the great communicator

I have lost all control over my words. It started at the party last night, and then I figured maybe it was just the alcohol and the lack of sleep, but I woke up this morning and I still couldn't choose what I was saying. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it just came out gibberish. Instead I'll open my mouth to say one thing and it comes out something entirely different.

The worst part is this new me, the voice I can't control, is so much more brilliant and clever than I am. The real me worries about using the best words and stumbles over them sometimes. It's not that I'm not clever, it's just that somehow my new voice has made it effortless. It's like a character in a movie or something.

It's always perfectly appropriate and dashingly charming and everyone seems utterly taken by it. It's done nothing but good things for me. Things I always wanted are happening to me--except it's not really me. I'm just behind the eyes of someone else now. Right? I can still write what I want to. I found that out earlier today. But as I was writing a letter to my girlfriend, trying to explain that my voice isn't my own anymore, I stopped myself.

Maybe this won't last forever. Maybe this will be good for me. Maybe I should just go along with it. Who am I, anyway, besides the things that happen to me? And they're still happening to me, aren't they?

Aren't they?

I hit the delete button. I tried to say "you win," but even that didn't come out the way I'd hoped it would.


got you smoking

My girlfriend started smoking, she said, when she was sixteen. I don't think I ever had a cigarette until I was nineteen. I never even had the chance. I don't think I even knew anyone who ever smoked. I figured she must have been cooler than me in high school, and left it at that. I remember her, nineteen when I was twenty-one, calling me the very first time she ever had alcohol. It was a big deal at the time.

I started smoking a few months after we first met. I mostly just wanted a reason to go outside with her whenever she stepped out for a smoke. It felt so weird just standing and watching her burn through a cigarette. Over time it's something I do that makes me think of her, and even though my family's pressuring me to quit I can't say that I want to.

She's studying abroad in France these days. We talk when we can, but she's busy having fun, so it's not much. Instead I'll sit on the porch with a cigarette, just to remember. It's never anything really memorable--no landmark dates or big adventures. I just remember times when we'd be outside together, smoking, talking about nothing at all. It could have happened any time. It did happen any time. It was completely and utterly unremarkable. Those are the memories I cherish most.



The subway derailed on my way home last night. The horrible screeching sound of metal on metal seemed to last forever, and we kept flying forward, throwing up sparks, throwing everyone in the car around. Then it stopped and it was pitch dark everywhere, and a silence settled over everything.

I felt my way to the doors and pushed them open to step out while the operator was trying to get the lights to work or see if anyone had a flashlight. I did, of course, but this was no time for helping. I stepped out onto the tracks and felt my way along the rails carefully. After a while, when I was far enough, I got out my flashlight and looked around--the wrecked train behind me, the vast empty tracks ahead.

I walked along until I found a place where I could sit down, and I turned the lights out and sat in the dark and listened--the distant voices of the people from the train, the sound of what was probably a maintenance car coming up, other sounds I couldn't begin to imagine the source of. Then the maintenance car passed and they must have closed off the tracks at this section, because it was perfectly still for hours.


locked out

I've been upgrading my locks for the past few weeks. My landlord didn't approve of it so I had to do it by cover of darkness--I was tired of them just protecting my apartment from intrusion, when the biggest threats don't care about the apartment at all. They want inside my head. I finished the other night. Now the locks keep people out of my apartment and out of my head. The best part is you can't even tell the difference if you're not looking for it--so my landlord can't even tell.

My girlfriend has been staying over lately and I wasn't sure about making a copy of the key, so I lent her a copy last night. It felt strange, letting her into my mind like that, but I trusted her completely. At some point in the night I woke up hungry, and found the refrigerator empty, so I went out to buy some late night groceries. About halfway there I heard the click of a lock, and figured I was just imagining things.

When I got home the doors were locked. I couldn't get in--and now I stopped to think about it I could feel that I wasn't welcome in my own head anymore. It was hers, now. She wasn't letting me in. She could do anything.



A few weeks ago my house was broken into, and at first I thought they only took my TV and some petty cash. I was fine with it, too, until I noticed there was something else missing.

I don't know when I really noticed it at first, but it must have started right away. They must have stolen my identity. I don't mean they took my credit cards or social security number. I mean my sense of self was completely gone. I still knew my name, I remembered everything, but a crucial element was gone. I could no longer answer the question "who am I?"

I managed to hold on to some semblance of identity for a while. I defined myself by things I did, things I liked. Mostly I anchored myself to my girlfriend, who has always been a source of stability. And she was gracious enough not to ask any questions if I seemed a little strange, or if I seemed needy. We talked about everything but what was important.

This lasted all of about a week. Then the paranoia crept in. Did she know something I didn't? Is that why she didn't ask me about it? Or, worse, did she not notice at all? Could she not tell when I'd lost something so crucial to myself? I started asking leading questions about the break-in, and I couldn't figure anything out from her answers. A week later I cut off all contact with her--with everyone--without any warning, withdrew to my room, put up blackout curtains. I emerged only at night to buy food.

I ran into her at the store last night. She looked at me as if she was frightened. "I've been trying to call," she said. "I'm worried about you." I dropped the items I was carrying and left without a word.



There's a rule somewhere that says if you get a tattoo with someone's name, or write a song about them, then you have cursed, at the very least, your relationship. Sometimes it curses a lot more than that. But I can't love someone and not memorialize them forever.

It was a stupid little thing when I decided that my first tattoo would be for my first girlfriend. She helped me pick out the design, but she didn't know it was her tattoo, not really. It was my little secret. We were 18. I guess I probably thought I'd stop there, too. But I also thought that we'd be forever.

I never told anyone the story, but the next girl had her tattoo, too. We integrated the designs. We broke up a month or two later, and I think it was about there that I decided it would be a thing. By the time I was 20 or so, I was more interested in finishing the design than anything.

Some of them lasted. Sometimes it was even sincere. But there was always something more to look forward to--I had at least until the last girl to finish the design to find someone who would last. And even then, who knows? There's always room for more, isn't there? The important thing is I'll remember all of them. It's never over so long as someone remembers.


i lost the language

Groups of friends tend to develop similar patterns of speech. It's more than just words and phrases and inside jokes, though those all happen. It's tone and inflection and pacing. It's everything they say.

I got a crank call once from a friend of my ex-girlfriend. I didn't know him, but something about his pacing and I knew right away that she'd know about the call if I asked her about it later. She did. I felt like I'd won something. Of course, when I was around her I'd talk like that, too. I still talk like her sometimes, especially when she's in town. It happens instantly. I don't even think about it.

I'd say I don't even know I'm doing it but that's not true, is it? When I think about it I know, and I could tell it anywhere.

Or I used to be able to. These days I've tried thinking about it--did I get this verbal tic from her? Was that one of her words?--but it's coming up blank. I don't remember anymore. And it's been a long time since we talked and longer since we dated, but I worry.

what it is i've done wrong

I was permitted to live in paradise if I agreed to abide by an arcane set of rules. I didn't pretend to understand them, but for the most part it felt intuitive. Part of it was you just knew when you were about to break a rule, I guess. It was weird like dreams are weird, but it was beautiful. I had everything I ever wanted.

One of the rules was you weren't allowed to ever talk to anyone about the fact that this was paradise. You couldn't talk about the place at all. This was the only rule they made explicit to me, though they didn't explain why. This was also the only rule that didn't feel intuitive. I had to constantly make sure I didn't mention it casually to anyone, and that nobody ever found out that I was wondering. It wasn't so hard--it's easy to forget where you are when you're happy, and I finally really was. Everything was exactly how I wanted it to be. And every night I wrote what happened in a diary that I kept on my desk.

I was having drinks with an old friend--the kind that in the real world, if this wasn't real, I'd lost touch with long ago--and I forgot about the diary. I don't remember what I was talking about, but she saw the diary and started thumbing through it. On one of the pages I had written in large text, "What is this place?"

She showed it to me. "What do you mean what is this place?" she said.

I panicked. The room seemed to be getting less and less real around me. I'd broken the rule. I shrugged. "It was just--"

"This is hell," she said. The room dissolved. I'm home now.



After the volcano, the ash never stopped. The skies were darker and going outside all you could do was cough and choke. Experts on the TV said that we were looking at an endless winter, at crops failing, at more deaths from the choking dust. They said to be sure to be ready for a long time without food, but all the stores had been picked clean. There was looting everywhere else, and when the police cracked down it turned into rioting.

I had probably a few weeks worth stashed away in case of an emergency. I loaded it all in my car and called my girlfriend over, and we drove out of the city. The back roads were mostly empty, and even with the sky filled with ash it was still a beautiful drive.

We stopped an hour before sunset in a little remote town on the mountains and ate at the diner there--they still had some things, at least. We drank coffee and watched the sun go down. With all the ash and dust in the air it was the most spectacular sunset we'd ever seen. There would be many more like it, of course, but there's something special about the first sunset on the end of the world.



I've been trying to burn bridges lately. There's a girl I'd been avoiding because her smile made me panic, and for several months it even worked. I was about to leave town. I had my bags packed and was eating lunch at the diner by South Station when she came by.

She'd changed. Her hair was shorter, she had different glasses, but she was the same girl. Or at least she still had the same smile. She said she heard I'd be here and thought she'd come say goodbye. I just watched. I didn't trust myself to do anything else. She sat down and ordered a coffee and some fries. And she talked.

She talked about her life, about all the little stupid things that don't really matter--the sort of things you say to a friend you don't expect to be leaving in a few hours. I ate in silence, watching her eyes. She smiled just like she always did.

I said, "You know I'm not coming back."

She nodded.

"You know you're the reason I'm leaving."

She nodded, and continued talking about other things. Then I waved the waitress over and paid the check, and my friend walked me to the bus terminal, where we waited for a while. Then the bus came, and I said goodbye and she said good luck and I got on the bus and watched from inside as she walked off.



A few years ago there was several miles of road construction on I-90. The road just detoured onto what I guess was the old freeway before it was wide and straight, but it felt so natural. There's always this fear on detours that you won't know what to do, but this wasn't like that. It just led off the road and you were on this stretch with narrow lanes and no shoulder and wondering how everyone else could go so fast without being terrified.

I drove it a lot in those days, driving west to see my sister. I drove a lot in those days. Every weekend, it seemed, I was going west to see my sister, or east to see my girlfriend. The road east was scary in its own way, where when it was raining or it was dark you couldn't see the lines and there was five lanes of freeway, and I had no idea where I needed to be. I didn't understand a lot about those trips.

Driving west, though, I thought I understood, except after a few times driving west I noticed that the road seemed to be getting narrower. I thought maybe it was because as I drove it more I got more worried about it, but one day as I was heading west the road just kept getting narrower, until there was no road at all, and I was driving on nothing at all, over the canyons and the tumbleweeds in the desert of eastern Washington.

I turned the car off and shifted it into neutral in case I hit the road again, but I just kept drifting for miles and miles. The car finally touched down near Kittitas and I decided to stop in the Dairy Queen outside of and get a Blizzard. I thought about calling my girlfriend to tell her what happened, or waiting to tell my sister. Instead I just told the girl who made my Blizzard, and never bothered to ask myself why. I don't drive at all anymore.



When I told her everything, so did she, and it turns out she'd been lying. Not about everything, but about just enough. She couldn't be trusted anymore. And she knew everything. I couldn't stay. So I left. I sold everything I didn't need, I packed my bags, and I bought a bus ticket to Chicago under a false name.

And I decided that nothing that I said or did would be honest from that point on.

I kept my emotions to myself, only displaying those that fit the situation. Anyone that I cared for would never know about it, but anyone that was useful to me was certain that my devotion to them was real, and that I was genuinely happy when they were around. The girl I've been dating thinks that we are in love. She has no reason to suspect otherwise, of course. We've exchanged secrets--though none of mine were even remotely real.

I laugh at her jokes. I smile when she is present. I tell her that I will always be there. And when we argue she uses the secrets she thinks she knows against me, and I pretend that I am mortally offended.

Except lately I think I've actually started feeling what I pretend to feel. When she uses my imagined past against me I find myself offended that she should think to use these dark secrets as weapons against me. Does my imagined self deserve no privacy?



In the woods outside town there's a tree where my best friend and I became blood brothers. There's a tree where my sister and I would spend hours, playing and climbing and laughing, like kids do. There's a tree just over the river, where I took my girlfriend on our first date, where we kissed the first time.

I still remember the feeling of the dirt and the roots and branches and the rocks and the leaves for all those places. I remember the light filtering green through the leaves on spring days where the river was overflowing with snowmelt.

There's a tree where my girlfriend kissed me and said good bye and promised she'd come back one day. She had branches in her hair because she'd tripped over a branch running to catch up with me. I'd been running away because I knew she had to leave and I was afraid to hear her say good bye. She had scrapes on her knees and elbows. She was beautiful.

She's written letters since then. I never read any of them, but there's a pile of them on my desk. I'm afraid of a lot of things. Sometimes she calls and her voice is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

My initials are on all those trees, and some others, too. I've always lived in those woods. And there's one thing all those trees have in common: all of them are things that will never happen again.

It's been hot and dry lately and there's a steady wind. I've gathered up some pine needles and some fallen wood and I've got my lighter. The fire takes, and I get on my bike and ride home. A few hours later the town's nothing but sirens and smoke, and little red flames on the horizon.


I thought that when spring started up again it'd clear my head again, but it turns out that's not quite how it works. The weather was warm and bright and beautiful today and I went out walking and in the light everything seemed completely and utterly alien. For the winter months I was mostly coming out at night, or it was cloudy or I figured the reason everything seemed so strange was that the sunlight was so rare. But today it was worse than ever, and it's not just because I'm not used to it. I know that now.

And it wasn't just clearer by light of day, either. As I walked around gaping at everything I could perfectly hear anything that was said--but I couldn't understand any of it. Sometimes I felt that they were talking about me, and I turned to look at them, but none of them seemed to even know I was there.

So I stood on a bridge over the overpass and felt the texture of the chain-link fence, and it was a texture unlike anything I'd ever known or seen before. And I watched the cars go by one by one, and tried to remember what they were for.



The last of the snow finally melted this week.

I told her that's when I was leaving. We'd spend the days walking around town, as far from the center as we could get. There'd still be snow if you got far enough out, in the shadows, in big piles--piles that were probably taller than me when the winter was still full.

But they were shrinking. It wouldn't last long. Neither of us liked the winter but it was all that was keeping me here.

It's been so beautiful the past few weeks. The flowers are blooming and the weather is warm and the sun is shining and it's spring. It's been really spring for a real long time now. And now that the world's alive again and the roads are clear I've got to move on.

I'm sad and worried but if she is she's not showing any signs of it. She just takes my hand and says something like "You'd better go while the pass is clear," and I'm not really sure what she means but I say "okay" and I tie my shoes and check my pockets and my bag for the hundredth time, making sure I have everything--which obviously I don't--and run to catch the bus.



I took her out to the cliffs looking over the Pacific a few hours from my house. It was one of those rare days where it's stormy out but the sky isn't just dull grey, either. There were swirls of darkness and color in the sky. For a while we stood at the cliff looking out over the waves as they dashed themselves against the rocks, just listening to the beating of the rain and the howling of the wind and the crash of the thunder.

The next I looked at her there was a strange light in her eyes. "Let's go swimming," she said, and I knew there'd be no stopping her. I smiled and said okay, and helped her find a way down to the water.

There was a section of cliff which was a little more shallow, but the rain made it slick, so we had to be careful. I helped her down as best as I could, and after what seemed like hours we were both on a little patch of white sand by the rocks, wet with rain, waves breaking around our feet.

She laughed and kicked off her shoes and then her clothes and asked if I was coming. I hesitated and said "I should just watch your stuff. Make sure it doesn't wash away." She laughed again and said okay, and then she jumped onto one of the rocks and disappeared into the waves, while I huddled against the rocks and watched for her return.



On the first real day of spring we went out to the sand dunes outside of town and we had a bonfire. It was still a bit chilly out but we had our jackets and the fire was warm and it was nice. It was really spring. You could even feel it in the nighttime. We drank beer and roasted hot dogs. As the night wore on we did some other things, as well.

One by one our friends trickled off for the night, but there was a silent agreement between the two of us that we'd stay. It was one of those things I just knew. And then we were alone, just us and the stars and the fire, still burning bright in front of us. And we'd both had a few too many drinks. We started kissing before I was really even aware of it. Then we were on the sand and my hand found a sharp rock and started bleeding. Which would have been fine, but when I scrambled to get up it also found the fire.

I only later reflected that the fire didn't hurt at all. The stars went black and so did the ground until the only thing was the bonfire, burning bright with beautiful and terrible shapes--of people, some of whom I thought I recognized, but none staying long enough for me to know for sure. I held her hand tight with my bloody hand and we stood and stared.

The heat was almost unbearable and I wanted to turn away, but soon we started hearing voices calling to us from within the fire--calling our names. Without saying anything else we both decided to step into the fire, pressing deeper into it until it was all we could see or feel--just the burning fire and our hands and lips and bodies pressed against each other. And around us the flame whispered secrets--everything we could possibly know about the world. It was too much to keep but I hoped that in the heat of the moment I managed to hold on to something, at least.

At some point the stars came back. The bonfire died down to embers. We were alone and naked on the dunes, far from where we'd started, but perfectly warm. I didn't remember anything the flames whispered. But she was still here and we were still in each other's arms, and I smiled in spite of everything.



By daylight the world makes sense. Everything happens for a reason, everything is straightforward and orderly. I know where I stand with everything. It's clean and bright and wonderful. So long as the sun hasn't set I'm happy.

Then night comes around and things start slipping. The world loses that sense of realness, things stop having causes. I'd say it was like a dream if that were actually true or accurate or helpful. Things just happen without a reason and sometimes they happen without causing anything to happen, which sometimes makes them even more terrible. The buildings are strange and nothing is where I think it should be.

It probably wouldn't be so bad if I were convinced it was the world I see by daylight that's real. But the night is the one that rings true. It's at night that I have the conversations that feel real. There's no meaningless "how are you?" and "I'm sorry" as you brush past people at the night. There's tears and laughter and words that people always mean when they say them, especially when they're not true.