were not to a door and the window was not obstructed. We had octagonal mirrors covered in eyeliner pencil hexagrams and we were stoic and powerful. All the bases, every last one of them was covered. The basement was a mystic’s buffet.

Sweet Isis, white in the same sooty, twig braided way that all outdoor cats are, was an ideal familiar. Isis, the blue eyed, half-blind cat we fed our own pin-drawn blood in first separate, then joint Bonding rituals. Pricked fingertips healed, we held those same hands tight and felt the dry crackle of heat as a single entity. Felt it at the same time as the candle baked our grip just four inches above its flame.

“All magicks are powerful and not to be trifled with, but Weather Magick, since it affects so many Life Spheres, is especially majestic.” The leather bound grimoire said so. “It takes a disciplined mind and the right ingredients to alter Gaea’s Mood. You and your Coven will be hard-pressed but successful if an Image is held fast in your mind.”

We held our hands until they blistered together, sebum seeping down the canals in our palm prints, mixing and making us more than blood brother, blood sister. We held our hands until we feared permanent scarring. Maybe the book should have been bound in goatskin; maybe the candles and sage should not have been lit with a half-size, pink Bic lighter. But ceteris parabis, it should have worked.

This is all it would have taken. This one thing. It would have superceded any burden of proof that a cross-examining mind could have set to be met.

We both expected more. We both sat out the storm’s duration eating canned corn and ketchup sandwiches in different corners of the cellar hating each other and God just a little bit. And when Isis lost half her straying tail over the white candle in a car dashboard orange puff of fire—one errant twitch that led to a four month singed fur smell—I think we were both sure the sacrifice would halt the winds.

I know that in the end, in the grayscale sunlight that oozed through the opened door, we climbed the stairs as husks. We walked away from that afternoon as freed hostages: shamed, reluctant, hating our captor for letting us leave alive. We never discussed it again. In my memory, I can see your loping gait; you practically dragged knuckles on the way up. And even so, I would be the one to break. Perhaps I was less destroyed because I had less hope to begin with.

Perhaps that basement was our reservoir, a postmodern oubliette we filled with liquid disappointment during the storm. And when it was over, the door opened and room drained, my faith surfaced, bedraggled and drowned.

* * *

To have a life full of magic and God, one must first have unadulterated belief. One must first have that Bible Standard ‘mustard seed of faith’ to move aside what may obfuscate the white hot radiance underneath everything. To have this faith, the rational mind requires proof. Evidence: a logical reason to foster belief in a possibility otherwise unindicated, unsuggested by observation of the maelstrom of existence.

Without proof, faith is impossible. Without faith—all the Holy Books out there will agree—proof is impossible.

In the end, faithful children and eager teens become the people to work out a creative budgeting scheme when their old Hondas need new transmissions; this instead of singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with all the legions of Angles in choir.

When it’s already happened, it seems unavoidable.

* * *

But right here, on the altar of memory—under the picture windows, on the sand brown couch and in the path of a breeze that cools, not chills—I can hold on to the gingersnap and citrus smell of your hair, just washed, as you stand watching yourself in the mirror and preparing to leave.

On this couch, feet resting on the asymmetrical blanket my mother crocheted, I draw you into my lungs; imagine you as the oxygen infecting my bloodstream. Right here, I hold on to your scent, hot water cooling in the mane of your waist length damp hair. I know that everything at the Center of Time is safe. This moment is the only moment, time swallowed by time, and it is all mine for as long as I can keep it. There are only potentials, possibilities.

I can’t lose it to sleep, not just yet.

In my dreams, all watched pots boil and every falling tree, even the ones in the loneliest of places, makes the same sound. And when I wake, I’m forced to remember how it feels.

At the Center of Time is the place some people call Limbo.

* * *

Lucy, the very first years we spent together were all I needed to be sure that, if anyone could stuff Santa Claus back up the chimney and put the wizard back behind his curtain, it would be you. The very first time we met, I guessed that you could make it like I had never asked the questions and drawn the maps. You could make the world nameless again; turn things back away from what they mean to what they are.

With you, there would be no father—sweaty and pillow stuffed red velveteen coat blackened by a tight, staged crouch in the flue—eyes wide and reflecting a son who held a press-on beard in his tiny hands. There would only be Jolly Saint Nick.

I knew that, if anyone, you could erase all a cartographer’s lines. You might spend your days sculpting new apple flesh to fill the negative space left by bite marks; you might take the time then to hang them back on the tree.

You would be the only, the only one, who might help me achieve what I never could alone. I knew that you could be faith’s wet nurse.

And something was so right those first few years, something that sparkled everywhere, all the time. All houses were haunted and everything went bump in the night while we held each other secretly and quietly, your parents stewing only the distance of an exhaled sigh away.

We had no room for everyone else’s evidence and discontent. Pitied them even: the Godless, the Unsurprising, the Living Dead. And what teenager isn’t positive that adults are only the missing link in Darwin’s evolutionary chain; only that and nothing more? We knew better. We knew that magic was there for those who had eyes to see it, for those who had ears to hear it.

Magic. God.

There was a whole other world just beneath this one. This world that covers truth the same way a shroud drapes the deceased. A person—Yogi, Shaman, Witch—just has to know where the seams are to filter through. We would, we promised, one day know all secrets; we would know every single one of the two-hundred and sixteen letters that spelled out the true name of God.

We could crawl inside and find the roads to Cibola, Valhalla, Shambhala. Lemuria. Mu.

One August evening, when the stars shifted and the charts said it was right, we made the slowest love possible, bed frame never giving a tell-tale creak. And even though nobody came, we knew it was powerful and potent and far-reaching and perfect. We knew it was a spell cast and that ten years later, we would still be corset tight in each other’s arms. So we lay awake until the sunrise half out of fear, half out of expectation. Hearing werewolves and poltergeists, waiting for Angels or Demons. We knew our magic was strong.

The word ‘know’ means completely different things every five years of a lifetime.

* * *

They say all wars are initiated by some combination of illusion, expectation and misperception. They say that through history, this triad has crumbled the greatest empires. So by comparison, we were nothing but the smallest of casualties.

At three a.m. that night—the real witching hour on the Autumnal Equinox—under September’s balsa colored harvest moon, we buried a single bean in the earth at the forking origin of three arboretum trails.

And the other three—illusion, expectation and misperception: the true Horsemen of the Apocalypse—were with us. That troika, liars and harbingers, filled in around our dyad as we prayed. From above, we would form a five-pointed star around that tiny, still open crater.

At three thirty-five a.m. that night, the only night so suited in a forty-year radius of time, you lay down nude, legs a V around that pit. Your smile so positively diaphanous. You checked a golden pocket watch and, in the Kabbalist numerological tradition of forty-seven as Yoni, we timed the act and spent a dozen minutes, you in estrus and me in rut. When the time came and so did I, I leaked out my offering half inside you and half out into the hole with the bean. I planted my seed.

All within this one hour, we sewed our entire crop. All eggs in that basket. But you knew it was destiny. And ceteris parabis, it should have worked.

Muddy kneed, I felt ridiculous and my final prayer was more of a threat. An ultimatum. I was cold in a tree’s shadow, a draft catching my backside, fast-moving and unobstructed thanks to the curious absence of God.

Adults with our adult concerns, this is all we would have asked of magic. Of God. One child, made from ourselves. Our blood to keep and mold and swaddle in cotton blankets. Our child to keep innocent. This is all we would have asked.

Our ritual was a mystic’s buffet and it was sanctified by every tradition we could think of. Sanctified by science too: young and in perfect health, we had every right. God be damned.

We were ready to be adults, to be parents. But instead, we balanced the checkbook and scrubbed dishes with Palmolive and argued about if maybe the sheets didn’t match the new paint in the bedroom. Six days later, in the final deposit that trickled in and overflowed our putrid reservoir, you bled.

* * *

The next day, a doctor—our last resort, an HMO approved clinician; not an acupuncturist, not an herbalist—told me that no matter what I do, no one will ever have my child. He said it with his glossy, bald pate facing me, eyes to the floor. Then he added,  “Short of a miracle or some kind of magic.”

The curious absence of God is the negative space bitten out of Eden’s Apple and it encompasses everything.

* * *

From my vantage point now, I could picture that garnet red apple and Santa Claus lying bloated, core-rotten and debunked. I could see the way the feathers spread out and resisted gravity, enacting a faltering hover just under our bedroom window, as I tipped and shook the blue, velour-lined box empty. We had saved them for years, plucked out of our way on the paths we’d walked together. Omens of Right Choice, you called them.

I could see how I fell short of the expectation, how magic was an illusion and we had misperceived the problem all along. I could see all the illusions, expectations and misperceptions of our time together as insectoid creatures frothing around the joists and lode bearing beams of our relationship: a swarm of termites building cathedrals to no god.

I could hear the echoing crinkle of crumpling star charts and rice paper sheets covered in your tiny scrolling Incantation scrawl; the sound resonating in a chamber of memory somewhere between the rings and ripples of the near past, back away from now, the Center of Time.

I could listen to the ricochet of crystals and gemstones shot basketball style into the hallway’s stainless steel garbage bin and I could visualize the way that, in the end, the half-filled cylinder looked like a pirate’s treasure or dragon’s hoard.

I could pay attention to any of this, but I don’t. I let it float on the oceanskin: all of it previous plunking points of impact as the present, like that skipped stone, leapt out and became now. At this moment, on the Shrine of Anamnesis, all memories are only lichen-wrapped, floating air bubbles that time has disturbed. Right now, none of the past can touch me, because I am encapsulated and protected. This moment is an atom, and the perfect afternoon, like whirling electrons, creates a nautilus shell around me that stays all momentum and maroons me on the very cusp of sleep.

All of those memories are a rapidly fracturing chain tethering me to self-awareness.

I inhale and rise up and all that keeps me from drifting out those windows, on and on until somewhere the sky and sea and I converge, is the sharp and sweet bouquet of your hair. I sink into the sap of this instant—knowing that my soul will calcify, fossilize as I pine away while trying later to retrieve this second. Right now I am warm and adrift and halcyon and free.

And the smell of your hair is the thread that keeps me moored to consciousness.

* * *

In the end, I came to you. The light seeping between the blinds was just right, and the dust suspended in dewy, thick morning air gleamed and made your face look like pointillized. “Do you know what the best time of my day is, every day?”

“No,” you admitted.

“It’s during the fifteen seconds I walk from the bed to the alarm clock and hit the snooze button. It’s right then that I am awake enough to know I’m really still asleep.”

“Go on.”

“I live for that, for just the walk there and the walk back, because then I fall asleep again and it’s gone. You can’t fully enjoy sleep when you’re sleeping. But during that quarter-minute of stumbling around, I know that I will fall back asleep and dream another dream and everything will be spectacular and extraordinary for a little while longer and whatever happens when I’m awake, it can only be downhill from there.”

“Downhill.”

“There’s nothing at all, and no amount of crystals or ribbons tied round candles will change it. The pyramids are only slave labor high-rises, all the Mayans died of smallpox; strange lights in the sky and the cold spots in all the houses have a better, more logical explanation. When I’m awake, I know that Nietzsche’s famous declaration was right. And I know that you will never have my child.”

“You know this?”

“I do. We can’t have a family, but I remember how to fly from dreams, Lucy. And when I’m awake the absence, the inability is palpable, painful.”

“You know this for sure.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe… maybe this is an omen. Maybe it says something about…us.”

“Maybe it is. Maybe it does.”

* * *

In the end, there was quiet as reality held me by the collar, against the wall and with both its implacable hands. Pinned and prone, I let you walk away, still believing just a little bit, free and unburdened by the unbearable bulk of truth. In a hidden fifth chamber of your heart you held the single essential mustard seed.

You will never break. That sliver of unadulterated belief is a pressure suit, insulating you against the starved nothing inherent in the infinite vacuum of space. And that week became this week, and then became now, and you are preparing to leave.

The universe still glows for you. Cooler, red-shifting maybe, but it is still subtly glorious and self-illuminating. You have a child’s mind, Lucy, and only children can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. When I emerge on the other side of the Center of Time, the world will appear as nothing more than an immaculately tuned perpetual motion machine.

I will know that there is no room for magic in modern life. I will know that the stars that burn the brightest also exhaust their fuel the quickest. That when life is found out, all the rest is denouement. That once the illusion of magic is gone, what you have is only what you bring with you.

Now, on the Shrine of Anamnesis and at the heart of it all, if I wanted to break the spell, I might chance an open-eyed glimpse. I would see that even in my most perfect moment, there is that looming and curious absence. I would see that, in the fabric of my universe, there is a God-shaped hole clearly visible from the Center of Time.

* * *

Your feet round the corner out of the hallway and enter the living room, crushing the knap on a vacuum stiff carpet, then stopping silent and patient, respecting my trance.

“I’m awake,” I say, giving permission.

“Thanks for letting me shower.”

“Anytime.”

You hesitate long enough that I can hear my breath rattle the small hairs in my nose, I can feel a tickle, but I do nothing about it. My eyes stay closed, holding on. I can hear the moist snap as you blink. “There is no ‘anytime,’” the silence says, “this is the only time, the last time.”

“This is the end of it, I think. If you find anything else, will you call me?”

“Of course.”

“I guess I’ll see you.”

“Yeah. I’ll be around.”

You slip into your heeled sandals and an open-topped box rattles ceramic and glass, contents settling as you lift it from the desk opposite the door. I don’t hear you walk there, I only hear the groan of the screen door closing and then your thump-thumping down the two flights of front steps.

* * *

Seeping in under my eyelids is late afternoon’s sepia tone and I can still smell your hair in the room. The sun paints a knife blade swatch of my face with heat. I am fading fast, sinking into this and soon I will lose the feeling. The October wind rustles loose leaves and I become an astral body, the dissonance and resonance of sound. I do this effortlessly, accidentally, yet comfortably.

When your scent fades, I will know that you are gone. Within its lingering trail, I stay limp and momentarily suspended at the Center of Time. At the Shrine of Anamnesis, all moments are simultaneous. All memory is savory. Here, I will always have you, Lucy, and we will always have our single, fervent, shared belief. Everything will be mysterious and phenomenal and nothing will be explained. Every house will be haunted, all animals will be omens. Even if I can never return, I will know that these moments are still happening. Somewhere, somewhen.

That will have to be enough for me.

They say that everyone misses the most important, pivotal moments of their life while they’re happening. They say that those things can only be known in retrospect, in hindsight. But I’ve proven them wrong because here, in my most perfect moment at the Center of Time, I know I have to hold on as long as I can: when I wake, everything else will be Before and After.

Here, on the fine edge of teeth in the maw of sleep, is where I teeter. The closest to perfection my life will ever creep. And instead of missing it as it passes me by, I draw it in as breath. Here, under the windows and in my mind, I see that chain of memory stretching out and away, into the past. I see us. And if I time it right, then push-off into it, it could be the tail end of our first summer. Baseball, cigarettes, sex, forever.

But no consciousness can exist in the Center of Time forever. Soon enough, under the honey thick sun, there will be the cessation of all sound as everything fades to black. And in a recurring dream, I will fly down into the turned over U of a cellar window. I will see my breath tinted a shade of crepuscular blue in a room made of ice; try to catch in a bottle the first gold of dawn or the last of dusk. Capture light as a half-solid, create a colloid prison and bring it back to my homeland as a souvenir. Evidence of this other place.

I find it every time.

 

 

 

(2003)

 

 

 

 

 

Pier 32

RiverfrontWarehouse After completing my first story, I completed my second (“Marooned,” from Happiness is a). It actually went on to win a few awards, achieve publication on its first try, and fill me with the sort of youthful writerly hubris that makes everyone want to slap young people who say, “I’m a writer.” This story was written as an experiment just after that. You can smell that hubris. It was actually picked up by a legitimate publication called The Licking River Review, but the magazine folded before it saw print. From 2002.

___________________________________________________________________________

 

And you open the door and you look inside. You’re deep inside the void now, inside the dark. You’re peering around a corner. Your eyes, adjusting can make out the silhouette of roof beams against the wall in the shape of a cross. The boathouse takes on the character of Golgotha, of Calvary. You start to wonder why it is you’re here again, why it is you’re always here. Coming back. You forget it and move on. This is just a job. You will always come here.

This is just a job, you reason, this is a means to an end.

The dark, now not so dark, perforated by moonlight through the crumbling roof reveals only absence. No one’s here yet. Pier 32: inside, the room is the image equivalent of desertion, of dereliction. But still, the boathouse is far from silent. Water laps on eroding poles that you know are red, the color of clay. Right now they look black. Most everything looks black. You can hear decay; you hear tiny legs, furiously pumping. Gnarled and dusty trinkets line the walls: the strangest things, making this look like the prop room for some PCP induced performance of Alice In Wonderland. Terrifying French marionettes. Grotesque staves of all shapes and sizes, one a curled dragon, one a rancorous giraffe, lie piled in the corner. This, you can’t help but think, is what children’s toy chests in Hell are filled with. You laugh at the thought, amused by yourself. Clever, you think. And you wait.

Another you waits reflected in a warped rectangular mirror; glass, you remember, is a liquid subject to gravity. Another you waits on the skin of a puddle: dreamlike, out of phase. The three of you, in this room, you wait surrounded by rusted, ruined anchors. You wait in an angled swatch of light from the roof’s broken apex, suddenly revealed by the passing of an obscuring cloud. You wait and the light carves open your guilt, your fear, like a knife.

You’re always waiting. Always waiting for them. Always nervous, always feeling in the path of some invisible juggernaut. This has been going on for a year now, and you still don’t know their names. This hardly helps, hardly assuages you. Every Friday night, small, terse Asians seem to materialize from nowhere, climb out from the walls, maybe from inside or behind the several severed and taxidermied animal heads. Sometimes there’s one, sometimes more. You take their package, you deliver it, you come back the next week. They don’t pay you, your drop-offs do, so you don’t ask these men questions. You just ring a doorbell, collect your fee. You don’t say anything, you just pocket the cash and go home. Ignorance is innocence; there’s no need for talk, for idle banter.

Ignorance was innocence: what’s in the boxes was anyone’s guess, really, but you know now. You opened one.

Still, there are no questions asked; this is just a means to an end. This is the only way you can afford to do what you do. You fancy yourself an artist; for you, necessity and opportunity always produce exceptions to moral law. Excluding two hours on Friday nights, you have nothing but all the time in the world to create, thanks to this job, these men. Nothing but all the time in the world to hone your craft, the work that will make you known. Twenty-four hours, six days a week to design the way people will remember you in their encyclopedias and college courses. Twenty-two hours on the seventh day. All this time to transmute yourself to clay, to ceramic; to turn leaden thoughts into gold: all this time, the alembic in the alchemy of the soul. This isn’t illegal, this is innovation. This is your only way. This is a means to an end.

And that is your mantra.

That’s how you can still sleep at night. Think of the tired and lonely hearts your work might touch and it’s worth it. This is temporary, only a means to an end.

Chunks of mottled wood drop from the ceiling into the bay, startling you. Something scurries across the south wall by the baseboards. The boathouse is alive, with faces and legs. The boathouse never changes, is always changing. Every week the same trinkets, the same sundries. The same afterlife on acid look, like a Tim Burton film. Everything just a little more gnawed and devoured.

And you tap your fingers and watch the door. You wait. Footfalls from behind cause chest pains of surprise. You cringe at the sound of the sandpaper voice.

“Evening.”

“Yes?” you reply, somewhat inappropriately, as you whirl and stumble.

“Fine evening, yes?”

“Sure.”

The well dressed man smiles warmly at you. Smiles in the way only wizened and aged Asian men can. His broken English and lambskin gloved hands make you wish more than anything this could be over quickly; forgotten for another one-hundred forty six hours. Nods and tiny smiles. The exchange, five minutes in and out, a relaxing drive and then profit. No words. Words don’t belong here.

“There is no delivery.”

“No buyers?”

“No supplier. We no longer require you.”

“I’m fired?”

Pained chest contracting: so much for your art. So much for convenience. So much for your name in anthologies, on the Who’s Who list. So much for college textbooks and the next generation’s term papers. So much for romantic’s dreams of the penniless artist getting the girl.

“Not quite.”

And the pain in your thorax is something like ice on fire. The pain is the fabric of the universe being torn apart, but muted and heavy like unrequited love or heartbreak. Where from or when this assailant showed up is a mystery to you. The tip of the blade peeks through the skin of your breastplate for just a second—all silver and black blood glittering in the moonlight—then twists and slides back through from whence it came, wherever that was, in the hand of whoever that was.

You’re shocked, to say the least, but you can’t say you didn’t expect it. You can’t say that this thought hasn’t kept you up at night until you pass out from exhaustion. Nothing has been quite as easy since you opened that box, nothing’s been cut and dry. Ignorance was innocence and you should have kept yourself from coming back. Anymore, nothing is all wrapped up neatly and tied with twine. Everything’s been shame and suspicion, everything’s been waiting for an eventual end.

You’re on the ground now, the dusty and mildewed ground. Your teeth are broken off from the fall; what’s left of them resting, jagged, on the splintered wood. You imagine bits of debris working their way into the wound. Filth and rubble inside of you, this thought makes it even worse. Imagine that: there are ways that your own death can become even worse.

You’re bleeding rivers, creating what might become a second bay under the floorboards. The forty days and forty nights of Noah are springing forth, all at once, out from your chest. Two inches below the collarbone and directly left of the sternum.

And they turn you onto your stomach to get to work quickly. You don’t struggle, you don’t resist. This is what you deserve, you figure and you’re probably right. This is the end of a life wasted in laziness and self-indulgence. This is the just end, the Hammurabi’s Code end, to what you’ve been doing.

Ignorance was innocence, a voice says—presumably your conscience. You could have kept yourself from coming back.

The sedative that must have been on that weapon kicks in, but not all the way. You’re paralyzed and numb, but quite and completely conscious. You cant blink, eyes wide open, and you wonder if they will harden, powder should they not close on their own. You can’t look elsewhere so you stare ahead at the white plastic case to the left of your body framed by your peripheries as all you can see. Behind it, light bends and dances, warped by those gilded mirrors. Drawn thin and pulled like taffy. Behind it, one-hundred copies of A Christmas Carol, a spectral Jacob Marley adorning the cover. You watch dust flutter and settle in the moonlight.

Yes, this is what you deserve.

This is probably the easiest answer, to die here, you decide. This makes everything so much simpler.

As if you had a choice.

Your thoughts are a montage of images. A mosaic pieced together from the minutiae that would seem to have no place on the edge of death, the cusp of mortality. You think about your cat, and who will feed her. You think about the girl with the glasses that you know and who will take a cigarette break with her when the line shortens at the coffee shop. You think about how nothing you’ve ever done has given you pride, not really, only potential hope for the future. You think about how your whole life, the sorry mess, has been about waiting. Waiting for the inspiration to strike. Waiting for some spectacular love interest to appear dramatically right out of thin air. Waiting for the phone call telling you you’ve been “Discovered.” If what they say is true, and the afterlife resembles your time on Earth, yours will be a Green Room, you think. Some obscure Hollywood waiting area, with outdated magazines and fake plastic plants. A receptionist with a bleached and fried perm. And what you’ve done with all your time is less than nothing: it’s this: an investment in sloth, inaction. Your life wasn’t a means to an end, it was a means to more means.

And now, you’re waiting to die.

You’ve got no idea where they’re at down there, but even if you did, you couldn’t do a thing anyways. So you wait.

You fraud.

You hack.

You luftmensch miser.

You see the white case go up, followed by sable and expensive shoes going by. A second pair. Then silence. And soon enough the room goes completely black. Quickly and in a degrading fashion, like a curtain falling. There are no shades of grey, it’s just lights out. And your head would ache, you think, if it wasn’t for the drug. Were there pain, dull or screaming, there would be something to distract you from the grudging way these minutes are passing. Time that doesn’t seem to want to move.

Still arrogant, you think, Get on with it.

This is it, you know, this is where you’ll be when they find you. This is where you’re going to die. There’s a strange comfort in that for you. There’s nothing you have to do ever again. The pressure is off. You can be as spectacular a failure as you want, as you are, no consequences. This is where your eventual end was, lying obscure in time and space when you wondered about it for all those years.

But you’ve known this for some time now, you guessed it, deduced it, felt it.

Every time you opened that door, rusted lock dangling, you felt, you knew.

You were just biding your time until it ran out. Waiting.

You could have kept yourself from coming back. That disembodied voice, conscience whacked out on sedatives.

The inside of your head feels drafty, if that’s possible. Like the air from a long closed and stale freezer moving through the empty spaces within its meat. A hoar frost carrying on through the tunnels. This is what you deserve. You think about the persistence of time, the persistence of loss, the persistence of justice. Sooner or later this had to happen.

Your last thoughts are about that blade, about this job about everything that brought you here instead of to the pages of textbooks. Instead of to the bespectacled barista’s bed. Instead of anywhere else. Everything so perfectly ordered and orchestrated, cascading, until you were everywhere but where you wanted to be. Maybe there was a master plan after all. Everything falling into place, into your lap, it was so easy: it felt preordained. This process, deus ex machina: the God machine as conveyor belt whirring and cranking away as it produced a single product: your miserable little death. Your whole wait was a means to an end, your end.

Your whole life was a means to collapse your world because you had nothing to offer except infinite and pathetic patience, with nothing ready for or worth giving should your number come called. You know this. And after everything, all you’ve learned is that this shit, this wait, this starving artist role, this unrequited love: it’s only romantic when it happens to someone else.

And that’s when you slip off. Spiraling. Adrift and rising. Consciousness without a form to pin it down. You can see your body, wrecked and flayed open on the deck. You see the hole where your kidneys should be, you see meat and nothing more. You see a decent end to a mediocre life.

In the most detached way possible, you start to at least hope they took all they could, that these buyers would be able to live long lives with your liver, your kidneys, your marrow. Whatever. You can only guess what the big picture was, what they took, what they dealt in, where it’s going to. There are people that will go on leading lives that, odds are, will be more productive than yours was. Desperate souls. With the pay cut you got just as errand boy, you could have retired for good in another five years anyways. You didn’t need a masterpiece, an opus, you just wanted one in the lazy and idle way you wanted everything. You waffler, you fence-sitter. You were a lackadaisical Bohemian. You were an American son of your generation.

And all those people—how many people?—were sacrificed in back alley altars; you pocketed their blood money to pay for your game of makebelieve. Sacrificed, like this, like you. And even though it wasn’t by your hand, would have happened without you, you condoned it. You assisted.

And you wonder where it is that you are—maybe caught up in that knife blade swatch of light—as it gets brighter and brighter; the air rarefied. You reach to cover your eyes and remember you have no hands, no eyes. It’s getting hotter and hotter, heavier and heavier; you’re inside the sun, maybe. Inside a supernova. At the heart of it all, in the infinite density of a black hole, drowning in the everything it’s enveloped.

You wonder, you want to know, you have to know. You’ve never believed in anything after the end, but here you are, somewhere. Consciousness continues. You’d always been a toaster theory kind of guy: “When it’s broke, it’s broke. Throw it away.” Wrong again.

“I’m waiting,” you call out.

Big surprise there. And then you remember: Deus ex machina.

The voice again: You could have kept yourself from coming back. This is what you deserve.

You think about the persistence of time, the redundancy. You think about everything happening, all in one moment, all at once, always. You think about futility. Deus ex machina: the God Machine is a conveyor belt; you are a stain on its oblong skin—now topside, now below—as cogs and axles whir away.

And you open the door and you look inside. You’re deep inside the void now, inside the dark. You’re peering around a corner. Your eyes, adjusting can make out the silhouette of roof beams against the wall in the shape of a cross. The boathouse takes on the character of Golgotha, of Calvary. You start to wonder why it is you’re here again, why it is you’re always here. Coming back. You forget it and move on. This is just a job. You will always come here.
(2002)

Negative Space

Tacked awkwardly onto the end of a long-unopened file, I just stumbled upon the first work of fiction I ever intended to write. I was twenty-one. It’s been a decade. I’m someone that twenty-one-year-old wouldn’t recognize; I might be someone he wouldn’t like. I know I wouldn’t care for him—I didn’t like him when I was him. But curiously, I don’t hate this. From 2002.

 _______________________________________________________

She’s gone. She has to be, he thinks, because there it is on the tiled and smoky slate countertop plain as anything. There it is, the only thing there. Alone on a stone shelf, like a sacrifice to some obscure god. That counter has never been clear, much less scrubbed and there it is, in the middle of a pristine and wan field. A centerpiece. 7:03 p.m. on an idle and tired Thursday night. This is when his heart drops out.

He’s come home tonight expecting the usual, expecting relief and reprieve from the day.  He’s come home expecting her to be in her chair, the vintage plum and velvet eggshell chair by the window. Looking out and waiting. Dreaming. That’s where she always is, always slightly vacant, always with a smile for him. Just as he’s relieved to be there, she’s relieved to have him back. On leaving, they became just an anonymous pair: a he and a she; on coming home they were reunited. Love like in some French film, he always thought.

“I guess not,” he says accidentally, he says to no one. He spins and takes it all in and surely enough things start to make sense. His paintings hang unframed on the window wall, the south wall. They hang on the north wall, dripping acrylic off of ragged canvas edges. The west and east are blank, but they hadn’t always been. She had hung paintings too, frames of purple skies and coastlines at night. Oil frescoes, masterpieces compared to his abstracted smears. They came down yesterday leaving pale spots on the nicotine shaded walls. Her blankets too, gone from the recovered couches, the tangerine couches.  Everything else is upstairs, was upstairs, at least. He’s afraid to look. Besides, everything that matters, he thinks, is on the kitchen counter. She wouldn’t do this. Her meticulous streak forbade her from leaving things around; she’d liken it to something unflattering, graphic and verbose. Slugs and their mucus. Like him. Everywhere she went she created and inspired order, organization. Everywhere he went he inspired chaos. Things falling apart. She had tried to change him and he resisted. He laughed it off. He thought himself endearing. And it all comes down to this: a mess. His mess. His milk cartons, his brushes, his knives, acrylic encrusted and strewn around the barely visible pale shag carpet. No sign of her except what’s on that imagined altar. This is so unlike her, would be so like him.

He did this to them, he thinks. He knows. He did this to himself. She’s so obviously gone, and rightly so, he thinks. There are a million ways to justify this, to justify her moving on. She was better than this, better than him. Him and his mess, him and his reluctance. Him and his aloofness. Him and this tiny, shit apartment. He paces through his wasteland now, his kingdom. His poetry lies crumpled and unbound on the floor. Reams of it. Handwritten in the sort of script that’s only appropriate for Goatskin bound copies of Baudelaire; that deep vermilion ink, the illegible cursive. Self-important nonsensical lines decorated with absinthe smears. It was for her, every ounce of his soul transmuted to phonetics and scribbles. She always only smiled, grabbed the front of his collar and kissed him lightly. He had thought it was enough. Fancied himself some romantic pauper king; imagined he was somehow a prize.

He could have done so much more.

If he could have written one thing truly for her, not as an affectation—as part of the solipsistic drama he’d made their life together, in which he played the Romantic Artist Extolling His Love—maybe she wouldn’t have gone. Maybe that thing wouldn’t be in the kitchen. That thing wouldn’t be lying in the only clean spot left in his life. Destroying. Effacing. Maybe it isn’t, he wonders, and strolls casually back to the kitchen, hands in pockets. Whistling. Acting. He’s impassive.

There it is.

From eight feet away in the archway he can already see it.

Impassivity fails. Real enough, it’s there.

If he could have written one true thing for her, he thinks. Then: No. If I could have been somebody better, somebody  else.

It’s there: the glint of sliver, a coiled snake, the morning star in a field of early dawn, grey and automatic dawn. The stainless sink overfilled a foot away speaks to him. The other half of the counter jammed with his glasses. His plates. His mold. His filth. His mess. Back there, three or so feet to the left of his field of vision is the only thing that remains of her. The only proof that they were ever They, and not just He, She. Arbitrary pronouns, people. He’d always wanted to be a word man, a linguist. He’d half-assed some college English classes. He’d considered it before: “He” could mean anyone, “she” too. “We” is something, “we” is special. “We” is kinship, love. Inclusion; implied past and future. We: photographs and souvenirs and post-it notes and greeting cards. He/She: insignificance. We: minutiae. He now understood that there was a difference between the two.

A bit of that minutia, a trinket sits in his kitchen. His wreck of a kitchen. It is a single blind eye leering at him. How can something so small be so malevolent?

What was he expecting? What was he thinking, hoping?

Hope is cancer, he thinks. Then: hope creates exit wounds.

And that, he decides, is an idea. His eyebrows rise with inspiration. What’s the point of going on as one lonely pronoun? He sits down. He stands. He sits. This is a solution, rash as it may seem. This is all that can be. This is the only logical place to go from here. If she’s left like this, she’s made her choice. If she’s left like this she’s crossed the Rubicon.

Logic. Logic was her domain. Logic thrives on order, order on logic. And this could be his gift to her. The only logical thing. This cleans up the biggest mess he’s left, is leaving. This has nothing to do with emotion, he reasons, this is about sense and destiny. This is about one silver snake devouring itself; about the past decade of his life as a component part of We; about not ever being able to make that temporal investment again; about never finding anyone with whom he’d feel that sense of Home.

This is about what’s in the hall closet, top shelf, right hand side next to the ancient scarves and mittens his mother gave him that he never got around to throwing out. She had asked, he failed. She had insisted, he refused. She had accepted and he trod all over her.

Nothing new.

She and her good will, she and her tolerance. What was she thinking? He was no good, never any good, not enough. Never enough. She was the breath of the morning and he let it blow right by and through him. He should have done this long ago, and let her be. Let her move on, let her flower and flourish with someone else. Anyone else. Some more deserving He. Some more perfect We. Surely some other deserved her patience, her company so much more.

Little pathetic He. Selfish He.

He was the worst decision she ever made and every day he had a choice: become a better He or tell her to stop making that same choice every day—the choice to stay. That would have been loving her. Letting her go.

He stands again and walks to the archway. The item looming, glaring animate and sinister in the background. The gateway framing him, just inches above him in this shrunken hole of a home. He’s sure of it now. This is certainty, this is destiny. This is his justification for a life wasted, love wasted, words that had meaning washed down the plughole. This is a plan. The phone rings and he jumps, hitting his head on the drywall. The blazing and icy rent of pain screams down his spine, through his face. He tears up, blushing. A spot of crimson stares him in his upturned and grimacing face. Three blonde hairs stuck to the now crushed curve of the ceiling. He feels the warm and wet already on his neck.

“Hello?!” This comes out more frantic than he’d like. Betraying the calm of logic, of providence, of certainty and solemnity. Apocryphal hope: hair-thin and tied round his ankles, keeping him suspended a fathom above Bottom.

A serene and feminine voice crawls in, slinks in like a velveteen wolf. “Hello, this is AT & T with a collect call from Cyril Dillon, will you accept the charges?”

He doesn’t know a Cyril Dillon. She didn’t know a Cyril Dillon. This is a wrong number. This is a slap in the face. His face, sticky to the eyebrows with sweat. “Sorry,” he says, and hangs up reeling. Where was he? What was going on?

A mess. His mess. His life. Absence. A snake swallowing its own tail. A symbol of infinity, of consecration. Supposedly. The meaning of symbols. The life behind things.

It all comes back too fast for him. The way he jumped when the phone rang—hopeful, desperate—that’s how it would be every single time from now on. The stomach sinking, the simpering, the empty pleading prayers proffered to any and all gods. Every time a phone rang. Every knock at the door. Every time he sat in a restaurant and saw the back of a head that might be hers. I can’t, he thinks. And he moves into the hallway towards the closet.

On fire now, with momentum now. With a purpose now. He opens the faux Venetian doors and gropes around the top. There. Black is a feeling, steel is a sensation. Hope creates exit wounds. And it’s there, in his hand, heavy and cool. The voice of reason.

He glides back into the living room. The eggshell chair. He kicks the chessboard over, which would scatter the pieces about were they not strewn already. His mess. He makes room, carves a niche for his grand and magnificent justice. He faces the window, streaked with nicotine and fingerprints. Her fingerprints. She. He presses his lips to them, but is disappointed to find they have no taste. There, outside, is the open expanse of sky where he’d like to be. Conservation of matter: nothing is destroyed, his being will become something, will decompose or be burnt, become energy or other matter. The wind in her hair, maybe, when She walks with some new He; walks tied in the tendrils of some new We. The dust on her shoes. He tries to smile at the idea. He checks his eyes: dry. If I were a better man, I’d be crying, he thinks. He opens his mouth to scream, but does not make a sound.

A scream would be selfish.

And somehow, the pressure is off now. He’s comfortable with this, complacent. Giving up: brain decompressed, expectation abated. Is this what it feels like to do right? he asks himself. He’s caught up in the flow of destiny, the path of logic. Sailing downstream in the current of the Way. The only way. This is correct. If I were a better man, I’d have done this for her years ago.

He feels he can hear in earnest the symbolism of death and escape so tangible, he guesses, this close to the end. The sound of a door slamming. Enlightenment, liberation. He’s cleaning up the mess of himself. He’s freeing himself from the pain of deficiency, of lowliness; loneliness. Hope.

“There it is! Christ, I thought I lost it on the train… Honey?”

This is her. Is this her? The gun in his mouth, has he pulled the trigger? Is this the other side, his perdition a reenactment of what should have been?

“Honey?” she asks tremulously as she spins the chair clockwise on its base to face her.

The gun down, what he can muster is “Hey.”

“What the hell are you doing?”

All he can find within him, “Your ring was in the kitchen.”

“Yeah, I took it off to clean and then I got distracted trying to figure out what to put back on the walls. Too many projects, I guess. I felt naked all afternoon—cashing a paycheck has become an all day process, did you know that?” She looks into his lap. “What the hell are you doing with that?”

“The paintings needed changing?”

“Yeah don’t you think? I hate those seascapes. I’ve got my stuff laying out on the bed upstairs, I was trying to pick something out we’d both like. Something that’d go better with those hideous couches instead of all that purple.”

“Oh,” he says.

I thought you were going to get rid of that thing. It’s not safe to have it here—you know you’re way more likely to hurt a loved one than a criminal.”

“They say that.”

“You hungry? I brought home tofu.”

She walks back to the kitchen; this is just another day. 8:00 on an idle and tired Thursday. Just another dinner. Just another summer sunset outside now, starting to turn that burnt and raw orange. He’s in the chair, still, inert. Static. He raises two fingers to his neck, checks his pulse: a drum roll. She’s really here, he’s really here. We are here, he thinks.

He hears the ceramic clink of bowls being pulled from the cupboard. She hums an old Bobby Darin tune. He wants to go to her but he can’t stand, can’t breathe. He looks down to his left hand, puts the safety back to its normal position, but is unsure whether or not that is the right thing to do.

(2002)

Presents

As is evident from even a cursory examination of the post dates of this website, it’s been a while since I clicked digits on keyboard with the intention of creating or, as was the case this evening, put an actual pen to actual paper. And, as I’ve recently kvetched elsewhere about my lack of writing time and/or how far off-track I’ve come, I figured maybe it’d be best for me to publish something proving that cheap tequila, a darkened bar, and singing along to maudlin songs doesn’t necessarily mean one cannot or is not creating.

It ain’t much, but it’s 163 more words than I had last afternoon.

 

 

Some hearts are meticulously wrapped packages—thin, crisp-cornered, glistening green, adorned by crenellated red ribbon, and carefully positioned underneath the tree. And some lovers, well-intentioned but with such zeal, are greedy preteens bursting from bedrooms, descending steps three-by-three, only to leap the last five entirely, and land hard on the knees. They clip the crimson trimmings with teeth, shred that emerald paper ’til it resembles the rind of an orange devoured using only the mouth.

In such cases, the mind beholden to that heart is an anxious parent on the couch, clutching a cup of something once hot gone cold, quadriceps clenched, legs tucked under butt, patiently waiting to see if the delicate present once within has survived such enthusiastic exposition, or if sellotape and an explanation will be required for an attempt to reassemble that thing frangible and handmade which, no matter what, will never be the same, and would possibly have not been wanted by whatever lover in the first place.

Still Missing Flight Myself

I’m pleased to announce that my collected poems are now available for purchase as Still Missing Flight Myself.

Some of the best cautionary advice that could be given any writer—young or old, famous or obsucre—is to never forget that not every word you write will be worth preserving. Much of any writer’s output is junk. Still Missing Flight Myself is the end result of, in some cases, more than a decade of winnowing and tinkering. What was originally a 600-poem body of work has been reduced to just these 51—and that’s all that remains of nearly two decades worth of writing poetry.

Exploring moments of both transcendent beauty and abject desolation, this collection provides succinct glimpses into the unspectacular, average lives that most Americans have lead and will always lead—the lives most of us will go to extraordinary lengths to pretend we are not living. The disposable existence of a manicurist suddenly realized; the unexceptional loneliness of a fatherless child who has become used to his predicament; the minor frustrations of listening to an unjacketed LP; or driving home drunk enough to no longer care about the ramifications of drunk driving: the poems here collected expose and inflate quotidian moments until each seems like the paradox it actually is—simultaneously singularly significant and utterly, ineluctably forgettable.

Now available as a softcover trade paperback in the bookstore.

http://sesquipedalism.com/shop

 

Amoskeag Interview Went Live…

…and somehow I forgot to mention it on my own fucking webpage. I tweeted it. I Facebooked it. I posted it in the obscurer depths of a Nine Inch Nails message board, but I never mentioned that the interview is actually available online. Below, is the full-text. But I think the magazine probably wants you to read it on their site so you might be induced to, you know, buy something from them. Which you totally should. So make me look good and either read it there or buy the issue—I’ve read it cover to cover and it’s worth the measly $7 (which is less than you’d spend on a latté in New York or L.A.).

Amoskeag: Your work, “[sic],” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

James Black: I was discussing with a friend the importance of names. His stepfather’s birth certificate provided only “Baby Boy” as his first name, and we were laughing over some official mail that had arrived for him from the state Health & Records department, addressed to “Baby Boy.” I suggested that it would be unfortunate, annoying, or potentially hilarious to discover that one’s own birth certificate were somehow irregular. I asked my friend if he’d seen his; he asked if I’d seen mine. Oddly, neither of us had. While I couldn’t find mine, my friend did find his and, to his chagrin, he had discovered an irregularity: for the entirety of his life, he’d been misspelling his middle name “Allan” as “Allen.” While this wasn’t such a big deal, I was left pondering the possibility of one’s whole life being thrown into upheaval by some similar, but more grievous, discovery. “[sic]” grew from that seed.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

James Black: The actual story itself is the result of my many, many problems with America’s seriously flawed health care system—a system which contributed in a number of significant ways to the simultaneously too-speedy and too-slow death of my mother from metastatic colon cancer. Many countries have heroin clinics for terminally ill cancer patients; after a while, morphine doesn’t cut it when it comes to the pain, and heroin makes things much easier. The US has, for years, aggressively refused to establish such institutions. This is, of course, a tragedy and, as a result, I got to watch someone I loved die in abject agony.

A few years later, my home city of Rochester embarked on a series of ill-advised ventures to build a ferry to Toronto, and watching each iteration of the project fail was morbidly fascinating. I needed a reason for my protagonist to suddenly require a birth certificate he hadn’t previously seen and a trip across the border to acquire heroin for a cancer patient accomplished that without—to me—feeling contrived.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

James Black: The second part of this question is easier to answer than the first. I write professionally because it’s the one thing I’ve found that makes me feel even remotely contented, happy, etcetera. Who could ask more from a job? Most of my life has been spent doing work that I find degrading and disappointing. Someone once said something like “writing is something that is for a writer more difficult than it is for anyone else.” I find that to be true. But writing is also, for me, the one thing worth the effort.

Why it’s worth the effort has to do with interiority. Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs defined interiority as, more or less, the feeling of “getting” someone or being “gotten.” Feeling like someone is inside your head—in a good way. Vonnegut said loneliness is the worst disease by which humanity has been stricken. I’m not sure it’s a disease with a cure. But reading something well-written makes a person forget that fact for the length of the piece. A good book is easier to find than a “soulmate,” and less risky than a fistful of Xanax.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

James Black: Learn to cope with perpetual failure. There are months where I receive a letter a day telling me someone clever enough to edit a literary journal thinks I’m not good enough. If that bothers you, you’re going to have a serious problem. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times in eight years of submissions. But I’ve also been accepted many places, and there’s nothing like the feeling of knowing that soon people you will never meet will be reading your work and, hopefully, feeling that interiority—my favorite stories seem to “get” me, to understand how existence feels to me, and when people read my own work, I hope that at least a few in the audience will feel “gotten.”

Other than that, the two pithiest pieces of advice I’ve got are simple. 1) Write stories you would want to read. 2) Writer’s block is a myth invented to excuse laziness—you can always write; your product may suck, but you can write. With enough editorial attention, you can turn terrible sentences into stalwart and worthwhile ones. Sometimes you’ll just build slowly. Writer’s block is as silly and romantic a notion as the idea that artists must be penniless and depressed.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

James Black: At the moment, I’m three stories shy of releasing a second collection (my first is self-published and can be found on my website, http://sesquipedalism.com). And the piece I’m currently working on is one which, as I mentioned above, seems to require slow building. In this piece, there’s a labyrinth that won’t quit growing, a computer-illiterate professor learning how to navigate Facebook so he can check in on a student’s welfare, cats chatting about the color of their new collars, and an airplane full of people who are all absolutely sure that they’re the center of the world. So, we’ll see how that comes together in the end.

Perspective on Time

Perspective on Time

 

I

When I was nine,

I spent my time

at school or on the bus,

keeping quiet. A soldier spy,

Jedi Knight, superhero—

someone struggling

to maintain a meek secret

identity. This narration,

a running monologue

rewrote everything,

a chrome remolding of

every tarnished event,

until some khaki-slacked

teacher called my alter-

ego’s name. And I was

only me again.

 

 

II

If I swallowed enough

of the Ipecac, I just might

throw up that apple

seed. I would leave it

to rot, forgotten, in

a rust-colored, reeking puddle,

in the greenest city park,

underneath an ash tree. I

would climb that tree.

And if I never came

down, I could make it

always the tail end of

teenage summer: scratched

records, baseball, broken

curfew, cigarettes, and sex

forever.

 

 

III

Mathematic gravity

draws everything

down, even hope.

And people die

or don’t (whichever

is worse), hearts

are broken in

major metropoles

all over the globe,

every single second

of every single day. I

should relax: my sorrows

soon will sublimate, become

the littlest disappointments

lost in the confusion;

insignificant statistics.

 

 

IV.

Your own voice

will sound alien

to you. Your back

will ache. Your knees.

You will have to

shave your head.

 

Yesterday is a gift.

Today is a trial.

Tomorrow is a pox.

 

(2002)