“Should we go in there and break it up before somebody gets hurt?”
“No need. They were having a bite together and laughing. So either they patched things up or one of them is an alien imposter and needs to be turned over to Homeland Security.”
“Well, I’ll keep an eye out for tentacles,” I said, and the smart part of my brain jumped in front of the stupid part of my brain before it could say especially the hentai kind because no way was I going to try to explain that one to Vaughn.
Instead I started to apologize for being totally fucking useless during the festival fight, but he waved it away like it was nothing, wouldn’t even let me finish.
“You know what I’ve decided?” he said. “I’ve decided most people are morons.”
“Okay, maybe a bit broad—”
“The reason they’re morons is they spend years, decades, hell, their whole lives regretting or apologizing for things nobody else even remembers. They carry those things around like bags of sand that keep them from going to all the places they could’ve gone and would’ve gone if they hadn’t been so busy thinking about the goddamn sand.
“You want to go around hauling sandbags, that’s your business, but don’t do it on my account, because I never thought twice about it. We’re in this together, we do what we can when the moment comes that we have to do it.”
Then he smiled in this kind of embarrassed way and shook his head. “Damn, sometimes I sound old even to me. But I’m not. I’m not that fucking old. I’ve just given it all a lot of thought.”
“Is that why you kicked in the money to get us into the festival?”
He shrugged. “I had it, they didn’t. Not a big deal.”
“I’m just surprised you were carrying around that much cash.”
He looked at me for a second, like he was making a decision. Then I guess he must have made it because he stood and said, “You want to see something I’ll bet you’ve never seen before?”
He led me into the empty bus, reached under his seat to pull out one of the two suitcases he’d brought on board, snapped open the latches, and pulled out a bag slightly bigger than a shaving kit. Unzipped it.
Inside, shoved in tight, were stacks of hundred-dollar bills bound with rubber bands. Given the size of the bag, I clicked through the numbers and came up with a figure somewhere between fifty and sixty thousand dollars.
“Aren’t you worried somebody’ll steal it?”
“Nope. Besides, under the circumstances it’s not like I’ll need it to live on during my yes-okay-now-I’m-that-fucking-old age. Hell, technically it’s not even mine.”
That part caught me by surprise. “What’d you do? Rob a bank?”
“Something like that,” he said. “Point being, I had the cash to spend, so I spent it and I’m glad and I’ll do it again if sufficiently provoked.”
Then he saw the rest of the group headed our way, zipped up the bag, and put it back in his suitcase. “On the other hand,” he said, “I’d rather not have Lisa find it and use it to buy the world’s biggest ball of string.”
“So why’d you tell me?”
“Because I trust you, and if anything happens to me before we get where we’re going, I want to make sure this ends up with someone who’ll do the right thing with it.” He shoved the suitcase back under his seat, then gave it a little kick for good measure. “I like the way you think, the way you talk to the others and look after ’em. My wife used to have all these terms for different sorts of people, like she was some kind of street-corner zoologist: users, losers, takers, martyrs… bunch of others… and saviors, guys who spend their lives looking for birds with busted wings that they can save. A savior, that’s you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said. “That was the kind she had the least patience with. Said it was self-indulgent. As for the fight, like I said, don’t give it another thought. Yeah, it got messy, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you feel alive, you know? Which is pretty funny, considering the circumstances.”
“I bet that kind of thing must’ve happened to you a lot over the years.”
“No, not really,” he said, and left it at that as the others piled back onto the bus.
We hit the pickup point in Des Moines, Iowa, well ahead of schedule. I’d gotten emails from about half a dozen prospects in the area, but since a lot of people have flaked out on us I emailed everyone to say we’d be doing group pickups to make sure at least one or two show up and we don’t waste time chasing our tails.
While everybody else got out to stretch their legs, I took Dylan aside to talk about what happened at the rave. I reminded him that this wasn’t the first time he’d come out swinging in a difficult situation, and that we could’ve gotten out with a lot less trouble if he’d played it cool. He can’t keep pulling this shit because it puts everybody at risk.
He promised he’d do better going forward, but I’d heard that before and it wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to understand why he kept doing it so I’d know for sure whether or not he was going to keep on doing it despite his promises. At first he didn’t want to explain, but I kept after him and though it was really hard for him, he finally told me the whole story.
I can’t go into details about it because it’s uber-private and I never had him fill out a release form. I didn’t even think about it, which was my mistake; I figured he’s the driver; the story is everybody else. Should’ve known that would change once we got on the road. I could ask him to sign one now, but a) it’s kind of late in the day, b) I don’t think he’d sign it, and c) if he said no, it’s not like I could find another driver to step in at this point and I don’t want to back myself into a corner. So all I can do is take his word for it when he says he’ll try to be more mindful when the urge hits him to Hulk out at exactly the wrong moment.
The main thing is: I get it. I understand. Shit, if I’d been through something like that, I’d react a hell of a lot worse. I’d never get over it.
Gotta go. Newbies should be here any time now.
Hi, I’m Audio Recorder!
Tap the icon to start recording.
MARK ANTONELLI: Hey, hi, what’s your name?
VOICE 11: Theresa… Theresa Caldwell, I wrote you—
MARK ANTONELLI: Okay, yeah, but who’s this?
VOICE 12: Jim Atwater.
VOICE 11: My boyfriend.
LISA: Fuck me.
MARK ANTONELLI: This isn’t a passenger bus.
VOICE 11: We know.
MARK ANTONELLI: Nobody should be on here unless they intend to—
VOICE 12: We are, both of us!
VOICE 11: My father said that if we didn’t break up he was going to disinherit me and call the cops on Jim because he’s black and I can’t take it anymore and neither can he and we’re done, okay, we’re just done with people and this world and my family and—
LISA: This is bullshit.
VOICE 12: Hey, you can’t judge us, we’re just as serious as you are.
LISA: Talk to the wrist, the hand’s not listening.
TYLER: It’s a valid point.
KAREN: Tyler, come on.
TYLER: I just don’t know if we should be judging how serious other people are or their reasons for—
DYLAN: Mark, we should go, I don’t want to stay here too long, we’re exposed.
MARK ANTONELLI: Okay, we’ll sort this out later. Here’s the release forms, grab a seat in the back and sign them. Who are you?
VOICE 13: Theo. Theo two two five seven at gmail dot com.
MARK ANTONELLI: Last name?
VOICE 13: None. Just Theo. I travel light.
MARK ANTONELLI: Right, here you go, sit wherever you want. You?
VOICE 14: Shanelle Rose. Shanelle at—
MARK ANTONELLI: I got you. Go on in. Anybody else?
DYLAN: Not that I can see.
MARK ANTONELLI: Okay.
DYLAN: Wait, hold on, we got one more coming.
VOICE 15: (INDISTINGUISHABLE)
MARK ANTONELLI: Open the door.
VOICE 15: Thanks.
TYLER: Dude, take a breath, that backpack’s bigger than you are.
DYLAN: Are you okay?
VOICE 15: Yeah. I’m Zeke. I’m on the list.
MARK ANTONELLI: Right. Here. Okay, that’s the last of them. Let’s go. Jesus Christ.
This is the second time I’ve tried to write about what happened at the festival. I spent most of my first attempt blaming Crazy Lisa, writing about how she’s acting out and getting more and more reckless. Sane Lisa never would’ve let someone she didn’t know handle her drink, but Crazy Lisa did it because like I told Karen she thinks she’s way too smart to fall for something like that so the drink couldn’t be drugged and even if it is there’s nothing left to lose, so why the fuck not? And everybody had to pay for her choice.
So yeah, that’s what I said and that’s what I wrote, and it’s bullshit. I need to accept that there is no Crazy Lisa and no Sane Lisa, no Loud Lisa and no Quiet Lisa, there’s Just Lisa. Having “her” to blame for my stupid choices made it easier to live with whatever shit followed. It’s the lie that helps me keep going. Well, we’re heading for the end now and I don’t want to keep lying anymore.
The truth is that I’m fucked up. I’m making bad choices. I’m out of control. Not her. Me.
Don’t die with a lie on your lips, Just Lisa.
If we’re going out, let’s do this right.
Let’s do it clean.
I’ve never been very good at typing, especially on iPads. My fingers are too big for these things, but it’s late, everybody’s tired or pissed off about the newcomers, and I don’t think they’d appreciate me talking back here.
I’ve decided I want to clear up a few things for the folks I leave behind so they’ll understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Though on reflection, if they’re going to read this after I’m gone, shouldn’t that sentence be in the past tense? “Why I did what I did” instead of “what I’m doing”? It’s the kind of thing Mark would ask. He seems to like questions. Don’t know what he thinks about answers. Maybe I’ll ask him.
Carolyn and I were born and raised in Davenport, Iowa, just across the border from Illinois. It’s a funny border because it runs down the middle of the Mississippi River instead of along the shoreline. Turns out there are little islands in the river and fingers of land that stick out into the river from either side, so the surveyors drew a line down the middle of the river and parceled them out to one state or the other. So when you swim to the center of the river you’re technically nowhere. Swim a few feet east and you’re in Illinois. Swim west and you’re in Iowa.
This is what passes for a good time in Davenport.
Carolyn came from a nice part of town called Red Hawk, right up near the golf course. My dad worked as a plumber, and my mom waitressed four nights a week, so all we could afford was a small place farther south in Five Points, on Telegraph Road just down from Locust Street, and no, I’m not making that name up. As neighborhoods go it wasn’t much, just a handful of old two-story houses, rusted-out cars parked on the street for months at a time, and a smidge of grass just off the main road. In high school my friends and I used to hang out under an old bridge on Telegraph where it hit Pacific, smoking and talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up. We’d travel the world, seeing amazing places and doing amazing things. Live dangerous, die young! we’d yell out as one, then smash our Coke bottles against the bridge wall and ride our bikes down to the river to look across at Illinois, thinking about Chicago and everything else on the other side of that dark muddy water.
I’d just started my senior year in fall ’71 when Carolyn transferred to our school after her family moved into the area. Her father picked Five Points to set up the main office for his new company because real estate was a lot cheaper than in Red Hawk. She was in my homeroom and three other classes, and I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She wasn’t fond of this part of town since it wasn’t as nice as she was used to, so she wasn’t looking to make a lot of friends, just get in and get out. But like I said, we were in four classes together and I wanted to meet her, so I started taking better notes than usual. That way I could help out if she forgot hers or didn’t take any. Sure enough, she came up short one day and I jumped in to help. After that, she seemed to come up short on her class notes a lot, and we began spending time together.
When we started dating, I told her about how I was planning to leave Iowa so I could go to college out of state and study to be an architect. I’d filled out applications for Berkeley, NYU, University of Chicago, and a few other places. Probably could’ve gotten in, too. I had the grades, and I was able to convince a few contractors around town to use some of my designs for local stores, so I could include pictures with the application. My dad took a photo of me holding the blueprints next to a storefront I designed, and I was smiling so big I thought my face would break. I still have the photo, but don’t know what happened to the designs. Lost, I guess.
The downside to being an architect is that unless you’re lucky enough to be in a big company, it’s all freelance work. It’s less like having a regular job and more like being an artist. If people like your paintings, they buy them; if not, you starve. If businesses like your blueprints, they buy them; if not, well…
It was a risk for sure, and Carolyn saw that right off. What would I do if it didn’t pan out? What if I invested all that time and money into a degree and nobody wanted to buy my ideas? I could end up nowhere. I could fail. She didn’t want that, my folks didn’t want that, and I sure as heck didn’t want it, but I didn’t see any way around it until she talked her dad into giving me a part-time job at his company. Clearview Brite Boards produced long fascia boards used in interior design. They were made of pressed fiberboard that on the outside looked like expensive wood or marble depending on what kind of finish you wanted. They were light, easy to cut, and once they went in, they shined up great.
She said it was a good opportunity because I’d still be (sort of) working in the construction business, but with a regular paycheck and a chance for advancement. Yeah, there was a downside, since taking the job meant I couldn’t go to college out of state, and the local college didn’t offer any classes in architecture, but I could still work up designs on my own time.
Carolyn, I should mention, wasn’t a go-to-college kind of gal. She had plenty of money through her father, and back then it wasn’t a big deal for women to prefer being a wife and mother to pursuing higher education, assuming you met the right match, and we were both pretty sure we were the right people for each other. But I’d have to stick close to make the relationship work.
We all do what we do for the same reason: it seemed like a good idea at the time, so after high school I started taking classes at the local JC and working for her dad, first in shipping and invoicing, then sales fulfillment. But it wasn’t all just office work. When I said the patterns we used to reproduce the look of marble weren’t right, he let me redesign the paint system, and it made a big difference. Did the same for the wood boards too, so the grain looked like real grain and the knotholes looked like real knotholes. It didn’t have a huge effect on sales, I don’t think most people pay much attention to grain, but I’ve always been a detail-oriented kind of guy, and I got a lot of satisfaction seeing my designs on there.
Carolyn’s dad was a level-headed and practical guy who used to say “Better to be safe than sorry” so often that I had it printed on T-shirts for both of us. He thought that was pretty funny, so he’d wear it to the office under his work shirt and whenever anybody did something stupid on the manufacturing line, he’d pull his shirt open like Clark Kent and say “See! Right here! Better safe than sorry!” The line guys always got a kick out of that.
One day we had a meeting with some folks who were starting up a new construction company in Los Angeles. They were looking to place big orders for a contract they were bidding on to construct a bunch of office buildings and apartment complexes in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. They were making the rounds and getting budgets to make sure they could do the job for the money they were asking for in case their bid went through.
Carolyn’s dad didn’t like dealing with new companies in speculative situations where the order might not even come through, so he left it to me to take them out to lunch and walk them through inventory, prices, stock, and the rest. They were very LA, real showy, not the sort we were used to seeing in Davenport. When they asked what I did when I wasn’t doing what I was doing, I said I was interested in architecture and the head of the company invited me to send him some of my stuff. I figured he was just being friendly or softening me up to try and get a better deal, but I sent him some of my blueprints anyway, assuming that’d be the end of it.
They called back on a Wednesday a few weeks later to say they were close to making their deal, but the guy in the Architect II position, who does smaller designs that the lead man doesn’t have time for, had left to take another job. They felt that some of the designs I’d sent them were in line with what they had in mind, and if I came on board in the Architect II position, it’d save them a lot of time training someone to see things their way. They had to move fast because they were supposed to submit the final bids in two weeks with all the positions locked and loaded, so they’d need a firm yes or no by that Friday. If I wanted the job, I’d have to be on a plane to LA first thing Monday morning. I asked my folks what they thought I should do, but they didn’t know architecture as well as I did, and said it was up to me.
Carolyn and her father understood how I might find the idea exciting, but there was an awful lot at risk. This was a new company that hadn’t done any previous work, applying for a contract they might not get. And that Monday a bunch of buyers were coming in for a contractors’ convention in Des Moines and I’d already said I’d be there to help with sales and logistics.
“If you put all the reasons to do it on the left side of a page,” her dad said, “and all the reasons not to do it on the right, it seems to me the right side is a lot longer than the left side.”
I really wanted to give it a shot, but Carolyn helped me see that he was right: the situation was just too uncertain to take that kind of risk. Besides, even if they got this contract, there was no guarantee they’d get another one later. Most new construction companies go out of business inside a year. I could end up quitting my job and moving to LA only to find myself out of work in six months with no prospects and no guarantee that her dad could hold my job open.
So that Friday, I called and said I appreciated the offer but would have to decline. They were very kind and understanding about it.
I didn’t give the conversation a lot of thought after that, as there was plenty to do and never enough time. Six months later, Carolyn and I were in her folks’ kitchen stuffing envelopes with invitations to our wedding, when her dad’s copy of Construction World came in the mail. It’s kind of the bible for contractors, so I flipped through it while Carolyn and her mom took turns looking at photos of bridal gowns.
Dead center of the magazine was a two-page article about the guys from LA. Their company had not only scored the big deal they were hoping for, they’d gotten two more contracts for a shopping mall in Culver City and a medical plaza in Woodland Hills.
Over the next few years they went on to become one of the biggest companies in Los Angeles. If you want something that doesn’t look like everything else, these are the guys you call.
But at the time, none of us knew that things would go this way, so it was still the correct decision.
Not everything is meant to be, right?
Better safe than sorry.
Funny how fast group dynamics change when somebody new enters the circle. Lisa had just started to calm down when Theresa and Jim got on board and now she’s back up to ninety. Totally pissed. And I can sort of understand it. Everything about the newbies says Death Tourists, like they’re just acting out and not as serious about this as everybody else. Lisa refers to them as TheresaAndJim, one word without a breath in between because they’re always together. They’re not even trying to engage with the others, which makes them feel even more like outsiders.
Theresa’s one of those people who seems nervous all the time, super thin with long auburn hair she combs straight like a curtain and is constantly peeking past it to see if anyone’s looking at her. Of course the more she does that, the more we’re all looking at her and the more nervous she gets. Jim seems like a nice guy, maybe too nice to be with someone who is clearly high-maintenance. He’s always talking low and reassuring her and getting her sodas or munchies from the cooler when she could just as easily get them herself. And she’s constantly holding his hand but not in a romantic way. Some people hold the other person’s hand like they want you to know She’s with me, all protective, while others want you to know I’m with her, because they’re proud or maybe showing off a little. With Theresa, it’s like I’m holding your hand to keep from falling off the earth, which is weird.
So yeah, I can see where Lisa’s coming from, and I’m not sure she’s wrong, but for now I’m going to let them stay and see what happens. They still haven’t entered anything into the group chat, which is a requirement for staying on board, so I can always use that as grounds to boot them out if things get too tense.
As to the other newcomers… I’m not sure what to make of Theo, but I suspect that’s kind of the point. Shanelle is super friendly, an easy laugher full of energy who won everybody over in five minutes. Zeke seems okay, but my antennae are up. He’s pale and way skinny, with a backpack twice his size, a beat-up old army jacket, and a tangle of blond hair that doesn’t seem to know which way it wants to go. First time he smiled and I saw his teeth, it was the smile of a meth addict, but for now he seems straight and friendly and funny in a goofy, almost shy kind of way, so he may fit in fine with the rest of the group.
And just when I finally started to fall asleep, this showed up:
Most of my friends put their preferred pronoun in their Instagram bios—he/she, him/her, they/their—but I respond to any and all of them. I like to think of it as collecting pronouns: the more I get, the more fun I’m having. To get the obvious out of the way, because that’s apparently important to people, I think of myself as post-gender. I was trying to figure out how to explain that because sometimes it’s a paragraph and sometimes it’s a term paper depending on who I’m talking to, and I have no idea who will be reading this in the aftermath. Then I noticed that one of my fellow passengers has a cat with him, and that’s perfect.
When you visit a friend and find they have a cat, you just see it as a cat in all its pure catness, it doesn’t require further definition. You’ll probably get a name, and if you ask, whether it was born male or female, but even after you have that information you still don’t think of it any differently. It’s not a He-Cat or a She-Cat or a They-Cat. It’s just a cat. And unless the cat’s name has any gender-specific connotations you’ll probably forget pretty fast which gender it was born into.
My name is Theo, and by that logic, I am a cat.
What I was or was not born into has nothing to do with how I see myself. It’s not about going from one gender to another, or suggesting that they don’t exist. Some of my friends say that the moment you talk about gender you invalidate the conversation because you’re accepting the limits of outmoded paradigms, but I’m not sure I agree with that. I just think gender shouldn’t matter.
If you’re a man, aren’t there moments when you feel more female, like when you’re listening to music, or your cheek is being gently stroked, or you see a spectacularly handsome man walk into the room? If you’re a woman, aren’t there moments when you feel more male, when you have to be strong in the face of conflict, or stand behind your opinion, or when a spectacularly beautiful woman walks into the room? Well, in those moments, you are all of those things, so why deny that part of yourself?
For me, it’s not about being binary or non-binary. It’s about moving the needle to the center of the dial and accepting all definitions as equally true while remaining free to shift in emphasis from moment to moment. It’s about being a Person, not a She-Person or a He-Person or a They-Person.
There are three parts to this: how I see myself, who I’m attracted to, and how I’m seen by the world that I have to live in. The first I can manifest on my own, the second is what it is, and I have no control over the third. So I live and thrive in the space between them.
So I’m just Theo, which could be short for Theodore, or Theodora, or anything else that fits. And yes, I have a last name, but it has not been kind to me so I left it behind. Technically it remains on documents because it’s a legal identifier, but it doesn’t define me; it has no more to do with who I am than my social security number.
When you go into a clothing store, you don’t just go to the “one size fits all” rack. You look for clothes that fit your waist, hips, legs, chest, and neck, clothes that complement your form and shape, and reflect not just how you see yourself but how you want to be seen by others. If it’s still not quite right, and you can afford it, you get the clothes tailored to fit exactly who you are.
That’s what I’m doing. Post-gender is one term for it. Another might be tailored gender. Maybe bespoke gender. But definitely not one-size-fits-all. The world doesn’t get to decide what best fits who I am and how I choose to be seen. I do.
So rather than let the world define me, I’ve chosen, in an admittedly grandiose sort of way, to define myself. Unfortunately the world does not always take kindly to self-definition. You’re all unique, we’re told in school, but as soon as we try to be unique the world insists that we have to conform, to act like everyone else or face the consequences. Not to put too fine a point on it, this world sucks. So a few years ago, to preserve what little remains of my sanity, I began writing stories, just for myself, about a world that is better than the one I was born into. Fairer, gentler, and more decent; honorable and just; a place of clear streams, blue skies, and silver cities, free of cruelty and meanness of spirit. A place where the bullies and the hurtful can never find me.
Viewed through the lens of those stories, this is not a bus and we are not driving on a road. It is a ship with golden sails taking me across the sea to the great cities I have created with my thoughts, where I can simply be who I choose to be. A place where I will finally be free.
And it will be beautiful.
From: Debbie Rousseau firstname.lastname@example.org
To: Lisa Rousseau email@example.com
Subject: Washing my hands of you
I was cleaning the front room and found the note you left for your father. How selfish you are. How destructive. Mean doesn’t even begin to describe you. Cruel, maybe. Assuming this isn’t just another of your “moments” of acting out, do you have any idea what this is going to do to him? Of course you do. That’s why you’re doing it. It’s not enough that you kept hurting him when he was just trying to help—you want to hurt him even more by letting him know what you’re going to do and then making sure he can’t save you, because you know that’s what he’s going to want to do. Not that you WANT to be saved. Not that you CARE about him or me or anyone but YOURSELF. You never have. Selfish.
That’s what suicide is, you know. It’s selfish and self-indulgent, the easy way out for you, but the hard way for everybody else. You never gave a single goddamn thought to how this will affect the people who will have to clean up your mess and keep going after you’re dead, because it’s all about YOU, because you always MAKE it all about you. It’s what narcissists DO. I said that three years ago when I married your father and saw the kind of person you were then, and it’s even more true now.
Well, I want you to know that I’m not going to show him your note. I’m going to burn it. I don’t want him to sit here frantic and upset waiting for the news about how and when and where you died. You don’t deserve the chance to say anything to him, not after what you’ve done and what you’re doing.
You want my advice, not that you’ve ever taken it? If you really are going to kill yourself, do it someplace where the body won’t be found, so your father will never have to know what happened and the rest of the family won’t have to put up with the scandal. And if he does find out about it, me getting rid of your note will save him the burden of thinking he could have done anything to stop you.
Don’t bother to respond. I’m blocking your email address as well as your number on both our phones, so you can’t call or text him—not that you will because you’re too much of a COWARD.
Do whatever you’re going to do. I really don’t care anymore.
Hi, my name is Shanelle Rose and I just turned 21 last June. Glad to be here! What a crazy and beautiful idea!!! I can’t wait to get to know everybody better before we do the Big Jump together!
Last year, my therapist asked me to write a short essay about my past and why I started hurting myself. So if it’s okay I’m going to copy and paste that here, just to get things going. I’m looking forward to the journaling, though. That should be fun!
Okay, here goes!
I was born in Middleton, Wisconsin, which is about twenty minutes west of Madison. My dad was a welder for a company that made custom cars, and my mom worked sales at Macy’s during the day and sometimes waitressed at night when we needed to fill in the gaps.
We moved from Middleton to Fitchburg after an incident with some white guys who ran a gas station down the street from our apartment. My dad didn’t talk about it much, but it was enough for him to pack us up in the middle of the night and move out. He said that even the worst part of a small town would be safer for a family than any of the nicer parts of Middleton. Even so, Mama didn’t let me hang out with other kids until I was old enough to go to school, and if she could’ve kept me home even then, I think she would have.
There were only a few black families in Fitchburg, so on my first day of school Mama said there might be some problems because I probably wouldn’t look like anybody else in my class. She was right, but not for the reasons she thought. From across the street, in a hat or a hood, you couldn’t always tell I was black. But you could for sure tell that I was fat.
Before I started going to school, being fat was something I never really thought about. My dad was a big guy, had to be to push around all that steel he worked on. Mama used to say that she wasn’t fat, she was big-boned, and just had more bones than anybody else, which I believed because at that age I didn’t know how many bones people were supposed to have. Gramma? Big. Grampa? Big. Runs in the family. Well, waddles. My dad used to joke that when we joined hands for dinner prayer, we looked like an eclipse.
“If anybody says anything about your color, you just smile and keep on walking,” Mama said as she dressed me in new clothes for the beginning of first grade. In the pictures, I’m wearing a pink pullover sweater and jeans with glitter-butterflies on the back pockets. “You got a sunny disposition, baby girl, and that’ll get you through anything bad and bring lots of good people to stand with you on your side.”
We’d had this talk many times, so I was ready, I was prepared, I knew exactly what I should and shouldn’t do if anybody gave me a hard time for being black.
What we never talked about was what to do when the other kids called me fat, which they started doing the second I got off the school bus.
“Fatty!” one of the boys yelled as I started up the sidewalk. “Hey, fatty-fat-fat!”
Other kids picked it up, yelling “Fatty!” until the teachers hustled everyone inside.
I refused to cry about it until I got home, then I just let go as my mama held me and rocked me back and forth. She went with me to school the next day to talk to the teachers, and they said they’d put a stop to it.
But it kept right on happening anyway. Worse yet, the other kids started going after my mama for being fat, too. Which is how I got into my first fight.
“They had it coming,” Mama said when I was sent home early. “Don’t worry, baby girl, kids like these have no attention span. Give it time, they’ll get tired of picking on you and find somebody else.”
It was the right thing to say.
It just wasn’t true.
There’s a lot of good about growing up in a small town where everyone knows everybody else from way back. But there’s also a lot of bad, and the worst is that once they decide who you are and what you are, that’s all you are, ever. When you’re the fat girl or the ugly girl or the poor girl at five years old, it doesn’t change when you hit twelve or fifteen. It’s who you are, and anybody who wants to treat you different has to fight their way through years of you’re not hanging out with HER, are you? Kids are cruel, they move in packs, and who you are is all about who’s in your posse. Nobody wants to get second-hand fat all over them, or second-hand ugly, or second-hand poor. Easier to stay in your own pack.
Starting in fifth grade, we did Valentine’s Day cards for class, but I never got one because, as one of the other girls told me, “Nobody sends hearts to chubbies.” I pretended I didn’t care. Then in seventh grade, as the cards got passed around, there was one with my name on it! I was so excited to think that somebody liked me. But when I opened the card, there was a picture of a hippopotamus with APRIL FOOLS! written on the other side.
After that, I begged my parents to move somewhere, anywhere else, but we were stuck where we were.
I tried losing weight. I’d go days without eating until I was ready to pass out, but every time I looked at the scale, nothing changed. So I gave up and began eating more. If they were going to call me fat, I might as well go for it.
I wasn’t invited to parties or dances. Nobody called to say, Hey, let’s go to the mall. Things might have been a little better if I was white, because it seems like everything is, but to be a fat black girl in a small town that was 99.99999% white folks? Forget it.
High school was even worse, because it was the same kids from elementary, but now older and meaner. Some of them broke into my school locker and smeared everything with dog shit. Other times, girls would trip me during gym so I’d look stupid when I fell, then yell that a whale had beached itself on the racquetball court. They’d wait in the hall and follow me, making fun of me and knocking my books out of my arms and pinning me against the wall or pulling my hair until I cried.
Girl bullies are worse than boy bullies. If a boy beats up another boy, he gets bruised or maybe it goes too far and he breaks an arm and then the cops get called and the bullies wind up in a lot of trouble, so they usually don’t go that far. Still, it’s all on the outside. Girl bullies are just as hard on the outside, but they also know how to hurt you in all the soft places on the inside, where you thought you were safe.
Halfway through my junior year, I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t even remember what set me off, or if it was any one thing. I think it was just the All Of It that finally tipped me over, and I was tired and I was done and when the bell rang for lunch I went home while I knew my parents were out working and swallowed every pill I could find in Mama’s bathroom.
I woke up later in the hospital with my dad and mama. She was crying, and he had this stone-statue look on his face, real hard, like one of those Easter Island statues, but his eyes kept leaking the whole time. After that they took me out of class for a while and I saw a therapist twice a week. The teachers said they’d make sure that nobody in school heard about the suicide attempt, but when I finally came back, the first girl I saw, one of the worst bullies, knocked my books away and said, Oooh, drama queen, gonna kill yourself. Next time, call me and I’ll make sure you finish the job, bitch.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. No prom date, no corsage, and graduation was just a party with my dad and mama and some of our relatives who came into town for the day.
Anyway, that’s as far as I wrote for the therapist. I need to get some sleep now, but I’ll write more as soon as I get a chance. I hope I’ll fit in with everyone. If it helps, I have a sunny disposition!
Hi, I’m Audio Recorder!
Tap the icon to start recording.
MARK ANTONELLI: Hey, Zeke, got a second?
ZEKE: Yeah, sure. We’re not getting breakfast?
MARK ANTONELLI: In a bit. I wanted to talk to you about something first.
ZEKE: You recording this?
MARK ANTONELLI: Just want to get clear on a few things.
ZEKE: Okay, cool, cool.
MARK ANTONELLI: Someone said you’ve got a cat in there.
ZEKE: Yeah, Soldier. You want to see him?
MARK ANTONELLI: No, you don’t have to—
ZEKE: I fixed my bag up for him special, put holes in the sides, see, and a place where he can lie down.
MARK ANTONELLI: It’s just that we can’t have pets on here, Zeke.
ZEKE: The form didn’t say that.
MARK ANTONELLI: No, but it’s common sense, I mean, once we’re gone, there won’t be anyone to take care of anybody’s pet and that’s cruel, so—
ZEKE: Here he is. Say hi, Soldier.
MARK ANTONELLI: Is he okay? He looks—
ZEKE: Yeah, I know. And no, he’s not. But he’s got spirit, don’t you, pal?
MARK ANTONELLI: What’s wrong with him?
ZEKE: Kidney disease. Way advanced. Blood levels are like off the scale. Spent pretty much the last of my money finding that out.
MARK ANTONELLI: Is there anything you can do?
ZEKE: Nope. I mean, if we’d found it earlier and I had a ton of money, maybe we could’ve done a few things, but by the time I got him in, it was too late.
MARK ANTONELLI: Does he ever try to get out of the bag?
ZEKE: Hey, that’s funny! Let the cat out of the bag. Nah. He’s a good cat. And you know, with the sickness and all, he’s basically like a rag doll, so he doesn’t move around much. He never saw much of the world, so I figured we’d take one last road trip together, show him what’s out there.
MARK ANTONELLI: I’m sorry.
ZEKE: It is what it is, man. I was kind of hoping we’d have more time, but from what the doctor told me to look for, I think all we have is about a week, maybe less.
MARK ANTONELLI: How will you know?
ZEKE: The same way I always know what he’s feeling. It’ll be in his eyes. Anyway, that’s why we’re here. One last ride, then we go out together, right, Soldier?
MARK ANTONELLI: If you’re saying you want to kill yourself because your cat’s going to die—
ZEKE: No, man, that’s not it.
MARK ANTONELLI: Because everyone else here is serious, this isn’t some kind of—
ZEKE: It’s not, I swear to god, okay? It’s not that. I’m not, like, what’s the word? Frivolous. I’m not frivolous. Or stupid. It’s just, I got some bad habits, okay? Heroin, meth, ice, crack, uppers, downers, I’m not a drug bigot, I’m open-minded. If I can shoot it or toot it, I’m there, you know? I’ve gone off the shit lots of times, and I can get by for a week or two, like now, or when I’m trying to find work or something, but then, bam, I’m right back in it again. I OD’d three times in the last two years. Almost didn’t come back from the last one, but I made it because I knew I had this little guy to look after. You and me against the world, right, pal?
Then we found out he’s sick, and I mean, here’s the thing. This skinny little guy is all I have. Didn’t used to be skinny, used to be big as a bowling ball, but his heart’s still the same size, you know? I got no family that wants anything to do with me, friends bailed a long time ago, so now it’s just me and him. He’s the only thing that keeps me coming back when I OD.
But sooner or later I’ll screw up and I won’t make it back even with him waiting for me. I know that as sure as I know I’m standing here, so who’s gonna take care of him if I’m dead on the floor? He’ll starve to death. Not that he’s eating much now, but still, he’d starve or die of thirst and I can’t let him die all alone in the dark, you know?
The other side is, if he dies first and I keep going, when I OD again without having him waiting for me, giving me a reason to wake up, I’ll never find my way back, and then I’ll be the one dead on the floor all alone. It’s completely fucking inevitable, especially given how things went down the last time, when I almost died. Sometimes it feels like parts of me didn’t make it all the way back, and they’re in a hurry to hook back up with the rest of me.
I’ve gone as far as I can, Mark, we both have, so when we go, we go together. He’s a good guy and he’s my friend and we look after each other, right to the end, don’t we, Soldier?
Anyway, like I said, he doesn’t eat or drink much anymore, so he doesn’t poop a lot either. Sleeps most of the time. He won’t be any trouble. We’ll just hang and look out at the world and be with each other until it starts to get dark, you know? Is that okay?
MARK ANTONELLI: Yeah. No, that’s okay, Zeke. We’re cool. Thanks for telling me.
ZEKE: Okay. So can we get breakfast now? Soldier used to like waffles, so I’m thinking maybe I can get him to eat something.
MARK ANTONELLI: Yeah. Sure thing. Let’s go.
ZEKE: All right, come on, pal. Waffles!
This journal entry will be longer than the others because something important happened today and I want to get every word down right.
After breakfast at a Denny’s in Omaha, Nebraska—which may be the saddest sentence ever written, no offense, Omaha, but seriously—Lisa said she had an idea. I think we all groaned inside given how well her last idea worked out, but she surprised everyone by saying she’d Googled the area and found out there was a botanical garden a few minutes away that was supposed to be pretty this time of year. Mark wasn’t into the idea because obviously, but I thought it would be fun and said so.
Lisa appreciated my support. We still have our ups and downs, but overall it’s been easier with us since we had that big talk. Besides, she’s been kind of down the last couple of days, so I thought this could cheer her up a little.
Mark kept trying to find some reason not to do it, but the place wasn’t far, and we’re not exactly on a schedule.
“Everyone always says stop and smell the flowers,” I said, “so why not? I’ve always wanted to visit a botanical garden, so this is another item I can cross off the bucket list.”
When Vaughn and Theo said they’d be open to checking the place out, Mark grumped about it but finally agreed to make a quick stop. “May as well,” he said, “because from here on out, the only thing worth seeing in Nebraska is the Colorado border.”
See, Nebraska? It’s not just me. You really need to work on this place.
Ten minutes later we pulled into the Lauritzen Gardens. The parking lot was almost empty, which we thought might be a bad sign but then we remembered that it was two o’clock on a weekday, and the kind of people who would go to a botanical garden are also the kind of people who have real jobs at real offices and can’t go until the weekend.
Theresa said she was staying behind. “I didn’t get much sleep last night, so I’m going to try and get some rest. These so-called bunks are really uncomfortable.”
“Yeah,” I said, “this place is gonna be the death of us yet.” Okay, a little bitchy, but there’s a time and a place, and this was both.
She didn’t even look at me, being really pissy about it. I bet she never travels anything less than business or first class. Her boyfriend said he’d stay with her because of course he would.
Lauritzen turned out to be bigger and nicer than I expected. (Full props, Omaha.) Lots of walking paths covering a hundred acres, rare flower conservatories, and a bird sanctuary. When Tyler saw on a map that the place had a railroad garden with seven functioning G-Scale (whatever that means) model trains, he took off down the path, huffing and puffing like I imagine the trains do. Then the rest of us split up and went our own way.
I made it halfway down the main walk before the Spider said, That’s far enough, and we went into an old wooden gazebo to get out of the sun. Sometimes meditation helps with the pain, so I closed my eyes and sat for a bit, breathing slow. Then a shadow fell over me and I looked up to see Dylan with two ice cream cones.
“Vanilla or chocolate?”
“Chocolate,” I said firmly.
“Crap,” he said, and handed me the cone. “I knew I should’ve gotten two of them.”
He sat next to me in the shade and we looked out at the garden for a while without saying anything. The gazebo was big and brown and airy, surrounded by deep green trees and flower beds that were all kinds of colors. I recognized a few of them, like hydrangea, but the rest were a mystery and I wasn’t about to get up to look at the teeny-tiny signs.
I pointed at one of the flowers. “I wonder what that one is?” I asked, more rhetorically than anything else. (I’ve always wanted to use the word “rhetorically” in a sentence without trying to force it but never had the chance. Another bucket item fulfilled!)
Dylan squinted against the light. “Lenten Rose.”
I sat up, surprised. “Seriously.”
“Yep,” he said, and pointed to another flower bed. “Hydrangea.”
“Okay, that one I know.”
He kept going. “Viburnum. Astilbe. The long white one, that’s meadowsweet. Those other two are Jacob’s Ladder and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.”
“Bullshit, those aren’t even flower names. You’re making that up.”
He went outside, picked up one of the teeny-tiny signs, and handed it to me. Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Shit.
“How do you know all that?” I asked.
He put the sign back and brushed off his hands. He’s a big man so he has large hands, but they aren’t thick like most guys. His fingers are long and tapered thin, like a pianist. I hadn’t noticed that before.
He leaned against one of the railings. “When I was a kid, my folks sent me off to stay with my aunt every summer so they could have some them-time. She was a florist, so she’d put me to work pulling flower stock from the cold-room. Whenever I got one wrong, she’d twist my ear and send me back in again, so I learned the name of every flower in her shop and a bunch more in self-defense.”
“If you know so much about this stuff, why didn’t you want to see the gardens?”
“I mentioned the part about her twisting my ear, right?”
Then he looked back at the garden and held up one of those long, elegant fingers. “Just a second.”
He stepped out and came back with some of the white flowers he’d identified as meadowsweet, pausing to wash them off with a hose. “I don’t think you’re supposed to pick those,” I said.
He shrugged as he sat next to me. “They’ll grow back, and I don’t see any cameras,” he said, then handed one of them to me. “They’re edible. Try one.”
“Now you are making stuff up.”
“My aunt used to make tea out of them. Said it helped with heartburn, arthritis, bronchitis… worked as good as aspirin but didn’t upset the stomach.”
“You seriously want me to put this in my mouth,” I said, and grinned. I just pitched you an easy one, go ahead and hit it back, I double-dare you.
“That would be the general idea,” he said. “Here, I’ll go first.”
I’ll admit I screamed a little as he chomped down on the flower.
“Try it,” he said.
I hesitated, but since he didn’t spit it out or turn green, I sniffed it, touched it, then took a little nibble off the edge of a cluster of white flowers. It was surprisingly sweet. Then I remembered it was called meadowsweet, so Miss Obvious, right? The more I chewed, the sweeter it got.
“This is actually pretty good,” I said.
“Told you. Also, yours had some ants on it, so there’s added protein.”
I moved to elbow him but stopped at the last second. I didn’t want to give the Spider a reason to ruin the moment.
“You okay?” Dylan asked when he saw me pull back. I’d told him all about the Spider the night we spent talking in the parking lot of the strip club. The way he stood there with his arms around me but not touching me, without moving or trying to take advantage, just warming me by his closeness, meant a lot to me.
“I’m good,” I said, though he could tell I wasn’t being one hundred percent honest. “Can I ask you a question?”
“No, I don’t know why they call the other one Jack-in-the-Pulpit.”
“Not about that,” I said, and for a second I hesitated, not sure how to bring the subject up, then decided to just go for it. “I was wondering about the night when you took on that asshole outside the motel who was hitting his girlfriend, and later at the festival when you tackled that guy who was on top of Lisa—”
“Yeah, Mark and I had a talk about that,” he said, looking down at his shoes. “I lost my temper. It won’t happen again.”
“No, it’s okay, I was just asking because you didn’t have to jump into either of those, and you could’ve been hurt, so, you know…” I left it there, not sure what else to say.
He nodded silently long enough that I was just about to say I didn’t mean to pry when he looked up again.
“My sister, Carrie, is four years older than me,” he said. “There was a brother in between, but he got sick when he was six months old and passed away. Carrie and I grew up in this broken-down old house at the far end of a small town in Wyoming. We didn’t have a lot of money for food or clothes, but we got by, you know? Behind where we lived there was just woods and gullies. You could walk for almost two miles before hitting another house. Lots of people wanted to build there, but it’d cost too much to level the area, so it stayed undeveloped. We used to go in there a lot. We’d walk and walk until we got tired, then we’d walk and walk back home again. That’s what Carrie used to say when my mom asked where we were going. ‘For a walk-and-a-walk.’ After a while she started saying it like Fozzie Bear, so it came out ‘For a wakka-wakka!’
“Anyway, one day we went for a walk while we were waiting for Dad to come home so we could go out for pizza. I was eleven, she was fifteen. We got about half a mile in and were about to turn back when we heard voices. We knew that some of the other kids used to hang out in the woods, it wasn’t like it was our personal forest, but any time we saw them we’d hide in the shadows until they left so nobody would bother us.
“But this time, they saw us first. Eight of them, all guys, seniors at the same high school where Carrie was going. They came down the side of the hill toward us, asking what we were doing there and giving us shit for how we were dressed. I was scared, but the thing about my sister is, she’s fucking fearless. Sometimes I think the more scared I got, the braver she got to make up the difference. So she told them to fuck off, grabbed my hand hard, and started up the hill.
“They dragged us back and surrounded us like a pack of fucking wolves. I thought they were gonna beat us up, but then I saw Carrie’s eyes and they were big and wide and for the first time scared because she knew where this was going. ‘Run!’ she said.
“I wasn’t gonna leave her, but it didn’t matter because two of them grabbed me before I could move and pinned me to the ground. I fought back but these were big guys, football players, they had six years and a hundred pounds on me.
“One of them grabbed Carrie and she hit him as hard as she could and then they were all over her, trying to bring her down. She fought so hard. I’ve never seen anyone fight that hard before. But there were too many of them, and they slammed her to the ground and started ripping her clothes off. I was kicking and screaming, trying to get out from under the other guys, but they held me down and—”
Dylan stopped and looked off, and I could see that his eyes were wet. “They raped her. Right in front of me. Even switched places with the guys holding me down so they could get their turn. When they were done, they said if we told anybody what happened nobody would believe us and they’d kill us. When they let me go I started screaming and hitting them and I guess one of them knocked me out because that’s all I remember until I looked up to see my sister standing over me, her face bruised, bleeding between her legs.
“Well, she did tell our parents, and we did tell the cops, and the jury did believe us, and every goddamn one of those assholes did go to jail because they didn’t understand that my sister was fucking fearless. Once it was all over, my folks sent her to live with my other aunt, and that fall she enrolled in a school in the area, far away from where it all happened and all the kids who were friends with the guys who raped her, who said she was a slut and a whore and she had it coming.
“A year later she transferred to a college out of state. I didn’t see her much after that, and when we did meet up it was hard, you know? She wasn’t the same, my parents were never the same, nothing was. There was a distance between us that hadn’t been there before, partly because I could never forgive myself for not stopping them.”
“Dylan, you were eleven, there was nothing you could’ve done.”
“Logically I know that, but emotionally that doesn’t change a goddamn thing. I will never, ever stop thinking that I could’ve done something to save her. So yeah, when I see some asshole hurting a woman, the part of me that wasn’t able to help my sister goes out of its fucking mind and there’s nothing I can do about it and nothing I want to do about it except beat the guy’s head in until there’s nothing left but bits of bone and blood and…”
He pushed down the anger until his voice leveled off. “Sorry to drop all that on you, but you asked.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and noticed that I was resting my hand on his arm. I didn’t remember having put it there, but I let it stay anyway. “Do you think that’s why you joined the army? So you’d have a way to hit back at the bad guys?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Never really thought about it.”
“And your sister? How’s she doing?”
He managed to serve up a grin. “She got her Master’s in Social Work, then signed on as a counselor with a battered women’s shelter in Boston. Every day she has to hear stories like what she went through, face all that emotion and turn it into something good so she can help people. I couldn’t save her, but goddamn if she didn’t save herself and everybody she meets in that place. Sometimes, when one of the residents needs to go back for her property, Carrie goes with her, just daring the guy to try something so she can put him away. Like I said: totally fucking fearless.”
“Hey, you two!” Mark called over from the path. “We’re heading back to the bus. Five minutes or we leave without you.”
“Okay,” Dylan said, then turned back to me. “Guess we should head back.”
As we started walking, I wondered what it must be like to live life totally fucking fearless. I also realized to my surprise that the Spider was being fairly quiet. The meadowsweet had helped a little, which Dylan almost certainly knew would happen when he got it for me in the first place.
He’s always trying to save someone, I thought.
I’ve never been much of a plants-and-flowers guy… the pollen messes up my lungs and I have enough trouble breathing as it is… but I’ve never seen model trains up close, so that was fun. Then I went for a walk until I started to get dizzy, and sat on a bench to catch my breath. The sun was warm on my skin and made me feel better. Anything to get the blood flowing.
Then I heard someone say, “I made something for you.”
I turned to see Theo holding a wreath of leaves freshly rescued from the ground. “Let me see how this looks on you.”
“I can’t… I have a problem with pollen.”
“I can fix that. Did you see a water fountain around here anywhere?”
“Yeah, back that way.”
Theo ran to the fountain, washed off the wreath, and ran back.
“Pollen sticks when it’s dry. Washing should get rid of most of it. Give it a shot.”
I put the laurel on top of my head, which summoned laughter. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone with so much easy joy.
“You look like a Roman emperor! All bow before His Royal Magnificence Tyler Maximus Caesar, the emperor historians always forget to mention!”
“Bastards!” I said.
“Bastards, indeed! Any pollen awfulness?”
“Then my work here is done. Enjoy the sun!”
Then Theo bowed and ran off like a kid who just got out of school on the first day of summer vacation.
So much life. So much laughter.
I sat there, grinning like an idiot, water running down my temples from the laurel, bathing in the warm sunlight until Mark called everybody back to the bus. It was one of those moments of perfect beauty Karen talked about, and I tucked it into the back of my mind like a bird hiding something shiny in its nest so I can look at it whenever I want.
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It’s been a long day, so I told Dylan to stop at a motel so we could get a good night’s rest, maybe even take tomorrow to just chill since we don’t have a pickup for two days. Our penultimate stop in Nebraska is Bellevue University, where we’re supposed to meet the next rider at a dorm party on Betz Road. Rather than send Dylan or go alone, I said that anyone who wanted to come along was welcome since it’s a university and we’ll all blend in (well, except for Vaughn). Might be a good chance to blow off some steam.
Honestly, I could use a break as much as anyone else. Don’t know why but I’m feeling a little down, like I got sideswiped by a bug, or maybe the road is starting to get to me.
As I read back that sentence, it occurs to me that anyone else might look at it and think, You’re on a bus with a bunch of people planning to commit suicide. Why would you look anywhere else for a reason to be depressed?
Because that’s honestly not a factor. Let me explain.
During my freshman year in college, a guy in my History of English Literature class committed suicide one night by jumping off the campus bell tower. Unfortunately he bounced off a ledge into a garden thick with trees and bushes and nobody found his body until that weekend, when the gardeners came in to do cleanup.
The staff and instructors were worried about how we’d take the news, so that Monday, after the dean told everyone what happened, I walked into EngLit to find a grief counselor waiting for us. She talked about how upset and confused we must be, and wanted us to know that we were in a safe place, free to express our feelings. She expected us to react the way she’d been trained to expect: with tears, sobbing, and incomprehension.
She got none of those things. I mean, yeah, the guy who jumped wasn’t a jerk, so we were sad that he was gone, and for sure some of us missed him more than others, but on the tears/sobbing/incomprehension scale of one to ten, we were hovering at about two, tops.
I guess she thought we hadn’t understood her when she said it was okay to let it all out, so she tried broadening the discussion to ask how many of us knew someone who had committed suicide or attempted it. I think she expected maybe one or two hands to go up.
We all raised our hands.
We tried to explain that suicide had become so common in our demo that it just doesn’t have the same shock value anymore. It’s like, Shit, I got hacked and I failed my midterm and Bobby from PE class blew his brains out. I won’t say it’s an everyday occurrence because that’s overstating the case, but it’s not too far from the truth either. Five thousand millennials commit suicide every year. It’s our second biggest cause of death, and the way things are going by next year it’ll probably be number one. Or, like radio DJs used to say back in the day, number one with a bullet, right?
That’s half the reason we weren’t drowning in tears.
Here’s the other half.
My grandfather used to talk about how he had to do these Duck and Cover drills when he was in the second grade. They’d be studying math or history and suddenly the teacher would shout “Bomb!” and everyone would dive under their desks and cover their heads because of course that would save them from a thermonuclear fucking weapon. And there he is, sixty years old, and he’s still not over it. A thing like that changes you forever, he’d say.
But here’s the thing: nobody ever nuked the second grade. Yeah, I’m sure it was scary as shit to prepare for that, but it never actually happened.
By contrast, everybody I know grew up with school shootings. We’re the first bunch who came up knowing for an absolute, stone-certain fact that at any moment, somebody could walk into the cafeteria and execute us. It wasn’t a vague, formless idea or an abstract possibility, it was real. Every time we saw another school get hit, it was like, Well, I guess I’m next.
No disrespect to my grandfather, who was actually a pretty nice guy, but seeing news reports about kids your own age getting their faces blown off on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis changes you and how you look at death. It’s there with us every day. As terrible as this is going to sound, we’re used to it, and we try not to be scared by it.
People grieve over someone getting killed when it comes as a surprise, when it’s rare, when it’s not supposed to happen. If you wanted us to grieve, then you should have made it rare in the first place, fixed things so you’d stop killing us and we wouldn’t have to be killing ourselves. But you didn’t, and we know you didn’t, so yeah, when one of us goes down we don’t grieve about it the way you did, the way you want us to.
And don’t you dare fucking judge us for it.
I’ve never been much of a drinker, usually just a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, but the motel where we stopped for the night was across from a bar and it was still early and there was nothing else to do, so I decided to go for a quick drink, then head back and get some sleep.
It was one of those little taverns you see a lot in Nebraska that’s probably been there as long as the town, with lots of old wood and leather booths, a dart board that hasn’t been used in a long time, and a pool table that’s missing a few balls. But at my age, I should talk, right?
I was about to take a seat at the bar when I saw Theresa and Jim in one of the booths. Wasn’t sure what I should do about it, but Carolyn would say it’s bad form to ignore someone you know, and so far they hadn’t done anything to offend me, so when Jim waved to join them, I headed for the booth.
“What can we get you?” he asked. I told him a beer and he repeated it to the waitress.
We talked for a while about nothing in particular, that kind of conversation you get at a party where nobody knows anybody else and you’re probably never going to see them again, so it’s okay to be dull or stupid or both. But while both of them were a little dull, neither of them were stupid, and they seemed happy for the diversion.
“Sometimes the bus feels a little like high school,” Theresa said. “Cliques, right? ‘Don’t talk to those guys, they have cooties.’?”
I told her I hadn’t heard anyone say cooties in a long time, and she said it was her mother’s favorite expression and it stuck. It didn’t take much prodding to get her to talk about her family some more. Apparently her father was a real piece of work. Racist. Violent. A drunk. Even though he’d inherited all his money instead of working for it, he turned around and said she wouldn’t get a penny of it if she married an African-American.
“I told him I’d rather be dead than live in that house with him a second longer,” she said. “That’s when he told me he was ‘connected’ to some really bad people, that he had Jim’s license plate number, and if I went with Jim he’d hire someone to find us and Jim would get hurt, or worse.”
“Maybe he was bluffing,” Jim said, “but just to be safe I ditched the car after picking up Theresa and we looked for a way out that wouldn’t leave a trail for anyone to find later. We thought about getting bus or train tickets, because you can buy those for cash, but then Theresa showed me Mark’s ad and I thought, well, why not?”
“Sounds like you’re running away more than looking to kill yourselves.”
“We just want to find the right place to do it, that’s all,” Theresa said, “because it needs to be done in a way that’s beautiful.” I could tell she was getting her back up about it. “You don’t think we’re serious, do you? You think this is just a game to us, same as Lisa and the others?”
“Not my place to say,” I told her, but that only pissed her off more.
“Show him,” she told Jim.
He started to say “We don’t have to prove any—” but she cut him off.
He reached into his backpack, pulled out an unmarked bottle of pills, and opened the top so I could look inside. The pills were blue and pink, with the number 45 printed on them.
“Medical-grade arsenic,” she said. “Jim was going to med school when we met and he was able to go back and get them from the university lab. We could do this today, right here, but what Mark described, driving over a cliff in San Francisco at sunset… like I said, it’s beautiful and if I have to pick a way to go, I’d rather do it that way. But if anything goes wrong, or my dad finds us before we can make it to San Francisco, this is our way out.”
Jim was getting uncomfortable with the conversation, and changed the subject to happier topics, like the day they met and how much they were in love with each other. Then Theresa excused herself to go to the bathroom.
Once she was gone, I leaned in to Jim so we could talk quietly. “She doesn’t know, does she?” I said.
“Jim, when you’re twenty, trying to get sleeping pills or Vicodin takes an act of Congress, but when you’re sixty-five they back up the truck and give you pretty much anything you want. They throw it at you like candy because at that age, why not? So I’ve seen pretty much every kind of pill there is, and while I was looking after my wife during her decline I learned to recognize every pill by sight to make sure she didn’t get the wrong one.
“And I know amoxicillin when I see it. Blue and pink, with 45 stamped on the pink side.”
His face fell when he saw I had him dead to rights. “Please don’t tell her,” he said. “Saying I had poison was the only way I could stop her from doing something stupid on her own.”
“So Lisa got it right, you don’t want to kill yourself.”
“Me? Fuck no.”
“Then why pretend otherwise?”
“Because she’s got a temper like you wouldn’t believe, Vaughn. If I try and talk her out of killing herself while she’s this mad at her father, she’ll just turn around and do it. So I’m trying to keep the situation from escalating until she calms down enough for us to figure out how to deal with her dad.”
“So why get on the bus?”
“I thought if she could see a bunch of people who really are serious about taking their own lives, she might decide she’s not one of them. Meanwhile, it’ll show her that I’m listening to her, which buys me time to try and change her mind.
“So don’t tell the others, okay? Because like I said, she’s got a temper and if one of them says something about it… trust me, you don’t want to be on the other side of what happens next.”
“I promise,” I said, just in time to see Theresa coming out of the bathroom. As she sat back down, Jim changed the subject to their relationship and how great it was. I smiled and nodded until I finished my beer, then thanked Jim for picking up the tab and headed to my room.
I came back with a lot more respect for Jim. He’s trying to save her, preserve their relationship, and find some way to reconcile with a man who clearly hates his guts and can’t be trusted. That’s a lot of weight for anyone to carry, but he’s doing the best he can with it.
I hope things work out with them better than they did with me.
God knows they couldn’t do any worse.
After being blocked the last few days due to the excitement of signing on for this expedition, I was finally able to get some writing done tonight on the stories, filling up most of my last notebook before deciding to get some sleep. Unfortunately, when my brain is in writing mode, it’s incapable of shutting down on command—it just takes all that energy and turns it inward, projecting random thoughts and bits of dialogue on the inside of my eyelids until I surrender to the inevitable and get back up again. So with the sun starting to peek through the curtains I decided to put some of that free-floating energy to work and write a bit about why I’m here.
At risk of overthinking everything—and as someone who got a BA in Gender Studies and made it halfway through the Master’s program for Political Theory, that’s apparently something I do all the time—I think there are two ways that people commit suicide.
The first way people kill themselves is a kind of spontaneous combustion. It comes out of rage or shock or sudden deep depression and catches you by surprise, and before you even realize you’re doing it, you’re reaching for the gun or the knife or the pills. It’s as if something inside you gets too sad or too angry to survive anymore and it explodes, taking you with it. I think it happens most often to the very people who don’t think they could ever kill themselves, because they’re not paying attention when their switch gets flipped in the middle of something awful.
The second is more like a time-delay fuse. It comes when you’ve been wounded for days or weeks or years and you finally reach a point when your heart gets very quiet and very still and you realize that you simply cannot live in the world anymore, when you say, I have no purpose here, no place, no function, no reason to keep going. Why stick around when you’re not free to be yourself, you’re not wanted, your future isn’t what you thought it was going to be and every day you’re being elbowed a little further off the planet? It’s not that you can’t take it anymore, it’s that you refuse to take it anymore. The decision doesn’t come like a lightning bolt out of anger, despair, or self-pity; it’s more like standing up on your hind legs and announcing to the world, You’re all a bunch of assholes and I never asked to be invited to this stupid party in the first place so I’m outta here.
Last year, a friend of mine decided she’d had enough of the bullshit and wanted out. Rather than go the spontaneous combustion route, she spent weeks hand-writing letters to everyone who mattered, telling them what she was going to do, and why, and how it wasn’t their fault. She could’ve just written emails and timed them to go out when appropriate, but she wanted a more personal touch. When she was done, she packed up a picnic lunch, dropped the letters in the mail, and went to her favorite park to sit by the lake. As the sun went down, she sorted the trash into the appropriate bins, strolled over to a walking path where she knew her body would be found the next morning, sat with her back against a tree to minimize the mess, put the business end of a gun in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
I don’t belong in this world. I could go into a million reasons why I’ve come to that conclusion, starting with all the bullying earlier in my life, to my screwed-up family and the fact that I’ll never have the kind of job or life that would make sticking around worthwhile, but it all adds up to the same thing. I don’t belong here. Could I have an easier time if I embraced a more conventional approach to my life and my gender? Sure, but then I wouldn’t be me. If I have to choose between being allowed to live in this world by being false to everything I believe in, or going to a world I’ve created in my own head, even if it’s not real, where I can be myself, I’ll pick the latter every time.
That’s what I’ve done, and what I’m doing, and with all due respect for the process and the (not exactly enforceable) agreement I signed when I got on the bus, I don’t feel the need to describe the proverbial final straw that broke the equally proverbial camel’s back. It would just give people the ammunition they need to say Aha! That’s why it happened, that one very specific thing and dismiss everything else, letting themselves off the hook for whatever role they played in this process.
I read once about a man who was getting dressed one morning, and as he bent to tie his shoes, one of the laces snapped. He looked at the shoes for a moment, then got up, walked to the window, and jumped twelve stories to his death. Clearly he wasn’t distraught about the shoelace, that’s ridiculous. It was all the things that the shoelace represented, everything that led up to that one singular moment when the shoelaces became the One More Thing he couldn’t handle and he dove out the window.
I don’t want people thinking I did this because of a shoelace. My reasons are my own, and I don’t have to justify them to anyone.
Last year I found an old book on manners at a used bookstore, and one of the chapters said that when someone invites you to dinner or a party and you don’t want to go, you don’t have to respond with a bunch of excuses, explanations, or justifications that will just end up sounding exactly like what they are. It’s your choice, your life, and you don’t have to explain yourself. The proper response is simply, I appreciate the invitation, but alas I cannot attend the party. Please give my regards to everyone who can make it.
I appreciate the invitation, but alas I cannot attend the rest of my life.
Please give my regards to everyone else who can hack it.
I’d always heard the phrase “Live every day as if it were your last,” but I never really understood what it meant until now. Everything I do is potentially the last time I’ll ever do it, so I go as deep as I can, savoring every moment, looking at all the details that I missed before because I didn’t have to pay attention, as if I was immortal, and tomorrow was guaranteed. Now everything is luminous. Everything is joyful. There’s no more worry about the future, about getting a job, or making plans or being judged or hitting the right grades or who I should be or where I should be or when I should be there. No more hesitations, second thoughts, recriminations, or doubt.
I am the arrow loosed from the bow. I go where the air and my velocity take me.
My life is my own, it belongs to no one else, and I will do with it as I wish.
Woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe. I could feel my lungs moving, but nothing was happening, like I was drowning. Fighting panic, I grabbed the sports O2 canister I keep in my bag and sucked down oxygen until it passed. When the room stopped spinning, I licked my finger and the spit was pinkish and frothy. Pulmonary edema. Not the first time, but it may be getting close to the last time.
I spent the rest of the night sitting up in bed, trying not to use the O2 unless I really needed it. I wanted to text someone, just to distract myself, but it was four in the morning and I didn’t want to bother anybody.
And I just started crying.
Whenever something really terrible happens, I think there’s a part of our brain that says, This isn’t real, it’s just a nightmare, and any minute now I’ll wake up and it’ll all be the way it’s supposed to be, except you don’t and it isn’t and it’s as awful as it ever was. Your leg is stuck in a bear trap and you can’t open it and you can’t get out and there’s nobody around to help you, there’s just this searing pain that gets bigger and bigger until you black out, and when you finally wake up again there’s this split second when you think, Thank God that wasn’t real, then the pain comes back and it is real and your brain keeps looking for a reset button that’s not there, going crazier every day because there’s no way out.
That’s how I’ve felt ever since my condition started taking a turn for the worse two years ago. I suppose I should be grateful because the doctor didn’t think I’d even make it this far, and yeah, it’s great that I did, but the thing is two years isn’t enough.
It takes just two years to get an AA degree, two years for a baby to grow molars, two years of dating before anyone in your family takes the relationship seriously, two years for Mormon missionaries to do whatever the hell Mormon missionaries do when they’re in Africa or China… two years is a thirty-second time-lapse video of a freeway under construction, two years is a heartbeat!
And I’m nearly out of those.
And it’s not fair, because I’ve never hurt anyone or done anything to deserve this. I don’t want to die. But I also don’t want to spend my last days in a hospital room, hooked up to IV drips and monitors with a breathing tube stuck down my throat, drowning in pink froth until my lungs fill up and my heart explodes. This is better. I’m just afraid that my illness might not let me get all the way to San Francisco, that my road may be a lot shorter than the one Karen and Lisa and Mark and the rest are on.
But at least I’m not alone on that road, and though I can’t do a lot physically right now, being here for them in other ways helps me feel like I’m doing something good on my way out.
If I have to die, then let it be with people I care about, doing something to help them. Let me die for a reason. That’s not so much to ask, is it?
Hi, I’m Audio Recorder!
Tap the icon to start recording.
MARK ANTONELLI: Test one two three…
MARK ANTONELLI: Hey.
ZEKE: D said you’re going to a party.
MARK ANTONELLI: Sort of. I’m supposed to meet the new guy so he can scope me out, make sure I’m legit before signing on while I’m doing the same to him. All the frats are having parties tonight, so it’ll probably take a while to find the right place. Shanelle, Theo, and Lisa are coming along.
ZEKE: Oh, good because Lisa’s been a real—
MARK ANTONELLI: Yeah, I know. It’ll be good to give her a break from Theresa. You saw what happened this morning?
ZEKE: Yeah, I didn’t hear what they were arguing about, but for sure Lisa was pissed. I keep waiting for shit to go down with them.
MARK ANTONELLI: You want to come to the party?
ZEKE: No, man, too much noise, not Soldier’s scene.
MARK ANTONELLI: How’s he doing?
ZEKE: He’s pretty tired. He slept most of the day, but he’s awake now, so I thought I’d take him for a walk. I carry him to different trees and flowers so he can sniff at everything. For a cat, that’s like going on vacation, right?
MARK ANTONELLI: Sure. Just don’t go too far from the bus in case we have to bug out.
MARK ANTONELLI: Hey, Zeke—
MARK ANTONELLI: If you have time to write up a journal entry, it would be great.
ZEKE: I haven’t had a chance.
MARK ANTONELLI: I know, but everyone else is doing it, so…
ZEKE: No, it’s okay, you’re right. I’ll try to get something down after the sniff tour.
After graduating high school, I went to a community college for about a year before giving up. I used to dream about getting a degree in psychology so I could be a counselor to kids who were as screwed up as me (fun fact: most people in asylums want to be psychologists when they get out, so what does that say about crazy people, psychologists, and me?), but even if I got an AA my folks couldn’t afford to send me on to a four-year college and I wasn’t earning enough to go on my own, so what was the point? And I couldn’t focus on anything. I was depressed all the time. All I wanted to do was sleep and eat. Mainly eat. Then sleep when I couldn’t eat. Mama tried cutting back on dinner to help me lose weight, but I’d just sneak money out of my dad’s wallet to buy junk food and hide it under the bed. The more I ate, the more depressed I got, and the more depressed I got, the more I ate. I was sleeping twelve hours a day, going to bed at dawn, then getting up when it was dark. Sometimes I didn’t see the sun for days. Which of course just made me even more depressed.
When my dad realized I was dipping in his wallet, he said that if I wanted money I had to earn it or get it as a reward for losing weight. Since the back half of that wasn’t going to work, I tried getting a job at the mall, but nobody wants a fat girl selling clothes. They like finger-thin bulimia cases that would snap in half if you touched them the wrong way. And nobody wants to hire someone my size for a job that takes a lot of heavy lifting because they’re afraid I’ll have a heart attack and fall over dead and their insurance won’t cover it.
I finally found a job working for a phone solicitation company that helped people consolidate debt when they were behind on their credit cards. I actually kind of enjoyed it because I felt like I was helping people and nobody knew what I looked like on the phone, they just heard my voice, and my sunny disposition won them over! I even had guys flirting with me during the calls, and that was a first for sure!
One of these was Phil, and once we realized he was only about ten miles away he kept asking me for a date. I told him he wouldn’t want to go out with me because I was a “big girl.” When he asked how big, I texted him a photo. He texted back “no problem” and asked me to meet him at a restaurant downtown for dinner. He was twelve years older than me, but that was okay. I figured we could meet in the middle of him being too old and me being too big.
I spent hours getting ready. I wanted to look all sparkly for the big night, so I picked up some Laura Mercier Baroque eye shadow which looks good with my complexion. It cost twenty-three dollars, but it was worth the investment. I was so excited that I got to the restaurant twenty minutes early.
He showed up right on time, but when I walked over to him, I saw The Look in his eyes. The I didn’t know you were this big look. He tried to hide it, but it was all over him. “Hey, I sent you a photo,” I said, and laughed, trying to make it not a big deal.
“Yeah, I know, you did, it’s just… cameras always put on twenty pounds, so I assumed…” He ran out of words as the hostess took us to our table.
He didn’t talk as we went over the menu, but I could feel him getting upset. Not just upset, angry, like I deliberately got fat that day just to piss him off. I asked him what was good here to eat. “It’s all good,” he said without looking up from the menu. Then the waiter came over and I asked if we could have some sparkling water. When he brought it over, Phil said he had to go to the restroom.
He never came back. He gave the waiter twenty bucks for the water and a tip, then slipped out the back.
It was the Valentine’s Day card all over again. He hadn’t set out to do it deliberately, but that didn’t change how it hit me, and I started crying. When the hostess came over to see what was going on, I told her what happened and she said that if I wanted anything to eat, it was on the house.
But for a change, I wasn’t hungry. Just angry. I mean really angry, at him, at me, at the world, at everything.
And I drank every drop of that fucking bottle of sparkling water, because he owed me at least that much.
The next day I decided he owed me a lot more than that, so I canceled all his cards, tanked his credit rating, and gave his address to a collection agency he’d been ducking.
My boss fired me when he found out what I’d done. I was mad about it, but the other girls working the phone bank said I should just be glad he didn’t sue me, but I knew that if he did, it would open up a big can of worms about how well he was running things if one person could do all this, so he did what he could to fix the damage, then booted me out the door. And I was right back where I started.
That’s when I started cutting myself.
I was home alone, angry at what happened, at Phil and my boss and myself and my folks, and I could feel a pressure in my veins getting worse every second, like somebody pumping too much air into a balloon, until my whole body was shaking and I felt like if I didn’t let the pressure out I’d explode, so I picked up a steak knife and dragged it across my arm, not too deep, just enough to draw blood. And just like that, I got all quiet inside, like I let the rage out of my veins, and the pressure dropped and I actually felt better. I looked at the blood like, Oh, hello, friend, nice to meet you.
After that, any time I found myself getting upset I’d go into a bathroom if I was out, or my bedroom if I was home, and make a little cut, usually high up on my thigh, where nobody could see it, and let a little blood out. I always felt better afterward. Even my folks said I seemed happier and calmer. Then Mama saw bloodstains on the wrong part of my pants when some of the scabs came off, and all hell broke loose.
More later. Going to a party!
Hi, I’m Audio Recorder!
Tap the icon to start recording.
MARK ANTONELLI: If I record this?
VOICE 16: Shit, yeah, record away, I got nothing to hide. Is that just voice or voice to text?
MARK ANTONELLI: Voice to text. Just a second, let me edit this. Music’s pretty loud, but it should be okay with the microphone.
EDIT VOICE? Y/N Y
ENTER VOICE 16 NAME: PETER
MARK ANTONELLI: Okay, that should do it.
PETER: Test, test. So how come I’m just Peter and you’re Mark Antonelli? Shouldn’t I be Peter Routh?
MARK ANTONELLI: Fine, hang on, one second.
EDIT VOICE? Y/N Y
ENTER NAME: PETER ROUTH
PETER ROUTH: Can we also put in my middle initial?
MARK ANTONELLI: Fuck off. And stop staring at the screen.
SHANELLE: Mark! I brought you a beer!
MARK ANTONELLI: Thanks, Shanelle. This is Peter, he wants to join up.
PETER ROUTH: Once I know you’re serious.
MARK ANTONELLI: Once we know you’re serious.
SHANELLE: I’ll let you two fight it out. I gotta go keep an eye on Lisa.
PETER ROUTH: Did you know he only has you on here by your first name?
MARK ANTONELLI: Will you stop with that shit?
PETER ROUTH: Let’s go over there so nobody can hear us. How many people you got so far?
MARK ANTONELLI: Counting me and the driver, eleven. I figure we’ll max out at about fifteen. So what’re you studying?
PETER ROUTH: Double major, philosophy and psychology. Which means I win most arguments I get into, and if I do lose, I can make you feel bad about it afterward.
MARK ANTONELLI: So why do you want to come on the bus?
PETER ROUTH: Because of my fashion sense. Why the fuck do you think?
MARK ANTONELLI: I’m asking because everyone who’s signed up so far has a reason.
PETER ROUTH: And you don’t think I do?
MARK ANTONELLI: I’m just saying, you’re a good-looking guy, you seem to have your shit together, you don’t seem sick or depressed or…
PETER ROUTH: You want the whole thing?
MARK ANTONELLI: I got no other plans for tonight. Why do you want to kill yourself?
PETER ROUTH: That is totally the wrong question. People don’t decide one day to kill themselves. Never happens.
MARK ANTONELLI: I’ve got nine other people on the bus who would disagree with that.
PETER ROUTH: I’m just saying that the suicidal impulse is always there. It’s like when your car pulls to the left, and you have to keep both hands on the wheel to keep going straight because if you take your hands off, the car veers into oncoming traffic. Same with suicide. The pull is always there, but because we have things to do, because we have reasons not to kill ourselves, we keep both hands on the wheel. So it’s not so much that people decide to kill themselves, it’s that one day they run out of reasons not to kill themselves. They take their hands off the wheel, surrender to the pull of the suicidal impulse, and next thing you know, bam.
MARK ANTONELLI: So what made you decide to take your hands off the wheel?
PETER ROUTH: It’s been a long process, but if there’s one thing, last summer my girlfriend, Jessie, was hit by a car. She spent months in a coma with no brain activity, just gone, nothing there, but her folks kept her plugged in because they could afford it, because they didn’t believe the doctors. If Jessie could have seen what they were doing to her, she would’ve done anything to stop it. Same thing happened to my father, they kept him around long after he would’ve wanted because he was in no condition to say let me go. I’m not going to let that happen to me. I’m taking hold of my destiny.
MARK ANTONELLI: Yeah, but you’re, what, twenty-four? You’ve got years ahead of you.
PETER ROUTH: So did Jessie, and look what happened. Don’t you get it? Maybe it happens tomorrow crossing the street, or a year from now, or twenty years from now. It doesn’t change the fact that all of us are going to decay and endure horrific shit that nobody should ever have to endure and I’m not doing it. No fucking way. I’m gonna go out loud and powerful and raging while I still can.
MARK ANTONELLI: But there’s a lot you could do.
PETER ROUTH: As what? A cog in a machine? For a corporation? For a boss? For some faceless master on a distant mountaintop? Just so I can end up in a cheap apartment because I can’t afford a house, sick all the time because I can’t afford a doctor, overeducated and underemployed, and the planet’s completely fucked because of corporate greed and plastic and too many people clawing at every last drop of whatever’s left? Who wants that shit? Me? Hell, no.
MARK ANTONELLI: So for you, suicide is a rational choice.
PETER ROUTH: Given everything I just described, suicide is the only rational choice.
MARK ANTONELLI: If that’s true, then why is society so against it?
PETER ROUTH: Because it breaks their control over us, because doctors are afraid of getting sued for missing the warning signs, because credit card companies want to get paid and families don’t want the guilt. In primitive societies, when somebody wanted to walk out into the snow or give it up to the wolves, they let him. If he wanted to go back to creation or another birth, they said fine, do what you gotta do. You’ve heard of seppuku, right?
MARK ANTONELLI: Sure, everyone has.
PETER ROUTH: It’s suicide, no different from chugging pills, but calling it seppuku somehow makes it brave, makes it the honorable thing to do. In early Greece and Rome, people killed themselves all the time. It was just an accepted part of life. In Rome, if you wanted to kill yourself, you went to the Senate, walked them through your reasons, and most of the time they said great, no problem, here’s some hemlock.
MARK ANTONELLI: Bullshit.
PETER ROUTH: Totally true, it was just that casual. They called it a virtuous death. The only people in Rome who weren’t allowed to kill themselves were soldiers because their asses belonged to the Empire, slaves because it wasn’t good business, and people accused of crimes because if they died before a judgment could be made, the state couldn’t confiscate their money. It’s always been about money and power and control and who has it and who doesn’t. Shit, the Church didn’t say boo about suicide until Augustine came along in the sixth century to say that only God had the right to decide when we die. Well, I say fuck that. Killing yourself may be the only decision you can ever make that is truly, honestly, and one hundred percent your own.
MARK ANTONELLI: Do you ever breathe? I mean seriously.
PETER ROUTH: It’s the ultimate fuck-you to the system. That’s why the courts made it illegal, and the medical world made it a sign of mental illness, even though the assumption that all suicide is the result of mental illness has never been proven and never will be.
Back in the nineteen fifties in London, if you tried to kill yourself and the court decided that you were crazy when you did it, that was fine because it gave the system the authority to put you in a box with no control over your body, your property, or your money. What scared them was the possibility that the court could go the other way and decide that you were sane when you tried to kill yourself, which acknowledges that suicide can be a rational decision, and that’s the last thing the politicians wanted. They said they were worried that it would send the wrong signal to others who were thinking about doing the same thing, but the truth is they didn’t want to lose the control that a verdict of insanity gave them over people.
So they passed laws that made trying to kill yourself straight-up illegal, regardless of whether or not you were sane when you did it. They put it in the same category as murder, or trying to break into someone’s house. They called it felo-de-se, which means a felony against yourself, if you can believe that shit. You want to know what else they called suicide?
MARK ANTONELLI: You’ve spent a lot of time on Wikipedia, haven’t you?
PETER ROUTH: I studied this shit for two years, motherfucker, and they called suicide, quote, the crime of depriving the King of a subject, unquote. As far as they were concerned, you belonged to the Crown. So if you killed yourself and the court declared that you were sane when you did it, they took your family’s land, property, and money as penalty for trying to steal from the Crown. Since the government can’t take your stuff away anymore for trying to kill yourself, they’ve gone back to saying it’s crazy.
But that’s just not true. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, fifty thousand last year, twice as many suicides as homicides, but doctors could only point to psychological issues in less than half of them. That means the rest of them weren’t crazy, they knew exactly what they were doing. That’s why I had this tattooed on my chest. See right here? What does it say?
MARK ANTONELLI: Do not resuscitate.
PETER ROUTH: You think I’m not serious? You think I’m just dicking around and I don’t really mean any of this? That’s why I picked this up the other day—here, let me drag out my backpack.
MARK ANTONELLI: Whoa. What’s that, a katana?
PETER ROUTH: Wakizashi, the smaller version. I didn’t know if you guys would show up, if you were real, if I’d agree to go with you, or how you guys planned to finish it up, so if this didn’t work out, I figured tonight’s party would be my goodbye. Go out old-school, you know? I’m as serious as anybody else on that bus, Mark, maybe more so because for me this isn’t an emotional decision, it’s not some kind of impulse, I’m not doing it because my mom didn’t love me or I have a tumor or my girlfriend just broke up with me or I’m super depressed, well, maybe a little, but Jesus fuck, these days, who isn’t? I’m doing it because it’s the only choice that makes any kind of goddamned sense. So if I get on the bus with the rest of you, great, we’ll do it together later, but I’m also cool with doing this right here, right now. I can go either way.
MARK ANTONELLI: Then come on the bus. Totally signing off on you.
PETER ROUTH: Great, as soon as I sign off on you. Want another beer?
MARK ANTONELLI: Fucking A.
Tonight was very strange.
Ever since I got that email from the Bitch, I’ve been sleeping more than usual. Just didn’t want to deal with it. I think my fellow passengers are happy when I conk out, and I can’t blame them. So yeah, I’ve been pretty down, though I had to smile when the guy who delivered my message called to say that when my dad found out she’d burned my note, the whole thing turned into a big blowup. So Dad, if you’re reading this in the Aftermath: please don’t invite her to my funeral, because if she shows up, I swear I’ll crawl out of my casket or my urn (depending on how much is left to work with) and kick the shit out of her.
Anyway, when Mark said we were going to a party, I got excited for the first time in days, and the hyper part of my brain (not the Crazy Lisa part, we’re past that now) went into overdrive. I couldn’t keep still, so I was popping Molly and Bluetoothing Caravan Palace through the bus speakers and dancing in the aisle with a crowd that wasn’t there, and TheresaAndJim were being all pissy about it and nobody else joined in, but I didn’t give a shit if it was just me dancing because Just Me was Just Lisa and for once I was totally down with that. Everybody else just rolled their eyes like “Well, there she goes,” except Shanelle, the new girl. She thought it was funny and said she was going to keep an eye on me when we got to the party so I didn’t get in trouble “because girl, I have heard some stories.” That was a surprise, and kind of nice.
The whole time we were walking across campus trying to find the dorm, I’m jumping up and down like some kind of goddamned jackrabbit. I was happy to be out of the bus and going to a party and Molly was being so exceptionally sweet to me that I offered to introduce her to Shanelle, since they had not previously met, but she only took a quarter and Theo passed, so that left me to be the Fun Machine for the evening.
And I tried, I really did. The place was shaking, the music was great, there was a lot of really good booze and everybody was into it… but I couldn’t kick loose, like something was holding me back and I thought, Molly, you bitch, you straight-up ghosted me just when I needed you, so I dug around in my goody bag until I found some shrooms. Washed them down with beer and waited for the hit.
Usually with shrooms, I can feel myself shaking off my body and letting go pretty fast. But this time I got stuck inside, like I was looking at everything through a periscope in the top of my head, me watching me watching them watching me. I was inside, outside, and above but not quite there, if that makes sense. Then the music and the voices went away and everything got really quiet.
When I was in high school, I went through this phase where I was fascinated by YouTube videos of Ye Olden Days. Around the turn of the century (the last one, not this one), somebody would rent a truck or a horse-drawn wagon, load up a hand-cranked camera, and go down one street after another, shooting silent film of cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. Grainy little movies of people just living life, driving around, crossing the street or selling newspapers. I couldn’t get enough of them. I’d get real close to the screen, trying to see past their faces to what they were thinking, where they’d been and where they were going and what they’d do when they got there, and I’d think, All those people are dead, and all those buildings are gone… that place, those people, and the world they knew doesn’t exist anymore, like I was looking at them through the window of a time machine.
That’s how I felt tonight. Like I was a time traveler peeking in at the party from another time and place. No sound, no voices, no music. Except they’re not the ones that are going away.
In a few days or weeks, they’ll still be having parties, there will be booze and Molly and music and dancing. But I won’t be here to see it. The world I know won’t exist anymore.
Somebody turned the camera around, and now I’m the one looking out from a piece of film, long gone.
I am no longer a part of this world. I am a picture in somebody’s yearbook. A face on a security video somewhere, adrift in time.
I am a memory.
Hey, Mark, it’s Zeke! Just leaving this here to follow up on what you said about writing a journal entry. So here it is. But wait! Should I have said Hey, Mark or Hey, Somebody Else? If all this gets beamed up to the Starship Enterprise when the bus goes over that cliff in San Francisco and you never get to read it, maybe I should start this with Hey, Whoever! Or To Whom This May Concern! Or Hey You! Ha-ha! I like that one.
Well shit, now I have to actually write something.
But see, here’s the thing. I don’t think any of the stuff I’m supposed to write about actually means anything. If I tell you I was born here, I went to school over there, my folks were good or bad or not there most of the time, it doesn’t tell you who I am right now. Past’s dead. If we let something that happened years ago decide who we are right now, well, that’s pretty stupid, right?
The only thing I remember from my half year of math in junior college is that time doesn’t actually exist. Everything is happening at the same time, there are no straight lines from here to there. It’s only perception and the way our minds work that make us think that this thing happened today, that thing happened yesterday, and something else is going to happen tomorrow. It’s quantum mechanics, and I’d love to explain that to you more, but I never made it past the intro class! Only reason I remember the part about time is that I thought it was really cool. It means that right now I’m being born, right now I’m graduating high school, right now I’m shooting up for the first time, right now I’m getting on the bus, and right now I’m dying. That’s crazy! But there’s math behind it, so I guess it’s true.
If there’s no such thing as the past, if there’s only right now, then why dwell on it, right? Move on. (Yeah, I know, there’s no such thing as “moving on” if the future is also bogus, but you know what I mean.)
So yeah: What to write? I don’t think I have a lot to say that’s worth much of anything. My folks would agree with that, for sure. Always did.
One thing I guess I should say is: thank you for letting me on the bus so I could get to know everybody here, even Lisa, and have some company to go along with me and Soldier on our last big adventure! It really means a lot to both of us.
Thinking about it a little more, maybe there is one thing I can say. Something I only figured out the other day.
Like I said, Soldier and me are close, but in a funny way. I mean, he’s never been ultra-affectionate. He’d let me pet him and pick him up and carry him around without trying to wriggle away, but he’s not one of those cats you see rubbing up against people, or booping heads, that sort of thing. Never came up and licked my face. I just figured he was shy, you know?
Any time I had some money, I’d buy food for Soldier first, then get whatever I needed with what was left. I looked after him. Protected him. Because he loved me. You could see it in his eyes. Love, man. Crazy stupid cat love that was five times bigger than he was.
But he never came over. Weird, huh?
So while we were looking out the window on the bus today, I remembered something. Don’t know why, it just came up at me, like when you’re sitting at a stoplight with your brain in neutral waiting for the green and something you hadn’t thought about since forever swims up at you out of nowhere and you think, where the hell did that come from and why now?
I remembered the day I went out to score some party favors and left the door open by accident. We were squatting in this abandoned apartment, no water or heat but it had a roof and walls and that was all we needed. I hadn’t had Soldier very long and he was always looking out the window like he wanted to go for a walk. It was a pretty rough area, so I kept the door closed so he wouldn’t wander out and get grabbed or lost or hurt, but this one time I was withdrawing pretty hard so I was kind of spaced and not paying attention so I forgot to close the door when I went out.
When I came back and saw the door open, my heart just sank. I ran inside, figuring by now he was long gone, but there he was, sitting in his favorite spot, right where I left him, front legs tucked under his chest, really calm, just looking at me like, Of course I wouldn’t leave, as if I could’ve gone away for five years, and he’d still be sitting there when I came back, waiting for me. And I realized how any time I left the room, wherever he was when I left was where he was when I came back. Whenever we went for a walk, he always stayed beside me, never getting too far behind or ahead, so I’d always know he was right there.
And I finally got the message.
Soldier didn’t need to show me all the time that he loved me. He knew it and I knew it and that’s that. What he was doing was giving me a safe place to put my own love.
It’s like he was saying, I’m never going to leave you. I’ll wait for you. I want you to know that I’ll always wait for you, that it’s safe to love me, that you have a place to put all the feelings you can’t give to anybody else because it’s too dangerous, because you’re worried they won’t understand, and they won’t wait for you. I’m here. I love you. And I will wait for you. I’m not going anywhere.
And I just started crying.
That’s why I can’t let him die alone. I can’t let him go too far ahead of me, or fall too far behind me. We walk together. When he gets to the other side, he’ll wait for me until I come to pick him up and hold him. And I don’t want him to wait a minute longer than he has to.
It’s love that put us on the road, Mark, or whoever’s reading this. Love is what put us on the bus, and love is what’s going to carry me and Soldier across to someplace where we can play forever.
The only drawback to explaining the Blueness of Me to newcomers is that by now everybody else already knows the story and they’ve started to develop a sense of humor about the whole thing. So when Peter, the latest member of our merry band of misfits, got on the bus and saw me, before I could launch into my explanation, Shanelle grabbed him, pointed at me, and said “Ohmygod, he just turned this color, what should we do, oh shit, call 9-1-1!” and Peter’s grabbing for his cell phone and I’m trying to explain the situation while she’s laughing her ass off.
“It’s Chronic Smurfitis,” she says, and hugs me. “We need to get him back to his village, fast. Sleazy Smurf will know what to do.”
Humor is so subjective.
Carolyn and I tried for years to have children, but it never seemed to work out. There was one miscarriage about a year after we got married, and after that, nothing. For a while we thought it was me, but the doctor said everything looked normal. It took a lot more tests, but finally the doc said that Carolyn had this thing called Primary Ovarian Insufficiency that stops the ovaries from functioning properly. We tried different treatments, but none of them worked so finally we gave up. We talked about adoption but never followed through, and settled into being just the two of us together. What with both of us being our folks’ only children, I guess we were used to the idea of being on our own.
When Carolyn’s dad retired, he and his wife moved to Alexandria, Ohio, because the world was getting too big and busy for them and nothing much ever happened in Alexandria. Before leaving, he asked if I’d run the company in his absence. I’d never seen myself as a boss, sitting in an office moving around pieces of paper all day, but that’s where I ended up. Every morning I’d get up at seven, make coffee, two scrambled eggs and toast, moving real quiet because Carolyn liked to sleep in, read the paper (yes, some of us still do that), then walk the two blocks to work, which mainly consisted of requisitioning supplies, walking the floor, and approving purchase orders for the same sixteen kinds of false-faced fiberwood boards that we’d been producing for the last twenty years. At seven p.m., half an hour after everyone else left for the day, I’d finish the day’s paperwork, close up the office and walk the two blocks back home. Most days I’d spend the walk thinking about whether we’d done better or worse than the day before, or trying to guess what Carolyn was going to make for dinner that night.
Other days, though, I used to think about sneaking into the car when I got home, driving to the airport, and taking the first plane out to anywhere: Bali, Rome, Berlin, Hawaii, or any of the other places I’d never been. I began to wonder if I was living my life or my life was living me. But I always tucked the thought away before walking past the car in the driveway and through the front door.
There was only one time when things kind of got away from me a bit. I was working late one evening after everyone else had gone home, approving a bunch of purchase orders, when I realized I’d grabbed the wrong file from the cabinet. This one was from five years earlier. I got them confused because both sets of orders were from the same construction company in Ohio, for the same things, in the same style, in the same amounts they’d been ordering since Carolyn’s dad opened the company. Looking at those purchase orders side by side was like looking at five years of my life doing the same thing, over and over and over.
The only way I can describe what happened next is that everything went all upside down in my head. One minute I’m staring at those two identical sets of paper, heart racing, hands shaking harder and harder, and for a second I think I’m having a heart attack but I guess it wasn’t because the next thing I remember is sitting on the floor in the middle of my office, the filing cabinets tipped over and papers scattered all over the floor, the desk and the window blinds half torn off, and all the framed pictures on my desk are broken and there’s glass everywhere.
I didn’t move for a long time, just sat there, breathing hard, in case whatever happened might happen again, but it didn’t, so I called Carolyn to say I had to work late and spent the next couple of hours putting it back the way it was. I picked up the cabinets, pulled the blinds all the way up so you couldn’t tell they were torn, threw the broken glass into the recycling bin, then walked the two blocks home and tried really hard never to think about it again.
My folks passed away just after I turned fifty. My mother went first of complications from pneumonia—she was always fragile that way—and my father passed a year later of a stroke. Not long after that, Carolyn’s folks also started doing poorly. Sunsetting, the doctors call it. So we sold the company, cashed out a pretty decent retirement fund, and moved to Alexandria to look after them. Back when Carolyn and I got married, we used to talk about growing old together and facing the end side by side with love and courage. When our conversations got too serious, she’d sing, to the tune of that old nursery rhyme “A-Hunting We Will Go”: “Together we will go, together we will go, heigh-ho the derry-o, together we will go.” It made her laugh every time. And sure enough, here we were, together on a road that was a lot shorter in front of us than it was behind us.
Carolyn’s dad died about a year after we moved to Alexandria, and her mom two years later. Once they were gone, I thought we might travel a bit. We had the money, we could have afforded it, and neither of us had been much farther than Chicago. I talked to her about Bali and Hawaii and Rome and Berlin, but, see, Carolyn had allergies and bronchial problems that never quite cleared up after a bout of pneumonia a few years earlier, and she thought it was too risky to go messing around with airplanes and recycled hotel air, and I couldn’t leave her to go traipsing around the world by myself, so—
Okay. Stop it.
I need to stop dancing around this, quit trying to justify why I did what I did like I’m in a courtroom. That’s all I’ve been doing since it happened, running the reasons through my head over and over as if they’d make a difference.
Just get to the point. Say the words. You can do it.
Okay. Here it is.
I killed my wife.
I killed Carolyn.
Seeing it written out like that somehow makes it seem smaller than it is. I thought it’d feel more like an explosion. But it’s a relief to finally admit it.
The turn started when Carolyn got real sick two years ago. I won’t go into what it was and how she got diagnosed and how we reacted to the news because once you hit sixty, there’s really only two kinds of illness: ones where you get better and ones where you don’t. This was the latter. She declined pretty fast, and by the end of the year she couldn’t get out of bed anymore. I put in a respirator beside the bed to help her breathe, and paid a nurse to come in twice a day to keep track of her condition and help out with feeding, bathing, and other necessities.
After a while, Carolyn stopped talking. She’d just lie there and sleep. Sometimes her eyes would flutter open for a few seconds, but they were always focused somewhere past the wall, not on me or the nurse. Most days I don’t think she even knew we were there. When animals know they’re going to die, they go somewhere quiet where they can be alone. Carolyn couldn’t go somewhere quiet, so I think she found that alone-place somewhere inside her head.
The night it happened, I’d finished turning her and tucking her back in for the night. When someone’s bedridden, you have to turn them twice a day so they don’t get bedsores, because the sores can form underneath, where you might not see them, and when they break they can get infected and you won’t know there’s a problem until they get septic. I was going to head to my room and get some sleep, but instead I stood by the bed for a while. Her eyes were closed, cheeks pale, and the only sounds in the room were the beep of the respirator and her forced breathing.
“We probably should’ve traveled after all,” I said, though I knew she couldn’t hear me, “before all this happened. Yeah, you might’ve gotten sick from the travel, but it wouldn’t have made much difference since this started pretty soon afterward.”
And the more I thought about that, the more I got mad.
We could have traveled, could have gone places and done things, but she always said no, it was too risky.
I could’ve gone to college out of state to study architecture, or pursued a job as commercial designer for that big firm in Los Angeles, but she said no, it was too risky.
Everything I ever wanted to do, she was right there to say no, be sensible, take the safe route, stay here, don’t put yourself on the line, don’t take a chance because you might fail.
And if you’re wondering why no always trumps yes, it’s because when you’re married it takes two to say yes but only one to say no. Besides, there’s no risk in saying no. No means everything stays the same, you’re in control, and you don’t feel like you’ve lost out on anything. No is safe, no is always safe, but saying yes is dangerous because anything can happen.
For coming onto fifty years, my life had been one great big pile of no. Anything I wanted to do or try, any place I wanted to go, anything that meant anything to me, it was all no, no, no, no, no, no, and no.
And for the first time since that day at the office, I felt my blood pounding in my veins and my hands were shaking and suddenly all those years of lost opportunities rose up inside me with a fury I can’t even describe. I’d wasted my life in a job I never wanted in the first place. If I’d been the one who was afraid to take chances, that’d be one thing, but I wasn’t. She was the one who was always afraid! Her parents, they were afraid! And I listened to them and went along with it even when I knew in my heart that I was making a mistake, because I was trying to do the right thing, so yes, I have to take my share of blame for that, but it’s not fair! It’s not right to be in your sixties and realize that everything in your life that could have taken you to new places, everything that mattered, everything that could have made you matter, has passed you by and now it’s too late and your life is one big catalog of missed opportunities and there’s no going back. You’re done and it’s over and there’s just the not-very-long wait until the game is called on account of darkness and they shovel dirt over you.
I never even had the courage to confront her because I didn’t want to hurt her and she knew it. She knew I would always let no trump yes because it was easiest and safest for her. So I smiled and shrugged and said I’m totally fine with that and It’s not important and day after day denied the anger that was eating me alive instead of telling her what this was doing to me or saying, Fine, then I’ll go without you.
And as I stood beside the bed, my breath coming fast and shallow, hands shaking with decades of unspoken anger, I realized that there was a way for me to show her exactly how I felt about a lifetime of no, and before I had a chance to think about it, I reached for the respirator valve and turned off the air.
For a moment, nothing happened. The life signs monitor was the only sound in the room, beeping every ten seconds.
Then she gasped and arched her back, fingers stretched out and clawing the air, eyes wide, mouth open, trying to suck air with lungs that refused to obey. She couldn’t scream, so the monitors did it for her, shrieking in the rack behind me.
Her terrified eyes found mine, saying, What are you doing, turn the valve back on, there’s still time, don’t do this, save me!
I reflexively reached for the valve to turn the air back on, but then everything inside me got real quiet. I lowered my hand and looked down at her. “No,” I said.
It was the first time I’d ever said it to her.
“How do you like it for a change? No! You hear me?! No! NO!”
Her eyes clouded over as she arched again, body trembling, gasping for air, hands clenched into tight fists, opening and closing over and over, faster and faster and then—
And then she just stopped. She was still looking at me, but after a bit I realized she wasn’t blinking. It felt less like she’d died and more that she just kind of forgot to keep living, the way a thought gets away from you. The monitors screamed that there was a problem, but I waited another five minutes before opening the respirator valve and dialing 9-1-1, just to be sure.
When the ambulance came out, they checked to confirm she was dead, then ran back the data from the monitors to figure out what happened. That’s when I began to get scared and I looked at Carolyn, her eyes still open. Thought you’d get away with it, didn’t you? Told you it was too risky.
But when they finished reading back the charts, they said it looked like she’d died of cardiorespiratory failure. They said they could do a full autopsy if I wanted more information, but I said no for obvious reasons. Most folks don’t know this, but once you’re past a certain age, coroners only perform autopsies if somebody in the family asks for one. When you’re old and wired up to a machine that breathes for you and keeps you alive second by second, nobody’s especially mystified if you fall over dead one day. PARSON THOMAS, 83, DIED IN HIS BED TODAY, FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED is a headline no one has ever published and never will.
Her funeral a week later was a small affair because neither of us had any relatives closer than second cousins. After we put her in the ground I walked from the cemetery to the house, about two miles in all. Not really thinking about anything. Just numb, I guess. When I finally got home, I sat on the bed, hands folded, and looked at myself in the vanity mirror where Carolyn used to sit and do her makeup.
Well, now what do I do? I thought.
And I didn’t have an answer.