It was late Sunday evening when I finally left CF’s house. The sun had fallen an hour earlier and taken the warm weather down with it, to the point that hanging out on the front porch I could almost see my breath. The air smelled damp and of wood smoke, of old fires extinguished. Before going, CF had asked me to take the dog out on the leash for one last hurrah before the two of them settled in for the night. I zipped up my sweater, pulled the hood close and snug, and watched the dog as he trotted around the yard’s perimeter and became a silhouette. Occasionally, he would pause and sniff a clump of weeds or some divot in the ground, lured by the possibility of a rabbit or squirrel hiding in the dark, by specters and scents the rest of us two-legged slackers can’t hope to detect, snorting like a pig when something got up his nose or he was frustrated. Bored, my gaze drifted between him and the rest of the neighborhood. I was hoping he’d hurry up and pee so I could go home, though a part of me wasn’t sure why. Lately, home had come to symbolize loneliness, an at times soul-crushing boredom, as well as the many ways in which I was a glorious failure—most notably, having become the writer who no longer wrote.
Once I returned inside, freed the dog from his leash, and gathered my keys—reluctant, but ready-enough to leave the coziness of CF’s place for my own—CF asked if everything was okay. I paused at the door, looking outside at the darkened front steps and the uncarved pumpkin she had set out the day before. The yard and the single maple tree now pulled away into voids edged by orange street light. The modest ranch-style homes across the street. And beyond, the light-whipped corridor of 72nd street, the steady drone of cars travelling north and south well into the night.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” I said, almost chuckling as I muttered the words. What a joke, I wanted to say all of a sudden. What a goddamn fucking joke all of this is.
“Steaks tomorrow,” said CF. Then, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I was too numb to answer. I felt like I was made out of Teflon. Nothing stuck. CF could have told me she had cancer and the words wouldn’t have fully resonated. I pulled the door closed and stepped into the night. Searched for the moon through the shifting canopies but couldn’t find it. Listened to the jangle of my keys as I walked the distance to my car. From the driveway, I looked back at the house and wondered when it would be that there would be no tomorrow.
I had visited CF’s place earlier in the day because she said the rest of the family was getting together for a Sunday lunch. Baby Tenley was in town and it was a special occasion. My sister Beth and her husband had driven up from Lee’s Summit early the day before and taken the baby to the zoo to see the animals. It was the first time I’d seen them since April, when I’d tagged along with CF for a weekend getaway (and later fictionalized the experience in a short story called Clean). By the time I arrived, the house was already abuzz. Baby Tenley was on the living-room floor amid an explosion of neon-colored toys, occasionally crawling around on hands and knees like a chubby caterpillar, huffing and burbling with the effort of it all.
“Who is that? Who is that?” said Beth, cooing to Baby Tenley. Her voice was bright, sing-songy. “That’s Uncle Jon—that’s right, it’s Uncle Jon!” Baby Tenley wasn’t interested. Her eyes were fixed on me, large and round like two brown buttons, but in them was nothing that in any way signaled affection, or even recognition. Under her stare I felt like a foreigner, some kind of alien life form.
I found a spot near the open door where the sun warmed the carpet and slumped down against the wall. I was last to arrive, making my grand entrance a half hour after I’d been informed the rest of my family would arrive. For a while, we watched Baby Tenley roll around in her lazy Sunday’s Best: purple long-sleeved shirt, grey sweatpants, and hot pink booties. The dog bed had snagged her interest. She was trying to fumble herself into it, unsuccessfully, instead lying splayed half-in and half-out. The rest of us continued to watch with amused expressions lighting our faces. The bed was only a fleece cushion, small and round and various shades of brown like a cookie. In the center was an exaggerated cartoon pawprint. CF had purchased the bed for Koji a couple years earlier when he was a pup. She’d brought it out of the closet recently hoping the dog would see it as his new bed. He never liked sleeping there, though, preferring the bed where CF slept, or, in her absence, the couch by the living-room window where the driveway—and CF’s car—was in clear view.
I continued to eavesdrop on the family chatter and adoration of Baby Tenley, feeling degrees removed from everything, like I was behind several panes of glass. I was having trouble purging WF from my mind. Mostly because I knew I had to, that this was all terribly lopsided, it wasn’t a shared suffering and she likely wasn’t elsewhere in the world thinking of me. But the truth is I wasn’t yet ready. I still wanted to think about WF. I wanted the letters, the connection, back. Three days had passed since she severed contact, and during that time I found myself repeating some of the lines from that final letter. How at first our correspondence was nothing serious, not worth mentioning to anyone else, how it had now become kind of serious. “For me,” she wrote, “if not for you.” Then the part in the letter where she described me as “odd, cool, and fascinating,”—maybe playing to my ego a little, letting me down gently as she had once accused me of doing—and how she had to withdraw, push me away, because “the truth is,” she again wrote, “I am a bit too fascinated.”
That Friday when she had first sent the letter I read and re-read it so many times, pausing to linger over the words that ignored boundaries and hinted at some sort of affection, that by Sunday afternoon, sitting on the carpet in a square of sunshine in the living room, watching Baby Tenley and the rest of my family with feigned interest, feeling out of sync with everything, I had committed most of the words to memory, had already crafted the letter into a weapon and was well into the pain—drawing cuts into the hidden parts of myself, the body of my mind and soul, to bleed and bleed.
THREADS OF A DREAM
Over the past year I’ve become something of an insomniac. The days have turned upside down on me, and often I find myself awake while others are asleep. This routine I’ve had so long I feel trapped by it, cast in some bizarre mold of time, of reversed sunrises and sunsets. The windows in my house seem to always hold the wrong colors now, full of the wrong kind of light, and the scenes which play in them, out beyond the glass, are all off-key, off-time. My midnight is some other kid’s walk to school, my sleepy 4 AM some doughy accountant’s lunch break. Now the best hours of daylight pass while I am drooling on my pillow, unaware. The nights stretch into long uninhabited wastelands, an enduring existential nightmare in which it is only myself and my channeled reveries on television.
In the past I’ve mentioned this problem to Doctor K, hoping for an easy fix, hoping the good doctor would lean back in his chair, cross his other leg, and wave his pen magically in the air so that—presto!—my nights could again signify sleep, but I am told things no longer work this way. There is no magical solution, Doctor K tells me.
At least, not anymore.
The magic dissipates once you realize cracks in the cement no longer break your mother’s back, or when you stomp on those cracks hoping they do. Now trained professionals like Doctor K have devised other names for magic—cold, clinical names like fantasy, delusion, hallucination.
Doctor K’s solution to my problem was measured and calculated, like so many of his are. He suggested I go to bed an hour earlier each night until my days were again rightside up. I was bored and intimidated by the effort involved in this method. I wanted quick solutions. A pill, if one was available. I wanted to be gone awhile, out of mind, and when I returned with checked baggage, bobble-headed baubles, and postcards of lionous sunrises, I wanted everything in my life bright, shiny, and back to normal.
I wanted magic.
Part of the reason for my topsy-turvy days are the hang-ups I have about large crowds and public places. I get anxious around people, uncomfortable in my own body. After a while I feel constricted, like trying to squeeze into clothes that are a few sizes too short. Something itchy, soul-chafing. It gets so bad sometimes it is difficult to move and look around, as if weights were saddled around my neck all of a sudden, my head having become a thirty pound dumbbell. I find myself rearranging my schedule according to the path of least resistance. And when it comes to running errands and mundane activities, I prefer the random, off-hour. Like waiting until a couple hours after midnight to arrive at the gym.
By 2 AM my neighborhood gym is a dead zone. The crowds have burned off, leaving a small window of time—until about four—when it is safe to exercise in peace. I have come to accept the impossibility of finding a time when the building is completely empty and made peace with this sad fact of life, and, besides, the 2 AM crowd isn’t so bad. Not even a crowd, really—just two other people. I’m so used to this night-time schedule and these two other people that, by now, I suppose we are all fixtures. The three of us part of the gym’s landscape—along with the rubber floors and thumping muzak and fitness machines with names like Cybex that seem only a generation or two removed from medieval torture devices.
The first of these two people is an old man who always wears the same gray sweatpants, sweater, and head band. By the time I arrive, he’s usually found his chosen treadmill a row back from the flatscreen televisions and is already in the throes of exercise: his arms braced on the side rails, jogging in the earnest, unsteady manner of a sixty year-old with ailing knees. For more than an hour he lumbers in this way, until he’s worked himself into an exhausted stupor. I admire his effort. When he’s finished, the volume of sweat is often so great it has transformed his outfit a deeper shade of gray.
The second is Angela, the woman at the front desk. Angela is in her late fifties, early sixties. She’s trying to hold onto things, seems to enjoy the hits of the Vietnam era because it’s all I ever hear in the weight room. Hendrix and The Stones and Don’t Fear the Reaper. Her poof of blond hair she keeps wrangled with the help of Aqua Net into something tall, bristly, and vaguely attractive. Her voice makes me picture the bottoms of sneakers, the pebbles wedged between the treads. When I think about her now, one of my dad’s ex-girlfriends come to mind—a woman of similar age named Betty.
Betty had a large framed poster of the cartoon whore Betty Boop hanging on the wall near the dinner table, in the tiny nook that passed as a dining room in her one-bedroom apartment. Like Angela, Betty also loved Aqua Net products and used them frequently. I remember an occasion, not too out of the ordinary, when she had spent almost forty-five minutes in the brutal glare of the vanity lights dressing up her face while my dad, younger sister, and I waited in the living-room in the long-lashed, lake-eyed gaze of the other Betty. It was a Saturday and we were headed for an afternoon at the beach. My sister and I were already in our suits and sandals, towels draped around our knobby shoulders as though we were superheroes. When the lights in the bathroom finally clicked off, Betty emerged looking like a peacock: a fat wave of cerulean blue slashed across her eyelids, her cheeks flushed with rouge as though she had just been assaulted, her lips red and dripping gloss and eager to kiss everybody.
Somehow these descriptions encompass everything for me—Betty and her cartoon twin and my father, that modest stretch of time in the mid-nineties when I was a young teenager still grappling with the news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. My last memory of Betty is the night my sister and I awoke at my father’s gentle insistence while two police officers quietly looked on. Betty was somewhere in the background, arms folded across her chest, face haggard and sleep-deprived—still twisted by the venomous trace of whatever had been her and my father’s last argument.
But aside from casual similarities, Angela seems nice. She remembers me, which is sometimes shocking. She makes a point of tagging my name to every hello and goodbye—a kind gesture I am sometimes not sure I deserve.
Angela remembered enough of my life story that sometimes in the past she would ask how EMT was going, asking just like that. Even after years had passed and I’d allowed my state license to expire—either switching jobs or finding myself unemployed—she continued to ask. For a while I kept the lie going out of laziness. Maybe there was some deep-rooted psychological reason for this as well, something to do with avoidance tactics or defense mechanisms maybe, but all of that I left buried and unconscious. I’d routinely brush Angela’s question aside, saying EMT was good. “Yeah, real good. But I’m back in school now, you know, for Radiology . . . “ and even that was a lie—I was still swamped with pre-requisites. Finding a Radiology program with low enough standards that they’d take me on was far enough into the future it didn’t even seem real.
Then sometimes Angela would ask about a local news story, something grisly or bizarre like the one about the Latina woman who pulled a gun on a paramedic while the ambulance was en route to the hospital—if I’d heard that story. Being sort of a news junkie, Yeah, I’d often say. I heard.
“I couldn’t do what you EMT guys do,” Angela would admit, her voice dreamy and faraway.
But those were the good times when I didn’t just blow through the front doors and mumble a greeting without looking Angela in the eye. For whatever reason I’d feel less awkward than usual, talkative—even chatty. It’s rare for me: I’m not normally someone who others consider chatty. Aloof tends to be my word. Aloof is what comes to mind when others fumble and paw the air for a description of me. Some other words include: distant, nondescript, jerk, asshole, and creepy white guy.
For a few minutes there at the front desk Angela and I would tumble into a conversation of EMS under the pretense that it was still my chosen career, that I was one of the good guys, one of the heroes who dashed into medical emergencies and saved the day. I’d describe for her pieces of what had been a mostly rookie experience working for a private ambulance service. I’d stick to the good stuff that didn’t make me seem totally incompetent. I’d breeze over the many times I felt humiliated by co-workers and paralyzed by lack of knowledge and skill, and I’d skip my neuroses, like the times when the real deal, the Omaha Fire Department, showed up in the same hospital ERs with their own medical emergencies and squirting traumas and I felt suddenly miniaturized by comparison, like a kid foolishly clomping around in his father’s work boots. I’d feel the blood quake in my veins when describing for Angela what a thrill it was to see city streets whip past the window at reckless, highly illegal speeds while lights and sirens screamed. Before quitting in the spring of 2010, there had been a time when I was proud to be an EMT. I’d sound the letters out in my head, feel the gravity in what they meant. I had gone to school for the training, been given the nod of approval by NREMT and DHHS and for once it seemed like I’d accomplished something real and lasting in my work life. My thirtieth birthday passed quietly while I was on shift that first day of February, no celebration or cake. I’d been quiet about it and no one knew. At some point I remember thinking, with a certain coziness, So this is what it feels like to have a career.
I had plans to continue with my education and become a paramedic. I was so proud I’d sometimes pop into a local drugstore before shift wearing the navy blue sweatshirt that announced in bold letters: OMAHA AMBULANCE. In ways I preferred to keep tucked into my subconscious, I wanted people to know I was somebody. No longer a loser nobody with zero career prospects, but a somebody. A part of the EMS community, maybe even a hero—a lifesaver, if it came to that. Once I realized the sweatshirt identified me as an EMS provider, that in the event of a medical emergency I would have a certain obligation to act, that people would glance in my direction with large, worried eyes and wildly gesture for help, that I was so frequently paralyzed by everything I didn’t know I would likely fail to act—once these realizations dawned I quit wearing in public any garment, patch, or badge that identified me as an EMT. I didn’t want the responsibility. Four months into my new career, having never worked a trauma, never administered CPR or been in a situation where CPR was necessary, never having been involved in any kind of serious medical emergency, I was terrified of the responsibility.
Then soon there wouldn’t be anything more to say. My conversation with Angela would unravel prematurely, like all my conversations with people do, until only an awkward silence remained. I’d look down at the floor and my scuffed shoes, my head again that thirty pound dumbbell. Angela would wish me a good workout and, inevitably, I’d be alone once more. I’d leave feeling conflicted, good in some mild way because my human interaction quota for the day had been filled, that I’d gotten out of my head and spent a little time getting to know someone else, but also sad that I was back to being isolated, that I wasn’t glib enough, mentally greased, to keep the conversation, the connection, going.