“You need to look at this,” said Nega Nate. The world had collapsed, or possibly imploded. Reality was twisting in on itself. All that remained was the cave. Nega Nate stood near the entrance, staring out at an infinite series of shattered landscapes, each piece floating within a different, elastic bubble.
I lay on my back, limbs splayed, staring at the ceiling, “I don’t want to.”
Nega Nate was balanced precariously near the edge of the cave, one foot on the spot where reason gave way to madness. “Why not? It’s beautiful, or at least strange.”
“Everybody hates me.”
Nega Nate touched one of the floating bubbles. It bounced off his finger to collide with several larger specimens, “Who hates you?”
“Who is Roon?”
“This guy,” I sighed. “This super cool guy. He has a mustache and a hot girlfriend and he even lives in L.A.”
“You used to live in L.A. You used to have a mustache and a girlfriend.”
Nega Nate swung at one of the bubbles with his magic sword. It shattered into fourteen pink butterflies that flittered about amongst the chaos. “Why does he hate you?”
“Because of my story. Because of the things I wrote in my story. He said that sometimes, he roots against me.”
“Doesn’t that imply that he roots for you some of the time?”
“That’s the problem,” I raised one hand dejectedly. “I can’t control what people take away. I was trying to paint an accurate portrait of my time on prednisone, of a human with flaws as well as redeeming characteristics.”
“Isn’t that what you’ve done?”
“Maybe, but I wanted them to be certain flaws and specific characteristics. Roon says that the self-aggrandizing moments sometimes make it hard to hope everything works out for me.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I wasn’t trying to be self-aggrandizing.”
Nega Nate continued staring out at the billion infant worlds, “You’re missing something spectacular.”
“I mean, what if I am an arrogant prick, deep down, where it counts?” I covered my face with two dirty hands. “My life is falling apart. Not just in this story, but in reality. My teeth are rotting, and I’ve been driving around on a spare tire for more than a month. I’m drowning in debt, and I’ve stopped looking for a better job. I don’t exercise any more and I’ve been cheating on my diet. If I keep it up I’m going to have to go back to Hruza and ask for Chron’s drugs.”
“Fuck it,” said Nega Nate.
“Diet, debt, exercise, all that stuff. Come here and look at this.”
“It’s my life,” I removed my hands from my face. “I want it to be a good one.” Grime-smeared streaks stained the area where my fingers had been.
“You don’t get to decide that any more than some rotten brat in Zimbabwe. Right now, inside your body, there are ten times more bacterial cells than human cells.”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“Every one of those little bastards has hopes and dreams and chores to do before bedtime. Not a one of them is happy.” He pointed his sword out the cave entrance, toward the myriad bubbles that danced through the void like stars, “A million trillion worlds spin recklessly around innumerable balls of burning gas and each one is more important than you will ever be. You think it matters that you’re driving on a spare? Your life is as beautiful and irrelevant as any.”
“So what, then?” I stared at the ceiling, looking for meaning in the patterns of the rock.
“So stop whining.”
We sat there for a time. Nega Nate watched the chaos outside. I contemplated my own dark existence, “You know,” I cleared my throat, “how when you start to watch a football game before it comes on, how it’s kind of like it already is on?”
Nega Nate had grown weary of my complaints. He said nothing, knowing that I would continue without prompting.
“You start watching the game fifteen minutes before it begins because you don’t want to miss the kick off.” Absently, I cracked my knuckles, the sound echoing off the walls, “But if your friend calls during that time and asks what you’re up to, you always say, I’m watching the game, except you’re not, because it hasn’t started yet. It’s close enough to kick off that you’re not exactly lying, but neither of the teams have taken the field. If your friend had called an hour before game, while you were making chicken wings or vacuuming, you’d tell him you were getting ready to watch the game, but fifteen minutes before it starts, you tell him that you already are.” I hit my head softly against the cold stone floor, making sure the cave still existed. “Life is like the fifteen minutes before the game starts. Eternities stretch out on either side, diluting the time you’re alive until you can barely taste it, until it almost doesn’t matter. Oblivion is infinite. We think life is so important, but compared to the incalculable expanse of nothing that surrounds it, we’re all already dead.”
“You’re finally starting to get it,” said Nega Nate.
“So what, then?”
“So stop complaining and look outside.”
I propped my back against the wall of the cave. The scene was, “Mesmerizing,” I said.
We sat in silence, each of us passing time in our own way. Two years prior, Dr. Drew came on the Adam Carolla Show. He claimed that The Book of Mormon was required viewing for everyone on the show. He’d just come back from New York and was telling the gang about it.
I listened feverishly in my sweltering, summer apartment. A few weeks earlier, a guest on the same show had inspired me to jump into a deprivation tank. Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about Broadway.
I began pacing my room, flicking my thumb nervously with one finger. Sure, I was blowing through my student loans, but fall semester was only a few months away and the powers that be had already offered to give me more. I could swing it. Everyone deserved a vacation. Within minutes, I was on Facebook, hitting up an acquaintance who lived in New York. Her name was Emily and she said I could stay at her place.
As we wrote back and forth, I bought round trip airfare and two tickets to the show. The musical was sold out for six months and each scalped ticket cost more than $300, but I wasn’t worried, Dr. Drew said it was worth it.
After I’d nailed down the details, I bounded upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, my heart full of joy.
Knock, knock-ity, knock!
A little raver chick answered the door. Her name was Dahlia and her life was a constant party. She was always talking about Burning Man and raves and how fucked up she’d gotten the previous weekend. Dahlia had Chron’s, and not baby Chron’s like mine, hers was the bloated demon god variety.
“I didn’t eat for two years, once.” She told me. We were sitting on the stoop at the time, talking about our shared digestive suffering. She exhaled smoke through pursed lips, her cigarette held at a pretty angle between two fingers. “My throat was riddled with ulcers, so the doctors put a tube in my nose. I’d hook the tube up to a pump and fill my belly with nutrient sludge.”
That was the difference between Chron’s and ulcerative colitis. Colitis hit the large intestine, Chron’s attacked you from the throat on out. I remembered the consultation with Kugelmas, my first doctor, bunny-Sauron in human form. He asked me if I’d ever experienced incomplete swallowing. I lied and told him that I hadn’t, but in truth, I knew what he was talking about. I’d felt the lump in my throat, like food that wouldn’t go down. Turns out, that food wasn’t food, it was Chron’s. Dahlia used to have throat lumps so bad, she couldn’t eat.
“How old were you?” I asked, feeling thankful for my comparably mild symptoms.
“As if puberty isn’t hard enough.”
That’s why I wasn’t too judgmental when Dahlia told me stories about the drugs she’d done. Her life was shit, and had been since she was a child. Her medical bills were astronomical and the disease kept spreading. If you have a chronic condition that’s probably going to kill you, it’s OK to live like there’s no tomorrow, the hard part is being just as fearless when you still have everything to lose.
“You brought me pants!” Dahlia was a fashion designer with a room full of sewing machines. I was always bringing her my tailoring.
“I need you to hem them so people can see my ankles while I’m standing.” After I’d bought overpriced tickets to The Book of Mormon, I hit up some fashion blogs to see what was hot on the streets of New York. That summer, everyone was wearing their dress pants short.
“Going on a date?” Dahlia took the pants from me.
“Yeah. In New York. I’m taking this chick to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Actually, she’s paying me back for the ticket, but we’re going together.”
“When do you leave?”
“I’ll have these done in a few days.”
I pulled out a ten dollar bill and handed it to Dahlia, “How’s the Chron’s?”
“I’m on a bunch of shit right now, but I can’t tell if it’s working. I’m maintaining with weed.”
“Yeah,” I knew exactly what she meant.
A week later, someone drove me out to the airport.
“I know who it was,” said the Robot. We were gathered near the mouth of the cave, watching the bubble-worlds float too and fro.
“I know you do, but I don’t care to remember.” I took a bite of a scotts berry, a precious morsel from my dwindling supply. My throat was dry from talking, but in this world, water no longer existed.
“What use am I?” The robot shook its head dejectedly.
“The same use as anything,” smiled Nega Nate.
“There is a reason,” I wiped purple juice from my mouth, “someone made us for something.”
“I don’t know what the reason is. I don’t think that anyone does.”
“What good is an unknowable truth?” Nega Nate looked at me.
I looked out the cave at a billion worlds filled with a trillion separate mysteries, “I guess that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
In the airport, I reached my gate. Most of the people gathered there were not from Colorado, their luggage and clothes were far too fashionable. Everyone was wearing leather boots and tight jeans. A few businessmen sported dress pants with high hems and no socks. I smiled, knowing that, once I put on the pants Dahlia had tailored, I’d fit right in. When Emily and I went to the musical, everyone would think I was a real New Yorker.
For the first forty minutes of the flight, I wrote on my laptop, but it was an old model and the battery quickly died. I pulled out my e reader and read a few pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I could tell that Lewis Carrol had taken mind-altering substances. All of Alice’s experiences were so similar to mine: the wild mood swings, the copious tears, the way the story made connections that weren’t quite there. I highlighted key parts, planning to use them as quotes at the start of each Level in Book 2. It was during this process that I discovered I could write notes on my Kindle. My laptop was dead, but my Kindle had hours of life left in it. I began writing a note about my day and all of the things that were happening on the airplane.
“I wish I still had that manic energy,” I’d grabbed one of the bubble worlds, and brought it into the cave. I held it in my hands, staring into a universe within a universe. Could the beings inside perceive me? Did they think that I was God? “I used to be able to write all day. The great ones, the ones who made a mark, must have had something like prednisone bouncing around the chemistry of their brains. How else could they have accomplished so much?”
“There is time and circumstance, as well,” said Nega Nate.
“I’m not talking about the people who were in the right place at the right time; I’m talking about the people history could not deny. I think I could have been one of them, if the wiring in my brain was different. Sometimes I’m tempted to go back on prednisone, just so I can recapture that glory. A few more years on those pink pills and I’d of been famous.”
“And what use is fame?”
“I don’t know,” I released the bubble back into the void, it floated and bumped away, losing itself in the myriad possibilities. “I’m a product of my time. I suppose we all want to be known.”
“It is a fleeting thing without substance.”
“So is everything else.”
Outside the cave, two large bubbles collided, their space-time surfaces rupturing, spilling the contents of their realities like bags of colored beads. I tried to feel sorry for the civilizations inside, entire worlds were being destroyed by a cosmic accident, but I found myself unable to summon the proper emotions. I stared at the draining universes, feeling nothing. The grainy insides bounced off other realities with a sound like rain. The melody was soothing, like the rain that fell the night my plane landed in New York.
“Tell the cab driver to take you to the corner of 21st and 57th.” I was on the phone with Carol, Emily’s roommate. The two girls had moved from Colorado to New York at about the same time. We all sort of knew each other.
I climbed into a cab and told the driver where to go. I tried to act casual, hoping he would be unable to tell I was from Colorado. I didn’t want him to take me the long way and charge me for the privilege.
Like most things in New York, the outside of Emily’s apartment was grizzled and tough, a real survivor. Rain-soaked bags of trash were piled next to a rusty, metal fence that walled off a span of concrete indistinguishable from the sidewalk around it. An elevated train rumbled noisily past, suspended above a road too small for modern times. Even at this late hour and with rain softly falling, the street was full of people.
I stepped inside the tenement and wandered up the stairs, eventually finding the room I was looking for. The place was spotless, candles burned on bamboo mats and a television was playing. Carol and Emily welcomed me inside, “How was the flight?”
We exchanged pleasantries, the mundane details of three lives in progress. Beneath the routine conversation, hidden within a bubble of sub context, Emily watched me, more quiet than I remembered, her talkative friend carrying the discussion. Emily was attractive, with a mannish chin and large breasts. Her hair was brown and cut to a medium length. I still remembered the last time I’d seen her. She was sitting outside a book store in a yellow sundress. I wanted to say hello, but my voice caught in my throat. Now she was staring at me, radiating sexuality, a Lolita in her prime.
Carol talked and talked. I didn’t mind. I was in New York on a rainy night and Emily was sitting close by, feet curled beneath her, watching me. There was a tension in the room, one I had felt before, awake and talking, on a couch or a summer porch, the air a swarm of words, none of them real, all of them hinting at the terrifying truth, at an underlying attraction. When I was young, experiencing girls for the first time, that tension never broke. No one crossed the distance, no one dared to shatter the world. Those were agonizing nights, but also glorious, evenings spent enduring the sear of love unrequited.
And now it was happening again. The three of us sat, each on separate couches, filling the air with words that had no meaning. How long until Carol went to bed? How long until someone crossed the gap? I was a wolf, circling, waiting for the light to go out. Carol sensed this, and continued talking, protecting her friend from the creature in their midst. Eventually, she turned to her friend, “You ready for bed?”
“Yes,” said Emily, stretching as she yawned. “You can use these blankets and pillows,” she patted a pile that had been set on the largest couch. She and Carol got up and headed towards the same room.
“You guys sleep in the same bed?” I hit stop on my MP3 player and began transferring its files onto my laptop.
“Every night,” said Carol proudly.
It was kind of weird, adult females on a permanent sleep over, and also inconvenient. How did one kill chickens if the farmer slept in the hen house? I lay on the couch, contemplating this dilemma.
Marijuana was legal for medicinal use in Colorado, but New York still considered it an illicit substance. I didn’t feel like smuggling edible drugs past security. Instead, I packed temazepam in my bags and hoped my prednisone doses had become sufficiently tiny to allow me to sleep. They hadn’t. I listened to the rain and the rumble of the elevated train, thinking about Emily and her lips and hair and breasts.
Eventually I got up and began to write. I could have swallowed a yellow pill, but I didn’t feel like waking up addicted to something new. Besides, I’d been getting at least 4 hours of sleep for more than a week. My batteries could handle one sleepless night.
Around three in the morning, Carol and Emily’s roommate came home. I was writing in my boxers when she crept through the door. She was young, with a nice body and a bad complexion. She waved at me, as if we had known each other for years, then disappeared into her bedroom. New Yorkers were good like that, nothing fazed them, everyone rolled with the punches.
Dawn came and went, then Carol awoke, “What are you doing?”
“Writing,” I hoped she would ask for details, I wanted to tell everyone about my story.
“I’m a nanny,” Carol wasn’t interested in my memoir, “I have to go take care of my children.” She went about her morning routine, then left for the day. I continued to write.
Around 10, Emily began to stir. I was well on my way to finishing another chapter. “How’d you sleep?” She asked.
“You want some breakfast?”
I took a step toward her, her face and lips, her arms and fingers. She was in her room, folding clothes, stacking them inside a large chest of drawers. My fragile body blocked the exit.
“There’s a pretty good place two blocks away.”
I took another step forward. I knew that if she denied me we would be forced to spend the rest of the week awkwardly enduring each other’s company. She might even kick me out. In the back of my mind I wondered how much hotels cost in New York.
“They have breakfast food, but it’s late enough that they’ll be serving—”
I closed the gap, moving slowly until my lips and nose almost touched her cheek. Her body tensed, becoming aware of my presence.
When I was kid I’d endured infinite sleepless nights on porches and living rooms with girls I dared not approach. Back then I believed an intact ego to be the better part of valor. Now I was old. Experience had taught me that there were worse things than embarrassment.
Emily closed her eyes, feeling my breath against her cheek. I brushed my nose against her skin, then my lips. A swirl, a dance, I kissed her gently. She didn’t pull away.
to be continued