“Miniature ponies,” I say. “Actual horses, yes, but very small.”
Several moments pass.
“What?” my realtor asks.
I can remember a time when explaining myself was embarrassing. When it felt rude to be strange. When explaining myself didn’t feel like a burden but an apology I owed the world.
I don’t feel that way anymore.
“Miniatures ponies. You have to have two. Horses are a herd animal. A single pony on its own would get lonely. And honestly, what kind of man could get up every day and stare a tiny little lonely pony in the face and deny it companionship? Especially if I get a rescue pony and it only has three legs. I can’t even imagine facing that sadness every morning. Can you?”
Several more moments.
I wait her out this time.
“Well… I’m honestly… I’m not sure if you’re allowed to have those there.”
I hadn’t been able to find a better answer online either.
“I suppose it was too much to hope for. I might have to get a hedge. Hide them from the neighbors. Keep them out of sight, out of mind. It’s not like anyone is going to arrest me for having tiny adorable ponies.”
There is a conspicuous absence of anyone talking.
It’s the kind of silence that says “I’m not sure what we’re talking about but for Christ’s sake, Andrew, please ask me a real goddamn question.”
Except I’m all out of actual questions. I had only wanted to know about ponies.
Why do people insist on being so… so boring?
I sigh. Again.
“We’re still about a month and a half away from closing on the house, right?” I ask, politely, even though I already know.
“Yuh-yes!” she says, relieved.
“Awesome. Talk to you later! Goodbye!” I say and hang-up my iPad.
I have a 4G Model iPad with Skype. It’s cheaper than a cell phone on a monthly basis. And it has the added benefit of making me feel like I’m from the future. I take my iPad back over to its charger and plug it in. I haven’t gotten a car charger for it yet, so I like to make sure it’s at full power in case I ever have to leave on a road trip unexpectedly….
I haven’t had to take any sort of unexpected journey yet, but it makes me feel sort of like Sherlock Holmes, Batman or Doctor Who to be prepared for that sort of thing.
You never know when adventure might strike.
I look around my room. I used to spend so much time cooped up in here, doing nothing. I’m not quite ready to pack yet, but it won’t be long. This room is the last thing, really. The last living remnant of the person I used to be.
There’s not much and a lot of it is garbage.
There’s the big plush recliner he’d broken with his big fat ass. I use it now mostly because it’ll be easier to throw it away when I move. There’s another bag of his old clothes I have to donate to the Idaho Youth Ranch. There’s the R2D2 garbage can… actually, I’m keeping that.
And the human skull replica I use to store my hats. That’s coming along too. And the books. The books and… some pens? Assorted stationary, actually. That’s it except for some shelves and the computer. That’s all that’s left from his whole entire life.
My stuff is in another pile. The yoga mat. The hiking backpack. The push-up bars. The ab wheel. The life-vest and the kayak paddle. The CIA guide to lock-picking. The two bokken I use when I pretend to kill ancient Nipponese peasants with ever-increasing levels of imaginary efficiency. I got a DVD to help me start out and then got frustrated and started making stuff up on my own because I couldn’t find an ambidextrous Samurai training video. It’s okay though, because I just do it for exercise anyway seeing as how killing people randomly is frowned upon these days.
There will be more things when I get the house, I promise myself. The ponies for a start. It might take me four or five months to save up enough for them. But they’ll be coming along. And a workshop. I’ll build that up a few pieces at a time, the same way my grandfather built up his workshop. A place to exercise, definitely. And… a piano! I’ve got to learn an instrument and I can’t do that here because of the noise. Also, I’ve promised myself to study one language every year starting in January and ending upon my death. I’m going to learn them most common to least common.
I decide, because there’s nothing better to do, to do some push-ups. And then some sit-ups. And then stretch. I look over at my recliner sitting there like a busted bear trap. Menacing but without the power to hurt me anymore. To think I used to spend all that energy hating and feeling sorry for myself!
And the books! Two books a year! A short-story every month!
I am going to break keyboards with the words pouring out of me.
I’m going to figure out how to be a full-time writer by twenty-nine. That’s my goal. That’s my primary focus in the new house. When I can go six consecutive months of paying the bills from writing, I’m quitting my job and focusing full-time. Of course, it may never happen, but then again: I WILL have VERY small ponies.
And a wife! I am determined to find one of those. Or maybe not find. That’s not the way to get a wife and that’s not how love happened the last time. And maybe not a wife, if the woman I happen across happens not to believe in marriage. The trick, I think, is to be open. To be open and unafraid and vulnerable. To be honest about my attractions and bravely pursue them. And to (slowly! slowly!) give part of my soul to someone else while (and this is important, as this is what I missed last time) they also give part of their soul back to me.
I will feel connected to the universe again.
I will know that feeling that again.
Also, I think as I do another round of sit-ups, it will not hurt to be more attractive this time.
There are tiny dragon creatures Indonesia. When I happen across my future companion, I will go there with her and we will look at these tiny dragons. We will make love in a tent while these tiny dragons scamper around outside. We will… well, best not to put too many expectations on someone I’ve never met.
She might have very different ideas than me about tiny dragons and I need to be open to whatever her wrong opinions might be.
I grunt as I switch to one-handed push-ups. I’m really horrible at these still. It’s okay to be horrible at things, as long as I keep trying and working until I get them right. That’s the real trick to life, I think. Don’t ever concentrate on being good or you’ll get frustrated and give up. Concentrate on being better and eventually you’ll become good.
But she’ll like that joke about the tiny dragons, I think, this woman I don’t know.
I need to go for a run soon. I like running.
I used to run because I was afraid to stay still, but now I run for the love of it.
It is still strange to me, sometimes. How I can simply will myself to be happy. I never used to be able to do that. Something deep has changed in my brain and I’m still dealing with all the implications of that.
He used to wonder why he was miserable all the time, the fat man I used to be about a hundred pounds ago. And the subtle but simple answer was because he was miserable all the time. He came along with himself wherever he went, so of course he was miserable. His whole way of looking at the world was wrong, so wherever he went he saw wrongness.
The soul, I’ve found, is a lens. A lens through which we see the world but also a lens through which the world sees us. The lens through which our experiences are transmuted into the memories that make us. The trick to happiness therefore, isn’t to change your circumstances. The trick is to get your mind right. Get your mind right and every living person becomes another way of looking at the universe, and therefore another universe. Every waking moment becomes a poem of sensation. And every interaction with another person becomes a chance to grow. To change. To be better than you were before.
Those are the only real kind of miracles, I think. The ones that happen every day that people never think about because human beings had to invent boredom so they don’t spend every waking moment in terrified awe of the universe. I learned that from a Terry Pratchett novel and it has struck with me. Get your mind right and you can choose to see the miracles in even the worst situations. Get your mind right and bad things may happen to you, yes, and you may feel sadness but… sadness will never defeat you. If your mind is right, sadness, even real deep appropriate human sadness can only ever become more strength.
I will have a house. And miniature ponies. And a piano. And a shop. And a bunch of foreign language courses. And some books. And some short stories. And some novels. And a companion. And a family of my own.
And! And! And! And! And!
I am running.
I am running toward all of it.
The thing about dying is that it feels the same whichever end of it you start from.
“What did you say?” Dude asks.
“Nothing. I was being melodramatic.”
I must have mumbled it aloud.
“Also this is delicious,” I say around the cigarette in my lips.
“Yeah, you’ve been missing out.”
It’s true. Not just that I’ve been missing out, but the other thing. Dying is just a transition. Live to dead. Dead to live again. It doesn’t matter which end of it you start from. Dying feels the same at both ends.
That sentence has been niggling at the crevices of my brain for the past several months, and I ponder it as I smoke a cigarette outside of Mac’s Tavern with my long-time friend and childhood companion. I think about repeating the sentence, explaining what it means to me, but concentrate on smoking the right way, instead. The way Dude has shown me.
“Make sure you don’t just hold it in your mouth, you’ve got to get it down into your lungs.” Dude tells me.
I nod to show understanding and let the smoke down into my chest. Feels good. Very good. If I were a cat, I could purr.
“Is it usual not to cough?” I mumble.
“What?” Dude asks.
“Is it usual not to cough?” I ask again.
“For Aberdeen or for the rest of the world?”
I’ve always mumbled and it’s got to stop. I know I’ll end up throwing my voice away, someday. The same way I’ve already thrown so many bits of myself away. I’ve looked into it and it’s possible. There are some voice lessons I can give to myself on youtube. They look promising. I just need the time and the privacy. And I need to know more about the man I’m becoming. I need to know what he’s supposed to sound like.
There are all kinds of things I still don’t know about myself.
The cigarette is gone too soon. I look at the remaining filter with what I am surprised to find is regret. The first time I drank, I thought it was okay. Certainly nothing to go crazy over. And it had destroyed all of my stupid childish concerns that at my first sip of alcohol I would somehow abandon all self-control. I will have to be more careful about cigarettes. This is like painting houses with uncle Mike and breathing his secondhand fumes all over again. It’s youth and summertime and carefree hours walking outdoors. The whole world is becoming sharp and crisp. This cigarette is wonderful. This is what the air tastes like in a sexy libertarian hell.
Dude and I grind our cigarettes out in the ash tray and go back into the tavern.
We rack up some balls and grab some cues.
Dude has killed me in our previous three games. I hadn’t even managed to sink a ball in our first game. The next two had been little better. I haven’t played since the sixth grade. It used to bother me when I lost at games like this. But I’m not that man anymore. That man died. I decide to be good at Pool.
I miss my first two shots but I am unfazed. I realize the error is that I’m insisting on using my left-hand even when the right would be easier. That old crutch. I think I’m beyond that now. I decide that I will use whatever hand is easiest.
“When the fuck did you become ambidextrous?” Dude asks.
On a whim, I show him the scary thing I can do. The thing that makes me feel like I’m tearing my brain in half. With one hand I write “Dog” while at the same time my other hand scratches out the word “Cat.”
“Looks like you’ve had a lot of time on your hands.”
“You could say that.”
After that the game is perfect. I sink all the balls one right after another. It doesn’t feel like a big deal. In fact, it probably isn’t. I do it matter-of-factly though, not caring that my luck just happens to be in.
“Where the fuck did that come from?” says Dude.
I shrug. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t even really know where I came from. I think I started out as a joke. A joke about an Evil Twin that a sad, asthmatic, right-handed, myopic, fat man made up to save his life. Recently, I have begun to suspect that I must have been here all along. Somewhere hidden.
“You got time for another game?”
“Nah, I got to get up early tomorrow for the funeral.”
I make my excuses, hug my old friend, and leave for the parking lot. I do have to be up early, but it’s also kind of nice to quit while I’m ahead. Throwing away your crutches is a great idea, but it’s exhausting.
A girl I knew in high school approaches me as I exit the tavern.
“Hey you,” she smiles, “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Hey yourself! It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
Women used to make me nervous. I don’t know why. I can barely remember when that was true. It seems so silly now. They’re just people. Regular ordinary everyday people. And just like most men the majority of them are very boring and easy to understand. They’re just other humans. Why was I never able to see that before?
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“My brother’s house. I’ve got to get up early for a funeral tomorrow.”
“Oh,” she says and frowns.
“Nice seeing you though.”
I give her a hug and tell her goodnight. She’s drunk and on a bicycle with a bottle of beer in her hand. Very Aberdeen of her. Some guy who is probably not really her boyfriend, but who hangs around her all the time and is close enough to a boyfriend that he doesn’t like the way his girlfriend hugs me, gives me a black look. I wave and flash a smile.
“You look good!” she says.
“You too!” I shout back.
I can tell the guy wants to flip me off, but thinks it wouldn’t look cool.
I shake my head and chuckle. To each their own, I guess.
I try to whistle as I stroll to my car.
Still can’t get the hang of it for some reason.
Oh well, another thing to change.
There is a quiet moment in my car before I start the engine, where I lick my lips and look at my reflection in the rear view mirror. It still surprises me sometimes to see that not-my-old-face there. But not as often or as deeply as it used to.
It strikes me that I’ve forgotten to think of something today.
What was it?
I look at the clock.
Oh yes. That.
It’s been over twenty-four hours.
Huh. Strange how now that it’s finally happened, it doesn’t even feel like that big of a deal. One whole day. Finally.
“Dying feels the same whichever end of it you start from,” I mumble.
No, say it right.
“Dying feels the same whichever end of it you start from.”
Clear. Crisp. Distinct.
Live to dead. Dead to live again.
It all feels the same.
I lick my lips and try to whistle.
“So, you still want to die?” Josh asks.
We slide into a booth at the back of the restaurant. Josh picks up his menu. I leave mine on the table. I hate menus. They defeat the entire point of going to a restaurant. Of living, really. I have decided this… right now.
“No, I’m past that mostly. So maybe just a little. Hey, speaking of dying, do you want to go sky-diving with me? I’m thinking about going next year.”
Josh looks up from the menu, affronted in his affable red-neck fashion.
“Why the fuck would I want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Keep your crazy shit to yourself. And why in the hell would you want to do something like that in the first place?”
“Because I’m terrified of heights.” I actually don’t know if that’s true anymore. I guess I’ll find out.
Josh shakes his head and turns back to the menu.
“Whatever. Just make sure you don’t kill yourself, bud.”
The waitress comes and she smiles at me. Not a flirty smile, but a smile that says she’s noticed me. I’ve been here dozens of times, but not since the change. I can tell she doesn’t recognize me. It’s shockingly common for people not to recognize me. Or maybe it’s not that people don’t recognize me so much as they never even noticed me before.
Josh orders a burger and fries.
I hand the waitress my menu, unopened.
“Bring me something to eat and something to drink, please.”
“What’s that, sir?” she asks and I can tell she doesn’t understand.
I can hardly blame her. A daily grind has its own kind of inertia and it’s hard to move against it. I know that better than most.
“Just bring me something. Anything, really. I don’t care.”
“Oh, Christ. Just order something off the damned menu,” Josh mutters.
“Actually, bring me some seafood.” I open up the menu, having snatched it back for a moment, and without looking at anything under the section that says ‘Seafood’ point randomly. “Bring me this please.”
The waitress gives me a nervous grin and leaves.
“When did you start eating seafood?”
“Since right now.”
“But I thought you hate fish.”
“Yes. But I’m not going to let not liking something prevent me from deeply enjoying it.”
Josh gives me a long look and a slow nod.
“Just be careful, okay, bud?”
Josh is a good man. It’s hard to explain what happened to me. I don’t even understand it myself, not really. But the person I used to be is gone. He evaporated. He died. Or maybe I carved him away, and I was something secret he had always been underneath.
Light came into my life and then light left, but when it had gone I was not alone in the darkness.
“I need you to teach me how to shoot guns, too.”
“Why the sudden interest?”
“Because I’m afraid of guns, I think.”
I feel like I’m sitting six inches to my left and I can’t stop smiling.
There’s a big old dog tied to a tree in front of me, and I want to give him a big old hug and kiss him on his big old stupid mouth. I would bark at him and run up and hug him if I were in less control, but I have managed to regulate my intake. Although it might be nice to wrestle with him and let him lick my face and neck. Four beers only, and this is already further than I have ever gone. God, I’m a lightweight.
“Hey, get another Corona for my friend!”
Jeff, my co-worker, holds a fiver up in the air.
So this is being buzzed? It feels more like there are bubbles in the back of my brain, flying around and humming like bees, striking the back of my skull and popping, but in a non-aggressive and happy way. Actually, bees buzz don’t they? Yeah, buzzed makes sense. Buzzed is a word that makes sense.
“How the hell did you get through high-school and never get drunk?” Jeff asks.
I have no answers other than to smile and raise my eyebrows apologetically. But they seem insistent, so I try to find one.
“I was always looking after my little brother and sister when other kids were out experimenting. By the time I could do it, I guess it seemed too late.”
I’ve gotten so good at giving these polite answers that they’re actually starting to feel like they’re true. I have to go searching for the fat man’s pathetic excuses.
I almost have to imagine what he’d say, because I’m not him anymore, and even his ghost is almost all the way gone.
The fat man would say: I listened to my step-dad beat the shit out of my mom while I laid awake and did nothing and felt like a coward too many times to feel that getting drunk wasn’t the worst human evil imaginable. And then the fat man would tell a giant lie and say “And I LIKE being myself, why would I want to feel differently?” as he ate himself to death and let his life slip by while he daydreamed and giggled to himself and masturbated.
I snort at the fat man’s excuses.
I am not my step-father, and how had I for one moment even entertained an opposite notion? I would never hit someone who wasn’t at that moment trying to hit someone else. Now, I know how to relax and be in control at the same time. And I do NOT sit in that fucking room all goddamn day long, daydreaming about how I’m somehow magically going to become famous.
“No more after this one, okay? I feel silly enough as it is.”
“Come on man, don’t you just want to get sloppy?”
We both laugh, as I explain I already feel a little sloppy.
“I think I’m good with this.”
And because I am strong and not weak, no one pushes any harder than that.
Life became so much easier when I started to sound like I was sure of myself. No, when I BECAME sure of myself.
“Hey, are you good to paddle back? We can’t load the kayaks from here.”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
I stand up and realize I feel dizzy. Not a lot dizzy. But noticeably dizzy.
Maybe I’m not good?
Well, it’s not like I’m driving.
My kayak is a fourteen footer. A touring boat. I bought it online one night in the heat of the moment. Bought it before I could even fit in it, but even then I hadn’t been the fat man. I’d just been me, with some extra weight. The fat man would have never bought a kayak. Still, it is very difficult to stay upright even sober.
“Race you to the other side?” I ask with drunken bravado.
When I’m in the boat and pushing myself out into the water, I almost tip over the second my bow (or whatever that part of the boat is called) loses contact with the shore. I’d be fine if I did fall over. I’ve got all the safety equipment I could ever conceivably need and I can get in and out of my boat in a pinch now. But I’m in a race.
I regain my balance somehow, paddle up to speed, and drop my rudder. My friend is an eight footer. It’s not even close. I overtake him in a few minutes that leave my arms and chest warm and puts a big old stupid dog grin on my face.
I’m all alone in the middle of the lake. The great big lake. And everything suddenly seems so far away now. The ghost of the fat man always comes to me in these times, when the rest of the world is far away.
There was a different lake once. He’d made plans about that lake. And he was going to go there and something was supposed to happen and he’d bet his entire soul on it happening even though, deep down in the part of him that was me, he’d known it was never ever going to happen. And now here, on this lake, the fat man’s ghost remembers.
I dig my paddle deep into the water. Deeper than I really should, and I pull it back like I’m trying to throw the entire lake up into the sky with my paddle. I almost lose my balance and it’s got me laughing crazily, because I’d never be able to get back into my boat out here and I’d have to swim a mile back to shore holding my rigging in my teeth. And that would be a hilarious story. A fun and okay story and not all scary. I dig my oar into the other side and repeat. And I start to go fast.
I start to go very fast.
And then the words of Pippy Longstocking’s sea-captain father are on my tongue and I sing them for the whole lake to hear.
“Life is a breeze we live it for fun! No apologies to anyone! We live on the seas! We do as we please! From stem to stern each moment is now! Life without concern from aft ’til bow! We live on the seas! We do as we please!”
Bow! That’s what the back part of the boat is called! Or wait, is it the other way around?
And who cares?
I repeat the words, in a loud drunken sea-captain voiced mantra.
I paddle fast enough that the ghost of the fat man is far behind me when I arrive on the other shore. He is a weak ghost now. It is getting harder and harder for him to follow me. He’s starting to accept that he’s the loser in this prolonged dying. He’s starting to accept that whoever he was, he isn’t me. Not anymore.
Yet still, what I wouldn’t give for a single day to go by and not have the ghost of him haunt me?
I’m not exactly sure if this is a date, but I’m certain I don’t really care one way or another because I’ve already decided from the get-go that I do not want this to go anywhere. It was very easy to decide that. I’m just here to go out and have fun. To do something I would never normally do.
And to betray the memory of something that wasn’t ever even really mine.
“You doing okay?” she asks.
I catch myself trying to adjust glasses that aren’t there. I must have looked awkward for a moment. It happens sometimes. Like when I make fat jokes about myself that don’t make sense anymore.
“Yeah, no worries.”
I decide this is one of those things where we’re conspicuously “not-on-a-date” but that if I decided it were a date, it would probably be a date. But if not, then we’re just out as friends and no hard feelings. I pick up a bowling ball. Left-handed.
I can write pretty well left-handed, but everything else is still hard. And yup, I gutter that thing right away. How embarrassing. Or no, who cares? I don’t care. The fat man would be embarrassed, not me. Still catch a blush on my face, though.
“Ouch. Been a while, hasn’t it?,” she says.
“I’m luring you into a false sense of security,” I say.
I get progressively better as the evening goes on. The trick is, I’ve found, not to even let yourself imagine doing anything the way you used to do it. Imagine doing EVERYTHING differently and it eventually becomes natural.
I flirt politely, and I’m surprised to find, well. It’s amazing how easy this is once you’ve already decided nothing is going to happen. And also amazing how attractive you can become to a woman when, against all logic, you decide that she can’t have you. Women are asking me out more and more often because of that, I think. Women asking ME out. Very strange. I’ve got to get better at being natural and normal around women, since none ever spoke to me when I looked like a child-molestor.
And an old lady I work with, who is one of those “Everyone’s Grandma” types keeps asking me why I am not married. She never spoke to me before I transformed. Then again, no one did. Not really.
Got to be careful not to let it go to my head.
The other day at work my old boss told me I was looking good, before she promptly walked into a door. I’d walked away feeling like I was nine-feet tall.
I work my way up to spares and strikes by the third frame. You can do anything if you just keep pushing yourself. Never stop pushing, that’s the key. You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. You have to be unafraid to look at what you really are and smash it all to pieces moment by moment.
“False sense of security, eh?” she says.
“Told you,” I say.
“After all this time?” asks Dumbledore.
“Always,” says Snape, on someone else’s television.
I knew I shouldn’t have risked talking to someone tonight. I knew it, but hadn’t listened to the instinct. God damn me. It’s the Fat Man who ignores his instincts, not me. I’VE got GOOD instincts.
“I’ve got to go,” I say in a rush.
“Why?” she asks.
“I’ve just got to go. I feel like a run.”
Pretty girl. I barely know her, but she’s pretty and she’s smart and she’s interesting. I talk to pretty girls now when they’re also smart and interesting. That’s something that I do. It’s only mostly terrifying.
The Fat Man’s ghost is strong tonight. He takes Snape’s single word and uses it as an attack on my entire existence. This would not be so bad if earlier Judge John Hodgman hadn’t insisted that “You can’t demand that someone not want something!” in a way that had left me feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. Because isn’t that exactly what I am doing? Am I not exactly demanding that I not want something? Am I not changing EVERYTHING about myself to make that be true?
But is the part of me that wants that even me anymore?
It makes my head hurt, this joke I have taken into my soul like religion.
You CAN make yourself not want something, I decide. You can make yourself BE anything, and I know that because I used to be somebody else and he died. He DIED, and even if he won’t accept that, he’s still dead. He’s only a GHOST.
He lost his soul, but it was okay because there were other souls.
There was MY soul.
But I’ve still got to go.
I’ve still got to MOVE.
I stumble around picking up socks and shirts and shoes. These are special clothes for running. The Fat Man never had special clothes for running. He had great big clothes like ship sails that he put over himself to cover his shame. Every few months I take a load of them down to the Idaho Youth Ranch like shed snake skins.
I’m pumping my legs the second I’m out the door.
The wind blows over my long silky hair. Silky because I have a special shampoo I use now. The Fat Man used to lather his hair with hand soap. I regulate my breathing. My feet clap on the pavement.
The Fat Man couldn’t run a mile. Couldn’t run a quarter mile if you put a gun to his head. The Fat Man had asthma and a list of other excuses for never doing anything.
I don’t have asthma. I had a problem that I overcame, and it’s behind me now. I beat it by spending months in the gym, keeping my heart rate ten beats a minute below what I knew would trigger an attack and keeping it there for hours on end. I got rid of my asthma by making it symptomatic only in conditions no human being could ever actually encounter. So I don’t have asthma and fuck you Fatty.
Fuck you, Fatty!
It’s wrong to even acknowledge him, probably, but I am angry.
I am FURIOUS that these kinds of things are still happening to me even after five whole months.
It’s a summer night, hot and humid. The sprinklers turn on in the business parks I run through. They spray me and I am not ashamed. Only the Fat Man had to fear the way his clothes would cling to his body. I don’t.
The Fat Man could not run one mile. I’ve run five miles by the time I reach the place by the canal where the hills rise up and swallow the lights of the city, and stars stretch out for infinity in every direction, and I cannot run anymore.
“If you were good and brave you would be like Snape,” The Ghost of the Fat Man says. “You would grow angry and bitter and fatter but the one thing you would never EVER do is make yourself stop wanting what I want. You would be LOYAL to the thing that was never even yours. You would LOVE the person who never thinks of you, not ever. You would care and keep caring and only think it was more noble that no one ever cared about you in return.”
I cannot run anymore
But I run anyway.
We are more than meat, we humans. We reached out of the page, stole the pen from God’s hand and became our own authors. I believe that. I have CHOSEN to believe that. And perhaps believing in Free Will makes Free Will true. Nothing that is meant to be can be broken, not because fate is real, but because nothing is ever meant to be.
I become the great ubiquitous dark of this stretch of road, and I move through it like a silent wind.
And finally I puke, standing on my knees, hands in the dirt, right into the canal. But I do not cry. Surely that is some kind of victory. Surely not crying means this is somehow all okay.
I am barely hanging on.
But I know what the Fat Man did not.
I know that barely hanging on is still hanging on.
Bile races up my throat again. After the moment of transition, it floats away in the canal water.
You can buy a whole new face on Amazon Prime.
The links roll into me through my googlechat window.
My new face is going to run about $55, if you include the tweezers. $80 if you include the consultation I’m having right now with my friend and personal Face Witch. There’s a science to grooming yourself, apparently. I’ve accepted that it isn’t really sorcery so I suppose all I’ll have to do is figure it out. Still, it FEELS a bit like sorcery. You shouldn’t be able to cheat nature like this.
I type some more questions about exfoliation into the googlechat window.
Apparently, if you exfoliate too often you’ll ruin your skin. The easiest way to exfoliate is to rub your skin with sugar dissolved in oil. There are products specifically for this, but they will be no better than oil and sugar. Once every four days for best results.
There are cleansers specifically designed for your face which are presumably superior at cleaning your pores than bar soap. It is a staggering and wizardly amount of information. Especially when we begin to delve into topics like how best to deal with ingrown hairs. There are liquids I can put on my face for this too, instead of digging into my head with tweezers. In fact, there’s a whole process.
My Face Witch knows all. Even though I know this is a skill I can eventually learn, I imagine her across the country, standing over a cauldron muttering spells beneath her breath as she goes through the pages of her Grimoire finding the products that will work best for me. She is a mighty Face Witch and my people will sing of her name for a thousand years.
I want to know about waxing.
She advises against unless I am into pain.
I sort of am, I admit. Physical pain, at least.
She still advises against it.
A few clicks later my products are on their way. A few weeks after that I look like I’m ten years younger. I’ll have to train myself to stop being surprised when I look in the mirror in the morning.
On multiple occasions, I am told at airports and by police officers that I have to get a new driver’s license. I don’t look enough like my picture for it to be valid identification.
I move my mouse to the left side of my keyboard. I move my water bottle to the left side of the keyboard. I move my pen and paper to the left side of the keyboard. I keep moving things to the left side of my keyboard until my desk is a chiral image of its past self.
The Desk of the Fat Man’s Evil Twin. My desk.
“I read online that the key to changing your handedness is just practice. Just as simple as that. They say it only takes two weeks. Just two weeks, can you believe that?”
I tell this to Sara, the girl who sits behind me and is sort of but not really my friend. I don’t think she really cares and I don’t blame her. This is just work talk to pass work time.
“Why do you want to change your handedness again?” she asks.
Because if I’m doing something that takes all of my attention, that means all of my attention isn’t focused on my memories, my stupid dreams, and the pain, The Fat Man says. It means I won’t break down crying in the middle of the work day.
I shrug instead and say, “It’s something to do.”
I open my water bottle left-handed, pondering the dent I’d put in it.
It’s a big dent.
Oh yes, I need something to keep me occupied. That dent is not good. Not good at all. That dent is a story-book example of not-good-anger.
Someone had been talking to me about not understanding pain (one of those things people say and which we are probably all guilty of, when we want to believe our own stories are unique), and I’d nodded and been polite and said all the things I’d been supposed to say and then I’d looked down at my water bottle and I’d crushed it in my hand. I’d gotten a similar water bottle at the store, to see if I could do it again.
I hadn’t been able to.
I blame the Fat Man. He possessed me.
The Fat Man used to be strong enough to possess me, but not anymore. I’m going to cut off his good right hand, and make myself master of a new hand.
I pick up a pen left-handed, and begin to write the alphabet one slow letter at a time.
It takes a lot of focus.
Whole minutes go by where I don’t spend every last molecule of brain power I have thinking about how much it hurts. I haven’t even seriously considered getting a plane ticket and rushing off for almost two months now. That’s got to be some kind of victory.
But I need to stop being sad and angry.
I have nothing at all to be sad or angry about.
Nothing was promised. In fact, quite the opposite. The only thing they’d done was pretend for a bit, maybe even to themselves. And they were not culpable for any of it, not really. So I have absolutely no right to be sad or angry about that. Now I just need to make myself believe that.
Over and over all left-handed.
You CAN change what you are. You CAN.
It’s just that the price is so high most people can never bring themselves to pay it.
When everything has to change, there’s only ever one price no matter who you are and that price is everything you’ve got. Everything that makes you yourself. All of it has to go. All of it.
“What’s the significance of the buffalo, and do I really have to hold it?”
I’m sitting on a table, holding a child’s stuffed buffalo toy. Just behind me a team of three doctors are inspecting a surgical laser. I squint at the buffalo because my glasses are in my pocket. I can’t find a tag. It’s an off-brand stuffed buffalo. I look back at the laser, admiring the contrast.
“No significance, and yes, you do have to hold it,” says the doctor.
A nurse in a white surgical mask puts her gentle no-nonsense just-do-what-I-want nurse hands on my shoulder and forces me to lay down. I hold the buffalo in my lap.
“We can’t have you fiddling around when the laser is in your eye, sugar,” she says in her politely sweet no-nonsense shut-up-now nurse voice.
I shut up and do what I’m told. The buffalo’s eyes are hard plastic discs in my palms as the laser is brought over my face. They move it close to my eye. It’s like staring up into the belly of the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I release the buffalo. I don’t know if I’m really not nervous or if the valium I took half an hour ago is actually this effective. Oh well. It doesn’t matter.
“You can’t feel this, correct?” the surgeon asks as he pokes my eye with a finger.
“Nope,” I say.
“Okay, just make sure to stay still.”
And then he puts the things from “A Clockwork Orange” in my eyes and I can’t blink anymore. And wow… I can smell the tissue burning. I didn’t think I would actually be able to do that. I read online that I would be able to smell it. It doesn’t hurt at all, but still… it’s kind of cool.
After the corneal flaps are cut they put me under another laser. I see blue red and yellow. All the Superman colors. I used to be Superman. Or something. I had a little symbol with my initials on it and everything… or no. Not my initials. Someone else’s. He wore glasses. I won’t ever wear glasses again after this, unless they’re sunglasses. Or maybe reading glasses when I get old.
“Blink blink blink,” I’m instructed as the nurse helps me off the table, with my eyelids now free to do as they’re told.
“Oh cool,” I say, and I am astounded.
There’s this weird white glow around everything. It’s freed collagen. It will go away in a few hours. But for now, I know this is what heaven must look like.
I go home and take a nap. When I wake up, the worst of the scratching they’d told me to expect is over. I walk outside and take a few hours to stare with sunglasses on. At everything. Every fifteen minutes my vision seems to improve. Every fifteen minutes a new miracle to behold.
It’s all so beautiful. All of it.
It’s night time again before I realize I very badly want to know one person’s opinion of what I look like without glasses. One person over all others. I grab eye-drops and go for a long walk, staring at the world without a lens to filter it. It is the night-time world now and all the streetlights are surrounded by halos.
Every star is surrounded by a ring.
It will go away in time, when I finish healing.
Everything goes away in time.
I’m crying in the middle of a Fred Meyer parking lot. Oh God, I’m sobbing so hard I don’t even care if anyone sees. I hurt. I hurt so bad I can’t hold it all in, my cup runs over, and the sadness spills over the sides of me and out of my eyes for all the world to witness.
I have never felt this low in my entire life.
Katy. Fucking. Perry…. Has just spoken to me.
Katy Perry has touched my heart and known the depths of me, and oh how that stings.
Who cries to a song by Katy Perry?
Worse, who cries out loud and feels that Katy Perry is singing for them?
I do apparently.
Or he does.
Who can care about stupid bullshit like that when it hurts like this?
It hurts it hurts it hurts!
It hurts that I hurt. I’m exhausted with hurt. It hurts that I am the kind of man who sits in a car in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer and cries to songs written by Katy Perry. It hurts that I’ve never wanted anything and even though I WANT this dream in my head so bad I’d chop off my own hand and murder the world to have it, I still can’t have it. Not ever. There’s nothing to be done. And it hurts that I had to be the one to take it away from myself. It hurts to know that I am a pouting child and can’t seem to move one. I catch sight of my reflection in the rear view mirror. If I were a girl with mascara, I’d have giant runny raccoon eyes.
And Katy Perry won’t stop singing.
I have some kind of weird gaspy asthma attack before I realize that I’m….
I’m laughing and crying at the same time, caught in the grips of some ur-emotion, and if anyone saw me I’d be arrested for sure. They’d call the men with the butterfly nets. I’m in the grips of some emotion so big that you can’t even feel it all at once, and can barely remember feeling it when it’s gone, and I can’t stop myself from making either sound.
I’m crying because the person I used to be is dying, he’s scrambling for any sign, any memory that might mean someone is going to come and save him, anything he can hold onto and he’s falling and he knows there’s no hope.
He was nothing more than Kleenex, and oh how that hurts him. The whole thing he’d wanted his whole life to be about… it was never more than a person with a cold blowing their nose. And it is breaking his soul to know this is true. There was never anything coming back to him like what he had given out.
And I’m laughing because I’m being born, and the world is as awful as it is full of awe. I’m laughing at the sad Fat Man who has not laughed or even smiled for three whole months.
I’m laughing because I’m NOT him, and that’s not just a lie I’m telling myself. Not anymore. I am SOMEONE ELSE, and there is horror in the mind of the dying Fat Man to know that he is being subsumed.
After three eternal minutes, the laughter wins out over the tears.
I’ve passed some kind of tipping point.
I’m winning now.
I don’t know what.
But I’m winning!
It’s another bad night.
They’re not happening as frequently as they used to, but when the lightning started I decided for no particular reason to go out for a run. That’s stupid, I know, but at least this time I don’t take anything metal. I did that last time. Or maybe the fat man did. I don’t know. But obviously I still must think it’s kind of a good idea to get struck by lightning because I’m still going out.
Time to warm up and stretch first. At least this isn’t urgent, like last time. But so stupid. You’re not supposed to run outside in a lightning storm.
I fall to the ground and do some push-ups. Then some sit-ups.
And melodrama of melodramas, I’m reciting Invictus.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
I stretch for a few quiet minutes, and then I am out the door running. My glasses are covered in rain and dirt in moments, but my feet have memorized the path now. So I run with my hair parted to the left instead of the right and I do not worry for my safety.
There is a secret of pain that I know. I learned it from the life of Teddy Roosevelt.
I am obsessed with Teddy Roosevelt because of this secret. Not because he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Not because he won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Not because of well… everything else. None of that impresses me so much as this one single thing.
On the same day in 1884, Teddy Roosevelt’s wife and mother died. They died and something precious went forever out of Teddy Roosevelt on that day. He moved out West, to a ranch, and… he did not die.
He. Did. Not. Die.
He must have wanted to die. He must have. He must have wanted death every second of every day. But he did not die. He did not!
Instead, he became the Teddy Roosevelt who would one day become president of the United States. He transformed. He became someone amazing.
Yes, there is a secret to pain. And now I know it too, and I think of it as the lightning strikes, and some small but significant part of me hopes one of those bolts finds its way into my heart.
And that secret is this:
If it hurts to stand still, never stop moving.
There are a thousand tiny things that made the Fat Man himself.
I will smash all of them apart and become someone else.
It is not that I’ve lost my way, I realize.
My way is broken.
But I will find a new way forward.
A new soul.
He doesn’t know why he saves the worms. Or if he does know, somewhere deep down, all he lets himself know is that the idea of leaving a worm to fry in the middle of a veritable cement desert is unbearable when saving them is so easy. So he squats down, as far as he can squat down with a gut like his anyway, and he picks up the worms and gently throws them back into the grass.
The worms come up top to fall in love. To mate when the world is moist and their skin can exchange oxygen ideally. But Idaho’s weather is fickle and in the summer the rain can evaporate very quickly. There are already bloody carcasses from worms he did not catch in time. Oh well, he will save the ones he can. It only takes a moment.
He throws the worms in a pile, so that in the trapped moisture of the grass they can fall in love and mate as they had intended. So they can live their happy little worm lives and have happy little worm babies. Once done, he brushes his hands clean on the insides of his pockets.
It is a good thing to save worms.
Or at least saving worms used to make him feel good. It used to make him feel very good somewhere deep inside. It used to make him feel like he’d made the universe RIGHT somehow. But today, there’s the sense of an unfilled emptiness. The knowledge of a problem which cannot be corrected. The premonition of something… wrong.
No one cares about worms, he realizes. Including, and this makes his stomach twist, worms.
He suddenly feels very alone out here on this stretch of road. Very aware of how small he is between the Earth and Sky. For a moment he can sense other minds, each one of them a universe and each mind as important as his own. He is Awake, as people are not meant to be awake. He is Awake, aware of his own unimportance, small and alone, and something very bad is going to happen to him. Something very, very bad.
It’s running toward him, it’s going to fall on top of him, it’s going to crush him and grind him into nothing.
And he cannot tell what it is.
He staggers on, leaving the worms, adjusting his glasses as he does when he is nervous. He fiddles with things when he is anxious, and eventually he fidgets and fiddles enough that he forces himself to fall back asleep. Shuts out the size of the universe. Shuts out the honest view of himself he cannot bear to think about. He’s very good at making himself fall asleep. Most people spend their whole lives without ever having to be really awake and he is no exception. At least not yet.
He is going to go to a library, intending he thinks to write, but actually just so he can sit there and feel unproductive somewhere other than his home. He always feels uncomfortable lately, and he knows going to to the library won’t change this, but at least it will allow him to sit in a different uncomfortable position. And do nothing.
Still, he cannot shake the feeling that something awful is about to happen. Something horrible and terrible and life-threatening.
Yet if someone were to sit him down right then and tell him what this awful thing will be, he would not believe it. He would not even understand that it was awful. He would laugh, and his chins would wobble, and he would say “Sorry, but that’s ridiculous! I think you’re talking about someone else.”
In a sense he would be right, because the person it will happen to will not be him. Or at least not precisely.
If you insisted, if you grabbed him by the collar of his giant shirt and shook him and said “Open your eyes! You’ve known it for years! You’ve just been too miserable to realize it until now!” he would only apologize and make excuses, because those are the only two things he knows how to do. He would make fun of himself, he would talk about an imaginary sloth and about how this means he’s a silly person and a mean person. And a person who is not even worthy of the bad thing you say will happen to him.
You could slap him, like he very much needs to be slapped.
You could punch him in the stomach and kick him on the ground.
And you could scream, “You were the sloth! Don’t you get that, you fat dummy? That’s why it hurt you so badly when you dreamed of the sloth! YOU were the sloth!”
But none of it would help.
He would only blink at you very slowly and turn away, and he would keep walking along and he would save worms. And when you shouted he was saving the worms because he was hoping and needing very badly that someone would save him as he saved those worms, he would not have believed you.
He is fat, blind, and asleep.
But he cannot understand any of this. He cannot even fathom it. Not today. Today the horrible thing has not happened. Today he is going to go to a library. He is going to sit there. And he is going to do nothing. And he is going to piss his whole life away and giggle about it.
But in his slumber, as he thinks about the worms, I stir.
THE END of DUNCEUPONATIME