Fuck You, McClanahan
There are sentences in this book, whole passages even, that you will want to whisper to yourself. You will want to repeat them in a slow, ritualistic chant in the hope that you will summon up ghosts. You will chant some of the sentences in this book with the intention of raising the dead, bringing them back to you, your old friends and enemies, for just a few moments.
You will feel the ghosts of people who aren’t even dead yet, people who you love and have loved, bearing in close to you. Memories long forgotten will rise up unbidden and you will feel melancholy and joyful about times long vanished.
You will want everyone you know and love to live forever.
All of this will happen if you read this book. It’s about Scott McClanahan growing up. It’s about his family and friends and the place they existed together. But it’s also about your friends and family and your places.
It shines a light on things that have been in the dark a long time.
It makes you believe that immortality is possibility. There is something more than memories.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a sentence or paragraph or whatever that really gets to me I get this weird feeling in my spine. This shivery, goosefleshy feeling deep beneath the skin. Do you get that? Maybe you do. And if you do you’ll know that it doesn’t happen often, but when it does it means you’re reading something important and true. Something that strikes deep. Literary lightening.
This happened numerous times while reading this book. After the third time I stopped counting and started thinking – fuck you, McClanahan, fuck you, McClanahan. Stop touching me there.
It’s a beautiful thing, this book. When you’re reading it you will feel like you’re just on the edge of discovering something magical, something new, and then you will realize it was there all along, contained within you.
At the first sign of sunshine he booked a cruise. Three nights on a big wooden boat out there amongst the mountains with the sea eagles flying high above them. And he thought – this will make her happy, she will enjoy this, when she gets out there and she feels the sun on her face and she sees those mountains reaching out of the ocean, she will be happy then.
In the morning, as they walked from the hotel to the coffee shop where they were to meet before embarking, it started raining again.
He’d woken early and gone out onto the balcony and seen the dark clouds lurking over the ocean and he’d felt defeated.
The world is out to get us, he thought, to crush us. And then he smoked a cigarette and lent against the railing and thought about climbing over and diving head first over the ledge. How long before she noticed he was gone? Would she be relieved to be rid of him?
He shook his head. Exhaled smoke.
But they decided to go anyway. Anything would be better than staying here, she said, gesturing around her, even if it it’s raining it might be fun.
It was the most she had said in days. The most positive thing she’d said in months. It might be fun? He tried to think about the last time anything had been fun, the last time she’d enjoyed something, but he couldn’t think of anything that came after that day.
Okay, he said, smiling now, let’s do it.
The boat was three stories high with a restaurant on the top deck and two floors of rooms below. The room was small and luxurious with a private bathroom and big bed and they lay out on the bed, side by side, looking out the window and waiting for the boat to start moving.
He held her hand.
This is nice, she said, this is good.
Eventually he asked her if she wanted to come up to the top deck to take a look around.
When did you start smoking again, she asked.
I don’t know, he said.
Were you smoking then?
He sat up, what do you mean?
You know, were you smoking when it happened?
What are you saying?
Nothing, she said, shook her head.
You’re insinuating something.
I don’t even know what that means.
You’re blaming me.
I’m not. I don’t like the smell. You know that.
Well maybe you shouldn’t do it.
And there it was again. The tone in her voice that told him that she was closing down, that they were not slipping back into something good, that it was all a charade. He’d been fooling himself.
Why are you bringing this up now?
When would you have liked for me to have brought it up, when would it be convenient for you?
He stood up, moved to the window, they were moving now, he watched the water, a deep, rich blue.
Or would you have preferred that I didn’t mention it at all? If I just kept my mouth shut and pretended I didn’t know?
It was that easy. You fooled yourself into thinking that things were changing, that something good was happening to you, but then she brought you back to reality with a few words. She brought you crashing back down.
He was always getting dragged backwards, pulled down just as he thought he was reaching a new point in his grief. Somewhere safer, a place to stop and rest, regroup, think clearly. But it was always there in the background, waiting to pull him under just as his fingertips were about to break the surface.
She was always there reaching out to grab hold of his ankle.
Then he was back in the darkness. Back with that feeling he couldn’t shake. The frustration and anger and grief whirling constantly in his head, his whole body. He was back there and he worried that he was never going to get out of it, never going to escape, that it would be a constant cycle of almost getting there, almost finding a way out of the darkness, but never quite making it.
He stayed up on the top deck smoking in the light drizzle, drinking margaritas. By the time he got back downstairs he was dead drunk and two of the waiters had to help him down the stairs, half carry him to the room. When she saw him there in the doorway she slapped him across the face and hit him with her fists and he ended up falling over and staying on the floor.
When he woke he remembered her screaming. How dare you, she screamed, how dare you, how dare you. I hate you, I hate you. And he’d stood there confused and drunk and when she hit him across the face he’d just taken it until he couldn’t stand anymore and he was on the ground looking up at her. He remembered laughing. She was standing over him, screaming and crying, and he lay there laughing.
God, he thought, God help us.
When he sat up he realized the bed was empty and she was gone and he didn’t know the time and his head ached and all he wanted was something he didn’t know how to grip with his hands.
They barely left the hotel. There was no need. He ordered smokes and extra bottles of rice vodka through room service. Club sandwiches. Steaming bowls of Pho. Vietnamese spring rolls. They took their food to their separate rooms and ate alone.
Him sitting on the balcony with his cigarettes and beer. Taking pictures of the same view each day, looking for something new, something that explained things. But there was never anything new and there weren’t any explanations.
He took too many sedatives and lent out over the balcony and the wind and rain whipped his face and he thought about falling. The ocean still and grey and dead. Islands reaching out, topped in mist. He remembered reading something about how a sea dragon had carved these rock formations by swimming through the land itself. The ocean running in, filling the gaps.
The dragon was said to still be around. He’d read it. People had seen it moving beneath the water.
He liked the story and wanted to believe a dragon had created this view. He kept his eyes peeled for something huge, a long, dark shadow moving beneath the grey water. He wanted for something great and mysterious to happen.
He wanted to be filled by something substantial.
What do you do out there, she asked him.
They might have been there for two weeks by then. It was unclear. The days mixed together. The alcohol didn’t help. Nothing changed.
I’m thinking, he said, I’m thinking.
She studied him for a few seconds longer than necessary. We’re out of vodka, she said.
I’ll call for more, he said.
And ice, she said, we need more ice.
He woke with a headache, his neck sore, tongue swollen and dry. The air conditioning up too high. He lay shivering in bed, a sheet pulled up to his waste. Thought about the buffet breakfast in the restaurant upstairs.
Thinking about a steaming bowl of noodle soup he took a can of beer from the fridge and drank it on the balcony. Smoked two cigarettes. Showered and dressed and took the elevator downstairs. Out on the street he talked to one of the men standing around their scooters. Used his hands to explain that he had a headache, that he needed medicine.
Eventually the man laughed and nodded, understanding, took him on the back of the scooter on long drive up a winding hill to an old man on a hammock. Doctor, the driver said, pointing. The driver talked to the old man and the old man sold him a sheet of Valium for two dollars.
He washed three pills down with a fresh beer and sat cross legged on the balcony and waited for the pills to kick in. A storm was coming in over the horizon and watched flashes of lightning in the distance. Great webs of it reaching down to the water.
The thunder shook the entire building. He thought that if it collapsed it would be fine with him.
Everything was clear to him then. He saw the mountains reaching out of the ocean in perfect detail, the mist lingering around the peaks, the eagles soaring around them. He saw everything. And everything was beautiful.
He felt that he could look at the horizon for hours, days on end. It was all he needed. He realized that now.
When he heard his wife getting something from the fridge he thought about going to her, about showing her all the beauty that was right in front of them. He thought about saying – look, look, see what we’re missing? He thought about how all he needed to do was explain to her that they had to open their eyes. And he imagined her looking out at the ocean and the mountains rising from it and a light coming back to her eyes, something that had been missing for a long time. Something returned to her.
But his muscles felt like jelly and he didn’t move. He didn’t go to her. He couldn’t. It was hard to think about, talking to her, the words he might use. They hadn’t talked in so long. Not properly. What would he say? How would she look at him? Would she understand?
He knew her too well. Knew the way she looked at him whenever he spoke, the things she was thinking when he tried to talk to her. Stop talking, stop talking.
He thought the same things whenever either one of them opened their mouths. Stop, stop, stop. And he loved her still. But there were things you couldn’t bear anymore, things you were reminded of, things that came to mind, things you didn’t want to think about but couldn’t not think about.
And he loved her still.
But he reminded her of a past she didn’t want to think about, reminded her of the great hole in their hearts, and he wondered how anyone dealt with these things. How anyone got on with their lives and kept on keeping on. How could they look at one another without thinking about it?
It wasn’t possible.
Every time they were in the same room the same thoughts came to him. The same memories. Same visions. Nightmares. He could smell it. Feel the sun on his skin. The sun warming him on the bed. The way he woke, blinking, not meaning to have slept. What he found and the way he felt then, lost and panicked and alone. The way he looked around the room, as though someone would appear and help him, make everything okay, turning things back to normal. The way he tried to steady himself, deep breaths, eyes closed, whispered prayers.
Please please please.
A prayer. An incantation.
And then a sucking sound. All around him. His whole life sucked away. His whole life, entire existence, everything gone in an instant. Every inch of joy, just gone like he’d never had it in the first place, like it never belonged to him, was never his.
Already he was apologizing. He was apologizing in his head, apologizing to the room, to no one, no one there with him. But he was sorry and no one heard him. No one said it was fine. No one said it will be okay.
He begged for it to be otherwise, different than this, but things were this way and would never be other, his whole life shaped there and there, summed up, his whole life gone and he stood there, breathing deep, attempting calm, but how could he, no way in hell. It was all over, no matter what. Everything sucked away from him.
He thought he could forget. He thought he could distance himself from it. He thought he could write about it in that way. The third person. He thought he could come here, to this place, where mountains rose from the sea and eagles glided through the mist and he thought he could forget, that he could find what was lost.
Maybe he could make her smile again in the way she did before. The way he made her smile once before, the way she did before that sucking noise took everything. Before the light left her eyes and she started walking around like a zombie. Before she blamed him for everything. Before he didn’t remind her of everything that was lost.
He thought that if he could just manage that, if he could do that one thing, then maybe it would mean that there was some kind of future ahead. Some kind of light out there signalling them home.
And he thought and he thought. And he took two more Valium and washed it down with rice vodka and he thought, this is it, this it.
But nothing happened.
He dreams that he is in bed and she is leaning over him. That her hair hangs down around her face, wet, droplets of water taping against his forehead. And he can’t move. Her eyes have rolled up into the back of her skull and all he can see is white and her mouth open too wide, some kind of smile, teeth too sharp, too long, her lips pulling so tight they are beginning to tear.
He wakes, gasping, striking upwards at the air with his hands but there is nothing there.
She is not in the bed beside him. He hears the TV, sees the light flashing from beneath the door. His heart thumps a heavy, fast beat in his chest and he wishes he could lose this feeling.
Five days. A week. Ten days, then a fortnight. Longer than they planned. It rained the whole time. The wind shook the glass doors at night. They slept with the rain striking the glass. The air conditioning blasting.
Stuck in the hotel they drank rice vodka and avoided each other. The presidential suite. They never had to be in the same room, never had to look each other in the eye. They got drunk. They forgot things.
Slept without dreaming. Woke up lost.
I wish you’d died, she said.
He told her she was pathetic. You’re pathetic, he said, you’re a disgrace.
She laughed at him, called room service for more rice vodka. Two bottles. Large. They mixed it with lemonade and ice. Took a bottle to their separate rooms. Turned on the TV’s
He sat on the balcony watching the grey ocean and the grey sky above it. He smoked cigarettes and looked for eagles. He thought about his son, dead a year. His wife a ghost watching TV in another room, somewhere far from him.
She watched TV. Shows from America, two years old. Show’s she’d seen a long time ago, forgotten now. It was like watching them for the first time. Sometimes she watched the same show two or three times a day, the same episodes.
It didn’t bother her.
She could be watching anything.
It rained and rained. Day and night. The eagles flew in close to the balcony and then out to sea. From up high he watched men on scooters drive by on the long, single road that curved along the shore.
At night the road was well lit with bright, oversized street lights that glowed a deep orange in the rain. He watched a lone woman walking with an umbrella, a man on a scooter following slowly behind her. She called for help. He thought about going down to her, but he was fifteen floors up and the path to the road was pitch black and he was drunk anyway.
He heard about ambushes. Stories about tourists that were lured into helping someone and then were mugged, beaten, hit over the head with bricks, threatened at knife point. He felt conflicted. He stayed on the balcony, watched the man on the scooter trailing the woman and then watched as the woman ran out onto the road and hailed down a passing scooter. He watched as she talked to this new man, hands waving, and then watched her as she climbed on board and sped away with this hero.
He felt relief.
The first man sat on his scooter for a while, disappointed, and then drove off in the opposite direction.
He thought – why did we come here, to this place? Why here? For this long?
Sometimes the presidential suite was bigger than he remembered. More rooms, longer hallways. He got lost looking. He’d find himself searching for her, but she was never in the places he expected her to be.
He thought about his wife watching TV in another room. He thought about his son.
At night the wind shook the glass and he thought he heard things, sounds in the wind. His wife moving about, looking for something, whispering into a phone. Ice breaking against teeth. Her breathing. He slept and dreamt of nothing and woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of his teeth grinding.
It didn’t stop raining. It rained night and day and the sun never revealed itself. They ate a buffet breakfast in the restaurant on the top floor. They ate a buffet dinner in the restaurant downstairs.
They drank at the bar on the third floor. The only customers.
Why are we here, she asked him, peeling the shell from a prawn.
We’re just here, that’s all.
Later he flicked ashes off the balcony and watched the ocean. Rain wet his face and bare arms. He hugged himself, exhaling smoke. A huge sea eagle flew in close to where he stood and he thought about flying about how it would feel to fly. The rush of air against his face.
Sometimes she joins him on the balcony, but mostly not. When she speaks to him it is only in the form of questions.
What day is it?
What did you dream last night?
Are you hungry?
When are we going to Saigon?
And he will struggle to answer even the simplest questions. He will open his mouth to speak and find that the ability has abandoned him. When the answer finally arrives and he has the necessary words he is standing on the balcony alone.
He finds her sleeping on the couch, the flashing light of the TV glowing on her white skin and he by her head and touches her hair. It is late and the rain is lashing against the glass in pulses.
He remembers a time when they used to watch TV together and she would cuddle up next to him and how he’d thought having her there was the one thing he needed. He thinks about that time, not so long ago and he attempts to connect it to now. That point to this point. But he can’t and it leaves him feeling exhausted and broken and he needs another cigarette, more rice vodka and lemonade, codeine.
What, what’s wrong, she asks, awake now, eyes reflecting the TV like two tiny projectors, trying to focus on him.
I’m just so tired, he says, but she is already asleep again and he doesn’t know if she’d really woken in the first place.
The air humid, still, the car’s air-conditioner not working properly. He wipes sweat from his forehead. Breath whistles from between his teeth. A long exhale.
What’s taking so long, she asks.
He placed his head against the window, said nothing.
Will this ever end, she said, to no one.
It’s a four hour drive, he explained.
Why didn’t we spend the night in Hanoi?
She was right, of course. After twelve hours on two planes he should have organized a hotel. Instead he’d organized a car to meet them at the airport and drive them to Halong Bay.
Outside, the world full of dust. Dust coating everything. Even the few people they passed looked covered in it. He never seen anything like it. Mining towns. Places that seemed dead or dying. The life sucked out of them.
Emptied of something vital.
Hopeless, nowhere places.
There were mountains in the distance, magnificent until you realized great portions had been cut away. Great pieces of stone gouged out. Open wounds. Whole mountain tops. Entire halves. The destruction was rampant and disorganized. All over the place.
Their driver chewed a toothpick, made sucking noises, cracked his neck, left them at a huge souvenir shop by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Thirty minutes, he said and drove off in the black Lexus.
What do we do here, she said, what do we do?
Is he coming back, she said, what about our stuff, all out things?
He shrugged, looked about him, might as well take a look around.
Stone statues. Everything you could imagine carved out of stone. Whole mountains broken down into statues of eagles perched upon stones. Mountains reduced to statues of mountains, water pumped through them, giant fountains shipped around the world.
Let’s go inside, he said, it’s too hot.
They’ll just try to sell us something. I don’t want anything. I just want to sleep.
I’ll get you something, what you want, something cold, a soft drink?
He shrugged again. Inside more statues. Statues of everything. No one approached him. They stared at him from across the room. He bought a can of cola and two cans of beer from an old woman behind a counter and then, on second thought, bought a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.
Here, he said and gave her the coke.
It tastes different, she said, it doesn’t taste the same.
Well the beer’s good anyway.
She watched him peel the plastic of the pack of cigarettes and light one, but didn’t say anything, just watched.
Back in the car. Two more hours. At times it was Vietnam as he once imagined it. Rice paddies. Buffalo standing by the side of the road, bored, chewing. An old woman on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere.
The driver drove on the wrong side of the road, leaning forward in his seat, beeping the horn and blinking his high beams at oncoming traffic, overtaking four of rive vehicles at a time.
He held his breath, thought about dying. Out here, the middle of nowhere.
Dying out here by a long expanse of road in between places. A nothing place. Nowhere. Nameless. Face up beside the road, the sun a hazy blur, a solitary bird floating.
His last breath. The expulsion of his soul. His wife’s face leaning over him, blocking out the sun, the eagle, a smile on her lips. A kind of satisfaction.
It was what he wanted. Maybe.
He looked at her, sleeping, head against the glass, mouth open, a trickle of drool wetting her chin. If he touched her now, she wouldn’t know and it would be okay, he could cover her hand with his hand and it would be a secret.
Something his, contained, eternal.
Night Terrors Of An Australian Prime Minister
Sometimes he wonders if the nightmares are a message from God, if they are channeled down to him from above. He lays there, sweating in his navy blue underwear, staring at the white ceiling and silently asks God if he is there.
God, are you there? He pleads.
Mostly though he thinks that the nightmares are part of the job. The pressures of running a country. He thinks - dreams like this can only be expected.
There are nights, like this one, when he wakes up in the pre dawn darkness and wonders if his predecessor had similar nightmares, similar visions that woke him and left him unable to return to sleep.
He thinks about calling him, but what would he say?
He imagines the conversation. The words they might share. The connection that might develop, unexpectedly, between them. The bond that only this position could bring.
At 2am he would call him. He would wake his past enemy from what can only now be pleasant dreams and ask him about the nightmares.
Kevin, he would say, did you have these dreams?
Ah, the dreams, Kevin would sigh, the dreams.
And then they would talk about them and they would both feel a comfort in knowing that they were not alone, that they shared something, the burden of leadership, the fear of failing in some dreadful way. They would discuss these things and afterwards he would be able to fall into a dreamless sleep and wake feeling refreshed, bolstered, his doubts washed away.
There have been nights where he has sat on the edge of the bed, his hand lingering over the phone, so close to making the call.
But he is afraid.
Deep down he knows that an egomaniac like that would only use his early morning confession to crush him. There would be a deep, honest conversation, and the next morning he would find it on the front pages of every major newspaper, his words twisted.
So he does not make the call. In his position he can not afford to falter. There was too much at stake to even show an instant of weakness. He needed to man up.
He was a boxer, for Christ’s sake, and he had to utilize some of the mental fortitude he’d had back in his university days. This was only the second round in a twelve round fight. He could not allow himself to feel defeated so soon. He had to concentrate. He had to remember to focus, keep his mind on the task at hand.
But the dreams were savage and unlike any he’d experienced before. They left him trembling beside his wife, breathless, damp with sweat, the toxic stench of terror invading the room.
In the dreams there was always boats. The boats were approaching the shore where he stood alone on the beach. The hulked in the distance, giant wooden monstrosities with splintered wood and shredded sails.
Although the boats were far away, out there on the ocean, fighting against the grey waves to reach him, he could see what was on them. It was as though he was on the shore and also floating, soaring above them like a seagull.
He could see the wretched people on the deck. Their dirty tattered clothes, the skin peeling, falling away from their emaciated frames. Their eyes, rolled back in their head, a yellow puss colour. The stood, almost motionless, on the deck facing the shore, each one intent only on reaching their destination.
They were no longer human. They were, his subconscious told him, disease ridden corpses come to wreck havoc on his great nation. Once off their boats they would shamble up the shore and begin spreading their sickness amongst the citizens he has sworn to protect.
And so he is standing there on the beach, alone, and he is filled with panic for what lies ahead. He is looking around for someone to help, someone he can rely on, but there is no one. He is alone on the beach and the boats are closer now and he doesn’t have much time.
He is searching his pockets for his phone so he can make the right calls, so he can have jets rain fire down on these barely floating tubs of filth. But his phone is nowhere to be found and he knows he must have dropped it somewhere, that he had it when he’d wandered down to the the beach to reflect on the day ahead, but now it is lying somewhere in the sand and he is running around like a madman trying to locate it. The future of his country depends on him finding this phone.
He is elbow deep, digging in the sand, sure he is close to finding it, close to saving the day, when he risks a glance over his shoulder at the ocean. At the boats. And it’s then that his heart breaks. They are knee deep in the water, waves crashing around them, the diseased dead. They have disembarked and are so close he can smell their rot on the wind. He can taste on his tongue now.
He knows that he has wasted too much time. It is too late.
He stands and turns to face them. And they are close now. He can see them up close, their rotten features, the holes in their faces where yellow teeth and bone are exposed to the early morning sun rising behind them.
It’s almost beautiful, he thinks, looking at the sun, the way it reflects and shimmers on the water, it’s almost more than he can stand, the beauty of it.
He wakes then, always at that point, him standing on the beach tears streaming down his cheeks, the weight of failure heavy on his chest and he knows that something has to be done, that he is the only one who knows, truly gets it, that he has a job to do and that nothing can get in his way.
He sits on the edge of the bed his face cupped in his hands, tears flowing freely now, when he feels her stirring behind him, his wife. Tony, she says, Tony, what’s wrong? He can feel her there, watching him, her hand approaching from behind and there’s this moment, this horrible moment where, for a second, he can feel her hand drawing close, lingering over the skin of his shoulder and he knows, knows it with everything he has, that when she touches him her touch will be freezing and it’s all he can do to swallow the scream that bubbles at the borders of his lips.
Tony, it’s okay, she says, everything is okay.
Zombie Sharks With Metal Teeth
In this collection there is a story about a family of hamsters that will bring a tear to your eye. I don’t know if you can say that about any other book on the market. But then you couldn’t find a story like any of those contained in Zombie Sharks With Metal Teeth anywhere else.
What we have here, basically, are heartbreaking methods of avoiding being devoured by zombies, bestiality, superheroes bullied in the workplace, scientists bringing around the end of the world, monster building, and a werewolf in old age. And this is in the first 38 pages.
None of the 23 stories here are ones you will feel you have read before, because Stephen Graham Jones writes about these things in a way that no one else does. Or could for that matter. His voice is strong and fresh and never grows tiresome. It’s a voice that if, like me, you have to read it over a period of days, you will find yourself looking forward to the time you get to spend in his worlds.
The reason for this is that there’s a level of human feeling running through these stories that’s hard to achieve in any short story, let alone one about a man whose eye ball has been eaten by his dog because he pretended to eat from the dog’s bowl. Jones takes his stories and characters seriously. They are not gimmicks or tricks designed to show off how smart he is. He is not using weird fiction as a disguise for something else.
This is weird fiction written on the level of anything I’ve read this year. It is weird fiction written with heart, intelligence, and skill. We are talking about a book that is as good or, in my opinion, better than anything you will read by George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, or the stuff pumped out by McSweeney’s and the like.
Reading this collection I kept thinking - this is the best book of short stories I’ve read this year.
Hell, it’s one of the best books I’ve read all year.
A vision of my grandfather, drunk and ranting about demons from a bed in a dark room, hangs in my mind like a vision. Only sometimes it’s not my grandfather, it’s me and I know it’s not a memory. It’s more like career choice. A job opening up. The interview went well.
I feel it in my bones. The way my flesh wants to just slide off. The way I feel it inside me, something lurking there like a permanent stain on my skeleton.
I walk around the apartment. I look for things. I touch the walls. I hear voices in the apartment upstairs.
I say prayers to ward off demons.
There is a pressure behind my eyes and they feel like they are going to burst free of my head. They are going to hang loose on my face and I will try to scoop them up in my palms and push them back in place.
This will feel like a normal thing to do. This will be the highlight of my day.
I look at photographs from a better time. Better than what? Better than this one. I turn the music up so I can’t hear the voices she claims not to hear.
Can’t you hear that, I’m always asking her this. I’m always looking up at the ceiling. Always shaking my head.
I worry about how someone might be putting something in my food. Someone might be drugging me. How else do I explain this cloud in my head, this pressure behind my eyes, the way I can’t concentrate anymore?
How do I explain that?
How do I tell the people I love that something has gone wrong, that my brains misfiring and I just want to sleep all the time, but when I sleep I have nightmares about faceless people chasing me, phonecalls, dark rooms, my name whispered from beneath a bed? Blood on the floor, a mask reflected back through glass, my breath fogging in the dark.
I walk back and forth. I stand in the kitchen wondering what I’m doing here. I make a cup of tea and it goes cold on the kitchen bench. I lost track of time, my ear pressed against the wall, my eyes closed.
I think about a dark room with a bed and dirty sheets, an old man crying in between bouts of laughter. Get away from me, he screams, get away from me.
And when I wake, striking out at the air, I worry that I have been screaming the same words.
Something is doing this to me, I think.
Somewhere, someone is torturing me.
There is someone hovering over me when I sleep, trying to steal the breath from my lungs and I slap at it and scream for something good to happen.
She sleeps in peace beside me and I imagine waking her. I need you, I’ll say, I need you right now. But I know she’ll just tell me to go back to sleep and turn her back on me, so I don’t do anything.
I’d been on a valium binge for a week. At the chemist near our hotel I paid two dollars a box. The went down well with codeine you dissolved in water like aspirin.
The codeine tasted so bad you knew you were doing something stupid, but you did it anyway because it made you feel good. And that’s all that mattered really, feeling good, and for as long as possible.
It wasn’t really all that long, but anything was better than nothing during that time.
When she annoyed me I’d grind some valium up with my teeth and spit it into a can of beer before I gave it to her. She always said the beer tasted weird, but she always said that, so it didn’t really matter.
Just drink, I’d say, as though I was tired of hearing her complain.
And I was.
But I was tired of everything then. I was tired of the way the sun rose in the morning and the way it set in the evening. I was tired of the way I had to wake up in the middle of the night to piss. The way I had to get up in the morning and decide what to do, even though I didn’t really want to do anything.
When she was asleep I’d go downstairs and sit at a table outside the hotel and watch the traffic go by. I’d wish it could stay this way for days. That this would never end. That she would sleep upstairs while I got drunk and talked to the concierges in a valium daze.
Why are you sleeping so much, I would say when she finally woke, why don’t you ever want to do anything?
But she’d only shrug and not say anything because, to her, it didn’t matter if she was asleep or awake. It was all the same. She never wanted to do anything anyway.
When she slept the pain went away.
But I could only sleep when I was swallowed by alcohol. My dreams were black then. I didn’t wake up screaming or crying. It was a safety net I fell into.
Or that’s what I tell myself.
But sometimes I’d be out there by the road and it seemed like all the traffic in Saigon was flowing past me, one long chaotic river, and I’d remember something. I didn’t mean to remember it, but whatever it was would come to me and I’d be shocked.
It’d be something little. Not even a memory really, but a snapshot. A single image.
A beach somewhere, her laying beside me, huge glasses on her face, a smile so wide it could swallow me whole and, somewhere, me behind the camera, the sun in my eyes.
Goddammit, I’d say, goddammit.