I’d placed my faith in the wisdom of famous nomads, taken flight from safe restraints. Gone were the dreams of childhood, the joy of birthdays, familial affection. Hunger for the sun-bleached highways and the beauty of unwalked streets; afternoons of careless horizons. The college dormitories, the dust of traditions, tuition and careers and the map of a future planned by a degree — oh how sweet the heat of lost hills when the dogwoods are in bloom. How at peace the heart can be when it wants nothing but the lonely road, and has it. If only for a moment. If only for a moment to wake in that Carolina field and feel the peach sun drying the dew in your hair: the new day pregnant and unknown, beckoning with sunshine on the backroads and strangers, fast talkers, heavy drinkers, kind souls who drive you fifteen miles and maybe stop for lunch. If only for a moment to have your heart swept by peace and the innocence of wanting nothing more. I was unfit for the halls of laws, unfit for the ivy’d desks of poets and philosophers, lost soul looking for a river to gently guide my years. A decade of drinking, a decade of dissolute evenings and yearnings for a sunset to capture my eyes. The long road led me to you. And now that we’ve wasted so much of our youth on a carousel of broken friends and crowded sidewalks, again to find ourselves hungry for hillsides and roadtrips and campsites overlooking eternity — to find our angry hearts hungry and struggling to pay bills, stuck on the economic conveyor belt of bills and jobs and deadlines. We’ve got no degrees, we’ve got no skills, we ain’t the motivation for MBAs and 401ks. We got dreams, honey, and a long muddy hillside even Sisyphus ain’t damned to climb.
I’ve been walking your forest for miles, miles that have turned into months. Deep nights in the strange black of squawking sweat-dreams; the rats that dart through leaves underfoot. I’ve seen the ages of your ancestors carved into trees, behemoths, knotted and twisted, and the gold of sunrises that fade away before the bright green of the leaves can be seen. The shadows of dawn are perpetual. You offer no hand to guide me. Bright lit banners of bars in secret caverns of the wood, and the voices that echo for miles in the half-dark between the trees. An owl stays perched on a limb stripped of leaves, sentinel and sentient, watching. You offer no consolation, nor warmth nor mirth; and your heartbeats are small quakes in the forest floor. Tremble of the branches, tremble of the brush; old foundations of brick pits in the ground, shake mortar from their stones. Shake the sweat from my pores. You gave no hint, no tell-tale signs, that we would end up like this. Hits of meth in the ivy-covered ruins, the mists that creep over these grounds. The frustration of an aching groin kept awake in the night by lonely strangers. Let no safe sleep lie: the clearings are littered with boulders and the deer paths fester with ticks. And I am the man who slinks through your forest wanting nothing but a soft escape. To creep from your nightmares that crawl from the boughs of the trees and the bogs where your face, blistered, reflects a thousand times. But the laughter, oh in the laughter of the hollow trees is the daylight of a memory. Moments of fresh fields wet with dew and the milk of the moon, barefeet and pigtails and dirt on your jeans so that with fingers, with my crooked arms and twitching fingers I scrape through the mud of your wood: notes to your 4th-grade crush, family pictures by the willows you loved and the time you camped on the porch with Maryanne, I can’t leave until I bring them back to you.
I didn’t make it to school today because our car wouldn’t start. It might be the lack of gas, might be the oil congealing, might be the gears stripped of teeth in the transmission. So we stayed in bed and made pancakes for breakfast. It’s not the first class I’ve missed, and it won’t be the last; not that I’m keeping track but I don’t I’ll flunk out on account of absences, however many. We’ve stopped counting. How many weeks left until rent, how many days till our next paycheck; how many meals left in the fridge, what date did the milk expire? How many months since your last period? We know your job will fire you, at 22, leaving work when your back starts to hurt just to stand. So we’ll bide our time. We’ll bide our time on the white-washed walls of our 1-bedroom on the edge of ungentrified hell. I’ll walk the miles it takes to get to work, the miles it takes to find a second job. Someone’s sure to hire me, eventually. We’ll save our pennies and buy a new car and then I’ll go back to school. I’ll have a great job, then, as a manager or a shopkeep or a journalist or an engineer, once I have my degree. And we can see that on the horizon, in the blue distance, the wavering mirage of happy vacations with the children and the family dog. We’ll have to get a dog. And we’ll be miles from here in a house in the suburbs where the sirens don’t scream in the streets at night, where the men don’t harass you, where the neighbors in the apartment next-door don’t blast music through the walls well past midnight. You’ll have a flower bed to bury our fears in. I’ll have a lawn to mow. And we can pretend that the dreams of our children are the same dreams we’ve dying for.
We had three bedrooms and a garage for the car. We had hardwood floors and a full-size stove, we had an attic to fill with boxes of things we didn’t use. We had a king-size mattress that didn’t squeak, we had kids’ toys in the backyard and a dog that only barked when strangers approached the house. We had security: stable positions in offices that offered paid vacations and 401ks. You had a diamond ring on your finger. I had my weekends free to take hiking trips and car rides with you and the children. You had a black abscess spreading in your brain. We had holidays with visiting family from out of state, winter days bundled warm indoors and summer mornings eating breakfast at the shore. We chopped down our own Christmas tree. Rainy afternoons were for trips to the library. Your quiet breath had a stench of decay, something rotting. I had failed to notice. I had failed to see it in the Poconos, failed to see it in Cape May; failed to notice the rot on Sundays mornings when you wouldn’t get up. I couldn’t notice the rot eating through you, not during our movie nights, not while we got drunk on the porch, not while I felt the cockroaches squirming under my scalp. I didn’t notice the children had been feeding themselves. And I couldn’t notice you losing any weight – it’s not like we were taking our clothes off. And when I noticed you were drinking all my whiskey the solution was more important than the message: we just had to go get more. We just had to keep burning bright buttons into our stomachs, just had to keep ignoring the rot. Kids in bed early, I’ll be late for work in the morning, let’s stay up late – our drinking date – and tell each other stories.
It was you who took my hand, but we led each other in. Two kids at the end of a roadtrip, tangled and happy, ready for more. More heartbeats, more walks, more explorations of foreign shores, lined with milestones. We had a city full of smiling streets, a friend behind every door. We had a blank page to paint our life on, and we let our dreams bleed out. Angels’ wings and fluttered eyelids under bedsheets, vermilion mornings of sweet September. Bury me in your skin. Do you remember the night we walked into the woods? Bacchus laughed, and kept the moon bright: bum wine in our bellies, children of the vast plateau making haste for the wasting woods. They could taste our sins. Desultory years, caprices, diaries of lust and joy strung-up in the trees; thieves, caught trespassing into the night. Swiftly now. Grind your fist against the wall. Bake us bread with broken glass, we’ll cook the dust into something more. Can you hear them? Children cry unborn in bellies; still-birth stalking streets for coins. Join the huddled masses — sunlight, left far behind. The forest; leave no condolences: foreheads, cracked like egg-shells. The pulp of a heart and the crust of a lava-flow, breaking, revealing, burning through the wasted woodlands and the cities that hid our nightmares. Take my cock in your hand: copulation a public foray beneath the jealous trees of wicked greed, the homogeneity of a nation masquerading as sane. Show me a smile of broken teeth. A laugh that echos in abandoned concrete. Find the nails that keep our ribs together and pull: butcher of dead desires. Past picket fences and red wagons and warm mothers, what child asks for more? What can be seen through the pouring rain? — gray noon in Times Square, empty streets and the ripple of sidewalk puddles: millionaires without a penny. The famous without a name. Fast feet up the fire-escapes. Together in the alleys, together in the Bowery, together in the Strait of Hormuz. Together in the Dardanelles. Two children hand-in-hand, free, in the pages of an angel’s novel never read.
Much has been learned in night’s corners, of drowsy bars, streets with echos, women’s love: The loneliness of street-lamp walks home, pre-dawn, dew a million glints of regrets and what-ifs. Hangovers that last till Tuesday. Body aches that cramp in class and the sweet red-head, warm bust, who turns round in her seat no more. Dry laughter, a coughing he hears in his sleep, and the feeling he gets when his cock’s been dismembered, and friends squint to see him more clearly. Failing grades, a long way from home, superficial hellos and the cold concrete that holds up his hands as he pukes. Bank tellers distrust his withdrawals. In short, a mess. A coming of dues: searchlights chasing the footsteps of mistakes, finding mirrors, reflect, and amplify. Lessons learned in a state of fugue, the quiet observer, carefully tracing one-way paths in eager slumber. What a fool he’s been! But the hallways show no exits; a Sim, picked-up and plopped into desk after desk, and the artificial sun that rises, someone else who keeps flipping the light-switch. Long walks through the university library, day-dreaming of a tryst that can keep him awake. There are essays due in the morning, but he hasn’t been able to get himself asleep in a week. His rhythm is agitated. There are dogwoods blooming across campus, pheromones of pollen in the air: the room contracts and expands. Horizons breathe.
White sun dazzles the sidewalks, the clarity of a lucid dream; spunk in his feet and a heat in his heart, he moves, towards the beckoning at the edge of town.
Suburbia plots boring Friday nights — verdant roads winding along little houses with front porch lights. A poor place to put a college campus. Which goes to the reason the twenty-something finds himself standing, quite stoned, in front of the “cat house”. For lack of better things to do. Small-town campus monotony, he would like to know if Nothing is real. The house is pushed back through a garden from the ‘80s: a trellis thick with ivy, flowerbeds wooly with towering dandies gone to seed. A rust-eaten wheelbarrow, and a rust-eaten screendoor, a watering-can overtaken by soil: the slow Earth it moves over remains. The house is damp, cool, and smells of piss. Pungent. In the darkness with his cellphone flashlight, a frighted cat scurries across the floor. The house might be an episode of Hoarders; a TV-special on the house hygiene of Alzheimer’s. The smell of piss! The meowing rises momentarily to a cacophony in the clutter of boxes overflowing with crafts, needlework, VHS tapes from 1980. 30 years alone in a slow collection of insulation from the outer world: disheveled bookshelves, damp-rotten boxes, hoary floorboards soft with decay. He makes his passage in a narrow line through the clutter. Perhaps her family had used the house for storage, forgotten. Or perhaps she is just insane. Festering creatures creep along in the corners of his eyes. Blossomed cobwebs in the cabinets higher-up. Needle-point, half-finished baby socks untouched by capable hands. The refrigerator is open, the light on in the kitchen. The people who do this! the people who fade behind sun-drowsy shades, achromatic faces, color leached by the rain that rattles the slimy rooftops. The soft hum that hides the fear of the withering years — to waste her years! To waste like this in a nothingness of self-developed lacking, disgusting. What a waste! The woman moves upstairs: gentle-creaking footsteps. But no one is there: but the stale taste of must, piss-stained wallpaper and the framed pictures of children smiling in yellowed memories on the stairway wall — thumb-scrubs where the dust covered their faces. The creaking creeps slowly, from down the hall, footsteps more like shuffles. The smell of piss grows. The withering develops into deposits in his follicles. He can fear the coming end. The poor woman in her bed-dress stained with piss and spilt food, creeping slowly across the room. He says nothing but a sound escapes his throat, and the woman doesn’t move, stopped at the end of her step, in the middle of her empty bedroom, facing the wall. The room turns. The window sash flings open. The curtains billow and the bedsheets fly overhead to the corners of the room — the stain peels up from the floorboards, picture-frames shoot from the walls and the featureless face standing hunched at the center of it all: a tight packet of hurt, and the light that still burns through her breast.