Emily and I spent one more day together. It was unexceptional, but there was a poignant moment. It came in the evening as night fell.
“What are you doing?” Asked Emily. She was making biscuits and gravy, a delightful smell wafting through the air.
“Sitting on the floor while you make dinner,” I leaned my head against the cabinets and looked up at her from my place on the linoleum.
“No one has ever watched me cook before.”
“You’ve had some terrible boyfriends,” I said.
“That’s true. I don’t want to make excuses, but I think it’s one of those classic cases of growing up surrounded by men who treated me like shit,” Emily added flour to her gravy. “My step dad had a horrible temper and my dad had a horrible temper so when I grew up I gravitated to people who treated me horribly.”
“Is that why you’re fucked up, sexually?”
“No,” she added a dash of pepper to the mix.
“Were you molested when you were a kid?” Emily stopped stirring the gravy and stared at the stove. I waited, but she didn’t answer. “Who?” I asked, finally.
She put down the spoon, formulating the words. “My stepbrother. When I was five.” Outside, a train rumbled past, but it seemed distant and unimportant. “And I’m pretty sure that if my mom had stayed with my stepdad, my stepdad would have started in on me as well.” I sat there, looking up at her, not knowing what to say. “I remember,” Emily stared past me, “I remember the moment the dynamic changed. We were at my grandma’s house in Illinois—”
“Stop,” I said. Drug induced rage suddenly overwhelmed me, the same helpless anger I’d felt on the train from Montauk. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to hold them down and beat their faces to puddles. “I don’t want to know any more.” My arms were shaking. The tears were coming. It’s just prednisone, I told myself, it’s only prednisone. My mood kept swinging, sending me further into a violent fantasy. I imagined razor claws tearing out the tops of my hands, bloody, angry things, honed to a micron’s edge. I could see the nameless faces of her attackers. I could feel warm blood spilling from their throats.
“Eventually the stepson came out as gay,” Emily brushed a shock of hair from her eyes, “Isn’t that funny? A fifteen year old boy molesting a five year old girl and he wasn’t even straight.”
“I’m sure he ruined his share of boys as well.”
“It is what it is,” Emily returned to her biscuits and gravy. All the evil in all the world, and still we have to make dinner. “Smell this,” she said, removing the lid from her gravy.
Poor Emily. Broken Emily. Seeking love and finding lust, gathering rotten morsels from the carcasses of dead things, combining them, creating a simulacrum of the thing that had been stolen. I wanted to hug her, to cover her with salty tears, but I didn’t know how. All our time together, our intimate moments, and I was powerless to comfort. I thought of my mom. We had never kissed. We rarely touched. She came to me in the dark days before the hospital, as the sickness tore me apart. I asked her to sit on the bed by my side, but she couldn’t. She cleaned my refrigerator instead. And now Emily.
I approached the stove with the pot full of burbling liquid. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to help. Maybe a pat on the shoulder? I didn’t know. I had never been taught. I bent down and smelled the gravy. “It smells delicious,” I said, straightening, looking into her eyes, trying to read her face. Maybe I could squeeze her arm? My mother and I had never kissed. We rarely touched. When I was hurt, she cleaned my fridge.
“You want some?” The spell broke. The moment passed.
“Sauron says I shouldn’t,” I smiled, a mask to hide the fear.
Two years have passed since that night. I’m sitting in an office, writing, pretending to work. Emily has moved to Florida with her boyfriend. She’s pregnant with his baby. Her dream of being a comedic actress is over. Life is funny like that. We plan and scheme, believing ourselves in control, pretending to know what we want, but in the end, life chooses for us. I suppose she could turn things around, move back to New York and join another improv troupe, but maybe she doesn’t want to. Maybe she’s found something better.
• • •
I left New York the next morning. Emily and I hugged, promising to stay in touch, knowing that we wouldn’t. Love in the modern era lacks teeth. It is easily found and easily abandoned. The mythologies of past generations are eroding, the fairy tale endings, the stern dictates from God, all of them fade beneath the punishing glare of humanity’s success. We are drunk on our own wealth, obsessed with our own pleasure. The pendulum swings, cataclysm awaits, and when the hammer falls, human kind will return to the traditions and fables of our fathers, but for now, we can afford to follow the fleeting fancies of the heart.
I retraced the steps that had brought me to New York, an ant following its trail home. The train dumped me off in front of a bus stop where an old woman was cooking tamales in a shiny, tin trash can. The trash can had been placed inside a shopping cart. The old woman’s clothes were blankets, knitted from yarn. My stomach growled, my nostrils flared. I had many weaknesses, tamales were near the top. I knew it was wrong, that my guts would cry out in pain, but the damn things smelled so good. I approached the make-shift food cart, “Four, please.” I figured the diarrhea would set in halfway through my flight home.
“Tamales?” Said the old woman, pointing at the trashcan.
“Sí. Quatro,” I repeated, holding up four fingers.
“Carnitas o pollo?” She removed the lid and a waft of steam emerged from the shiny, garbage bag lined can.
“Spicy or no?”
“Spicy,” I said, my mouth watering at the thought.
She pulled four tamales, like golden slugs, from their sleepy home. She wrapped them in tin foil. I paid her and crossed the street to the bus stop. I sat down and unwrapped the tinfoil, peeling open corn husks to reveal the treasure inside. I ate three before my bus arrived. They were the best I’d ever had. New York was like that, even old ladies with blankets for clothes carried greatness in their bones.
The bus took me to the airport and I began winding my way through the gerbil maze that is air travel. I knew I’d found the right gate when the footwear changed. New Yorkers wore fashionable leather shoes and boots. Coloradans preferred sensible hiking shoes, even if they hadn’t been outside in years. The relentless Darwinism that is fashion filled every economic niche. I joined my place in line, observing the footwear and laughing to myself, knowing that someday, I would get to write about the shoes at the gate in LaGuardia.
My seat mate ended up being a curly-haired 50 year old real estate developer. As we flew, he told me about his current project and how, when he was my age, he’d volunteered for a drug study, “They locked me in a room for a month and pumped me full of crazy shit, then watched me to see what would happen.”
“What did they pump you full of?” I asked, looking across his chest and out the window at the tops of clouds.
“Cocaine,” he smiled broadly. “I got paid $3,000 to get high for a month. It was a different time,” he shook his head at the amazingness of it all.
I thought about my own mounting debt. The trip to New York had been a stupid one, my student loans were dwindling and I had another month and a half before classes began. Maybe I’d get lucky and find a heroin study once I got back to Denver.
The plane landed in Colorado with the tamales I’d eaten still in my stomach. I should have shit them out in an embarrassing episode on the flight, but the effects of steroids are long lived. I’d been drug free for 24 hours, but it would take months to purge the hormone from my system. I had a few more days before my intestines returned to a dysfunctional normal, and a few more months before the crazy wore off.
When I got home, I ran into Dahlia, the raver chick who also had Chron’s. I’d paid her to hem my pants so I would look snazzy on the streets of New York. Seeing her made me feel lonely in a deep and abiding way. I had lived a thousand lives since last we talked. I had loved and lost. Now, like the shamans of old, I had returned, with insights and epochs to share. I had changed, but everything else was the same. Dahlia pulled up to the stoop and locked her Vespa to a tree.
“‘Sup?” she nodded in passing, unlocking the hilarious front door with ease. She didn’t ask about New York, or how my pants had been received. Had she noticed that I left? Friendship in the modern era lacks teeth. We no longer need one another, the victims of our own success. Dejectedly, I followed her inside and posted the glory of my return to a status on Facebook.
• • •
“We’re not going to make it,” I said, my back against the wall of the cave. The hollow at the world’s end spun slowly through the void. “We’re running out of time,” I looked over at Nega Nate who was lying on the ground with one hand beneath his head, “We’ll be dead before I finish.”
“So skip to the end,” he turned his red eyes to face me.
“The end is meaningless without the beginning and middle.” We sat in silence, listening to the delicate jostle of the bubble worlds outside. They bumped into one another, some bursting, others combining, growing larger.
Nega Nate held up his sword, watching the reflection of the light along its edge, “Do you think the soul lives on after death?”
“I think it’s possible.”
My dark counterpart laughed, “That’s not an answer.”
“Well I can’t say for certain.”
“Of course you can’t, what do you think?”
Our stomachs were empty, our bodies wasting away. Nega Nate wanted to talk about philosophy. I cleared my throat and tried to put my thoughts into words. “If consciousness is a physical property— some sort of energy or combination of matter— then it cannot be created or destroyed. When we die, the carbon, water and iron that makes up our bodies returns to dust. Some of that dust is scattered and becomes other things. Grubs eat it, plants drink it, the substance of our being is incorporated into other things. Maybe consciousness is similar. Maybe the energy or matter that gives rise to thought disperses, breaking down, to be incorporated into other things. Maybe our souls are subsumed into other identities.”
“Like reincarnation?” Asked Nega Nate.
“Sort of, except, instead of tracking individual beings over the course of lifetimes, the raw materials spread out, tiny bits recombining with other tiny bits. I think we live forever, but spread out across infinity.”
“And what about us?” Asked the robot, speaking for the first time in many days.
“What about us?” Countered Nega Nate.
“We are stories, without substance. We exist, but only in the minds of the reader. We do not have physical bodies. There will be nothing to consume when we die.”
“What are you talking about?” Nega Nate seemed annoyed by the robot’s question.
“It knows that we don’t exist,” I said, looking at my darker self.
“What?” Nega Nate didn’t understand.
“We’re characters, the three of us. Feeble figments conjured by a distant mind.”
“This,” Nega Nate slapped the floor of the cave with one hand, “is a story?”
“Part of one.”
“I can’t,” I shook my head. “The author has allowed me to know who I am, but I have no other proof, or rather, my knowledge is the proof.”
“You religious types,” Nega Nate said, a mocking leer in his tone, “you’re all the same. You would rather put your faith in wild stories, than accept the truth.”
“And what is the truth?”
“That we cannot know the truth.”
“Some of us can,” the me that was not me replied. “Some of us do.”
“And what about me?” Asked Nega Nate. “Why has this author withheld the truth from me?”
“For his own purposes. To make a larger point. We can’t understand because there is much of the story that we don’t see, that we wouldn’t understand even if we did see.”
“He could make us understand, this author of yours. If what you say is true, then he could make us understand.”
“He could,” I said. “But he didn’t.”
“Then our author is a dick.”
“He is,” I said, “But he’s doing his best.”
“Keep believing that,” laughed Nega Nate, “we’re dead either way.”
I left them there, the robot and my two doppelgangers. They had served their purpose. They had gotten me through. Nega Nate died first, then my other self. Their souls, if there is such a thing, dispersed, becoming whatever it is they were meant to be.
Slowly, eventually, enough of the bubble worlds collided and combined to form a makeshift sun. The new sun shone on the ground where the Nathan who-was-not-me had planted a scottsberry. The seed, fed by an underground stream and nourished by the bodies of the two who had died next to it, began to grow, lifting its leaves in the dim light of an incessant sun. The robot watched, recording the scene, hoping that someone, someday, would find the cave and ask to hear a story.
to be continued