Two common beliefs of someone with bipolar:
1.) I am God.
2.) I will die in a few weeks.
Well, who wouldn’t want to feel special?
Speaking of delusions, Sarah worked for the CIA, but she kept that information a secret. She had planned a birthday surprise for three months in advance. She hid that information as well.
The information she did share was that she led a feminist group and spoke at feminist rallies. You would think you were unique enough to date an older woman such as her,
She also had menopause. She wouldn’t have sex until a couple months into the relationship. With the most sensitive part of me inside her, she said, “you give me herpes, and I’ll break your kneecaps.”
It went limp.
“I know people who can do it.”
Evidently, some matters she made quite clear.
“Can you make one promise to me?” she asked.
“What’s that, baby?”
“Please don’t fall in love with me.”
“Oh, never. I mean, why would I fall in love with you? We’re just dating.”
“Good. Just so you know, you’re not that special to me.”
That hurt, but why tell her that? Truthfully, we were both lying to protect our feelings. This was something much more than “dating,” and she knew how special I was to her. Her husband had cheated on her with a Russian mistress, which explained why she was always so leery at cafes we went to, looking past me and behind herself for Soviet spies.
As far as the sex went, neither of us could reach a climax. Whenever one came near, my kneecaps would twitch, and my true love would push me aside. “Get off me.” That poor, confused woman.
Sarah became an impossible project, like my novel after three years. It had to be perfect. Some respectable editor at a publishing house would invite me to her home for dinner and rave about this masterpiece.
“It’ll be so sad when I’m finished with it,” she’d say. “I seriously don’t want to send it off.”
By then, Sarah would’ve married me. Women would’ve wanted to steal me away from her. They would try to ravish the most influential writer of their time.
On the day I turned 36, Sarah picked me up in her Volvo and drove me to my birthday surprise. The surprise was in Runyon Canyon, a hiking spot full of half-naked models. If you went at the right time, you could see eagles in the sky or a commercial actor practicing tai-chi at the top of the hill.
She brought a blanket and a cooler full of tuna sandwiches and Diet Pepsi.
“I can’t believe you never come up here,” she said.
“I try to avoid nature.”
“Oh, you worry too much. Come on. Let’s go up the coyote trail.”
The trail in the June afternoon was arduous, and the coyotes were in season, but Sarah promised they were nocturnal.
The higher the climb, the fewer words she said. She seemed to be gaining distance ahead of me, too. I tried to catch up with her, but I couldn’t handle the altitude.
By the time I caught up, she had come to a tree and set the blanket under it. Before she pulled out the sandwiches, she had something to say. And before she said it, she pulled her sunglasses down to her eyes. She seemed to have left her pleasant mood in the car.
“I think this is the end,” she said.
“The end of what?”
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
It was the most uncomfortable lunch, and it was the sourest tuna sandwich I had ever eaten.
“Forever?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Would there be a reason to see you again?”
“Can we still be friends?” I asked as if the rules had never changed since high school.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I guess.”
She had set up the whole production as if it were a three-act satire by Neil LaBute. She had waited until I would fell in love with her to plan the birthday surprise and dump me in the wilderness. Who would’ve seen it coming?
A year later, I was twenty pounds overweight, my back was its hairiest, while the hair on my head was falling out. My teeth were yellow and rotting. I quit my job and wouldn’t leave the apartment. Only eight people wished me a happy thirty-seventh birthday, and Sarah wasn’t one of them. I had a special gift of remembering which friends on Facebook had skipped me that year so they wouldn’t get a birthday greeting from me. Would you believe it, the love of my life was still friends with me on Facebook. I had deluded myself into thinking she couldn’t let go of me; that after a year, she still wanted me; she just couldn’t find the words to accept it. By 11:59 pm, though, it was evident that she cared so little about me that she didn’t even think about unfriending me. So I wrote her a vindictive message:
Thanks a lot for not wishing me a happy birthday. Just so you know, I remember your birthday, but I do not wish you one either. How do you like the taste of your own disrespect, huh?
You’re probably asleep right now because you have to get up early and shout at some feminist rally. But you know what? You might think you’re a feminist, but you don’t care about making the world a better place. You just hate men.
It was done. I said what I had to say. It made me a legend, at least in my own world.
A few minutes later, I went back and deleted the message. Hopefully, she hadn’t already read it. To make sure the evidence was destroyed, I unfriended her. It felt empowering. I had the strength to delete someone online.
Three years later, Sarah had still never reached out to me. She became another ghost from the past. So every time I felt special about myself, she would reappear in my psyche. My kneecaps would tingle and twitch. But I reminded myself that ghosts didn’t really exist, so it must’ve been multiple sclerosis. I saw numerous doctors, and they thought differently. They relied on those faulty CAT scans.
Why of all people could this happen to me?
“You need a girlfriend,” one doctor said.
“Where am I going to find one?”
“Why don’t you try Tinder?”
But I had a Tinder profile already. That was where I met Sarah.
From thereon, I stayed away from women over 40, so I tried to date younger women. Not many, but a few of them said they preferred older men. One of them called me mysterious because under job description I had put writer. She must’ve thought I was published. She must’ve thought I lived in a beach house as well, where I would sit at my work desk, scratch a big golden retriever between the ears and gaze out at the crystalline waves. Oh muse, oh muse, where art thou?
Her name was Elizabeth. She said she lived in Glendale and that she cut hair for a living. All of her clients were celebrities. She wanted to meet up for happy hour at the Rusty Whip. It was a Wednesday night after jury duty. I tried to leave the municipal court early.
“Whoa whoa whoa, where do you think you’re going?” the lady at the court said.
“I have to be somewhere.”
“You ain’t special. Get yourself back over there with the rest of them.”
Half of them were asleep in their chairs. We had been waiting on the third floor for six hours. The building was in the heart of skid row. My brothers and sisters in the room looked as if they just needed shelter from the October heatwave. Well, I was unemployed, too.
Luckily, she did let us out early. The defendant would be sentenced to death.
At rush hour, I cut through side streets to the Rusty Whip so I could be on time, but Elizabeth showed up an hour late anyway. She blamed it on her hair and makeup, but you could argue that she alluding to how important she was.
When she showed up, I was already on my second vodka soda. I did most of the talking. If you were as buzzed as I was, you would’ve forgotten what you had said a minute ago, too. It felt like I was telling Elizabeth my life story. She kept looking at her Android most of the time and appeared to be texting someone else.
“Shit, I have to go,” she said. “I forgot I have an appointment tonight.”
I followed her out to the parking lot, and it really did feel as if I were following her to the parking lot. I could’ve at least gotten a hug. She did say bye, though, before she got in her Volkswagen Bug.
“Call me,” she said. Maybe I was drunk, but she sounded disingenuous.
When she drove off, I lit a spliff.
“Is that Mary-Jew-Wanna you smoking?”
I looked to my left and saw this old white man at the side of the building. I let him take a drag from it. And then he dragged five more times.
“Thank you for your generosity,” he said. “Is that how you say it? Gen-erana-rosity?”
“It sounded right the first time.”
Harlan said he owned a watermelon business.
“By the way, I’m looking for another hand at my pickup truck. You want in?”
“Another hand? What does that mean?”
“It means I need more drivers to ship them watermelons to the plant. I ain’t got enough right now.”
Now that was funny, the idea of him even asking me. What did I look like? A felon? A professional community service worker?
“Oh, sorry, but I’m looking for something more up my alley.”
“What? You think you too good for this? Buddy, you look like you’re in dire straits. You don’t need to insult me like that.”
OK, so, he ended up guilting me into the job.
Regardless, how serendipitous that a disastrous date would lead to a possible job opportunity. It was something to ponder at 1am on La Brea. At the light on Melrose, a North Dakota license plate in front of me read:
The message had appeared between the letters and numbers in a sort of cryptogram. You had to be whacked out your mind to see something like that. But yes, acceptance brought freedom. After several years, my friends had left me because of the drugs. They took only half the blame. They did their share of pills and weed and drink, too. I never judged them. But whatever happened in those years, or why they stopped reaching out, didn’t concern me anymore. No TED talk videos provided the answer to this disconnection either. Worst of all, none of it mattered when I could get high and drunk all the time.
At the light on Fountain, I froze up in terror. The feeling returned that I was sleepwalking while fully awake behind the wheel. So alone and insignificant. Sarah was right, my friend. You aren’t special to her nor to anybody else but your family, and they’re hundreds of miles from where you are at that intersection. Wait, no you are. Yeah, you’re not. No new or noteworthy friends would crop up by spring. What pure and utter loneliness in Los Angeles. There will always be friends at The Stingray, but friends at the bar are just friends at the bar. They stay in there like the jukebox. They’re as valuable as the jukebox, too. A phone call from one of them may uplift you for a moment, sure, if there were any words to say. The only people you can have meaningful conversations with are customer service representatives.
I called one of them at 3am with a phantom issue about my router.
“Why are the lights still blinking wrong?”
“Sir, I’ve asked you to reset it three times now. There’s nothing else I can do.”
“Give me your manager. This is ridiculous.”
“What manager, Sir?”
Those damn bureaucrats. You’re nothing but a talking head to them. With drinking friends, you have nothing to do with them when you’re sober. When you make an effort to call one of them, it’s uncomfortable.
I called one friend that night.
“Yes?” he said. He sounded afraid.
Something about the way he asked the question was intimidating, so I hung up.
As for Elizabeth at the Rusty Whip, she must’ve moved on to other dates. I remembered, sometime around the third glass of vodka, I said, “don’t get old. You’re only 31. You should end it by 36 before it’s too late.” She also heard advice about a cart and a horse and leading it to drink or something or other. I forgot whatever else I said after that.
The dating apps worked for younger and less broken people anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll match with someone who is just looking for a casual encounter. One time, the luck found me.
You want to meet somewhere? I wrote.
Sorry, I think I matched with you by accident. I’m looking for boys under 30. It wouldn’t hurt that he’s a fireman, too. Best of luck to you.
What hurt the most was the part about luck. It seemed as if my luck had run out.
I matched with a woman my age, and she looked exotic. She looked Hawaiian. But then she told me about her recent past. She had gone through a divorce, leaving behind an aftermath of casualties and divided families. She was looking for another long-term relationship.
I matched with a weather woman named Bianca. She posted photos of her in bikinis at the ocean, evening gowns at balls, yoga tights in front of Tibetan monasteries. Of all the hundreds of profiles she had swiped through, she swiped right on me. Finally, again I felt special.
I decided after the match to read her profile:
For you to be worth my time, you must be active, an adventure seeker who is in good shape, you must not smoke, you must not drink or do any sorts of drugs.
To be worthy of her time, I wrote out a list of things to do besides drugs. See, there was skiing, the opera, antique shopping, deep-sea diving, go-cart riding, horseback riding, movie-watching; there were museums, Dodger games, comedy clubs, monster truck rallies. Some of them didn’t include bars, and none of them sounded appealing, but with someone as gorgeous as her, I could sit through four hours of Madame Butterfly.
You must not be divorced or have children either. And, PLEASE, no cats. I am allergic to them, except for Mitzi, my cat, the one in the pictures. She’s fine.
You must make over $80,000 a year. How embarrassing would it be if my friends hear that I’m dating a man who makes less than I do? I can’t stand the heat in the summer, so you must be able to afford me in Aspen that time of year. No hookups. No Trump supporters…
After I read the rest of it, I could hear the ghost of Sarah laughing behind me. I couldn’t pee either. The thought of a long-term relationship gave me a shy bladder, so I scoured the internet about enlarged prostates.
Bianca never replied to my message anyway.
The guy at the Rusty Whip who sold watermelons needed a truckload of his large fruits exported at six in the morning from Lancaster to Santa Maria. He waited at the shoulder of the 27. His name was Harlan. Harlan look nothing like a Harlan. More of a Luke. He was an old white man wearing a Mexican dress shirt and a bolo tie. He had capped teeth, a shaved head, and a few long whiskers. He resembled a sea lion.
“Why you late? It’s only the first day.”
“Sorry, Harlan, I was at Starbucks. You should’ve seen the line.”
He would spit these large chunks of saliva after everything I said.
“What you doing at Starbucks? I might as well pour you a cup out of Mildred’s tight, hairy asshole.”
Mildred was one of his cows. It had a digestive problem. That was the joke. I laughed not in charm, but in discomfort.
“I’m serious, though, don’t be late again.”
Again? Would there be an again?
For $200, the drive to the central coast took three-and-a-half hours. The watermelons, those green beachballs for fruits, covered the whole rear view. They weighed down his pickup truck, this 1989 Toyota he called Brenda, the name of his deceased wife whom he lamented about in AA meetings. Harlan had shared a lot about himself back at the Rusty Whip. Between the cow and the truck, he seemed to personify any and all things as females. He even called the watermelons his “girls.”
Brenda was his higher power. Not his wife, but the truck. She could barely chug up those hills. Downhill, she would go faster by the weight of the watermelons. Her steering wheel shimmied out of control. Her radio worked, but her speakers were blown out. Her air-conditioner was broken, her window crank was missing. My only companions were my thoughts, and in the countryside, the thoughts ran wild.
All those rows of broccoli patches put me in a trance. I pulled around a tight curve and passed a hitchhiker. He was an outmoded type of person. One of him must’ve shown up every ten years. An old drunk man with his thumb out. An impressively jutting thumb, too. Never a little baby thumb. It must’ve evolved with its environment for the same reason that a fish developed gills. Not to mention, what an unfortunate place to hitch a ride. At a tight curve. He was much like the last hitchhiker before him, years ago, who stood near the entrance of a freeway ramp. How could I pick him up if my pedal was pressed to the floor? All the gold in my heart couldn’t afford me to hit the brakes and drive in reverse back down that ramp.
As for the old man in Cayuma, he was holding a gym bag in his other hand. In the cartoons, someone like Daffy Duck would carry a stick with a red sack at the end of it. What would a duck have in the sack? To think some hitchhikers must’ve actually used that method long before the cartoons.
Hitchhiking was romantic. So were pay phones. If some people wondered whether romance was dead, there was proof. When the girl would kick him out, the boyfriend would have to hitch a ride home, cursing her name in the pouring rain, or he would have to trudge through the snow to use a pay phone if he had any change. Nowadays, he could just call an Uber, or he could use his iPhone to call his drunk friend.
Those thoughts, no matter how trivial, shielded me from the sinking feeling of insignificance, but they also left me vulnerable up a two-lane road, where diesel trucks thundered past me. One of them shook Brenda to the loose gravel and forced a panic attack with all those watermelons.
There was a Taco Bell off the 46. I stopped there to find some level of composure. They sold a Quesarito, which was half a quesadilla, half a burrito. The cheese wasn’t melted cheese, it was a watery yellow sauce that oozed out like something in fetish porn.
Well, unfortunately, the perverted cud at Taco Bell couldn’t put me at ease. I was almost 40, responsible for Harlan’s “girls” and a truck named Brenda. Gazing in dread out the window, at a barren region of Taft Highway, I was so dazed by this existential crisis that I didn’t notice a bunch of migrant workers stealing the melons. I left the slop on the table and ran out to the parking lot.
“You get out of there, you motherfuckers.”
They got out of there, with as many melons as they could get away with. To think, almost twenty years ago, or a lifetime ago, I was interning at Hollywood studios, and now I was shooing away agricultural bandits.
The rest of the truckload ended up at a plantation in Santa Maria. A couple of gauchos came out to unload Brenda. They both wore the same type of cowboy hats. The rest of the surrounding area could’ve been used as a location shoot for a science fiction movie, like one of those 1950 movies in which a group of white men landed on Mars. Really, it did feel like another planet. And to think people worked out there for most hours of the week. How many workers at the plantation had killed themselves? Were they even conscious enough to hate their jobs?
By the time the sun went down, I had made it back to Harlan’s field. He checked Brenda for any damages as if any further damages were possible.
“Come back on Thursday,” he said.
“Yeah, but don’t be late.”
He did hand over his promise of $200 in cash, though, made of a few twenties, several tens and fives, but mostly one dollar bills inside of a greasy white envelope. He must’ve used all those bills to try and short me. Some clean white boy like myself wouldn’t think to make sure the money was all there, right? Well, it was. You could trust Harlan after all, even if he didn’t have a 1090 form. Ah, whatever. I couldn’t take another hell ride. He would need to find another driver.
To my chagrin, Harlan called the next day. He had counted the inventory and noticed how many watermelons were missing.
“You stole them, didn’t you?”
“Stole them? Where would I hide them? I don’t even like watermelons.”
“Did they fall off the truck?”
“Yeah, they must’ve rolled down the highway.”
“Don’t lie to me, Boy.”
“Boy? I’m 37 years old.”
“OK, no need to say you’re sorry, I forgive you,” he said.
I didn’t think I apologized. The man was stupid. You tell him a lie and he thinks it’s some other lie.
“You know why I forgive you? Because I like you. You’re white.”
“Those are kind words,” I said.
“I’ll let you keep this job. But next time, watch those damn watermelons. Make sure they’re in tight.”
On Thursday, he waited, and he kept on waiting. He called me and left messages, one after the other without any reciprocation. I didn’t like stringing along idiots. Smart people, fine, they could wait. They could figure it out sooner than later.
Into the third day, he called 47 more times and equal the unanswered messages. I couldn’t say he wouldn’t take no for an answer. On the contrary, he wanted to hear me say it. Seldom did anyone call me anymore, they sent text messages. They asked simple questions, and I provided simple answers. No need for all the yakking. A romantic like Harlan, on the other hand, must’ve believed text messages were too impersonal. If he had to, he would’ve picked up a hitchhiker in Tijuana, with a bunch of illegal fruit on Brenda’s back.
He himself wanted to hear the blunt announcement, “I quit.”
“Oh, not now,” he said.
“Sorry, Harlan, but I’ve been searching my soul. And my soul agreed this job isn’t for me.”
“Your soul? How am I going to ship all them damn watermelons by tomorrow?”
“I know how,” I said. “Go to the Taco Bell off the 46 near Taft. You got a whole gang of them who love watermelons.”
Unemployment had me thinking too much. You could think yourself crazy if you’re too careful. It’s well-known that addicts who turn sober begin having dreams about using. Well, I dreamed about having friends. Good friends, too, not fellow addicts.
In one of them, my best friend from high school showed up to my apartment. I opened my eyes to see Jonathan Sunshine. He helped himself right in while I was in bed. He must’ve brought with him a brand new white carpet and a sparkling chandelier, too. They hadn’t been there before. Jonathan sat on the couch with his wife, and he had brought over another woman. She was dressed like a Victorian prostitute. That was kind of him.
He had also brought a two-liter of Pepsi.
“I quit alcohol,” he said.
He couldn’t handle the sight of beer or liquor, so everyone else had to deal with his sobriety. What a beautiful carpet, though, and what a fabulous chandelier. The whole scene itself felt Victorian. The women were busty, too, wearing corsets. Only us men were missing wigs and powder and stockings and fake moles.
“May I slow-dance below the chandelier with your wife?” I asked him.
“Yes, you may.”
“May I kiss her, Jonathan?”
“But of course. We’re all friends and lovers under this chandelier.”
There was confidence, for once, in the apartment, after what, 14 years? It didn’t repel the women either.
“After this dance, I shall ask Bianca, your friend, to meet me in the washroom for fellatio.”
“Yes, but don’t be too loud,” Jonathan said. “We wouldn’t want to startle the horses out front.”
Horses? What about parking enforcement? They were too diligent as it were.
His wife whispered in my ear: “Don’t look now, but my husband is touching himself.”
My old friend a cuckold?
Then the dream abruptly ended. The carpet, the chandelier, and Jonathan and the ladies had all vanished. The fan on my bedstand was blowing the October heat in my face. I saw tiny holes where the chandelier had once hung.
I peeked in the hallway to see if they were there. But no, just the landlord stewing, the Romanian witch she was, about these noises coming from the apartment. Was I still in the dream? I had this condition where I thought dreams were shirts. I could just turn them inside-out to reality.
“Let me see your apartment. I check smoke alarm,” she said.
“You must’ve seen my friends leave.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You didn’t see two women and a man leave a minute ago?”
She rubbed a talisman on her chest, and she cursed in Romanian before imposing herself into my room.
“You see? That’s where the chandelier was, and now it’s gone.”
“That’s from ceiling fan,” she said.
“Then why haven’t I seen them there before?”
“Because you drink too much. You’re a drunk.”
So perhaps the dream wasn’t a shirt, period.
The same dream occurred every night, though, for a week. The same clothing, the same events, the same histrionics.
By the end of the week, Jonathan sent a friend request on Facebook. It was absolute synchronicity. What had he been doing since high school? Never mind that he still owed me $500 over a Broncos game. I was transcending to a higher plane of consciousness. The dream and this mystical phenomenon preoccupied me too much for petty material such as money.
He reached out to me on Facebook Messenger.
Are you going to the reunion, he asked.
I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but I thought I would’ve had beachfront property by now. What would I have to show for myself at the reunion?
Are you feeling all right, he asked.
Well, never. But on that higher plane, you question even the most platitudinal questions. How did “all right” even feel?
Hopefully, another synchronous message would arrive, for instance in the mailbox. I left the apartment for the mailroom. Vito from upstairs was checking his mail, too. He asked a similar question. “How you doing?”
I pulled out a flier from Bed Bath & Beyond. Meanwhile, Vito was pulling out SAG letter after SAG letter as if he were Bryan Cranston.
What did he mean? About checking the mail? How was it done? Well, you use a small key to unlock it, and you pull out these white rectangular pieces of paper with adhesive flaps on the back, then you tear them open and unfold the letters inside.
“I was just trying to be nice, Bro. How’re you feeling?”
“I guess I’m all right.”
That time, because of my sarcastic tone, he didn’t ask to play tennis.
I went back to my apartment, and Jonathan was still online. He wrote:
Funny you mentioned Pepsi. Me and my wife are drinking it and watching NASCAR. I don’t drink.
Spellbinding. The synchronicity was getting deeper. I copied his words on a notepad and kept the notepad on my nightstand. I needed to crack a somnambular code and bring it to a sleep disorder center at UCLA. As a result, it would reveal a breakthrough in consciousness, and as a millennial Huxley, I would write a book about those experiences. They would correlate with the Mandela Effect. In correlation to Darth Vadar saying different words, my dreams would revise my history to alter the course of my future.
But Jonathan didn’t know about the project. He would stay ignorant.
I forgot alcohol gave him hiccups. Since junior high school, Jonathan had a rare disorder. He missed a month of high school because of chronic hiccups. The hiccups put him in a hospital bed. Into his adulthood, the problem would never go away. His dream to become a movie star was destroyed, and he had lived in bitterness ever since.
He wrote: I could’ve done three times better than what Vin Diesel can do.
Jonathan never set the bar too high on himself.
To make a long story short with a happy ending, the boy with hiccups would endure. He was living in Virginia, where he ventured in real estate. The hiccups must’ve been diminished by age. He married another real estate agent. Her name was Alice. She looked different in reality. Actually, she didn’t have a face in the dream.
Once the dreams stopped coming, I came up short of material for the sleep disorder center at UCLA. I thought back to the doldrums in college when I used to tell myself:
this too shall pass. Though you walk through the valley in the shadow of death, the day will come when you invent something that will change humanity for the better.
I had told myself a lot of “wills.” Just a few years shy of a midlife crisis, I still hadn’t invented or discovered anything. The day hadn’t come.
One thing I did discover that week was cold sperm. When I ejaculated, it felt like melted ice cream on my hands. It turned out to be my sperm. Also, my erection lingered. The sperm would usually feel as warm as my body temperature, and my penis would turn slack in seconds after the orgasm. How could this happen to me?
I scoured the internet for answers to cold sperm, looking for the best solution and an even better reason. Soon I found out that many other people suffered from it as well. An online doctor asked if I lived in a cold environment. Then he wondered if my testicles were loose or tight. They were tight, and my heater was broken.
So why don’t you fix it, the doctor asked.
Because my landlord practices witchcraft, and she’ll blame me if it’s broken. Then she might evict me and cast a spell on me.
That’s an irrational fear, he wrote. You suffer from hypochondria and social phobias. I suggest you bring this up to your therapist.
How dare he. Another quack. He couldn’t sample the sperm, and he had never met my landlord.
If you cannot bring it up to her, I suggest you look for another place.
He gave me all the right answers and all the answers I didn’t want to hear. The decent apartments in Hollywood cost double the rent I was paying. After living in that apartment for 14 years, I worried about death at an old age. Just imagine the eulogy:
This man whom very few had known about has passed without achieving anything worth mentioning in the nine decades of his lonely and miserable life. By the look of the thousand or more notebooks in his studio apartment, we guessed he was an aspiring writer. Unfortunately, the handwriting was so messy that not even a graphologist could decipher the sentences. Thus, we pay respect to a man whom we don’t know what to respect him for.
So that night, I wrote my eulogy, and I stashed it with the notepads next to my bed.
How tragic to die in that apartment. How shameful to bring a woman back there. She could judge me to be a creep or a serial killer. Out of the two, a serial killer would’ve been the most accepted. A creep, as it were, could’ve kneeled to Satan or practiced taxidermy or sniffed panties like my next-door neighbor would do. He had given up alcohol for used panties on e-bay. “I know this webcam model who wears them for a week and sells them.” Some men enjoyed that sort of fetish. Not me. I preferred self-diagnosis through Google.
I admitted to my shrink the distress about cold sperm.
“You should clean your bedroom,” she said. “Your symptoms should clear up.”
So much for Freud’s complex theory of castration anxiety. I made my bed anyway.
I preferred to whine my way out of the symptoms. I whined my way into November. Biliously I purged them out on some unfortunate guy at my twenty-year reunion. The one guy whom no one else wanted to talk to at parties always seemed to end up with me. The theme of my high school years lived on. I forgot his name, but I remembered he had sat in front of me in twelfth-grade English, and he liked the Redskins.
I whined my way to a blackout and woke up on my cousin’s couch in Fresno. On Facebook, Jonathan wrote that I had thrown a beer bottle and cut a dog’s ear. It needed stitches. I had also cursed the alums in my group, calling them all the same douche bags since high school. Subsequently, I demanded respect from them. Why hadn’t I woken up in jail? Better yet, how did a dog end up in a bar? No longer did I care about the synchronicity of my dreams. I called Jonathan about the blackout.
“So what? Who hasn’t been there?” he said.
“So you’ve cut up a dog before?”
“Well, no. I don’t drink. But this is telling you something, and I think you should listen to it. You need confidence.”
“Come on, not the C word. Don’t give me that confidence shit.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “That was how I got into real estate. I read this book, and it changed my whole perspective.”
“What’s it called? At this point, I’ll read a car manual.”
“It’s called How To Not Give A Fuck.”
“How To Not Give A Fuck.”
I wrote it down five times to get the title right.
Despite the split infinitive, the title impressed me. Marcus Aurelius XVIII, what I hoped was his pen name, had sold enough copies for it to become a New York Times bestseller. It also averaged five yellow stars on Amazon. A particular movie star revered it so much that he tweeted about it online. The movie star even brought the book with him to Sundance. I couldn’t watch his movies because he played in them, but for all I knew, he read Knut Hamsun.
I began reading the bestseller on my iPhone. By the second chapter, Aurelius XVIII made his message clear, and the message was vanilla. Marcus implored his readers to give about 90% of a fuck and about 10% less of a fuck. In simple terms, fuck the small things. No shit. I had been hoping and expecting the book would’ve taught me how not to give a fuck about everything. Give up. Abandon all hope. Discard all possessions. Set sail. Bon voyage, Tyler Durden.
As for his writing style, it was bloggy. Marcus did say he was a blogger. That was where he got most of his readership.
The book was full of passive sentences. Most of the paragraphs were only a sentence long. Some were just sentence fragments. One paragraph was simply, “eat a dick.” The pages were left with so much white space that from a long distance they resembled eye exams. He wrote with a frathouse lexicon, too, using words such as asshat. Then there were the overlooked cliches. The second chapter was a whole cliche in itself. Well, he did compare not-giving-a-fuck to a trunk full of hamburgers. Nobody ever said originality required elegance.
His message infuriated me so much that I went to his conference in downtown Los Angeles, like a disillusioned Dorothy expecting answers from a charlatan wizard.
Marcus stood onstage and called himself a psychologist. He wore a headset over his ballcap with his sunglasses on the brim. He had never mentioned anything about having a degree or a private practice. If he did, maybe he saw his patients at a Buffalo Wild Wings. If there was ever proof that an outlier didn’t need to be brilliant at his craft, Marcus Aurelius XVIII was right there, at the podium.
He quoted something from William Arthur Ward, about a pessimist, an optimist, and a realist. To paraphrase, the pessimist complained, the optimist expected a change, and the realist adjusted the sails.
I raised my hand and asked him, “does the realist know where he’s going?”
The audience glared at me. He ignored my question and called on someone else.
On the subject of young entrepreneurship, he brought up self-entitlement. It was a topic from his book. Although he had won awards for his podcast and he had lived in fame for the past ten years because of his videos on Youtube, the life of Mr. Aurelius XVIII wasn’t always so glorious. He shared his sob story about how he had lived a meager existence in the San Fernando Valley.
“I had to roll up my sleeves, pull up my bootstraps and work from the ground up to stand on this here stage. Nobody ever helped me. My daddy told me, ‘son, you got to earn yours.’ And fuck it, I did. And never once did I feel entitled.”
The crowd applauded him in a cascade of cultism. I had a piece of rib in my teeth.
Then he dug into the self-esteem movement of the sixties. From grade schools to universities, teachers and professors were poisoning students with the message that each student was “a unique snowflake.”
“It is a failure,” he said. “Children are raised with the idea that they are special without doing squat.”
Well, they must’ve accomplished at least one inch of squat in those eighteen years.
“You are not special,” he said to everyone in the crowd. “Close your eyes and say it out loud. ‘I am not special.’”
They followed his command and spoke the mantra, “I am not special…I am not special…” in perfect cadence, too. In the meantime, not even the laminate could get that chunk of rib out my teeth.
“And what are college students really expecting after school? That success will look for them no matter who they are?”
The crowd booed at that, too. “Death to college,” someone yelled behind me.
He also brought up participation trophies, another topic from his book, a fashionable one lately.
“They’re no good for our kids. They have no right to feel special until they earn them. Burn those trophies right in front of their parents. The only ones who deserve trophies are the ones who finished in first place.”
The crowd chanted, “no second place…no second place…no second place…”
For the love of God, the isolation I felt in that crowd exacerbated my bout of severe depression that morning, like the severe depression that had struck almost every morning for the past twenty years. The Zoloft had lost its strength, along with the Trileptal. Mr. Aurelius XVIII had also released an alarm clock app for smartphones. In the app, he shouted his version of motivational aphorisms such as, get up, you’re too lazy, you’re nothing special, you’re falling behind, you hide beneath the covers while the rest of the workforce is moving on, you’re average like everybody else, get your ass to work, stop thinking you’re special.
Jesus Christ. I deserved a participation trophy just for getting out of bed.
The abuse was too much, so I raised my hand again. He pointed at me.
“I disagree,” I shouted at him. Everyone looked, all 5,000 or so of them with those cultic eyes.
“Oh, you disagree,” Marcus said. He went for the edge of the stage with the headset still on, followed by a stretch of feedback. “Here’s someone who disagrees with me. He thinks he’s special.”
The boos switched to laughter.
“Tell me, unique snowflake, what is your idea?”
“Everyone is special,” I yelled.
So much air was swallowed in that room, there was no more left for me. They pushed the air back out in boos, drowning out my reason.
“It’s all about the type of special you’re looking for. And that goes to everyone who has attended this conference. You believe you’re special because you think you’re not special. Minority rule in this case. Victimhood. As long as you play the victim, you’ll always be the victim. Whatever makes you feel morally superior. Anyway, I’ve said what I had to say. Goodnight.”
The boos followed me all the way to the parking lot.
The O-ring was the closest bar to the convention. It was a bondage bar. On a Sunday night, the clientele certainly didn’t wear church clothes. They wore leather and dragged their submissives in by chained collars.
The bartender for the night was Morticia. Her lipstick was black, so were her fingernails and her hair, even her eyes. The only part that wasn’t black was her pale skin.
She served me a vodka soda and told everyone, “OK, everybody, get the fuck out.”
The dominatrixes obeyed her law. They dragged their pets out the door.
“But you’re fine,” she said to me.
For once in four years, a woman made me feel special.
She pointed at my laminate. I had forgotten to take it off.
“When does the rest of the clan get here?”
“In a few minutes.”
“Who’s the person who rented it?”
“I don’t know. Some guy. Who are you? Colombo? You were the one at the convention.”
One more flippant quip of hers, and I would have no choice but to fall in love.
“Did he happen to have the name of an ancient Roman emperor?”
“I have no idea what the fuck you just said.”
And she had said enough. So much for feeling special.
She kept checking her Android. “Where the fuck are these people?” she said. “It’s been an hour.”
Three drinks of mine later, the unspecial ones arrived. They drank together, away from me. They could recognize who I was. I tried not to look at their sneers.
“Look who showed up late to the party.” That comment must’ve been made every couple minutes among that crowd. Nobody wanted to be the guy who stood at the snack table, the quintessential outcast at a party. Now he was special, at least to me. He was someone I could get along with, not the elitist who controlled his group with bragging rights. His matted facial hair and slicked-back hairdo with the ponytail reminded me of the guy in Penn and Teller, the one who did all the talking. Teller, you would assume.
“Why, I’m a venture capitalist. I own businesses in Hong Kong, in Stockholm, in New York, in Scotland, in Seattle, in Sri Lanka.” He kept spitting out different cities. “You should see my wife, my dogs, my house, my car.” Bah-rum-pa-pum-pum.
Someone else in the group had a chance to speak. He said he was a tight end who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans. “I knew since high school that I would make it to the pros. I just had to wait through college…Notre Dame, full ride…I expect to be in the Pro Bowl this year as a rookie. Did I mention I practice transcendental meditation? I do it when I run my routes. I can picture myself to twenty years in the future when I’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame. And I owe it all to my pops who taught me that I ain’t special.”
Every sentence contained the word I, so I tried to move a stool farther away from him and his group.
A woman came up to me with a drink, this proud little foreign princess. At first, you would think she was talking to herself, but she was actually talking to me. She had an accent that could’ve come from anywhere in Europe or Latin America.
“What?” I said, “I can’t hear you.”
“Are you special?” I asked.
She squinted her eyes at me in that dark bar.
“You’re that man from convention, the one with stupid thoughts.”
I tried to get up from the stool, but she squeezed my arm.
“No, no, I want to help.”
She said her name.
“I tell you, it’s…”
I had this other disease that kept me from hearing or remembering anyone’s name in a bar. But I pretended I did.
“I’m up for Oscar for Best Actress,” she said.
“It’s called The Colombian Playmate. I play Colombian.”
“And a playmate?”
“Yes, but I’m actually Russian.”
So I was dead wrong.
“I move to LA, and not a week goes by when older-producer-man come up to me at beach where I do the rollerblading, and he say to me, ‘you look part for feature.’”
“In those exact words?”
“It was dream come true. I never take the acting class.”
“I’m sure you didn’t need to,” I said.
She brushed her hand down my arm, and it gave me goosebumps. I hadn’t had goosebumps from a woman since…Sarah.
“You so sweet.”
Fortunately, she couldn’t detect sarcasm. Sarcasm was my native tongue. A woman like her who didn’t get it made it that more undisguisable if that makes any sense.
“So you wouldn’t know, I had, how you say, gift all along.”
“It sounds like you made all the right moves,” I said.
“But you know what? I not special.”
“There’s a lot of that going around tonight.”
“Mr. Aurelius is truly great writer, yeah?”
“You poor thing.” She pointed at the center of her chest. “You need to look deep here.” Unless she was biologically extraordinary, her heart was behind her left implant, but what was between both implants? Perhaps, she meant her soul. Her soul rested between her surgically-enhanced breasts. But what did that matter? I was in love a woman out of my league, a syndrome of mine since grade school. I wasn’t about to correct her.
“Look at me. Come a closer.”
I moved to the edge of the stool. She was waiting for me to kiss the wine right off her lips.
“You promise me when you get to the home, you look deep.”
“How are you going to know if I do?”
“How do you say?”
“I mean, I can’t promise you anything if I can’t prove it to you.”
“I no understand you.”
“You won’t know unless you go back there with me.”
“I still no understand. You confusing American.”
OK, so she wasn’t waiting for the kiss, and she wasn’t hitting on me. I was something else to her, not a male or a female.
She held her empty glass at me.
“You get me more wine,” she said.
“You get me more of the White Zinfandel.”
She waited for my princely gesture. Meanwhile, a raging panic attack was gurgling in my stomach. I took her glass and escaped for shelter.
The real special one was still at the snack table. He was wearing a denim jacket with bright silver buttons on the breast pockets. His skin tone was smoky as if he had poked his head into a coal mine and never washed his face.
I held the glass by its stem like a dupe with a flower. When he saw me, he nodded in humility. The table still had a few bottles of Zinfandel. Some crumbs and sauce were left on the plates. The guests had already finished all the catered food except for one piece of a cold quesadilla. I tossed the bitch’s glass into the garbage.
“Maybe we should kill them,” he said. I liked him already.
“Quit making sense. I might have to buy you a shot.”
“No, I should buy you a shot for standing up at that convention, especially the part about entitlement.”
I didn’t remember saying anything about entitlement.
The name on his laminate was Ralph. Ralph? Parents were still calling their sons Ralph.
“What do you do, Ralph?”
“That’s the second question that people always ask me. It goes, my name first, career second. ‘What can you do for me?’ That’s all these people want from me. I hate this town.”
“You don’t have to tell me. In fact, what do I care? I’m unemployed. I could’ve made something up to impress you, but then you’ll start asking me to help you.”
“I work at Domino’s in the daytime and Spearmint Rhino at nighttime.”
No wonder the question made him upset.
“Well, the jobs must have their perks,” I said.
“What are perks?”
“Free pizza. Did you ever fuck any dancers?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I drive them to their appointments. And don’t ask about my sex life. I haven’t been laid in three years.” He had no problem admitting that. “You should see what goes on in their appointments, though. One of the clients was the celebrity doctor, what’s his name, the one on TV.”
“There’s a lot of them on TV. You should’ve kept that private.”
“Yeah, but I don’t even know his name.”
“No, the part about three years. You don’t admit it to someone you just met. Anyway, it’s been four years for me.”
“That’s the length of high school.”
“Yeah, but no diploma.”
“How did you do it?”
“It was a self-fulfilled prophecy. I didn’t want to go full-blown alpha. You know where that’ll lead you.”
“I never thought it go this long. Two years ago, a psychiatrist asked me about my sex life. I was seeing him for transcranial magnetic stimulation. It’s a more civil procedure than electroconvulsive therapy. They place a device on your head, and a woodpecker pecks at a specific part of your cranium. It’s supposed to awaken those neurons in your brain. It worked OK for major depression, at least for a few months. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking or smoking weed, but oh well.
Anyway, I told him I hadn’t been laid for two years. He looked up from his paperwork and said, ‘I am so sorry.’ His apology did sound sincere, though. I mean, he’d never looked up at the part about attempted suicide.”
“Ah, fuck a sex life,” Ralph said. “My wife flew out to the states, we got married in Philadelphia, we moved out here so she could model, and here we are. I wasn’t special enough for her, so she threatened me with a divorce. You should’ve seen all those papers, man. We reconsidered. The divorce wasn’t worth it. Now I’m drinking two bottles of Jameson a night, after the AA meetings, too. While I was in recovery, she met this producer in Venice Beach, a real Weinstein. She said she wanted a man who could help her out with her career. Now she’s with him.”
“Wait. She’s up for an Oscar?”
“How the hell?”
“She’s right over there.”
Ralph bobbed and weaved where he stood, trying to look past the mob of those people who knew they weren’t special.
“Fuck, she can’t see me here. She’s my sponsor.”
“What does it matter now?” I said.
“I guess it doesn’t. She thought she was special. We were a good couple. We thought we deserved something if we worked hard. The problem was, neither of us knew the meaning of hard work. Whatever the case, she got what she wanted. I got my money, she got her citizenship.”
“Ralph, out of all the people in here, who’s the most interesting?”
“Morticia,” he said.
“Yeah, definitely her. She fucks serial killers.”
“Let’s go see her,” I said.
When we went up there, Ralph ran into his wife. They yelled at each other, she smacked him, and she stormed out with some older rich guy. Then, he joined me at the counter.
“Welp, there goes my sponsor.”
Sitting in my old stool, I watched the barback again. This time he was cutting limes. Now there was a real working-class citizen. No sarcasm intended. He worked hard at those limes, and his expression said, I’m not expecting anything more than what I have now. This is just a job. I know it’s not who I am, and I won’t allow it to be. Sure, I’d rather be starring in a blockbuster movie. I’d rather be on the other side of the bar. Who wouldn’t? But for now, I have to eat food and pay my rent. If the opportunity comes down the road, I’ll take it. Until then, I’ll just cut these limes, go home and drink myself to sleep.
Either it was the weed and alcohol, or he and I had ESP, but his thoughts came through to me in clear reception.
The one time I looked away, I heard a bloody cry. I looked over at the barback, and he was covering his gushing hand. The blade and limes on the cutting board were soaked in red. Something else on the cutting board lay in blood. My brain dismissed what it really was.
Morticia threw him a towel, and he wrapped his gushing hand with it. Then he ran out from behind the bar. Morticia picked up the top half of his finger. She buried it in the tub of ice.
“What happened?” one of the guests asked her.
Morticia yelled at everyone to get the fuck out. She glared at them as if she were trying to set them on fire like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter.
“Morticia, can my friend stay?” Ralph asked.
“Yeah, he’s cool.”
After all the unspecial ones left, the doorman locked the door and turned the lights back on. Morticia went back to texting on her phone.
“Finally I can fucking breathe,” she said.
“Morticia, this guy saved the day. His drinks are on me.”
Hero for a day, a fool forever. Come to think of it, I had saved the day many times in my life. You didn’t have to rescue a baby from a burning ice cream shop to be one. Just change someone’s negative perspective.
He bragged to her about me, mentioning the ways I had challenged Aurelius XVIII, such as the part about realists. He had butchered the quote by William Arthur Ward as badly as Christian had butchered his hand, and I was too drunk to remember it myself, but we convinced Morticia enough for her to pour free Deadwood in scotch glasses.
I may have been able to channel Christian’s thoughts, but not Morticia’s. She seemed to have aborted any chance of low self-esteem. It showed by her indelible indifference towards everything.
The three of us clinked glasses and drank them down. I brought up the subject of serial killers and which ones she would finger herself to. There was Charles Manson. There was Ed Gein. Ted Bundy. Even Jack The Ripper despite his association with Free Masonry. The only one she wouldn’t go down on was Jeffrey Dahmer. She was too morally astute for that. “I don’t eat meat, and I have no respect for anyone who does,” she said.
She went on to say that any man she dated would die within nine months of their relationship and within a two-mile radius. It would happen out of some unusual occurrence, too. Her fiance from three years ago got hit by a bus. The one after him fell under a subway. Her most recent one fell victim to a crazed vagrant swinging a blade around on the sidewalk. In that case, she served as an antibiotic to the serial killer problem. A bacteria that ate other bacteria. Like a female Dexter. Yet and still, Ralph flirted with her. Some people couldn’t handle liquor.
Morticia ate her sandwich behind the counter. For all the blood she would sip, she didn’t eat meat. The sandwich consisted of bread and provolone.
“Not even a slice of ham in there,” I asked.
“No, I don’t eat anything that has a mother.”
That must’ve covered every animal on Earth. Every animal reproduced, whether with a mate or itself, and every animal had a mother. The exception to the rule was James Caan. He just appeared one day at the age of 41.
Anyway, she rinsed the bloody knife and used it on her sandwich. She cut it into segments, and she picked each one up with two fingers as if it were a sushi roll. At one point, she sliced off a bit of provolone that stuck out of the sandwich. She kept the piece on a cocktail napkin for some obscure reason. The sight of it had me think of Christian the barback and half his digit on ice, so I looked away.
The doorman went and got him from the bathroom. Christian had poured rubbing alcohol over his stump and kept howling in pain.
“You’re so damn lucky that I brought my thermos today,” the doorman said. He dumped his cold soup into a drain and rinsed the thermos with dish soap. Then Morticia filled it up with ice cubes, dropped the digit inside and capped it tightly shut. She gave it back to the doorman and he helped Christian to the door.
“I’m taking him to emergency to sew this fucker back on.”
“Whatever,” Morticia said.
“You think he’ll be all right,” I asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I guess so.”
Her sandwich mattered more than any finger. At 100 pounds on a rainy day, Morticia ate three sandwiches behind the counter. She denied that she had that many, but I had counted each one. If there was one thing Morticia wasn’t indifferent about, it was her body image. She didn’t want us to think she binged on food. And if she swore it was only one sandwich, it had to be three feet long. It saw it myself. She kept pulling it from below as if it were a scarf from a hat.
“It was one sandwich,” she said to me. “Just leave it alone.”
I left it alone. Morticia didn’t seem like a woman whom I’d want to be on the bad side with. She left us for the other end of the bar, where she rinsed some glasses.
Ralph leaned in and whispered to me, “just play along with what she says.”
“Play along for what?” she said.
He and I froze up like two guilty boys with a porn mag.
“You heard us over here?” I asked.
“Like a bat,” she said. She walked back over to us, rinsing one of the glasses, polishing it hard with the same rag she had thrown to Christian, not looking at Ralph, but looking through him. “Bats are my favorite animals,” she said. “They’re so cute, like you two, don’t you think?”
“Agreed,” Ralph said.
“Of course,” I said. “Who wouldn’t think bats are cute?”
She raised the glass up to the light. There were no blemishes on it, but she polished it some more.
“They have sonar hearing like I do. After so many years in this bar, I can pick up what everybody says. My ear canals are shaped to echolocate someone in the bathroom. So because you’re playing along, I know a place in Runyon where we can hang out. It’s on the coyote trail, but we’ll be OK. The coyotes won’t be back for another few months. We’ll have lots of fun. I have shrooms. I have dildoes, I have pinchers, all in my purse.”
Whatever pinchers were, Ralphie was about to end his three-year bout. Though he would have to go up there alone. I didn’t wish to die in that fashion.
“I’ll just close out,” I said.
“You sure?” she asked.
She rang up the register. Her body kept looking better. Why did I have to jump to such deadly conclusions at every opportunity? Maybe she just wanted a friendly night of kink, in the pitch dark canyon, involving wild animals and mushrooms. Clearly, she wanted me more over Ralph. She had thrown out the unspecial ones, too, and I thanked her for that. She was like Tinkerbell with a strap-on dildo.
“You’re coming too, right?” Ralph asked me.
“I have to get up early for work.”
“You said you were unemployed.”
“I mean, for, to look for jobs.”
“It’s OK, you sexy thing. We can have fun without him. He’s just a rug.”
Ralph kept digging himself in deeper.
When she used the bathroom in the back, Ralph whispered to me.
“Come on, man, just come along,”
“I’ve never gone up to Runyon this late,” I said.
“So? I’ve never gone up there with a woman.”
I grabbed a pen she had left on the counter, and I took a cocktail napkin. But the cocktail napkin was black, so that idea wouldn’t work.
Using the back of his receipt, I wrote:
Take my advice. If you go into the wilderness, make sure you can still see the road. And if she says she has a surprise for you, run!