two zero one two

I. This is more than I ever could have hoped for, and sometimes I wonder if it's more than I deserve.

II. Waiting out the weather.

III. A kiss to remember me by. A strange, fevered evening, watching the world through wormwood. This all has to end soon, and I don't know how to express how perfect it's been. Or maybe I'm just not able to.

IV. We get an actual spring, and it gives way into an endless summer.

V. Irreconcilable differences.

VI. A wedding that actually makes sense, when there are so few things that I understand anymore.

VII. The ivory tower is truly no longer my home. You have shown me this much, and for that I owe you my thanks.

VIII. Music that tears itself apart.

IX. No, really.

X. Escaped, and none too soon.

XI. I wish you would understand: I am not hiding from you. I am hiding from everybody.

XII. Reconciliation after all.

XIII. We keep talking about this. I feel like there is something I need to say, or that you need me to say, and I don't know what it is.

XIV. The storm has let up, I think.


a catalog of regrets, pt. 3

There was a time I was meant to lead my people out of the darkness. Maybe I still am--I don't know. There's a lot of things that seemed certain that have become strangely nebulous in the recent weeks.

It went like this:

The sky was clear, for once. After weeks of what seemed like perpetual darkness and endless cloud cover, the night sky shone cold and bright on the earth. I had spent several weeks without the guidance of the stars, so that night I dropped everything and went out into the garden to contemplate. A crescent moon hung in the sky, and the stars burned brightly. And every single one of them was wrong.

This was not the sky I had left behind weeks before, the sky that told of a golden age for my people. I could not read this one at all. These stars were simply not mine. So, for the first time since I could remember, I found myself feeling doubt. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps everything was wrong.

I had thought myself alone in the garden, but as I stared into these foreign stars I noticed that there was someone else there. He told me that there was another way. He indulged my questions. He convinced me that the life I had been preparing for for so long--the world I had been born into--did not need to be the future. I could be myself, happy and free, untroubled by these stars.

In my weakness, I said yes. In my heart, I hoped to have both worlds.

Not one of my followers heard this exchange, but there must have been some change within me. Over the following days they all left me, one by one. My words no longer held the sway they once did. Ultimately I found myself alone. And the man I had spoken to spoke the truth: in my solitude I found myself free. And freedom was a thing more beautiful and more dreadful than I could possibly have imagined.


a catalog of regrets, pt. 2

The evening was winding down and found us on the porch with a bottle of whiskey to keep us warm as we watched the rain come. Our conversations always took a turn for the philosophical (her influence, not mine), and I mentioned a project I was hesitate to work on because I didn't want to bother anyone. She looked at me with a drunken intensity. "Man, don't be such a fucking coward. The only things I regret are the things I didn't do."

We'd known each other for years. Sometimes I thought of it as more of an alliance of mutual convenience than a friendship--we'd decided to be there for each other because nobody else would. So I was the one she told all of her secrets, just like she was the one who got to see the darkness I tried to hide from the world. We kept each other in check.

I've always felt that anyone who uses the line about regretting things you didn't do sincerely is either a liar or a dangerous sociopath. Every single living human being is capable of acts of unfathomable monstrosity, just as they are capable of doing things so amazingly kind you find yourself telling the story years later. So I said something like "you sure about that?" and hinted at one of the stories she'd told me years before.

"That's not the point. You always miss the point." The point, she explained, was that I needed to stop being such a fucking coward. And she was right, of course. As ever, my quest for accuracy in all things caused me to miss the point completely.

One more thing I regret, I suppose.


a catalog of regrets, pt. 1

She regrets that she believed him, or perhaps merely that she believed in him. She's not really sure what precisely she believed that was wrong, but privately she suspects that she simply wanted him to be an entirely different person than he was. And, worse, she expected him to play along. And he would persist in not doing so, and they would both get angry. She regrets some of the things she said when she was angry--she regrets that anger has a way of making you say things you really mean.

He regrets that he meant every word. He always means every word, and this gets him into trouble, because it's far more important to him than saving his relationships with the people around him. Or perhaps that's simply his excuse. Sometimes he imagines that his obsessive adherence to the truth is really just his way of denying his anger. He regrets that he doesn't understand the self he is so obsessed with protecting. He suspects that she understood his self better than he did, and he regrets that she never shared that understanding.

She regrets the dim sense that she lives in a bubble. She has overcome her reclusive tendencies and surrounded herself with people that are all amazing and brilliant and clever and witty, who talk about the things she likes talking about and make the sort of art that she likes to consume. She regrets that she feels claustrophobic sometimes with all these amazing people around, that sometimes all she wants to do is curl up with a book and shut out the world. She wishes that people understood how wonderful her life is. She wishes that she understood how wonderful her life is.

He regrets his tendency to replay conversations in his mind and relive the moment as if it were happening right now. He has always been fascinated by the idea of alternate history--if this one thing had happened slightly differently, the entire world would be different today. He feels that most of his conversations are similar. He could have done it differently, done it right. He knows that this is wrong, of course, but his mind refuses to listen. His mind refuses to do a lot of things he wishes that it would.


november stories, pt. 1

Let's just make this a thing.

This is a month where change happens, where the wind howls through the streets and rips the leaves from the trees, leaving them to dance and swirl endlessly, tracking themselves everywhere. It's not a gentle breeze, either. It's the relentless kind, the kind that saps the warmth from your bones. It's the kind of cold you can only really get in the death throes of autumn. This is a cold far more real than anything winter can throw at us. This is a month where everything is stripped bare and left raw and gasping for warmth.

I've written so many words about these pale blue skies, about distance and alienation. The skies are never right, especially in November. But it was a November, long ago, off a back road somewhere in Montana, I think, when I last trusted a sky. I stepped out of the car and stared at the stars, so bright and clear on this bitter November night, and I smiled. I could have stayed out there forever if my traveling companion hadn't woken up and ruined the moment with the dome light of the car. "What are you doing? Are you all right?" I let her drive after that.

I never thought I'd have a moment like that in the city, but the other night, between the buildings that make up Seattle's skyline, this beautiful pale moon was rising. I stood there in the middle of the street, with the leaves whipping round me, and suddenly felt like the sky was right. Someone shouted at me from a passing car and I smiled and waved and kept walking. It didn't matter. There would be warmth again. Things were going to change, finally, truly.



The day before I left for good--right before I actually told her I was leaving for good--she started asking me prying questions. Some of them felt like an interrogation, but mostly it felt like she was trying to get me to open up. (That's probably fair: I'd certainly closed off since I decided I was leaving, which I guess is why I hadn't told her yet.)

What stuck with me about the questions, though, was how her version of events seemed so different from how I remembered. She asked why I'd done something that I remembered her doing. (We had a particularly heated argument. We got drunk and she started kissing me, then abruptly stopped and said she just remembered what I'd said earlier, and she couldn't stand sleeping next to me. I slept on the couch in one of her t-shirts and prayed her roommates wouldn't notice. She asked me why I'd left to sleep on the couch that night.) I wondered which one of us was wrong. Or maybe we were both wrong. I felt certain I remembered things correctly, but I'd long since realized that certainty is usually the best sign that you're very, very wrong.

So I spent the evening lying and evading questions. I probably should have felt guilty about it, but I'd told so many lies since I came (starting with, I suppose, "it's good to see you again") that I hardly even noticed. It seemed easier and more natural than just telling her that I remembered things differently (and starting another argument, prompting a question like "why do you always pretend you don't remember the unacceptable things you've done?"). So I dodged questions for an evening, until it was too much. "I'm leaving tomorrow. I won't be coming back."

Neither of us said another word that night. She kissed me like she meant it then. Until morning we could both pretend things had been different.


ghost story for the day of the dead

You can never cross the same river twice.

One last ghost story, then--though I suppose all stories are ghost stories eventually. This one came after a summer spent at sea on a salvage vessel, so far north there were days where I thought I'd never see another sunset. But even endless days have to end sometime, and eventually the dark crept back into the world. We were trying to get as much done as we could before the winter made our work impossible.

This was the night of the equinox. I didn't have a calendar, but I could feel it in the air: this was the day that summer was finally in retreat. So I went above decks, and I watched the ocean, and my thoughts turned dark. How many men had died here, under this moon, on this ocean? How many had never received a proper burial, and were left adrift forever?

A truly ancient sailor's ghost joined me on the decks, then. I don't know how he got there, or how long he'd been standing there. I didn't dare speak, but I watched. At first I thought he didn't know I was there. Then he turned to me and looked at me with empty eyes and told me his story, which I sensed was no longer merely his story. It was the story of a man who had left everything behind for a life adrift, and who fled that life, terrified that he would be adrift forever. It was the story of a man running: running from stability, running from chaos, until ultimately running was all he knew.

He died at sea. He could just as easily have died in some quiet seaside town. What I think he wanted to impart most is that he did not die at peace. He seemed relieved, having told his story, but he did not go away. I sat with him, and we waited for the first dawn of the winter. Then I went below decks and slept like a stone. I'd never been so eager to return home.


ghost stories for october, pt. 7

There's been a strange flickering light on in front of a house down the street for a while now. It's not flickering in the traditional horror movie sense, where the flickers are fast and faint. It's flickering like someone toggling the switch, on and off, trying to send messages in Morse code. As far as I can tell, no one lives in that house. It's not abandoned, as such, but it's vacant.

I'm okay with abandoned houses, but vacant houses terrify me. There's life to an abandon. A vacant house is a soulless icon of our weird society. So for the longest time I've avoided walking down that street. But then the light started to flicker. I couldn't make out any pattern or code, but I became convinced that it was calling to me. People told me it's probably just the electric going weird. These things happen. But not in a vacant house like that. They keep them pristine.

So tonight I finally went over. The light flickered intensely as I arrived, then went quiet. So I sat on the front porch and said "all right, I'm here." The front door opened, so I walked inside. It was still furnished--or perhaps the furnishings had been provided by the property owners, to make this lifeless space appear lived in. There was about a week's worth of dust on everything, and all trace of the previous residents had been scrubbed clean. Not even a leftover box of crackers in the pantry.

I sat on the pristine couch for a while, not sure what to say. The light started flickering again so I started talking. Just telling stories, mostly. Things that had happened that day, the sort of stories that I would have forgotten by morning had I not told them. The light stayed calm as I talked, only flickering if I would pause or ask a question.

Eventually a silence fell and the flickering did not continue. I let myself out and returned home. It flickered once, as I left, in what I guess must be a gesture of farewell. I'm not sure what I'll do if the flickering comes back.


ghost stories for october, pt. 6

I grew up in a desert of rock and sage, with ghosts haunting the windswept canyons--the ghosts of everyone who died having ever called this place a home. When my lady died, I knew her ghost would find her way back there, and I knew that I'd have to walk through the desolate floodplains to find her. I fancied myself an Orpheus, wandering the desert with a song--her song, our song. I thought perhaps I could bring her back.

I walked the canyon and sang for her until I could sing no more, my throat parched from the unnatural dryness of the desert. I remembered reading long ago that it hadn't always been a desert here. Once it had been green and fertile, but the ghosts filled the wild, and even ghosts get thirsty. They drank until there was no more water to be found, until only the faintest echo of the memory of water remained. I remembered coming here with my lover and telling her that the spot where I now stood was once a grand waterfall. It seemed so implausible.

I found some shade and opened my bottle of water for the first time, and I drank. And that's when the ghosts came. They came at a distance and watched, as if expecting something. I took my time. I was determined not to let them frighten me. I had come here to win back my lover's lost soul. Then, when my throat seemed less parched, I began to sing again, except this time my voice refused to work. The words stuck in my throat. The tune cracked and faltered. And the ghosts, one by one, began to leave.

To this day I tell myself that the last one to leave was not my lady, that I was imagining it. But those eyes--I'd swear I would know those eyes anywhere. But leave she did, and I knew that my quest had failed. I returned from the desert with no water and no voice. And I smiled and told myself that Orpheus also returned home empty-handed.


ghost stories for october, pt. 5

He died in an elevator because he could never find the right floor. None of the buttons made any sense. It's like he entered an elevator that didn't really exist, and couldn't find the way back to the real world. People would come on and off, but they all seemed like ghosts, all weird and insubstantial and kind of fuzzy around the edges. The elevator never reached the ground floor.

He tried leaving once, actually, but he descended several hundred flights of stairs before giving up and trying to take the elevator. He ended up on the same one. From there he just kept trying different buttons, sure that one of them would take him to the exit. Within the confines of the elevator he lost all track of time, if time even still existed. It must have been several days, but eventually he died of thirst.

He doesn't know what happened to his body, but once he died he found his way back to the real elevators and found that even in death he couldn't get beyond them. The people seemed real now, but they didn't notice him. Sometimes they might get a strange chill or notice him reflected in the metal, or hear a strange noise or feel an ominous shudder. One day he expects to find the floor he was looking for. He just won't tell me what it is.


ghost stories for october, pt. 4

The problem with other ghosts, she told me, is they're all terribly provincial. There is no reason, apparently, for a ghost to limit their hauntings to the place where they died, or even a place that has some emotional resonance for them. "Mostly they just do that because they like to, I think." She has been a ghost for five years and she says she is not done seeing the world.

I met her in Brooklyn, a few years ago, at a pizza place that I liked mostly because it seemed so very Brooklyn. She caught me staring and we got to talking. This was her first time in New York, and she wanted to see all of the boroughs before she went on somewhere else. She seemed in a hurry to move on, like she just had this travel checklist she was working her way through.

I convinced her to hang out with me for a while, mostly because her only company for the past five years have been other ghosts. I'd been to New York before so I took her to the places I remembered--all the places a good friend had shown me before he became a ghost as well. Little dive bars and hot dog stands and abandoned subway tunnels.

And all the while she told me about the trips she had planned. Her next stop was Paris, apparently. She was going to haunt a plane out of JFK and see the Eiffel tower, the Champs Elysees, then move on to some vinyards in France. There was so much out there to see, she said. She didn't want to be one of those ghosts who got hung up on a place, who never left it. I asked her if she didn't like exploring every secret a place has to offer, and she didn't seem to understand.

She offered to try to send me a postcard, but coming from a ghost, that's kind of an empty promise. I wished her well and let her haunt some tourists who were heading to the airport.


ghost stories for october, pt. 3

As for myself, I don't think I've ever written about my affinity with ghosts, not really. I've written about ghosts, of course, and probably even about the ones I've seen, but there's always a piece missing. I see ghosts all the time. It's not an occasional thing. I can't turn it off.

It's not as bad as it sounds, but I know I can't talk about it without sounding weird. People think I'm staring into the middle distance or laughing or smiling for no reason. They always ask what's going on in my head, because my thoughts are clearly elsewhere, and I don't know what to tell them. There's just these ghosts here, and sometimes they're fascinating or hilarious or sad. Mostly they're happy to know that someone can see them. I've never been a ghost but it seems like a lonely existence. So when they can really see someone, they like to share their stories. That's what this is all about, right?

That's what this is all about, then. Telling the ghosts' stories. I don't know if they can tell when their story is being told but it feels right. I think they'd appreciate it. I tried asking them, but they never seem to answer. I'm not sure if they're even able to. There's a lot of things I don't think they can say or do. It's like dreaming, I think. Sometimes in dreams there's just something you can't even think, because if you did you'd stop dreaming. I don't know what happens when a ghost wakes up from his dream--maybe that's how you stop haunting, how you finally move on. I don't know.

I don't know why I can see them. I've always been able to and I've only recently come to terms with it. I guess I try to help where I can, but sometimes I wonder if there isn't something more to it, if I'm getting the whole picture, if I'm part of something bigger. But even if they could answer that, I don't think they would, so in the meanwhile I'll be here, telling stories, giving the ghosts a place to really live, at least for a little while.


ghost stories for october, pt. 2

When he died, he received a list of every person he had ever wronged, and he was left to assume that in order to continue to the afterlife, he would have to visit each of them and atone. The problem was this: he did not know what he had done to most of them. It was just a list of people. Some of them he didn't even know.

He started with the easy ones, the ones he knew. Most of them could not see him, but there was an emotional connection there. They could all sense a presence. Some of them called on paranormal experts to try to communicate, to understand what this spirit--his spirit--was doing here. Some of them seemed to feel comforted by his presence, as if they understood what it represented even if they didn't really know or couldn't articulate it. Others were frightened, moved out, avoided the rooms he liked to haunt. That hurt. Only one could actually see and really interact with him, but that story is personal. He made things right, and for that, he decided, an eternity of haunting this mortal coil was worth it.

From there he moved on to the ones he knew but didn't remember what he had done. Only a rare few even suspected the presence of a ghost, and they were the ones who found that sort of thing exciting. The rest had no idea, so he focused on the ones who cared. He gave them little hints and left them with ghost stories to tell their friends, and he felt like he had accomplished something even if no actual atonement happened.

Then he found himself drawn to the names that he did not recognize. Sometimes when he visited them he would recognize their faces, in a distant sort of way: didn't I once see you at a concert? Weren't you standing and smoking at a bus stop forever ago, looking ? But he knew nothing about them, and none of them seemed to notice his presence at all. He learned about each of them as much as he could. Their hopes and dreams and darkest secrets, all the little things they'd do in the confidence that nobody would notice. He watched each time they accumulated another name they'd have to visit when they died, and smiled to himself (because there was no one he could smile to) as they continued on unaware.

The last name on the list was his own. He was no longer frightened to face himself, for he had learned many stories and many secrets since he had died. He knew the truth behind the stories, the stories we don't tell, which are in some ways the most important stories there are. And at last he knew that he could face himself as judge and not be found wanting.

ghost stories for october, pt. 1

She is haunted by the ghosts of her old friends and lovers--all the ones she didn't really like very much, but put up with because she didn't know better. They come every night at midnight, and they sit down in her living room, or around her dining room table, and they drink ghostly red wine and they talk about art and literature, with a capital A and a capital L.

They follow her to bed--one of the old lovers, usually, who has had too much ghost wine. He talks about his disdain for popular literature while she undresses, reads passages disdainfully from the latest Twilight novel while she brushes her teeth, crawls into bed with her and whispers in her ear about things he doesn't feel qualify as art. And the party downstairs continues, so loud that she can't sleep.

They don't listen when she talks back. Sometimes the ghosts will listen politely and then respond as if she has said something entirely different. Other times they will interrupt her and talk over her. On the rare occasion they do actually respond to something she says, it is never in the spirit she intended it: she is singularly incapable of convincing them that she finds all of this insufferable, tedious, pretentious, or repulsive.

She finds it slightly easier to ignore the ghost of her old lover joining her in bed, but even then the whispering, the ghostly presence, makes her uneasy. So one night she tries to tell him a story, and to her surprise she finds that he listens. It's a story about catching the train, about little coincidences, about nothing at all--certainly not the high art he is telling her about as he joins her in the shower. Then, as she finishes the story, he offers a contented sigh and disappears.

The following night he is not present, so she joins the ghostly literature club in the living room and drinks real red wine and begins telling stories. At first she tries the stories that are the closest to their vaunted literature, but these don't seem to work. So she tells stories about the trivial and the inconsequential, about stupid conversations and awkward dinner-dates, stories about the shirt she's wearing and about the first time she tried this bottle of red wine, how she'd gotten so drunk she forgot what it was called and spent the next week trying to ask fellow party guests what wine that was, and how she was never, ever sure if she actually got the right one but the label looked right so she decided it was good enough.

And each time she tells these pointless, inconsequential stories another ghost heaves relief and fades into the ether, until at last all the merrymakers are gone and she is a little drunk and in good spirits (if you'll pardon the pun). She decides to write a story that is stupid and inconsequential and dedicates it to her ghosts. And for the moment, this feels like the most important thing she has done in years.


signal and information

You've heard this before.

I was never very good to her. She was convinced that what we had was some rare and beautiful thing, when really it was something more like the fact that I was there. I don't think I was her first, but she didn't like talking about that much. I do know that she loved me, and she hadn't loved anyone else before. I guess familiarity brings contempt.

She always said she liked me because I was honest, which mostly meant that I'd tell her when she'd fucked up. And I was steady--she liked saying that I was solid, and that she felt intangible. So I guess I gave her some tangibility. The point to take away from this is that neither of these things make for the good basis of a relationship. I often felt like she was intentionally doing this shit to annoy me, because she seemed to derive pleasure from the times I told her that she was being insane. This led to something of a vicious cycle: me being annoyed, her acting even worse.

It's hard to write this without sounding a little contemptuous. I think we both fucked up. Later, we both got over it. But I'm not trying to say that I was innocent. I was fucking awful to her. And at some point I think she was just trying to get me to do something, anything, remotely sympathetic. Instead I told her that I found her incredibly tiresome, that I was sick of her bullshit, that she was needy and--well, you get the idea. I think I assumed that this wouldn't be the thing that would make her snap. Because as horrible as it was I still liked having her around.

I guess I was wrong. She took a story I'd given her in private--"I've never shared this with anyone"--and published it. I didn't really care about the story, but I knew she was trying to hurt me, and that itself was enough to make me feel bad--but then I realized I'd fucked up. I tried to make things right. And at first I thought maybe she was receptive. Maybe this would be good. Then she fucking vanished.

I saw her again, some years later. It was an incredibly weird experience and I can't pretend I hadn't thought of her often in the years between. But she left just as suddenly as she came, as suddenly as she disappeared before. I try not to worry about it too much, but I wish I'd done things right. I wish she understood that I'm really trying now.


costume parties

This is different.

Sometimes, her sarcasm worries her, but not often. It surrounds her like armor, and with it she has grown bold enough to challenge the world--though she wonders, if everything is a quip and nothing is serious, if any of the friendships she makes are genuine. So sometimes she drinks too much at parties, and her barbs get sharper, and she kisses a boy who is not interested in her just to see what he'll do, and by the time she gets home she hates herself for it, then laughs when she realizes there is no one she can tell.

He is not interested because his boyfriend is also at the party, and his boyfriend is already making fun of his "new drunk girlfriend." He laughs alongside, of course, but somehow he feels the jokes are mean-spirited, because even if she was drunk and abrasive she wasn't a bad person. No one deserves to be laughed at. Eventually, later in the evening, when his boyfriend asks "Are you going to call her tomorrow?" he says, in a voice much more curt than he intended, "Maybe I will," and then spends the rest of the night wondering why he did that.

The party's hostess is very good at throwing parties, but, she has realized tonight, she is starting to hate it. No, she isn't starting--she has always hated it. She does it out of a sense of obligation, which she hates, and to please her friends, whom she doesn't particularly like. But even as she is thinking this she finds herself putting on a smile, engaging in these pointless conversations, and wishing she had an excuse to kick these people out.

She doesn't consider her roommate a host for these parties, but everyone loves him anyway. He tells interesting stories, laughs at everyone's jokes, and doesn't have an unkind word for anyone. But he is afraid of real, intimate connections, so he keeps everyone at a distance, because from a distance everyone thinks he's great. And so long as everyone is happy, what does it matter? But then sometimes someone else's facade cracks, just a little, and he worries that maybe he's lying to himself, too.


devil's advocate

Always aiming to please.

Yeah, we used to fight every single fucking day. This was back when I was still running the magazine, and it was never to his satisfaction--and mind you, it wasn't his magazine. He read it because it was something that I did, and I think he delighted in telling me that what I did was insufficient. Sometimes there weren't enough stories, or maybe there were too many. They were all too similar. There was no coherent theme in this issue. I wrote too much in the way of editorial comment. I needed a stronger editorial voice. One time he said to me something like "I feel like this isn't a magazine anymore so much as it's just a few of your friends writing for you. Don't you ever publish new talent?" For the very next issue I published some new authors (I told myself not because he told me to, but I'm not fooling anyone with that bullshit) and he complained that those stories were terrible.

And for some reason I still talked to him about the magazine. I'd tell him what I was planning to do. I remember telling him about an idea for a theme issue--I wanted spring stories for spring--and he asked me why I thought this was interesting enough to bother with. That was always his complaint: what I was doing wasn't new, or interesting. In his eyes I was completely failing to distinguish myself. He was constantly degrading the thing that I poured all of my energy and being into. And every night I had to defend it.

Nothing worked, though: I pointed out that we were doing well and he said some bullshit about how many popular things fail to distinguish themselves. I described what I felt was unique about our stories and our publication and he merely denied that these qualities were in any way interesting. I realized I'd hit a new low when I actually staged a little experiment where I picked stories from some other lit mags, and the stories I was planning to print in the next issue, and had some friends blindly guess which ones were mine. I came to him proudly bearing the results, that my friends could reliably guess which stories were mine, and he just told me that it was probably a sampling bias.

None of this could deter me, but I felt drained. Or, more precisely, I felt attacked. I was losing my will to fight. So I stopped. Winter had finally come and the seasonal melancholy set in and he was telling me some bullshit or other--something about how directionless the magazine seemed--and I finally said: "You know what? You're right. It's a useless fucking lit mag that nobody reads. It's got no direction because nobody cares about it. You win. I'm done."

He seemed taken aback by this. "Jesus, what's gotten into you?"

"Every fucking day you have another complaint. I'm done fighting. If it will shut you up I'll stop publishing the damn thing."

"I never asked you to shut up. I think it's great what you're doing."

"That is bullshit and you know it. You are constantly belittling me and the magazine."

"Look, I just want you to strive to improve. I think that's important for everyone. I thought you understood that. And I love seeing how passionate you get about it. It's beautiful. Don't ever lose that passion."

I wish I could say I'd said something witty, or slapped him, or even stormed off theatrically. But I just felt defeated--it should have been something momentous. Instead all I learned is that nothing is as easy as you hope it will be.


a conversation provided with no context at all

"So, you're opposed to torture under any circumstances?"

"Uh, yes."

"So, let's say you've captured a terrorist--"

"The fuck am I doing capturing a terrorist?"

"--and he's the only one who knows how to stop a bomb plot that will kill five thousand people. Do you torture him?"

"I'd rather ask politely."

"But the only way to get information out of him is to torture him."

"What if he lies?"

"He won't lie. You can torture him and he'll tell the truth one hundred percent of the time."

"Do I know this?"


"And I know that he's the only way to stop the bomb plot?"


"And, presumably, that he will only talk if tortured?"


"How did I find all this out?"


"Well, I mean. You clearly want me to say yes, right? You've got all these hypotheticals set up so that that's the only clear moral choice, but, I mean, there's so many assumptions there. I can maybe believe all the 'he's the only one' crap but then I have to assume that somehow I've found this out. How did I do that without just figuring out how to stop the bomb?"

"Just answer the question."

"Fine. I let all five thousand of the fuckers die."

"That's kind of a dick move."

"It's my hypothetical revenge for living in a hypothetical world of implausible nested hypothetical situations."

"Fine. Let's try this one. Would you ever kill a man?"


"What the fuck, man? You wouldn't torture someone, but you'd kill them?"

"I said I believed that torture was always wrong. I didn't say I'd never do it."

"I hate you."


static and noise

This never happened.

I don't think I've ever told this to anyone. I guess that will be pretty obvious soon enough. Even now, trying to write about it, I want to get it over with as quickly as possible, rushing over the backstory, providing a bare bones outline of events.

It's about the time I very deliberately betrayed a friend's trust. She'd told me a story--I won't repeat it here, but it's probably still out there somewhere if you know where to look--in confidence, but I want you to understand, this wasn't a "let me tell you a secret" type of thing. We were the sort of friends where she would never have even considered that I might betray her on this one. It was a very intimate and personal story about death, and it's not like it made her look bad, but--and here I am making excuses again. The point is she told me this story in private, and she expected it to remain between us. A story she'd never told anyone else.

I don't know why that story is the one I chose, and I'm not sure I matters which one. We'd had something of a falling out--she called me out on some of my bullshit and I was in the wrong mood for it. There were some other things, I guess--little things, cracks in our friendship that had been growing for a while, but it took me years to admit that it was anything but this stupid argument. I don't even remember the actual thing she said that set me off. What I do remember, with perfect clarity, is shouting at her empty house long after she had left in her car. I remember shaking with rage, crying hot tears. I remember wanting revenge.

So, I wrote her story. No exaggerations or attempts to make her look bad--this wasn't about people thinking she was a bad person. I wanted to destroy her privacy. I wanted people to see this story and write her and call her and ask her about it--I wanted them to know those private moments, where she watched someone die. I wanted her to know that took something sacred and I left it naked and exposed. I wrote it and I saw to it that it was published in her name.

I published it in the lit mag of which my sister was the editor--another betrayal that I had to deal with. It was never widely read, but it attracted notice within our social circles. So she received a trickle of interest. At first she assumed it was a mistake, that someone with a similar name had written something. Then she began to doubt. By the time she had a copy of her own, it was too late, damage done.

I never asked her how she felt about the sudden exposure, of course, but she made it clear that she got the message. I'd never seen her so furious. It was far less satisfying than I had imagined it. Even then I was already having trouble remembering what I had hoped to accomplish--mostly, I think I just wanted her to hurt. But it seemed empty now.

In an ideal world this would end with an apology and forgiveness, but this is not an ideal world. I felt like apologizing was disingenuous--not because I wasn't sorry, but because apologies were not sufficient. I had very deliberately crossed a line. The idea of being forgiven, of being trusted again, was unbearable. So, in what could have been the ultimate act of revenge were she not being so damn sincere about it, she went and forgave me.

Even as I tried to stay, to make it work, because this was someone I couldn't afford to lose--especially not now--I could see the end approaching. One night I deleted her from all my contact lists. I stopped responding to her phone calls and instant messages. I excised her entirely from my life.

The worst part of it was how right it felt, how easily I could just switch off a human relationship. The very next day I found some pictures of us together and I felt nothing at all. Instead of any sense of loss, I felt like I'd discovered something important. I guess it's always been in my nature to run.


grids and patterns

This happened.

This was when I lived in Maine, I think. Alex was visiting for the summer (this is before things fell apart), and it was one of those perfect nights in July or August when the sky was clear and the stars were burning so terrifyingly bright and--anyway, we spent the night outside just watching the stars come in, and eventually I found my eyes drifting closed.

I couldn't sleep, though. At this point I noticed a little red and black grid pattern when I closed my eyes. Which was weird, but I could have ignored it. Then there were these vivid images floating through my imagination.

It's hard to explain how weird that is to most people, but my visual imagination has never worked--certainly not with the intensity at which it now burned. Suddenly my mind was working in a way it never had before, and I hadn't had so much as a drink to explain it.

I panicked. What else could I do? I was no longer who I always thought I'd been. And every time I tell this story I say that Alex helped me calm down, reminded me who I was, but that's a lie. I was too paralyzed to move. By the time I could even will my eyes open and look over at her, she had fallen asleep. I was alone under the canopy of stars, which had changed since I'd closed my eyes. How long had I been frozen there under the grip of panic?

I took her hand in mine and finally found sleep, with that reminder that someone was there. We slept until the storm rolled in the next day. It came with flooding and thunder, and we ran inside, thoroughly drenched, and as we sat there laughing I told her about my attack. It's easier when you're already laughing. That way you can pretend you can laugh about that.

I've never seen the black-and-red grid pattern again, nor the strange vivid images that accompanied it. But that night I was certain I would wake and find that I was a completely different person, and sometimes, when it's late and I'm tired and the evening feels just so, I worry that I did, and I wonder who I used to be, if there's anything left of that former self, maybe in a clearing in Maine, forever trapped in the perfect stars.


gimme shelter

A lot of things happened in not very much time. I was crashing at my bandmate's new place when my roommate called and told me that our house had been destroyed by a meteor. I thought I was being strong and calm and collected when I took her out to eat. We talked about trivialities and skirted around the subject. Then she asked me if I had a place to stay and I just--"I think I need to get some air." I remember walking outside. I remember my hands shaking, fumbling with my phone, walking. Then I remember sitting, trembling, on the front steps of the house of a friend I hadn't seen in years.

Her name was Alex. She was my only real friend for the longest time, by the strange standards I kept at the time. When I moved out east she stayed here, and when the roof started leaking in my place out there and I didn't think to move my roommates' books to safety, Alex was the only person to say "yeah, that's fucked up, I'd be pretty pissed at myself, too." Everyone else tried to tell me it was okay.

Later on I betrayed her trust and I couldn't take it when she forgave me, so I just stopped seeing her, except now I was on her front porch, waiting. I didn't really remember coming here. I could have fled. I probably should have. Instead I waited for her to come up the walk. She said my name, hesitantly, guardedly, and I said something like "It's been a while."

"Yeah." We embraced tentatively. Then she said, holding me at arm's length, "What are you doing here?"

The suspicion in her voice stung, mostly because I knew I'd earned it. "I think I need a place to crash for a few days," I said, trying to sound as unobtrusive as possible. "You won't even know I'm here."

The silence that followed seemed like it lasted for hours. Then, "I'll think about it. You can come in and have a beer, at least."

She led me inside, and we drank, and I was never sure, right up until she went to bed, whether she was going to let me stay. It wasn't very late when she finally got up and made her way into her bedroom. "Just leave the light on out there," she told me, and I thought, so this is how it's going to be? You'll let me stay on your couch but you won't even let me turn the light off?

As I lay down on the couch and put a pillow over my head I noticed her still standing in the doorway. "Well? Are you coming to bed?"

"Ah. I thought--nevermind. Be right there."

I turned the light off on my way in, because old habits die hard.


any questions?

More stuff from that thing.

There's this thing that's been bothering me recently. Whenever someone asks me if I have any questions, the answer is invariably "no." Opening a new bank account, orientation at a new job, moving in to a new apartment. It's always the same thing: "so, these are the basic facts," with the strong implication that the specific facts are available if only I ask the right questions. So then they smile at me and say "any questions?" and suddenly I'm on the spot.

I don't know what I'm supposed to ask. Everything they said makes sense, and if anything does come up that I don't know the answer to, I can just ask then. I don't really trust explanations, anyway. I don't trust words that aren't in stories. Stories are how you learn; explanations are there to obfuscate. It's just, somehow I don't think "do you have any stories about this place?" is the question they want to hear.

There was a time this girl emailed me after I tried to fill the room that had just opened up at her house, when I was back east. I got a tour of the place and spent hours with these people, who felt like old friends. We told stories. Then I got an email saying that I didn't seem interested in the community, whatever the fuck that means, so they'd gone with someone else. And I remember, after I'd been given the tour, the tour guide--my emailer, I think--said "so, do you have any questions?" and of course I pretended to think about it for a minute before saying "no, I'll just figure it out as I go."

And then, what reminded me of all this, I was opening a new bank account today, and after the lady went through all the details with me, she asked me if I had any questions. And I thought about it, and said, "no, it seems pretty straightforward!" and I swear her smile was almost pitying. Like she wanted to say, "you shouldn't be doing this, you don't have any idea what you're doing, you need to research your decisions before making them," but of course she wasn't allowed to. I tried to smile in a way that said: "I know that I'm making poorly considered decisions but I've chosen to trust my future to you, even though we've never met and will probably never meet again."

 Probably I'm imagining it. Probably she wasn't thinking anything at all, and that point in the conversation is just when her smile starts getting strained. Maybe it was even relief that I hadn't gone off the script. But I remember weirdly hostile emails from future roommates that never happened, and I wonder.



This is from something I'm working on, sort of.

 I helped my bandmate move his old couch into his new apartment this afternoon--the couch that used to occupy the attic we used to hang out in all the time back in high school. That couch was old. That couch had stories to tell.

Once we'd finished he offered some beer and we sat on the new couch--the spoils of victory--and my friend put on some Radiohead.

"Man, this takes me back," he said. "I remember the first time you came here and introduced me to Radiohead. I was hooked from that weird wind at the start of Planet Telex."

"Except, I didn't bring that album. I brought OK Computer."

"Are you sure?"

"Does it matter?"

He shrugged and said, "I guess not."

Of course, it did matter. That had been the day my friend got it in his head that we should be in a band, and talked me into talking my parents into getting me guitar lessons. The actual band didn't materialize until I'd come back from college, of course, but it was a big day, and one of us didn't actually remember it, which meant that in all probability neither of us did. How many times had we told that story? How much had it warped in the telling, until our memories were just of the stories we'd been telling?

The vision came to me then: the two of us in high school, working on some homework or other. I dig around in my bag for my math book and find the CD I picked up earlier and say something like "You want to put on some music?" and we do, and we probably even enjoy it. But there is no big moment. The album is incidental to the question he asks me later: "Wouldn't it be cool if we were, like, a rock band?"

We shared stories for the rest of the evening, but I found myself doubting all of them, his and mine both, and no amount of alcohol would shake this nagging doubt.


street lamps

There's a street light outside your house I keep mistaking for the moon. It's the right color and shape, and it's in the right place in the sky. Every time I leave at night I see it hanging there and for a brief moment I'm ready to smile, to feel as if the moon is guiding me home. I always identify it soon enough, of course, and it could never guide me any further than the street.

Tonight I found myself wondering if you were to blame, as if you had set this up to punish me for my wanderings. Perhaps if I didn't slip away once you were asleep, this false moon wouldn't be here to mock me. Or maybe you set it up to keep me here. Did you hope I would circle it like a moth, captivated by its soft cold light? Does it worry you that I have never woken up next to you, that I leave you alone in the dark to find my way home?

But tonight the false moon was not false. The street light hung in the air above me even after I had walked past it, as if you had planted a real moon there--and it must have been you, right? Who else could have, and who else would have? I was so startled I considered running back and waking you up, asking whether you were trying to send me away or guide me home. But as I stood and stared at this strange new moon, I realized the distinction was largely semantic. Either way my path was laid out before me, and my steps would take me back home.



I spilled bleach cleaning the house the other day, and it seemed to drain the color from the little patch of floor where I spilled it. I tried mopping it up with a sponge but it seemed to just spread, until a whole corner of the kitchen was paler than it used to be. I put the garbage can over it and hoped nobody would notice. I had a reputation to maintain. Not that I entertained anymore.

I slept easily, woke up, and got ready for work the next morning, only to find that the metal stopper in the sink was curiously pale. And I thought that was odd, but what could I do? Maybe metal just turned pale sometimes. It wasn't as if it looked bad. Then I noticed that the shower curtain had faded as well, and then I started to worry.

As I made my way to the bus stop I noticed that everything was losing its color. The grass, the trees, the houses and buildings, all had this horrible fade about them. Like I'd spilled bleach on them, too, trying to clean up after you. By the time the bus faded I couldn't tell what color it used to be. What color is a city bus meant to be? Are the seats really that sickly pale green color?

At work I spent about thirty minutes working before it was too much. I told my boss I was feeling ill and spent the day hiding in the clean white sterility of the bathroom. Eventually the automatic lights turned off, and I curled up in the dark and slept uneasily, dreaming alien dreams of color.


casting shadows

There was a trash can on fire outside of your apartment this afternoon. I'd been walking through the streets in a haze, staring at the sky, wondering if it was always so empty, if the clouds of winter were doing us a favor by hiding that vast expanse of shapeless blue. There was no one to be seen anywhere in this city. If the sun wasn't at my back casting my shadow, I wouldn't even have believed that I was out there.

I stood there and watched it burn, red flames licking out of the black metal, warping the air above it, spitting a little cloud of black smoke. The flames focused my mind--it felt like weeks since I've had any sort of mental clarity--on the message I knew you must be sending. What else could it mean? No one else walked under this empty sky. But the signal was anything but clear. I hoped you wanted to leave this world in flames with me, but when I finally walked in you gave no sign.

The thought of this message gave me purpose under this empty sky. I searched for patterns in your speech when you greeted me, in how you would look at me or not look at me, how you touched me and kissed me and undressed me, but there was nothing. That night, as I watched you sleep, listening for patterns in your breathing that might betray your message, your intentions, I was struck with the certainty that there was no message. You had intended nothing for me. And so my purpose faded, my mind adrift once more.

I went outside to smoke a cigarette, and the sudden impulse struck me to throw the burning cigarette into the same trash can. It didn't catch, and I was alone in the dark. The streets, the sky were still empty as they'd ever been, and there was nothing to focus my mind anymore--just the dull buzz of the streetlights, casting my shadow across the sidewalk. I stepped behind a tree, shielded from its light, and closed my eyes and let the dark empty streets swallow me.


an eternity till april

Is it spring where you are? I waited all winter.

The first day of spring always makes me think of you--the day you stop wearing jackets and scarves and start wearing summer clothes, and remind me how beautiful you are in a whole different way. Even now, even since you're long gone. The chaos of the changing seasons is on us now, and yesterday the sky was clear and the temperature was perfect for jackets and scarves, and I found myself in the park with the sun on my face and I said, "I'd be happy if spring never comes, if it just stays like this forever." It was a prayer to the sky, and the sky said nothing in return.

But that night I slept and I dreamt that my words had stilled the change of the seasons, that I had forever solidified the weather of that day. Every day will be perfect for jackets and scarves, the streets bright with cherry blossoms and the promise of leaves that will never come. There will be no spring, no burning summer sun, no dying autumn leaves, no bitter winter winds. Just today, that perfect day before spring. And you will be banished from my thoughts like a ghost.

I woke feeling refreshed and alive and hopeful, but the wind today felt dead, and the rustling of the wind seemed to have the taint of the grave about it. The sun shone wanly in a sky of a dull and listless blue. I sat in the park and watched the clouds, and I swear I saw your silhouette, just for a moment, before the wind picked up and blew all the clouds into fingers pointing south.

Did you end up going south when you left? Will you bring the springtime if I come and find you? Because I recant. I will not invoke the sky again. I want to see you smiling in the perfect endless light of the summer sun, to see you play in a pile of freshly raked autumn leaves or make sculptures from snowdrifts blown by the winter winds. And I will wait for April, if I must, if you return the spring to me.


a conversation, provided with minimal context

With apologies to A____, who deserved and hopefully received better.

I got the feeling she was presenting me to him, which is odd because he wasn't her boyfriend--that was someone else. He'd introduced us. "He's walking me home," she announced. She told him we were both drunk off our asses. I grabbed my coat and left my bag behind.

We both knew that this was not about walking home. This was about the cool March air, and all the various places we could think of to put our lips. But we danced around the subject as we walked aimlessly. She accused me of being a cynic. "It wouldn't kill you to actually like something for once," she said, taunting me. She sat down on a tree stump.

"Are you saying I don't like anything? I like some things." I pretended to be affronted. It took some doing, because all I could think of was kissing her--but we'd been dancing around the subject for so long, taking the direct approach seemed unthinkable. Not that we were being subtle at this point. I could read everything in her eyes, her expression, her tone. I have no doubt I was just as much of an open book.

"Prove it." This was not a challenge, but a request, a plea: stop this dance.

"How am I supposed to prove that?" A flimsy pretense.

"You know how."

I did. Most of what followed didn't count as much of a conversation, but pretenses were dropped now. She told me she had a boyfriend, and I said I knew. "But you don't give a fuck," she told me, and I suppose I must have shaken my head. I had other things on my mind.

She invited me back to her place. We were against the hood of someone's car--God knows whose--and I hesitated. I made up some excuse about needing to get my bag, or maybe I just said we probably shouldn't. I finished walking her home, then hoped I could apologize without words. Then she was gone and I walked back to the party alone and waited in the wings like a ghost.


small town charm

I think the first thing you ever told me is that my hometown was ugly. We hadn't met yet, and it was the way you said it--that tone of genuine surprise, that bright smile--that made me think you were just fascinating. I drank too much and you stayed up with me, telling me stories about a life that seemed so much richer than life in this ugly little town. We walked through the empty streets that night and I said something like "it's beautiful here at night," offhand. I don't remember much else that happened that night, but I remember that clearly.

When I finally moved to the city we kept running into each other. We talked about small towns, and about how glad we were to be rid of them forever. You had changed and so had I, but your smile was still the same, and I still found myself fascinated by your words. It was probably a year before we actually started dating. We just sort of happened. You liked saying that. Like the universe, we were a series of impossible events that became something amazing.

Then it was several years on and we were older and no longer as enamored with the city as we were before. It was full of fleeting contacts and superficial connections, and nothing makes you feel isolated like being in a crowd of people and realizing none of them care in the slightest that you exist. So you used words like 'jaded' and 'ennui' and complained about that isolation. Some days I felt like our joie de vivre would never return. Some days I tried to recover it. And you smiled at my efforts, and that almost made it all worthwhile.

One of us--or maybe both of us--came up with the idea to take a trip across the country, stopping in all the small towns along the way, eating in their diners, drinking their coffee. And I thought of the day we met and you told me the small town I lived in was ugly, and here we were romanticizing these little towns, these places that people like you and me try so hard to get away from.

The towns we visited were quiet, peaceful, free of our city affectations, with so many more stars in the sky. And so long as we kept moving we left our troubles behind us, gathering stories as we went. Everyone we met was polite, curious, friendly, and we never stayed long enough to learn any other side to them. And you told me you thought it was refreshing, meeting so many friendly people from so many places, how connected this trip made you feel with the world. And I told you that I'd never felt more alone, but that sometimes a little loneliness is all you need to put things in perspective.

After the trip, we fell apart much like we fell together. I left the city, found a quiet place in a quiet town and lived there, and maybe I was even happy. I made no meaningful connections here, but I made a lot less meaningless ones. I'm hiding, I know, but I don't see what choice I have. Please don't come and find me.


laugh at me

He is young and the sort of stupid that thinks he ought to be taken seriously, and he is quite taken with a girl who is smart enough to know that there is nothing so serious you can't laugh at it. She has a smile and a joke for everything, and sometimes, when she is feeling existential, wonders if she is missing the point, if the world isn't a joke. And he holds her tight and takes it all very seriously, even the jokes. Especially the jokes. There is nothing more serious than human laughter.

She often wonders if he doesn't get the jokes. He often wonders if she is laughing at him, because although he is very serious, he is not so stupid as to think that laughter only means someone is happy. And she laughs at his solemn promises of devotion, his earnest declarations of love, his sincere praises. He pours out his heart and she laughs and tells him he's all right, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. And he feels patronized.

When he talks to her, she can't keep from feeling that he doesn't think of her as an actual person. He is very serious and has a very serious story that he wants to tell. He doesn't understand her laughter or her jokes. He doesn't understand that humans are not meant to be serious. Sometimes she thinks she would not mind being a prop in someone's fantasies, so long as those fantasies had room for laughter. His do not. So she laughs at him, and finds it funny, because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate.

Eventually he decides that she is not behaving like someone to whom he has sung such solemn, earnest, sincere songs of praise. And what right does she have? Is this what she does with his love? He begins to tell her, subtly but certainly, that she is unworthy of the devotion he has given her. The implication is that she should be grateful.

Of course she only laughs at this. What did he expect? She laughs, and tells him he should't take himself so seriously. And then she is gone, and he is left with those words. One day he will understand, and if he is very lucky, he will laugh.


rage and despair

I heard a drunk girl screaming bloody murder the other night, and went outside to make sure she was okay. I couldn't quite piece together the scene--she was in an incoherent rage, not sure whether she wanted to attack the boys trying to calm her down or flee the scene. I watched long enough to decide that she wasn't in any danger--or at least, not the sort of danger I could help with. Eventually one of her companions saw me watching and told me to fuck off. I smiled at him and walked back inside.

Watching this scene put me in a bad way. I felt claustrophobic, felt like I should have done something instead of making an assumption based on incomplete evidence that everything was all right. What right do I have to define if something is all right? This woman, surrounded by friends whose interest in calming her down ranged from the genuine-seeming "shh, it's okay" to the annoyed and patronizing "shut the fuck up, Amy," was about as alone as I'd ever seen anyone.

And she represented everything I'm afraid of about the city. It is so much easier to be alone when you are surrounded by millions of people--and that isolation is so much more crushing than the isolation of the wilderness. I have sworn that if I am able I will help people in need--not because I am a good man but because I refuse to be less than human. But how can I help someone expressing rage and despair I could never hope to understand?

Her friends, if that's even the right word, frog-marched her off down a different street. I sat on the porch for a long time with a cigarette and listened, really listened, to the city. I imagined that everyone I saw walking down our street was involved with this scene somehow, talking or laughing about it. And I cursed the selfish desire to help, to prove to myself that we aren't alone in the city, or that if I ever break down there would be someone there to catch me.


whispering apocalypses

I'm remembering a frozen New Year's day in the northeast, drinking far too much absinthe with a girl I knew--an old friend I'd just met. She was so much more alive than most people, and certainly more than me. We kissed at midnight and made our way back to the subway in single-digit temperatures, the warm clarity of wormwood and fennel staving off the chill as we laughed our way through the wind and snow.

She told me that night, waiting for the train, that she wished she wasn't real. I didn't tell her I wished that I was. It baffled me then--did she really wish that she was a ghost like me? Then the train rolled in and there was no more time to ask for clarification. We stumbled aboard and sat in the back, leaning against each other, as the train rumbled on to our destination.

Then the train stopped, and went dark, and she whispered apocalypses in my ear. "This will be the year everything freezes and dies," she said. "Starting with this train." The conductor led us off the train, and we escaped into the transit tunnels. I imagined that I was a real, living person, going on the sort of adventures real, living people went on, while she dreamt she was a ghost, flitting through the shadows, lost and alone in the tunnels beneath our city. We sat in secret places and watched the trains rumble by and whispered apocalypses to each other, as the clarity of absinthe faded and the clarity of the new year settled in.