Specific Nothings From a Treetop Café

brown trees on green grass field during daytime

by Patrick Hurley

He always had an otiose memory. For as long as he could remember, he couldn’t really remember.  He seemed only able to recall details that indicated nothing of significant value or occasion. He could remember the color of a piece of food stuck in a tooth, say, or the speck of brown in the iris of a delivery boy’s eye. He couldn’t remember names, never recall a face, only immeasurable and seemingly irrelevant details could switch on his hippocampus. He is currently sitting at the window of a cafe that sits atop a tall tree at the end of Main Street. The Treetop, as it is known to the locals, is a converted treehouse made entirely of glass. It is said to have originally been built as a military fort two centuries earlier. The exact details are not at all clear. It’s also rumored to have been built by an eccentric millionaire in the 1930s to impress a Hollywood starlet. Whatever its genesis, the Treetop is a magical place. From a distance it looks like a giant Christmas ornament. It dangles near the top of an oversized beech tree, a lit up glass bulb with tiny figures lurking about inside. You have to climb a ladder up the massive trunk, then traverse a series of staircases which are built into the protracted branches, until, at last, you reach the entrance which sits over three stories above the ground. The door to the Treetop is located at the base of the structure, and once inside, patrons are instantly wowed by the floor to ceiling windows that circle the massive main room providing a 360-degree view of the entire town.  The Treetop serves coffee and tea, but classy tea of the high British variety, complete with trays of finger sandwiches and petit fours all smoothly covered in shiny pastel frostings, pinks and greens and yellows like miniature square Easter eggs. They used to serve liquor, but a dozen or so drunken falls led the owners to change their business model, and The Treetop has since become a trendy hangout for teetotalers and writers and readers alike.

C.L. finds himself sitting at a corner table, firmly wedged between two windows, sipping a chamomile and honey. He’s been coming to the Treetop for as long as he can remember, and as far as he knows, he has always come alone. He’s been alone for as long as he can remember. Ever since the love of his life died. Carole, his childhood sweetheart and constant companion, had drowned in front of him when they were both eighteen. Ever since, a kind of inertia had settled upon him. He finds no joy in life, only comfort in what he assumes is his daily routine. As if by rote, he goes about his days with no deviance, and no hope of any future. Life continues around him, but he has been stuck in the deepest of despairs, in the sorriest of sorrows ever since Carole was lost to the sea.  He doesn’t know anyone, and so asks for nothing of them. He doesn’t work, he steals what he needs from affluent enough people not to notice. He squats wherever he can, and he cannot care about anyone or anything. Poor C.L. is all his mother would ever say about him until the day she died of a broken heart. Neither of his parents had seen him after Carole’s death. His father never spoke of him again, and to this day lives in a rocking chair in an old folk’s home where he is mostly ignored, fed only enough to keep him from starving to death. As for C.L., he hasn’t been interested in anything for so long, that the passing of years is no different to him than the blink of an eye. The owner of the Treetop has been taking pity on him and never charges him for his chamomile and honey, which is the only thing C.L. drinks.

Which brings me to his odd memory. When he was a child, his mother thought the odd details he could remember was the sign of a disorder. And their family doctor agreed. It must be some kind of head trauma, the doctor said, he must have been injured. His mother swore that he was never injured as a child, and she was precisely the kind of helicopter parent that would surely have noticed. Perhaps it happened in the womb, then, the doctor said, calling into question the very womanhood that C.L’s mother held as the only thing of value she possessed. She never recovered from the good doctor’s casual suggestion that her womb could have been inhospitable, even violent. When C.L. was ten years old, he started to exhibit signs of being antisocial, and again the doctor entered the picture. It could be a brain tumor, he said, and C.L.’s mother, at just the words fainted dead away. After dozens and dozens of tests, the doctor finally concluded that brain tumors can sometimes be impossible to locate. He wanted to open up C.L.’s brain and “explore,” and in her fitful fear, C.L.’s mother agreed. In a strange twist of fate, the doctor died of an aneurism the day of the operation, and it was only after hours and hours that C.L. finally got up and left the hospital when the nurses promptly forgot to tell him his doctor was dead.

C.L. was always the person you forgot was in the room. People looked past him all the time. After he left the hospital that day,  he never got another brain test again. His memory still proves to be bizarre. He tries to stick to routines, so as to minimize the need to recall specific details about things that he just can’t seem to remember. His chamomile and honey, for instance, is only his regular drink because it’s the first item on the menu, and he can’t remember anything past it. He also can’t remember if he likes tea or coffee or both or neither. He actually doesn’t like chamomile and honey. It’s like someone spat into a cup of potpourri and then boiled it. He is often commiserating with himself about the dreadful flavor between egregious sips.  And so, he remembers only what seems like random details. Carole’s death, on the other hand, and the romance they shared, he can remember every minute of. Every tiny nuanced detail seems to stick to his brain like rice to sushi, a fate worse than death, if only he could forget her. He saw it as a cosmic reckoning.  As if the experience of the loss that he was doomed to relive day after day was some kind of punishment from god or whatever god might be. For it was true that nearly every waking moment of his life he was lost in some thought of Carole. Why was his memory so perfect of her, and so faulty with everything else? He had memorized every part of her, every patch of skin, every strand of hair. He hadn’t tried to, it just happened. He often considered that given the chance, he could recreate her entirely. If he were an artist, say, a sculptor or painter, he could make her likeness in a kind of verisimilitude unseen in most representational art.  But alas, another burden of his was the he in fact had no talent whatsoever for anything.  He was the personification of tap water. Plain, flavorless, as common a thing as exists in the civilized world. He also often hopes that the doctor who never showed up that day was right, he has a brain tumor and so he’ll surely drop dead soon.

The tree branches, just outside the window creak as C.L. feels the gentle sway of The Treetop in the morning breeze. At least, he thinks it’s morning.  He pulls the unbuttoned cardigan he’s wearing closer to his chest to warm up, and then slips his hands into the pockets. His left hand immediately feels the sharp edge of a business card. That’s odd, he thinks, but of course he has no memory of anyone giving him a business card. He pulls out the card, and it’s a deep emerald green colored card with only one word written on it, LETHE in all caps. And because of his unusual inability to retain useful details, the only memory the card issues forth is the image of a man with a mustache. Not helpful, he thinks, for surely, there are many men with mustaches who have no attachment to this card whatsoever. It’s less than ideal evidence to pursue, not that he had any interest in pursuit of any kind. Oh well, just as well.  He puts the card on the table in front of him, face up, and he stares at the letters. He doesn’t know what the word Lethe means. He’s pretty certain it’s not a real word, but he doesn’t really have a good reason to believe this, he calls it a hunch. His hunches are almost always wrong, but that has never slowed him down from readily believing them. Like most humans, he was not gifted in the art of estimation. And, as previously stated, he has quite given up the idea that he will pursue the meaning of this strange card or its owner, who may or may not be a man with a mustache.

Just then, as if by some cosmic force, a man with a mustache is suddenly standing in front of him.  C.L. looks up and wants to be struck by the coincidence, but promptly forgets that he was in fact just thinking about a man with a mustache, and then, as if he conjured one, voila! Here one stands. But no, he just stares awkwardly because he’s already forgotten, and so the irony, or the coincidence, depending on your cosmic outlook, is entirely lost on him. Luckily, the man in the mustache speaks first.

“Mr. Dodson, I presume.” The man with the mustache removes his rather squarish hat from his rather roundish head and nods at C.L. who continues staring blankly back at him. The fact that the man knows his name does not startle C.L. for he has had many encounters with people who seem to know him, people whom he has either forgotten entirely, or just never bothered to remember in the first place.

“You’re a rather slippery fellow, aren’t you?” the man says playfully as he motions to the empty chair next to C.L. “Do you mind?”  The man holds the back of the chair waiting for C.L. to give him permission to sit.  C.L., having not socialized for as long as he could remember, isn’t quite sure what to do, but he eventually nods, granting the man access to the chair. The man with the mustache smiles and sits. He takes a moment to take in his rather odd surroundings. After all, how often does one find himself in a glass bulb dangling from a tree branch? The man with the mustache is immediately struck by the incredible view and the sound he makes conveys as much, a kind of approving moan.

“Mmm, impressive,” the man with the mustache scans the scenery and nods approvingly.

“I suppose you want to know who I am,” the man says, and C.L. doesn’t really have an opinion one way or the other.

“I work for an organization that helped eradicate the terrible government program known as the EROS Project,” the man deliberately pauses, he stares at C.L. to see if the word Eros strikes any familiar chords.  “Does that name ring any bells?” Of course it doesn’t. C.L. doesn’t have normal human bells, if he has any bells at all. Suddenly, he is caught in the memory of something. A scent. Lavender, maybe jasmine.  Then without thinking he blurts out, “Eros means love.”  The man with the mustache smiles. C.L. is uncomfortable and keeps talking, “I must have known that before…” he realizes he can’t trust a total stranger in a treetop café who has appeared out of nowhere with an ominous mustache. “Before what?” the man asks almost menacingly. C.L. isn’t sure how to interpret the man’s tone.

“Did something happen to you,” the man asks gently. C.L. is ready to change the subject, “How do you know who I am?”  He asks more curtly that he’d intended, and he immediately drops eye contact and stares at the lace tablecloth, the green LETHE card staring at him.

“Did you give me this card?” C.L. asks as he picks up the card to show the man. The man just smiles.

“I need you to listen to me very carefully,” the man whispers and leans in close to C.L. The rest of the Treetop seems to go silent and still. The man continues, “Something happened to you when you were eighteen, something you were not supposed to know about.” There’s a gravity to his voice, pulling C.L. into orbit, and suddenly he feels something akin to aggravation.  The man continues to speak in a low monotone, “you were one of the test subjects in the EROS project. A pilot experiment aimed at rehabilitation, but something went terribly, terribly wrong.”

“Rehabilitation?” C.L. interrupts, “from what?”  The man leans back, his face kind of drenched in pity.

“We met briefly one night before the Eros Project was shut down, at the Highland facility,” the man says, “I gave you my card and told you to find me when you got out.” C.L. does not remember this. He looks at the card on the table, and before he can stop himself, “what’s Lethe mean?”  The man smiles and corrects him, “it’s pronounced Leethee, it’s Greek.”

“Do I speak Greek?”

“Do you know how old you are?” the man asks. C.L. almost scoffs at such an insulting question, but the truth is he doesn’t know. He hasn’t really paid attention to any of the days limping by him. Since Carole died, he has not marked the passage of time. Under the heavy weather of years, monotony and routine have become their own dimension, their own kind of eternity.  

“What does Lethe mean? In Greek?” C.L. asks, and he’s becoming somewhat impatient.

“Before I can help you,” the man says, disregarding C.L.’s question, “you need to tell me what happened. I can only help you if I know what happened.” This sounds to C.L. like he wants to know about Carole, and that’s not a subject he wants to broach with a total stranger.

“I can help you, if you tell me,” the man says, and C.L. suddenly feels threatened. Help me? He wants to say. Help me with what? Who does this man think he is? This man with a preposterous mustache

“Was it a death?” the man asks, “it’s usually a death.”


“If you don’t tell me, we’ll never be able to move forward.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You must have had some tragic event that has changed the course of your whole life. Now, what was it? Was it someone you loved?”  The man with the mustache is growing frustrated, which in turn is making C.L. grow frustrated.

“I loved her more than anything,” C.L.’s voice cracks, he hadn’t intended it to. His face quivers, he didn’t know how to stop it. He hasn’t spoken of her out loud. Not to anyone. Not since that day.

“She died,” the man with the mustache says, and C.L. closes his eyes and nods and says, “I think I did too.”

“How did she die?”

“She…drowned. On her eighteenth birthday.”


“What do you mean how? In the water!”

“Where was she?”

“We were taking a boat to the island.”

“What island?”

“I can’t remember the name of it.”

“What body of water?”

“What kind of a question is that?”

“Was it a lake, a river?”

“A river? There’s no island on a river! It was the ocean.”

The man with the mustache stares at C.L. “the ocean?” he asks. “Yes,” C.L. says sharply, “the ocean.” 

“Why were you at the ocean?”

“It was her birthday. We went to the beach all the time growing up. It was our favorite place.”

“You grew up in St. Louis.”


“What beach do you think you went to?”

C.L. is about to answer, when he realizes he doesn’t have one. No, he thinks, no, this is not right. He does remember everything about his time with Carole, how are these little details missing? He closes his eyes, and as he so often does, he loses the outside world to the sound of the tide, and the warmth of the sun and the sharp joy that is Carole’s laugh.

 When he opens his eyes, he and Carole are on the beach. They are alone. It’s midday on a perfect day, the sky is painted Egyptian blue, and not a single cloud to be seen. It’s suddenly too perfect. As he describes it out loud, he hears the artifice, like when a child makes up a lie in the heat of a moment, and it’s as see through as the pristine glass of The Treetop. He keeps describing it, nonetheless. The water sparkles in the sunlight, all deep blues and greens, and the crashing waves are as effervescent as champagne. The sand sparkles like crushed cream-colored diamonds, and perfect palm trees with cellophane fronds sway in the just right breeze. Nostalgia is one thing, and he’s not prone to it, but this feels more like treacle. It must be that memory is sweetened by tragedy. He sees Carole laughing. Something funny was always just happening, or had just happened. Her laugh was music.  He feels her hand, soft and warm. Her smile hits his chest with a tinge of something otherworldly. She is perfect. Too perfect. All this is out of a book, a fairy tale. All he can think is that he’s made it perfect to hide the awful, awful ending. He pulls her perfect hand to his face to kiss it gently. He closes his eyes, the smell of something sweet and brackish, a sweat and sand and sea and something soft, lavender.  He opens his eyes, and smiles. Her lotion smells like lavender. Her hand goes cold. She jumps to her feet. The boat’s waiting, she says,  last one there, she says, come on slow-poke. The sky darkens, the sea dulls, and the novelty of summer becomes the sleet grey of winter. Clouds appear, a chill in the air, the sand feels like broken glass on his feet as they rush toward the dock. She doesn’t turn to look at him, which is different, he thinks. She’s supposed to turn her head and smile at me, as I try to catch her.  The memory suddenly moves backwards. She’s running toward him, with her back to him, and he’s backwardly running away. They fall onto their blanket, he’s kissing her hand, his eyes close. Darkness.

He opens his eyes. The diner they used to sneak away to for chocolate malts and French fries, how unoriginal, he thinks. The lacquered tabletops and plush red booths reminded him of something from a time long lost, but not his own. He can’t taste the ice cream, but he can feel the cold like mushy ice cubes freezing the roof of his mouth. The ketchup on the fries is like mucous, no flavor just a thick, viscous gel. The music in the background indeterminate, like a million melodies of a million mediocre musicians. And they, sitting as if posing for some sentimental artist hoping to recapture his own youth through his subjects, shoulder to shoulder, sipping from the same fountain glass. He can hear her the sound of her, but no words. What did she say that day? Whatever day of the hundreds of days this was? Was it all of them? Was his mind melding every individual moment into this mess of abstract nothingness. What did she say? Do you love me? Will you run away with me?  What would you do without me? The absence of her was as big in his mind as if the sun stopped rising suddenly. How, he thought,  do people get over it. Do your eyes really adjust to that kind of darkness? He was lost in the curse of memory, but in what was now a washed and anodyne medley of nothing specific.  But the pain attached to it was so great that the searing heat in his chest was a permanent fixture to his days.

And then, he’s back at the beach, that last day, with the grey of a dropsical sky descending upon them as heavy as a lid. He chased Carole to the dock, where a few boats were tied. Carole jumped into one of the smaller ones, gloating that she was the victor of the race.  C.L. untied the boat from the dock, raised the sail, and off they went toward the drooping rays of the sun. They sat on the bow of the boat, with their feet dangling in the warm water, his arm around her, as they eyed the horizon hoping to catch the sun slowly drip into the sea. But the sky had turned dingy, the sea beneath them sloshing against the boat like dirty dishwater. The sunset was not to be, but that only proved an exciting challenge. Carole had a plan, god knows why. One of her virtues, he thought, was her spontaneous love of life. She stood up, resolutely readying herself for a dive off of the boat.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Would you save me if I started to drown?” she said with that grin on her face that implied more than mischief. That grin that kept him up nights.

“Of course, I would,” he responded belligerently.

“Prove it.” She said as she removed her shirt and plopped into the water like a stone. C.L. didn’t panic, he didn’t think much of it in fact. This was Carole. This was what she did. He got a little nervous when she started to swim away from the boat, but was calmed by her singing “Come Sail Away” at the top of her voice.

“Okay, that’s far enough,” he said leaning over the edge of the boat and waving her back in. He was still smiling as she dunked her head underwater, and splayed her legs into the air. He was still smiling when the whistling wind whistled a decibel higher. He was still smiling as the water started rocking the boat more and more.  He stopped smiling when he lost footing and slipped and fell. When he hit the ground, he heard thunder, and panic found him almost immediately. He could hear Carole laughing as he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear Carole laughing as he turned toward her, but it started to rain, and he couldn’t see her anymore. He could still hear Carole laughing as he threw the lifeline off the port side, and the wind carried it to starboard, and it landed with a splash on the opposite side of the boat. He thought Carole was laughing at the sight of the wind carrying the little inner-tube like a kite. And at some point, when he still thought she was laughing, it must have been that her laughter had turned to a panicked scream. He reeled in the life preserver. More rain, more thunder and now lightning. He couldn’t eye her in the water he didn’t know where to throw it. His heart was racing, he was screaming her name over and over again. He doesn’t know if it was the sound of nature, of the rain and the water hitting the boat, but soon the wind would take her screams, dissolve them into one high pitched wail.  Nature at her worst, a furious howl. The rain was falling in sheets so thick that it blinded him. He couldn’t even see the water now, save for the buckets of it that were pouring into the boat at his feet. The waves were intensifying quickly enough to nearly capsize him, and he held on. Why had he held on? Why didn’t he jump in after her? He never stopped screaming her name. Somehow he’s still there, still holding onto the small boat, and still screaming her name into the unforgiving blue-black Agony that had taken his only reason for living. When the storm relented and the dark world grew calm and silent and cold around him, he slid to the bottom of the boat, his eyes cast heavenward at the waning moon, and he drifted off into the night, hoping he would never be heard from again.

“When did you get back to shore?” he hears the man say, though his eyes are closed, and it seems like a trick question.

“What does it matter?”

“Do you have any memory of the Eros project?” the man asks. C.L. doesn’t care, and he shakes his head slowly to give the answer and the impression that he’s not interested in wherever this is going.

“Do you remember a Dr. White?”

“Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

“They really did a number on you.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

The man with the mustache nods quickly, and then reaches down into a small valise next to his legs on the ground, and pulls out a brown file. He opens the file and takes out a small bunch of papers. He rifles quickly through the packet of papers until he finds the page he’s looking for, sets in on the table, takes a breath and reads, “the subject has trouble discerning right from wrong. He often shows no guilt or remorse for his behavior. He lies and manipulates for his own gain. Both his mother and father have expressed worries bout his intense apathy.”  C.L. shakes his head again, and turns away from the man. He looks out the window, and stares at the thick brown tree branches, totally devoid of all life, cracked and useless, he thinks.  And then the smell again. It’s definitely lavender. The man with the mustache turns the page and scans it until he finds and reads the following, “Dr. White, your assigned psychiatrist, suggested that you were a prime candidate for the EROS project and you and your parents all signed the release. Is this your signature?” He shows C.L. a form with his signature on it, it’s definitely his signature, and C.L. tries to remember anything he can about EROS, or Dr. White. He comes up with nothing,

“Why don’t I remember any of that?” C.L., for the first time in a long time is curious. “What is the EROS Project?” The man takes the file back, closes it and sets in back in the valise. He then folds his hands on the table, and smiles. “The EROS project,” he begins, “was a government project meant to eliminate violent crime.”  The man pauses, C.L. reaches in his brain for something familiar, but it’s not there. The man continues, “test subjects, such as yourself, were given an experimental treatment that would serve as a kind of preventive medicine.”

“What do you mean,” C.L. starts, swallows slowly, and finishes, “such as myself?” The man waits a moment, and then reaches back to the valise and grabs a different folder. He holds the folder to his chest as he speaks, “It was a two-day procedure, developed by an army scientist, who specialized in a certain kind of combat training. He called it Wonderland.”

“Why Wonderland?”

“Because,” the man says, “it creates a fantastical alternative to reality.”

“So it’s brainwashing?”

“The scientist, along with dr. White, started using the technique to worked with terrorists to de-indoctrinate them if you will. He discovered a rather severe treatment that the government deemed worthy of trials on non-criminals. But on those who showed a high capacity for psychopathy. The Wonderland project soon became EROS.” When the man stopped talking, he started looking through the folder. C.L. was completely dumbfounded, he was pretty sure that this man had just told him that he is a psychopath. The man pulls a sheet of paper from the folder and reads it, “Empathy Rehabilitation Operating System, or EROS is a memory implantation meant to change the chemicals of the defunct brain in an effort to restore empathy.” The man looks up at C.L. who is shocked but riveted, so he keeps reading, “test subject M,” he motions to C.L. to let him know that’s him, “has been diagnosed by Dr. White with antisocial behavior and narcissistic personality disorder.  He also shows aptitude for cruelty, his mother brought him to Dr. White after she discovered that he had buried their cat alive.” The man looks up at C.L. once again. This time, C.L. is in total disbelief. His face gives away that he knows none of this, and he’s horrified to hear it.

“I buried a cat alive?” he asks in a broken whisper. “No, that can’t be. I would remember that.” The man quickly looks back down on the page and scans it for more information “How could I not remember that? Why would I do that? What are you telling me this for?!” C.L. slams his hands on the table, startling everyone in The Treetop, the man included. C.L.’s eyes scan the room and everyone is looking at him, after a long awkward silence, the man goes back to reading and the room goes back to normal.

“A young neighbor girl told your mother what you’d done. She said that you made her watch. That you forced her to watch as you put the cat into a plastic grocery bag, tied it, and then dug a hole in your back yard to-“  C.L. snaps “That’s enough!” He tries not to raise his voice, so as not to garner any attention, “I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“The young girl, the neighbor-“

“I said I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Her name was Carole.”

C.L. sits upright and back into his chair, his eyes are wide. He slowly starts shaking his head, “no,” he whispers.

“She was very young,” the man says as C.L. continues to shake his head more and more vigorously. “No,” he says. a little louder.

“You must have been thinking about her when they…installed the memories.” C.L. can feel tears welling, the inside corners of his eyes feel hot, and he can’t quite catch his breath. He is still shaking his head, “No,” he says, “No, none of this makes any sense.”

“I know. Believe me, I do. You’re the not the first patient of Dr. White’s that I’ve found.”

“I don’t-what do you mean installed the memories?” C.L. has stopped shaking his head, and glares at the man waiting for a response. The man doesn’t know how to sugarcoat it, so he says it plainly, “Carole. Your memories of her. They’re not real. Carole doesn’t exist.”  In the silence that seemed to be punctuated, C.L. tries to imagine what this man’s motives could be for such an elaborate and cruel lie.

“I know this must be shocking,” the man says, “I do. But I promise you, that we at Lethe can help you.”

“Why should I believe you?” C.L. says, and his voice has an eerie calm to it. “Why should I believe a total stranger when he tells me that the only person I have ever loved is a figment of my imagination?”

“She’s not a figment, she’s proof.”



“Of what?”

“Your ability to love.” They both stare neither sure what to say next.

“My ability to love?”

“True sociopaths do not harbor the kinds of feelings you have for Carole. It’s awful, but the government thought if they could get psychopaths to love and lose someone then they could prevent them from killing others. Because they would know how it feels. That is the essence of empathy. When you think about it it’s a frighteningly small detail that stops people from murdering each other in the streets. I for one don’t sleep very well knowing the line between life and death is so fucking small.”

“They thought I was going to kill someone?” C.L. tries to remember anything he can, but all he gets are random details, specific nothings, and Carole. “Why can’t I remember anything but her?”

“One of the side effects of EROS is memory loss and dysfunction. The only real memories some subjects were able to retain were the false ones. Other memories tended to be reduced to strange and seemingly random details. The system does quite a number on your brain. But that’s where Lethe comes in.”

C.L. can’t imagine participating in anything this man is peddling. “You must think I’m crazy,” he says, “you must think I’m a fucking crazy person, if you think I’m just going to believe you.”

“We can get rid of the memories of Carole,” The man says as matter-of-factly as if he’d just ordered toast. “The government has approved and fast-tracked our extraction modality. We offer Legal and Ethical Targeted History Extraction, either real or artificial. PTSD is soon going to be a thing of the past. It is a state secret, of course, so I’m afraid now that I’ve told you, you don’t have a choice in the matter. The CIA is running LEHTE, and we can’t let any civilians have any knowledge of it.”

“I won’t remember anyway,” C.L. says, and he knows it true, which gives him some comfort. “I won’t remember any of this.

“Yes,” the man agrees, “but that’s not a chance we’re willing to take.” 

“Or you can just shoot me. I won’t resist.”

“I’m afraid not.”

C.L shakes his head calmly and takes a deep breath. “I’m not losing her again.”

“You won’t know that you ever knew her, because you didn’t. You can start your life all over.”

“But I’m a psychopath!”

“No, I told you, you were most likely misdiagnosed.”

“And that’s a chance you are willing to take?” C.L. is certain he’s got him on a technicality. “I barely have the will to live,” he says, “If you take her away from me, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know who I would be. I’ll be nothing. I’ll be even less nothing than this? What’s less than this?”

“We’ll create a perfect environment, you’ll feel completely safe,” the man says to reassure him, “and then we’ll explain everything as we extract the memories. The only downside is you will have to relive her death. We don’t know how to remove it without targeting it completely and that means, you have to experience it. But then it will be gone.”

“Did you not hear me? I’m nothing without it,” C.L. says with more pity than he thought he possessed.

“Well, that’s the thing about trauma,” the man says, “it usually defines us.”

Then the man leans in to make his selling point, “I’m offering you the chance to literally wake up tomorrow and be free of pain. Yes, you may be a sociopath. That’s not for us to decide. Without your actions, we can’t just assume you to be. You have to have some say in your own life. That’s what free will is. Now, I don’t normally do this, but I can see that you are desperately wounded by the loss of this woman, fictional though she may be, so, I will walk away from here and let you carry on in your agony,  if you can give me one good reason why you should want to live with the memory of such pain.” The man sits back, fairly certain that his argument was a solid one. C.L. doesn’t know what he’s going to say, but he knows he’s going to say it. “Because,” he begins slowly, “I’d rather sit in this Treetop in implacable pain knowing I was loved. It may be that I can’t move. The world may hurt too much. But there is no world at all if you take her away from me. You can’t have her.”

“She’s not real.”

“She’s real enough.”

“And what if you remember this? What if you remember she’s not real?”

“I won’t. As soon as you leave, all of this goes with you. That’s how it works.”

The man looks at C.L. with a mistrustful glance, “how do you know that?” he asks.

“How do I know what?”

“How do you know you won’t remember this? How do you know how your memory loss works?”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.” C.L. says and he quickly becomes frightened. The man with the mustache stands up, and puts the hat back on his head and stands looming large over the small table C.L. is sitting at.

“How do you explain this café?” the man asks in a parental tone suggesting he already knows the answer. “What are you doing here, C.L.?”

“I’m having tea,” C.L. says, and he wants to sound certain, but it comes across weakly, though not as weak as the tea, he notices, as he begrudgingly swallows a big slug of it.

“And how did you get up here? C.L.?” The man stares down at him waiting for his response. C.L. closes his eyes, and he knows. And his heart sinks into the brine of his own despair. He feels the Treetop swaying in the breeze. He hears the murmuring of life around him. He sees Carole’s face, younger than he remembered, and he cannot recall where or how. One more time, he thinks, just one more time. And he opens his eyes and the world has gone white. And he knows the answer, “I climbed the stairs,” he says, and that’s that.


Shadows of Ariston

            I’m awake!

I’m in my bed on West Fifty Second Street. It’s dark. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed. My brain is sluggish, more so than usual. It’s too dark to see, my confusion is brightly mirrored by the absence of everything.  I hear the bed creaking beneath me. Old springs. A memory of something from childhood. I place my bare feet on the ligneous floor. The implacable insistence of winter hits my skin like a shock of electricity into my soles and up through the rest of me. I sit on the edge of my bed, blowing hot air into my cupped hands, trying to adjust to the blue-black world around me. A racing pulse, frosty sweat sticking my shirt to my back. I am gripped with something animal, an instinct from I know not where, as if I’m exposed. I feel seen in this total darkness, as if something that is best left concealed has burst to fantastical life. This is why humans fear the dark, it claims our souls unnoticed. I place my feet into my slippers, but they do not feel familiar. Suddenly, nothing is familiar. I don’t remember coming home. It seems I haven’t been to this place in years. Perhaps I’ve never been here at all. As if a place I’ve long imagined, has suddenly become real in the mid-night of someone else’s midwinter. Perhaps I’ve dreamt a future from which I am finally waking up. This must be the fatigue of sleep pressing itself into me. The residue of dream. I have long believed in the veracity of my own inventions, but history is surely no invention of mine. But then, neither are my dreams. I am only witness, not perpetrator. They are cast up from the lake of hell as either truth or torment. I pull back the thick curtains of the window over my small wooden bed, and the faintest of glowing light, flame or moon I cannot tell, creeps in just so. As I turn my head away from the window, toward the room itself, I see, directly across from me, as if mimicking my very posture,  a shadow. It is the figure of a man, to be sure. He is indiscernible and as still as the stagnant night air. But I recognize the danger of him. The sight of him takes my breath, stiffens my spine. I am resigned to whatever fate I’ve awoken to. How could I not be? The memories of shadows overtake me in all their furtive avidity. They are everywhere, portentous and unremitting, and they will never stop claiming us. The shadow moves as I do, and I know I am not alone in my room. A stranger has followed me home. But from where? I cannot stop myself from jumping to my feet. I cannot stop myself from dashing as quickly as I can out of my bedroom, through the front room of my apartment, out the front door, down three flights of stairs, and into the midwinter rime that is hovering like an ominous angel over the tranquil city. I cannot turn around, lest I see him fast on my trail. He is coming. The shadows are coming for us all.  

First it was Edmond, and then Anthony, lovers never heard from again. William and Joseph, and myriad gossips of countless others. Disappeared into the thickness of obscurity. Taken by shadows, never to return.  I knew better than to be alone before sunrise. Why was I home? What had happened? I can feel shards of ice pricking my feet through the thin fabric of my slippers, and the vaporous clouds of my exhaled breath obscures the world in front of me. I can’t make a wrong turn. I can’t stop moving forward.  I am running back to the Ariston, the bathhouse beneath the world,  where safety lives in esoteric perpetuity, and shadows stick to their otherworldly selves.  I will be safe there.                 

Memories shuffle like playing cards through my bitter mind. I see the faces of men who have been taken, I see the faces of men who have been invited into me, who have known more of my body than I. We are tied together, I can see, we are tied together from the beginning of time, from the moment Erebus emerged from the void of chaos and gave birth to Love. A threaded succession of the male form grasping workworn hands around the blood red filament of all of time. A patchwork of tragic testimony from antiquity to eternity. I think of the passage of time, and its immutable procession. And of Walter. Walter, the man I seek in the dark underworld. It is in these last few months, since I first saw him, that I have discovered a new sense, a craving I never dreamed I could have. And as I run through the sleeping, wintry city, I am filled with the warmth of his embrace. I will feel complete again when his arms encircle me. I cannot recall when last I saw him. The exact look of his face eludes me.  I run faster.  How long has it been? The fog of sleep or dream hasn’t entirely lifted, but still I run. I pass block after block of brick, of lighted gas lamps, of hobos tucked as warmly into the crevices of buildings as they can cram. I run past parked carriages and street signs whose letters are indiscernible from the white frost of winter. Everything feels at once in front of me, and from a different time. And there is no rear view, there is only forward.

I see the red sign next to the flame of the lantern, the Ariston Hotel. The bathhouse entrance is down a flight of stairs just next to the glowing hotel sign. I grab the icy rail and I proceed down the steps as fast I can. Moving stealthily through the entrance door, opening it just wide enough to pass through and shutting it quickly behind me. I am safe.  

“Good Evening, Mr. Galbert,” that would be Henry, the concierge of the bathhouse, an amenable, slightly overweight fellow of middle-age with a wide jaw and a silly overbite. He is smiling at me, as is his usual demeanor. His small yellow teeth seem to be reverting back into his enflamed gums, but his smile is wide enough to suggest his indifference to this fact. He knows my name from the register that all guests must sign before entering. It is not my name. I have invented a surname as I assume others have as well. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in this particular forest is ill-advised to men of any prominent name. Henry watches as I sign the register. I look up at him,  I try to look him in his gray eyes, and I catch myself staring at the plastering of the few remaining hairs on his head that he must intend to present as a natural part. I smile back at him, as much out of pity as courtesy. I pay him one dollar for a private room. He hands me a sheet, and a key, and I am grateful. I leave him to his duties and I enter the dark corridor that leads to the bathhouse itself. To the safety of the others.

The dark corridor from the entrance to the changing rooms is lit only by the ambient light of gas lamps emanating from open archways.  Shadows of men moving slowly toward the sounds of hissing steam, exerted breath, and of chatter somewhere in the distance dance across the walls. And I, somnambulating somehow, float through the cavernous dark toward something, someone I used to be.

The changing room is a square windowless space just past an archway covered by a plain white curtain. Inside the room are a couple of benches, some cubbies for shoes and other personal effects, and long bars along the back wall where wooden hangars are placed for clothing. One does not wear clothes in the Ariston. They are real world accessories. No such need for excess barriers impeding our gratification down here. If there is one thing that every man in the Ariston has in common it is the desire for what lies beneath the clothing. The walls are dark. All the walls of the Ariston are dark, covered in wooden slats or thick lacquered paint of deep gray, an ironic and hoary reminder of our intentions. But here in the dark submissive subterranean, our sub-morals seek spiritual excavation. A kind of duality is necessary where rules are created by the tyranny of exquisite deviance. This place is but a shadow of the world above. Where life blurs into fantasy and simple men become eloquent poets. A netherworld, ruled by the exiled in opposition to pious fealty. What is wrong becomes right, in the darkness of night, where our selves are cloaked in novelty. So there’s a kind of spiritual imperative to the dark walls of the Ariston, a willful ignorance. We are the shadow-makers and we obey only the laws of the mirage.

The Ariston is the reflective nighttime other of the selves we know in the light of day.  A curse of its own time. When the puppeteers at the fire had no materials to reflect the image of such persons, they remained unknown, but to each other. And who is the less wise? But here we have found in our haven, our sanctuary, a poetic meter of unknown feet, yet what delicious scansion. Dive into the abyss and interpret anyone you like. Until such a time that our own time is history, we adjust the truth to fit our needs, and our needs are fitted just fine by the desire of others. But this is not what I have come looking for tonight. I have spent many nights in the somber embrace of my shadow self, and in the arms of Walter, the man I have returned to find. I fear I will not find him.

I remove my clothes. I wrap myself in the small white sheet that smells vaguely of ammonia and tobacco, and I step back into the dark corridor. The light from the parlor seeps in to the dark tunnel like the morning sun, glowing amber. The color cuts a melancholy figure tonight. Where are you, Walter? I know the shadows are closing in. The hourglass overturned is nearly empty. Our only hope is the other. I don’t want to panic, but I know he’s not here, and I hope he is on his way.  I turn a corner, unsure of which direction I’m heading, and I happen upon the darkened entry to one of the steam rooms. Gusts of steam exhale from the tattered white curtain of the rounded archway like vapor escaping between the teeth of an angry dragon. Before I can reason otherwise, I slip into the steam room. I have often discovered Walter in such rooms. I don’t know that i’m looking for him now. As if lost in a fog on the darkest night, I am swallowed. A slow hiss. The pulse of dripping water. The poetic scent of wet wood and skin and sweat. In the miasma, a pall hangs like tapestry.  It swirls as thick as oil paint, leaving smears of smoke suspended in space. The heat is overwhelming, and the tickle of menthol sticks in my throat. I hear the wet touching of bodies nearby, but I can’t see them. I want to speak, but as custom would have it, in the dark, speaking is usually disruptive and not at all welcomed. Or is it that I have no voice here?

“Hello,” his voice whispers through the fog like a god beckoning me toward our Arcadia. It is Walter’s, but it is not now

“I can’t see you,” I whisper back.

“I’m right here…” The steam parts and on the bench against the back wall he is sitting and smiling at me. His face is not quite how I remembered, or how I see it when I close my eyes.

“You’re not really here,” I say bitterly. “Where are you?”

“I’m right here,” he says again, this time in a voice that isn’t his, “I’ve been waiting for you.” He pats the wooden bench next to him, suggesting that I sit with him. That was how it happened, once, the second or third time. The first night was all silences. A few awkward phrases and more than one glance that writers call furtive. This is the what the room looked like, what it smelled like. But now it’s drenched in nostalgia, something artificial, too sweet, like the memory of some long-forgotten cake that hasn’t touched your tongue since youth.

“Sit with me,” he says, and I cannot help but give in to the fondness of this creation. Everywhere I turn in the swirling gray haze of the steam I see another version of him, of us, moments imprinted on the walls, on the benches, like a zoopraxiscope of shadows in the air, memories hanging and moving all around us ethereal and permanent like fingerprints we’ve left behind. And I can’t tell the memories from the shadows from men from myself.

“You’ve been running,” he says.

 “It’s cold outside. I didn’t want to freeze to death.” He laughs in the way he does that suggests he thinks I’m endearing. I want to kiss him.

“You’re so dramatic,” he says through his impossibly perfect smile. There’s that nostalgia again. If it is nostalgia, then the time on this side of us together is greater than I can imagine.

“I couldn’t wait to see you,” I say, and it’s true. It’s truer than the walls closing in around me. 

“Aren’t you tired of running?” He leans in closer, “what are you running toward?” I don’t answer. I should answer. “Or,” he says, “are you running away from something?”  I should tell him I want to run away with him. Why didn’t I tell him that? Why didn’t I tell him that I only dream of him, that I am only half of myself when he is absent? Did I say these things? Did he know any of that? How much of life is what we think we know someone else thinks or knows? And what intervals fill the hours between desire and fulfilment? The long silence of loneliness. He pats his legs a couple of times, a sign of impatience. I have not spoken.

“I told you,” I say slightly irritated, “I was cold.”

“Yeah,” he says, as he pulls away from me, “right, cold.” He leans his back on the wall, and closes his eyes. Another long silence. Why doesn’t he understand? Doesn’t he feel the same way?  

“I’m getting tired of this life.” I finally say, and immediately wish I could take it back.

“What does that mean?” he asks, with his eyes still closed.

“I hate secrets.”

“Really?” He says, and opens his eyes and stares at me knowingly, and I know why.

“I hate that there’s nothing I can do about this. What does the future even look like? I haven’t thought about the future in so long. I don’t know how I will ever have one.”

“How can you if you’re lost in the past?”

“How can I move toward something that’s lost?”

“You’re feeling sorry for yourself.”

“If I am,” I say pointedly, “it’s because I want to be with someone who would rather I stay a shadow than become a real person!”

“I told you,” he starts more aggressively than I’ve ever seen him, “I would go with you.” He softens immediately, “I told you we could go somewhere far away where no one knows us, where no one would ever find us.” Have I mistaken him. I don’t remember him saying these words. But my pride is stung, nonetheless.

“You didn’t mean it.” I say dismissively.

“How is that fair?”

“How is what fair?”

“Why do you get to decide what I meant?”

 “It’s impossible,” I stand up to make my point, “Words are easy, they make moments easier to endure, but when you say things that cannot be, your words, they’re just decorations to make everything seem to look better, but the ugliness of what it really looks like is still there. You can’t hide the truth of this. Not with anything.”

He hangs his head. Why did I say this? How do I put into words the impossible feeling that we share? Will anyone understand this despair, this injustice? Does anyone have to?

A pang of something deep and unendurable hits me, and I want to throw my arms around him. This was the last time I saw him. And what would follow…what terrible, terrible treachery would conclude our story. I would deny that I knew him, I would deny that we had even met, that our paths had ever even accidentally crossed. Our heated exchange made it impossible for me to hear the whispers. We, neither of us, paid any particular attention to the strange new faces of the Ariston those last few days. When the whistle blew and the chaos began, I didn’t know it was the start of the end of my life. For within only a few years, I would be dead and buried in an unmarked grave. Never to have this, never to feel this, never to understand the reason I was born wicked. I didn’t know then, Walter, that our collision would turn to rubble beneath an ever-changing world. That all moments hence would be reft of meaning. Can I change this? Can I edit the text of history? I turn back to Walter, and I’m about to tell him that I’ve changed my mind. That no matter how far we have to run, no matter how much time we have to wait, I’ll be with him. But it’s too late. The steam has filled the room once more, and he is gone. And I stand amid the empty space as I always do. Alone.

I turn to go, and I am face to face with a large man, Norman Fitzsimmons, one of the imposing and awkward new faces that I should have considered. I didn’t think anything of him, and to my detriment perhaps I still don’t.

“Hi there,” he says in that suggestive way that suggests a clever man should properly dismiss him.

“Can I help you?” I say, as if I’m talking to a tourist who doesn’t speak my language. Both of us can feel my impatience.

“What’s your hurry?” as soon as he asks, his eyes wander up and down my body as he licks his lips which, because of the moisture of the steam, makes a wet slithering kind of sound which sends a shiver up my spine.

“I have a room,” he says in a newly pitiful tone.

“That’s nice for you,” I am not even trying to be civil. I just want him to leave me alone.

 “Would you meet me there?”

 “I don’t think so.” I try to move past him, but he moves at the same instance to block my way.

“Come on,” his confidence has inexplicably returned, “I think we should get to know each other.” Unable to hide his tumescence under his rather small sheet, he seems oddly to be gaining confidence.

I nod, having experience with aggressive men in the past, I know the answer, so I smile and say I’ll meet him in an hour in his room, that he should wait there for me. This is usually effective because it never takes an hour for a desperate gentleman to find someone else who is equally desperate. I think I’m safe, there’s no chance he’ll be waiting for me in an hour. How could I know his intentions? I never suspected the flesh and blood in front of me to ever be as sinister as the shadows from whence they came. How could I have known? The only thing more dangerous than the law, is the law that wants to avenge himself.

“I’ll see you then, handsome.” He says as he brushes an awkward finger across my face. I try to smile, I know it must look false, but I doubt he’ll recognize the difference. The thing about desperation is that it makes everything look equally appealing. Conversely, one of the curses of the inhabitants of this place, and indeed all such shadowy encounters, is that ill-intentions and fear share the same mannerisms. We mistook each other. He disappears into the cloud of steam. I wait a moment before I rush from the stream room back to the corridor and toward the parlor, trying to shake off the residue of his insolent insistence.  

The parlor of The Ariston, is more of a lodge than a clandestine refuge. It doesn’t look at all like the kind of place where the underworld thrives. Unlike the men that populate it, it’s face value can be trusted. It’s filled with dark oak furniture and hardwood floors, and entirely illuminated by a giant crystal chandelier and a roaring wall-length fireplace. The room is in a state of perpetual aureate glow. In my imagination, this is the color of nostalgia, of wistful memories, and fêted histories, Versailles in its heyday. It’s the color of memory. The amber dawn when I walked along the Seine in the heart of Paris, and Notre Dame revealed herself on the pink horizon, is, in my mind, painted in this perfect golden sheen. There are round tables throughout the parlor, usually occupied by pairs of men who are discussing current events, or the weather, the opposite of the kind of provocative goings-on that fuel the other parts of our Hadean world. Shadows dance on the walls of the parlor, and here they are never feared. They are the distorted images of men cast from the large flames of the fireplace. There are refreshments and tobacco sold at small vendors on the edges of the massive room, and liquor may be purchased from the circle bar that serves as the parlor’s centerpiece. Sometimes, over the smell of the burning wood, you catch the faint hint of gin or whisky perfuming the air. The only men in the parlor tonight are John Rogers and his friend Theodore Casson. The herd is thinning. John is the most effeminate man I have met at the Ariston. He moves and speaks with a caustic hiss about him that demands either respect or reproach, and I honestly don’t know which he prefers. I often wonder if he is the same man in the daylight.  He’s handsome, tall and skinny, not very defined but lengthy, and he’s always draped with his sheet tied in such a way that it clings to his body as if it were tailor-made to fit him precisely. Theodore is an immigrant from eastern Europe somewhere. I never asked, and he never volunteered this information. His accent is thick, his English imperfect, and he is extremely handsome. He has olive skin, curly black hair and deep blue eyes, a contrast that distracts most of the gentlemen here when they first encounter him. He’s one of those people for whom the world feels invited toward. His smile can only be described as glowing, or any such adjective that suggests a light emanating from him, from a place beneath the surface. Of course, it is only the surface given greater meaning to avoid the shallow realization that human beings are drawn to corporeal pleasures first and foremost. Though I do fancy myself a bloke of some substance, I can’t help but feel only drawn toward Theodore for his remarkable beauty. There is surely greater beauty of the soul, but we don’t do much excavating here. John and Theodore are sitting at a table nearest the fireplace.

“George!” John shouts as he raises his hand to announce that it was he who shouted my name, as if being the only people in the room were not enough of a hint.  I smile and head over to their table.

“As I live and breathe,” John continues, as I sit across from him, “is a saying I deplore, but customs being what they are..” he trails off into his drink.

“How are you, John? Theodore?”  Theodore smiles, and I feel a tinge of something as his eyes twinkle in my direction.

“The world is being lost to the shadows,” John says abruptly, “what are you drinking, my friend?”

“I don’t drink, John, remember?”

“Why should I remember something as foolish as that?”

“You no with the drink?” Theodore, I assume, is clarifying that he understood correctly.

“I don’t drink,” I say, “I promised my sister I would quit.”

“Why?” Theodore asks with a furrowed brow.

“I drank far too often to excess. Which, in turn, can quite often lead to rather foolish mistakes

“Amen!” John says as he grabs Theodore’s leg and gives it a good squeeze.

“My sister is quite demanding.”  I add in almost a whisper for fear of reproaching her in public.

“Sisters are always much too demanding,” John begins, “why, my very own used to insist I stop stealing her angora! The nerve!” I shake my head with a little laugh.

“But in all seriousness,” his tone changes immediately to a graver seriousness, “I was worried we’d lost you. I haven’t seen you around lately.”

“Yes,” Theodore interjects, “where you been?”  I don’t know what to say. I don’t know.

“And with the seedy lowlifes taking over,” John says as he motions toward Norman Fitzsimmons, who is slithering by the parlor on his way to what I can only hope are greener pastures. I look back at John, who has both eyebrows raised and his jaw slackened, “shadow monsters, I tell you.” Just then, a loose ember sparks in the fireplace and makes a loud crackling sound. I jump in my seat, which makes John giggle. 

“Why so jumpy, my dear boy,” he chuckles a little, “afraid of the dark?”  He makes an attempt at a ghostly moan as he takes a sip of his drink.  John always drinks Manhattans, because as he says, he is like the city itself, a classy ole gal. A shadow moves across the wall, my eyes follow to where its origin is, but there’s no one there. Where are you Walter, I think, where are you? Lost in this endless night. Is there hope still? Was there ever?

“Where is Walter?” John asks as if he’s reading my mind.

“He should be here soon,” I say with less hope than I intended.

John crosses his legs, revealing, rather dramatically, his pink stockinged legs.

“Are those stocking?” I ask, in a scandalous tone.

“They’re not rubbers,” John says in his caustically endearing way.

“Where you get those?” Theodore asks desperately.

“I filched them from Wanamaker’s,” John says and then continues sonorously, “They were marked up ten percent from last week! Imagine the nerve, it’s as if they’re asking us to criminalize ourselves. I refuse to overpay for the pleasure of hiding my sophistication. Blaspheme, I say.

“You steal?!” Theodore can hardly believe it.

“And why not?” John asks, and then looks pointedly into my eyes, “the world is ending. For us. Anyway. Why should the morality that has cast us asunder be respected in any measure by any of us? I take what I like, and in return, I don’t burden the world with my secrets. Social contract!”

The long silence is broken by another crackling in the fire.

“Fewer and fewer of us now.” John says, as he swirls the small amount of drink he has left in the bottom of his glass, clinking the ice against the crystal.

“I can hardly remember their names,” he continues, “the stories of men, of lovers, a procession of lost souls, one after the other down the long corridor of history, arm in arm, sin after sin, dust to dust.” Theodore and I make eye contact, I always hope he will look back when I stare at him, if for nothing but that sense of invitation he inherently offers, but this time, the weight of truth terrifies us. John, not looking at either of us, continues,

“My friend Matthew, dear friend, was last seen in the southwesterly cooling room with a group of men from out of town. Swallowed by the shadows. All. Some who were nearby say they heard the languid screams, the pleas to God, the awful, awful wretched cries of the damned. But no one could stop it. How many men have gone? How many trodden these halls as nothing but memory now? And soon to be vanished, lost forever buried in the rubble. But oh, how we fancy ourselves immortal. Surely, we think, surely someone, someday will dig us out. And hold us in the light and see the colors of our geodes. Sparkled back to the life as priceless deities. Gods from an impossible time. Welcome to the future. The numbers are uncountable, the misery unimaginable, and yet we still return, as if by some terrible, spiritual curse that draws us again and again to suffering.”

John finished the rest of his drink and sets the glass on the table gently. “Do you know what I think it is,” he asks, suddenly his old self again. “I think,” he hesitates, and then smiles, “humans want the wrong things.”  This is a line I know. His words move through me, past me, lifting me into the air and placing me in the space between death and eternity, where every man has been that has known what it is to love.

The room is mostly dark. The mattress old and springy. I am face down with my head off to one side. I am naked. I can feel the length of his body alongside me. His hand gently gliding along my spine, softly, perfectly. I have ached in the absence of this feeling. This is why I return. One moment more, turns to days turns to weeks and the craving grows and the pain realer than the air I breathe. I can smell the mentholated air, a scent I associate with an appetitive impulse for him. More of him. Always him. Always more. He tells me of his life. He tells me his dreams. Time is precious when counted in the presence of such happiness. Always more. I traverse the wilds of his existence, an explorer, a conqueror. I want more. He has a tone in his voice that can bring me to laughter, to tears, to desire. He is an ocean of a man, and I, who had not hesitated before diving in to be carried off by the currents of his inexorable beauty, a seafaring dreamer.

“What would we do if the world couldn’t stop us?” I ask him, in a voice dripping with pity.

“That’s the wrong question,” he says.

“We can only know the shadow versions of each other,” I say with irritation, “because the world will not have it any other way.”

“That’s not why.”

“Of course it is.”

“Why should we be beholden to how others see us?”

“Are you serious?”

“We call ourselves victims of perception. But isn’t that just our own perception?”

“You do not think it is real?”

“But this is impossible to change. Why do we care so much to change the opinions of people we’ll never even know?”

“I’d like to have freedom.”  I say and I think I’ve won the argument.

“No,” he insists, “that’s not what you really want,” he says with a kind of certainty that stabs my heart. I turn onto my side toward him, I know my face is filled with anger, but I do not to try to mask it.

“Why would you say that?”  I say sharply.

“We’re human,” he says, “humans always want the wrong things.” He leans in to kiss me, but I do not let him.

“Oh, then I guess you don’t really want me?” I sound like a young girl in love. Why do such strong feelings of pleasure blister so easily, even at just the hint of rejection?  But rather than be embarrassed by this betrayal of immaturity, I am fueled by an indignation to both win him over and prove him wrong.

“I fear we don’t define the word ‘want’ in the same way,” he says in a dismissive tone.

“Then tell me,” I say, “tell me how should I define it.” He smiles and lies down on his side next to me, his elbow digs into the mattress and his hand holds his head up, and he says that want is a desire to be with, not possess. I tell him this is semantics. He tells me I am obsessed with having him entirely to myself. And then he tells me that our families and our world could not allow it.  And could never bleed into one another. I cringe at the word “bleed,” and my heart sinks with the meaning of his words. So, I tell him to choose me. No, I beg him to choose me. Always more. And, again, he insists it is human avarice, and that I am not to blame for my drastic position.  

“Are you saying you’re not human?” I say with sarcasm, “are you suggesting that you are infallible to the desperation that I feel for you?”  Instead of defending himself, he leans over my face, he kisses my forehead, and with a grin he says, “I love you.” And I can feel my spirit heighten, it is more, I think. He is giving me more.  

“Let’s get out of here,” I say, and I look into his eyes, and I feel that twinge. I cannot express what feeling accompanies the belief that you belong to someone else, it is something that only lovers know how to define. I am overwhelmed by it, and didn’t notice how the haze swept back in from the steam room and overtook us both. An ominous foreshadow, or the curse of imperfect memory. “Will you come with me,” I say desperately as a cloud begins to separate us. Did he say yes? Did he say no? He blurs out of focus, fading, retreating into thin air. And the air, clogged with the ever-graying shadows, overtakes me, and I let it.

John has finished yet another drink, and he pats Theodore on the head like you would a little kid, and leans in close to him to whisper “let’s go,” gently into his ear. Before I can think to excuse myself, out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a figure bolting across the back wall of the parlor. Walter? I look. Nothing. There it is again. I look to the other side of the room, but it’s empty. Another. And then another. They are surrounding us.

“Don’t go,” I say to John and Theodore, who are so enamored with each other at this point, they don’t even look at me, “it’s not safe,” I insist. But they do not believe me.

“Sorry, old boy,” John says, “can’t break a date with Atropos.” He kisses Theodore on the lips, it’s soft, sweet.  I feel a pang of loss in the center of me. I push the thoughts aside, I can’t let John and Theodore go.

“Spinning the thread,” John says, and then glances at me directly, “will never change the length of it.”  He winks at me, and he is gone.

Just as John and Theodore disappear into the darkness of the corridor that leads to the southwesterly cooling room, is when it happens. Out of what feels like a dream, I see a shadow on the wall farthest from me, near the corridor, all at once and without pause, peel itself from top to bottom off of the smooth surface of the wall and come to life in front of me. I cannot breathe. Transfixed and terrified, I watch as the shadow glides toward and disappears down the same corridor as my friends. I jump to my feet. I scramble to make sense of what I’ve seen, while at the same time trying to concoct a plan of action. I don’t have time to consider what might happen to me, I barrel down the corridor, into the hissing pitch-black. My hands are out in front of me, feeling the wall just next to me. There is no light. I am blind. I walk as quickly as I can, I think to call out John’s name, but I cannot. I open my mouth, and the harsh hot menthol stings my throat. I am voiceless. I am blind. The southwesterly cooling room is at the far end of the corridor, it will not be easy to reach in this dizzying blackness.

The cooling rooms of the Ariston are quite popular. They are the most temperate places for two men to relax together.  The southwesterly is often the most populated. And where the many go, most men will follow. It’s the largest of the cooling rooms. It’s illuminated by the ambient glow of streetlights through the small window at the top of the room. There are slatted benches and cots lining the walls, and there are usually a couple of men occupying one or two of them at any given time. I remember Walter in this room. I see him there. He’s sitting on one of the cots, propping himself up on his elbows. His sheet is on the ground near him, and the soft light makes his naked skin glow. He is otherworldly. Apollo, god of light, come to life before me, releasing his bow, briefly piercing the gentle body of this lesser mortal.

“Where will we go?” he asks playfully, he’s flirting with me, in that way he does. His half smile, that penetrating stare, a kind of confidence that doesn’t betray charm.

“If you’ll go with me,” I say, “I’ll go anywhere you want to go.” I sit on the cot next to him. He moves his arms and stretches out onto his back, I lay my head on his chest, and as he strokes my hair, he tells me where he wants to go. “Arcadia,” he says, “A future as far back as antiquity.”  He always speaks in contradictions, and I love it. He told me once that time always comes back to the beginning, and that it exists all at once. We are now and then and soon to be, and always will be, and never were.

“Describe it to me,” I say, trying to nuzzle deeper into him, if I could burrow beneath his skin, I would search for no greater destiny.  I smell his skin, and it forces my eyes closed. Always more.

“It’s perfect,” he begins, and I nod to encourage him. “The fresh morning has broken, and the sky is clear. It’s the kind of early morning blue that reminds you of youth, when dawn was still a poem. And there we are in a verdant field of tall grass stretched out for what seems like ever. Mountains paint the edges of the scene, and a gentle river runs past us, past the trees, the wilderness, a forest, floral with canopied orchards.  And on a bluff of perfect emerald alongside the river, just past the wild, we build our place. We build it from ancient stone and marble painted Egyptian blue, something megalithic. A temple maybe, a place that’s only ours. But all the ours who would ever come. And we live in that moment in that place until it no longer serves as heaven, overgrown with weeds and grasses, abandoned by time and necessity. Until then, we stay as we are now, unbroken from the other. And always.” and then he smiles, “The end.”

He stops stroking my hair, I raise my head to look into his eyes. I love you, Walter. I love you more than I should. I love you more than even I understand.  I can’t let you go. I’ve come back to pull you from the ruins. To take you, at long last, into the light of day, to this perfect place you’ve built for us. We have to go. We have to go now.

A scream pierces the dark,  I turn at the end of the corridor,  and I rush into the southwesterly cooling room. It’s empty. The cots are gone. The walls are cracked, the window is boarded up with planks of wood. And burning just in the middle of the room, a single candle. A vigil of something not just gone, but swallowed deep into the Earth. Forgotten. How do I pull all of this out? It’s rubble, it’s nothing but impermanent imaginings, whispers of shadows, spiritual hieroglyphics on a wall buried deep into the crust of the earth. It is gone.

“John,” I say compulsory, but I know he’s not here. The walls are dull, no longer alive with the images of the men that were once here, and the light casts no shadows on them. Not even my own. I have no shadow left in this place. And I remember. I remember the plan to escape. And I see Norman Fitzsimmons, in his desperate deceit.  And I see the others too. Bursting into the rooms. Shattering the walls. Betraying the underworld to the laws of the righteous gods high above. We were all taken that night. And we have never returned. That night. The last night I saw him. Walter.  The shadows came for us. And we could not stop them from pulling us apart. Only now I stand alone in the spot where last our eyes locked, with a piece of my soul cut out of me.  I thought I could return and find it. I took a step toward the history I truly believed made me who I am, and what I have found in its place is a world where even shadows don’t exist. When once they ruled the domain, bereft of agency, they are now nothing but the lack of light.  And these men. What can I do with these men? How do I excavate them, and bring them up to the world? How will you know their names? And love. Or perhaps, the point isn’t their love. History doesn’t record the heart. And once made invisible, a man cannot reanimate. He is gone. And only the poet may resurrect him.

The candle on the floor of what used to be The Ariston flickers,

I stare into the center of it.

The room disappears inside of me,

I pick up the flame,

and I take a deep breath,

and I close my eyes.

And then,

flashes of Walter,

of John,

of Theodore,

of laugher,

of hope,

of fear,

And dreams and impossible possibilities of future,

of past,

of now,

and then and then and now again,

and us,

and them and all,

one after another

in the succession that creates the procession of all the things that have made me come to this place and hold this light in the center of this darkness and with these men with all of them and everyone who has ever dared to taunt the shadows of misfortune only to succumb to the shadows themselves and to the ones who came later and who know themselves more than others can even imagine when shadows no longer haunt us nor never can again and they are here and they are together and with the full wisdom of what it means to let go of the history of what should be and into the present of what is I blow out the candle

and I join them

The Intruder

By Patrick Hurley

Some men are born posthumously, and only when the world has altered to their superior wisdom can it accommodate their genius. Such a man am I. And such a wisdom I now impart unto you. For I hold the greatest truth of life. I have lived in solitude for several lifetimes and have learned all I can. I have summited the mountain of wisdom, I have defeated the relic who lay claim to it, and I have extricated meaning from every drop of color in every aspect of all of life. And I have done so completely alone. What realizations, you may well ask, fuel the soul of the man who has defied nature? Who has lived in perfect condition for hundreds and hundreds of years? I had not thought to write anything down until this very day. And with lifetimes of knowledge, which can only be translated as truth, so says Socrates, I impart the truth unto you. What proceeds from this precedent recountal is an ending. As all stories must, so too will mine come to a sudden and permanent stop. That which I have learned is a detailed list that if enumerated would be long enough to prove unreadable. So, truths, unprovable by any living science, in order of their importance, I will lay out before you now.

I do not sleep, but each morning I open the faded curtains of the windows of my small cabin to greet the sunrise. I equally greet the sunset on its departure at the close of each day, and gently pull the curtains back across the glass, keeping the darkness safely indiscernible. For I am the daybreak, but also the dusk. We are, all of us, either day or night, dark or light, wise or ignorant, but it is only the truest of us that can be both, to exist in the magic twilight of immaculate dawn. This is the first truth.

How startled and solemn the sunset seems, when night, enamored with day, rises up to greet her, only to just brush against her cheek. Rejected day after day, he will not relent, for surely, after so many millennia, he must accept the cyclical inevitability of his own fate. The deep sadness that accompanies some knowing, makes the knowing gray. And so, it can be stated that sometimes not knowing is the better of the two worlds. If light is knowing, then surely, darkness is ignorance, and so it is when these two forces briefly touch that the universe reveals its secrets. At the moment of birth and the moment of death. We must pay most attention to these. Sunrise is the antithetical life to the melancholy death of sunset. For when else is nature furnished with such potential? When blackness is lost to the pastels of a new day. But this morning, the world slowly awoke not to the blush nor violet, but rather to a stone gray. Spoken with softer words, the subconscious is a sneaky devil. And when I peered through the sleet blackness, the chalkboard sky of new dawn,  it was then that I first saw him.

A man, the first of his kind I have seen in longer than I can remember. I have been found. He is too far to have any real discernible features. In fact all I could tell, from my liminal view was that he was a man of some medium build and undetermined but clearly middle-age. He was wearing thick clothing, dark and heavy. Standing in the clearing of trees directly in front of me, facing me. Was he challenging me? This is the answer that must be so. For if greater truth lives in those of us who experience more, and I have lived eternally, I have the higher ground of truth between us. Who are you, man creature of the forest? Weatherworn and haggard. The first other I have seen in so long I cannot recall. Locked in an ocular showdown, a spiritual stare-off, a current of electricity touching both, moving neither. Am I exposed? If this stirring is danger within me, it must be so. But which of us is predator and which is prey? I am reminded of how I came to this repose. Images of my former self appear in the glass before me. Faceless propagators of basest need, of hunger, and fear and lust, of retraction and reproach. So much of being human is being unsure. So much of certainty is not knowing. The images flood past, burnt out flashbulbs snapping one after another after another. So many eyes, and none of them seeing. But now, on this ashen morning, the inconceivable has happened, for there is little doubt that he sees me. Dark nights of my former life spew forth like the overflow of shook champagne, and with as much unreliable, however intoxicating belief. And words that I have read, not created, rush to greet the informal feeling of something like nostalgia. False lights that on men’s faces play, distorts them gruesomely. And they always say “I”, “I,” but to whom they are referring, they know not. This is why I sought the emptiness of this new world. The “I” I was could only be I alone. And yet there is us. The wondrous, impossible penetrability of the Unum. A paradox: “I” can only fully exist as the middle letter of unity. I sought refuge away from the bosom of my mother, the fists of my father, the madding crowd that seeks to recruit and reform you, and into the arms of my mirror self. But now I see all of what I once thought to be true, staring at me in the blurry face of this stranger.

We, the us that is born of subjugation, must see the world as misanthropes. Where deeds are aimed at our Achilles heels, and intent is as black as slavery. Now, in the gray light of midmorning, I stand strong against the stare of the intruder of my forest atop the mountain I claimed so long ago.  I am overwhelmed by his enmity, though no such betrayal can be glimpsed from this distance, I cannot see his face, I know why he has come.  We are caught together, an invisible thread from there to here, from him to me, from dark to light. An inversion is taking place, a reduction of my eternity, my deepest solitude laid threadbare in the vulnerability of his evanescent gaze. I will not relent. He has climbed this mountain to lay his claim to it. I recognize the insistence in his stance. But I will not relent.

Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know. Faith is a kind of blind prophet perched in our souls. But who is leading who? Imperatives echo conviction, and imprison knowledge, save for when the conviction is righteous. Such demands for certainty will impede true knowledge. Another paradox. I strain to elucidate my inchoate imperative: I am truth. For it must be true that he who is true is clothed in the garments of authenticity of this claim. Knowing this, one must trust that the blind prophet of their soul will guide them without fail. When one is correct, as I am, one will instinctively surrender. Keats said beauty is truth, and vice versa, which is technically a tautology, but Keats died at twenty-five of tuberculosis so we should probably disregard his attraction to the aesthetic for what it was, youthful ideology. Still, if language was the sea of life, the allure of his verse I could swim laps in for all eternity. Oh, to be young again. But this is inauthentic. It is in the presence of another, of this stranger, that I have begun to long for thoughts that are not mine. I am falling backwards. I have come too far to relent. The book of my life is not complete, nor is it written by any hand but my own. But this is false. It is not my thought. Others ideas like poison is seeping back into the cracks between my thoughts. Our lives are only like books when the last sentence is written. And I have learned in my immortal solitude, that alas, our lives are not books. We are not so grand. They are mere sentences. And the punctuation at the end of the sentence that is your life, however labyrinthine, if you were able read ahead of time, could only be a question mark. Ink is permanent. The soul must not be. Time is not moving. It is fixed forever in one spot. This is the truth of my immortality. Have I lost my way in the dark? Has gray morning and this stranger’s sudden appearance taken wisdom away from me? What am I? I must remember.

I’m not young. I am eternal, a lapidary construction, I am the chrysoprase moss of the ancient coral reef. I cling to something greater. I have survived time. No, not survived. I have discovered time is not real, and the passing of it is only imperative if you refuse to see the truth. The herd will only watch the clock. Tick-tick, tick-tock, tick-tock. I have no herd. Having become immortal, I feel it my duty, nay, my obligation, from the reflection of my deepest solitude, to maintain my hold on this mountain, lest my truth is stolen. I see this intruder as all who wish to diminish my glory. I will hold the justice of history and of wisdom,  an order taller than Hyperion, older than Methuselah, as true as anything in nature. And I will not let him pass.  Histories contain wisdom, so said one of the Brontë sisters, and sometimes the kernel of wisdom that emerges from the husk of history is scarcely worth the effort of cracking it open in the first place. I find that the very center of my thesis, protecting the greatest truths of life from the enemies who seek to challenge it, makes the nutcracking well worth the centuries-long effort of revealing the meat.

How did I get here? It is only natural that you would ask. It started with a question. As things do. What am I? A conglomeration of others, of ancestors, of history, parents, grandparents, friends, lovers, strangers who have fueled feelings of animosity and lust and pity? Am I made of the city I was born in? The first sounds I heard? The first taste I swallowed? Of all the sunrises, and sunsets? The music I’ve heard that has enlightened, shaken, and unnerved me? The art that speaks a secret language that sometimes I also speak? Like an archeologist of words, of symbols, and of the sublime. The indescribable. Am I the ocean? The rivers? The lake I peed in when I was a boy? The fireflies on a muggy midwestern night, the smell of wet pavement, the creaking of a porch swing? The sound of my grandfather stirring his morning coffee? Fresh cut grass, bug repellent, and a campfire? My nose twitches when I smell wood burning. Is that happening now? Nostalgia is cradled gently in the smell of warm cinnamon bread and banana pancakes, and mom’s chocolate chip cookies. I am instantly displaced by the smell of burnt butter, and teary-eyed from onions and smoke and jasmine. The solace of bacon frying, of whole day roasts and turkeys on holidays blurred together as one long grievance. And sage, and pine, and bleach each hold their own sedimentary sentiment in the catalogue of my history. Whole days of rain and snow and that feeling of summer, of freedom. The smell of books, the library of my middle school years, of synapses whirling into the first idea of what is possible. The gravelly ground by the railroad tracks of my teenage years. The smell of diesel from the trucks on the highway near my youth. And coffee brewing. And the ink on the page of a notebook meant to contain instruction but instead rambles of my subconscious. An overpass under a scorching sun, barefoot and bleeding. Of the ten stitches I had in the bottom of my foot after jumping off a fence and landing on a broken Coke bottle. The feel of ice-cold dog shit squishing between my toes on the neighbor’s grass. And sliding down a snowy hill, sledding with my father. The stolen glance, the arousal inside of me. The need to feel with my hands the urge that starts a fire just south of my stomach, a region that I hadn’t considered before, an unexplored continent. The release of my first orgasm. The fantasy of all firsts. The shape of adolescence, and the desire, the deep, deep desire, like a foreign language I would learn whether I wanted to or not. The first time I saw the ocean, sparking my need to always return to that scent, that sound. The spectacle of vast symmetry, of blue and green and of everywhere. The first time I tasted saltwater when a wave crashed over me like an animal tackling me to the ground. The first time I cried because I had to go home. The first time I didn’t have a home to go to. All the places I’ve called home. Teachers who told me my answers were wrong. Teachers who changed the chemical conversations inside my brain, whose ideas electrified my synapses. And books and words and images that spoke greater truths than the invisible faith demanded by the invisible hand of an invisible ruling force. The first time I tasted crème brûlée. Secret kisses in darkened rooms. Of icy dread, and frozen terror. When death was something that didn’t just happen to other people, but lurked on every stoop, around every corner, haunting the dreams of every man that has ever lived. Prophetic loss carries tokens of future converts, manifests of emotion, striations, like ribbons of dread torn in bloody patches, entwined in the mephitic fingers of death himself. But these thoughts are not mine. My search for meaning dies always in the colloquium of the collective. I’m straying from the kernel, lost in the casing, the thickness of the shell, and I come up with nothing but the universal. So what am I? I recognize that I am too consumed with the false idea of universal truths. I must reject how others see the world and trust that my soul is the truest of all truths.

When I was a boy, I swam in the sea, fully clothed, beneath a graying canopy of protracted autumn. In even intervals of the rising tide, up and down, the horizon would extend and the shore disappear. For slight instances when I would ride over the backside of a wave, I was completely alone, an anomaly of earth-bound particles struggling to stay afloat a liquid galaxy. I can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if that sea still holds a piece of me. Did I leave something behind? Did the salt water exfoliate microscopic DNA that could somehow still prove to some scientist in some lab somewhere that once upon a time a small boy swam a little too far off shore in the October Atlantic? Surely, they must, for the sea on that day existed for no other purpose. Is that what I am?

When I was a schoolboy I learned nothing so much as the necessity of suppression. A knee-jerk reaction to the objective truth of obedience. I didn’t speak the right words, I didn’t assert the right versions of things, of myself, and how to survive became an act of mimicry. I was certain of my superiority, and of what ought to be, but I cloaked my veracity veraciously inside the cult of the herd. But I was immutable in my virtue. I acquiesced and even rescinded the high ground to the puppets of opined dogma whose versions of the truth, like a termite-infested dwelling could only, one day, eventually and totally collapse on itself. I just had to wait. So I sat alone, and I chastised my thoughts, and I moralized my desires. Friendless and without faith, I altered the path only I could wander, to better match the paths I so desperately wished were mine instead. I heard the nicknames, I felt the fists, I stayed on the ground feigning the position of beta, like the prey of some vicious dominant master. I ran, I didn’t walk. I laughed, I didn’t cry. I covered scars with lies, and learned how to speak in a voice I didn’t possess. I dropped the act of me until I was the me that could survive them. The very existence of those who oppose the righteous is only alive as proof of something false. When they rise in greater and greater numbers, they strike out only to prove their iniquity. They serve no other purpose. I knew this is what I wasn’t.

When I first became an adult, I dared to speak out against the voices of unreason that had filled my head with their poison. Knowledge was rooted in the fertile ground where truth should prosper. Had I begun to believe the lies of the everyman? In the darkest of nights, in the coldest of winters, between two isolated streets, tucked between towering brick walls, where every sound heightened the possibility of danger, I first used the fist of reproach. Animosity from an inherent place, from years of silent abuse, of violence against piety, a primal instinct unleashed, and tore into the flesh of a man who dared to tread the ground of virtue alongside me and raise an accusation of hate against me. Was I wrong? No. For it can only be the impious who may wrong their superior opposites. Which is what I am. Piety, like oxygen, goes into our bodies as one thing and comes out another. Both necessary to the continuation of beauty and truth, or as Keats might say, the interchangeable sameness of virtue. There is only one truth, and it is only knowable to the observer of injustice. So, I lashed out, at long last against the inhuman instinct of a group I will only refer to as “them.” The darkness deepens the memory, cloisters it in a kind of protective bubble that lives just outside myself.

It was a cold night. Tucked in the safety of easy street, a place I called home away from home. Lowly lit and patronized, the air filled with sweat and gin infused whispers, and suggestive bodies, and the faint drone of a Victrola turned too low. Illicitly providing a service that some deemed immoral, it was a place for us. The us that had been rejected by them. The them that had made the rules for themselves, as if we, the we that is us, didn’t even exist, or existed as something beneath the law. A quiet rebellion was brewing, and with it the resolve that in our victimization, we were just in our calls to resist. Resistance is the same as violence to someone on the other side of it. But is it not justified to burn the forewarned heretic? Self-defense is not the same as hate. On this night, this cold January night, I had lost the ability to overlook the indefensible affront to my kind any longer. He and his friends were drunk, as tourists tend to be, and though by the very nature of their appearance, I did not want to serve them, I did my duty. I tried to ignore the comments, I closed my eyes, grit my teeth and disengaged, until I could last no longer. A wayward hand, a threatening smirk, his inimical instincts overthrew my reason, and the last thing I remember, before feeling the contact with his skin was the dragging of him out into the cold unforgiving night.

I remember the squishiness of flesh, my hand moving with the momentum of my entire body. I remember the hardness of bone. The pain jolting through my hand. The sounds of shifting feet on asphalt, and a hollow crack like a firework. I felt the wetness of him, it sprayed like mist onto my face and neck. A spewing of his original sin, an excavation of spiritual cancer ridding itself from his crooked tongue, because I had exorcised it. I heard a crashing thud, the weight of him all at once. Though it was dark, and I couldn’t see them, I could sense the spectators were growing in numbers. They were baying for my blood. So, I ran. and I ran. And I ran. And ran.

I ran back to the mountain of my youth, where truth first revealed itself to me. And I summited the hidden trail I had taken years before, to the edge of the tree line, near the edge of the world. And it was in this place, in the mountain forest, deeply darkened by nature, above the mortal world, where my spiritual ancestors first laid their roots, that I came to find the beauty of stasis and immobility. It took me I know not how long to traverse the wild country to find the small cabin that my ancestors had built, in the deep green forest of time, verdant and permanent, the needle-sharp Kelly of an evergreen, a fortuitous glimpse of my imminent future. I closed in one moonlit midnight, with an angry mob in tow, unseen but very close behind. But I alone knew the path, and so they could not catch me.  I clambered up the steps of the porch, pushed open the heavy oak door, and in the first of several certainties that would follow the decades and decades of my insistent youth, I closed the door to the world outside, and began to finally live truth.

At first, I slept for days and days, and the dreams that accompanied my slumber sometimes seeped into the in-between world. I saw the faces of those that wished me harm, of the bellicose flock I knew to be circling just below my sanctuary. The path to the where I am is hidden, and so try as they might, they will always be too far down the mountain to ever find me. Or so I thought. Days turned to weeks with very little effort, and day and night could sometimes seem indiscernible as the thickness of the natural world shielded me. When I finally woke, I didn’t need to sleep again.

I midnight foraged, so as to not be seen. The blueberries I gathered, I placed in a small bowl and set in a cupboard to keep them cool and dry. When I was satisfied with a handful of them, I didn’t need to eat again. And as days proceeded, I forgot about the surplus berries in the cupboard. It would be at least a year before I opened the cupboard and, to my astonishment, found the perfectly preserved spheres waiting for me. Impossible, I thought. They were existing beyond what was physically possible. Physics being the basis of nearly all of the beliefs of the herd, perhaps was not immutable, I suddenly realized. What I see is truth, not what a mass of group minded drones sees. The facts were incrementally beginning to stack against logic. Since my arrival here, I have defied at least two rules of existence; I have not slept, and I have not eaten. And then the nature of eternal existence stared me in the face in the perfectly taut azure skins of a bowl of year-old blueberries. I cannot certify in any certitude as to the exact duration of time the berries were, in fact, locked in the cupboard, but it was longer than science can give reason to. The magic of the four walls that now encased me, began to reveal itself on that day. But it is not magic when it is reality. It is a greater truth than any man is willing to seek. After long hours of contemplative analysis, I opened the small kitchen window, and I scooped the berries from the bowl into the midmorning air. As gravity pulled them into her arms, so too did time, and in all his unforgiving sine qua non, drained at once the life from the small orbs, shriveling and contaminating them in the blink of an eye. By the time they touched the Earth, they were gray and rotted. It was when the breeze tickled my cheeks, that I felt the breath of time whispering into my ear that I was next. I shut the window, and have not considered returning to the outside again. At least not until now.  

Time has passed outside these walls, but inside, I am untouched, unburdened, as fresh as the day I found my salvation. All remnants of mortal vassalage evaporated long ago. I need not sleep, nor eat, nor lust after the cheap pleasures of distraction, and above all, I needn’t seek god. I am a god unto myself. As all man was created to be. Man invented God as a means of worshipping himself. I have simply cut out the middle man. What else should anyone need but the wisdom of his own truth? What seemed impossible in my first youth, now the very foundation on which my beliefs are built. If I see it, it must be so. This is the truest truth of all. And in truth, I do not see as much as you might expect. There is a divine simplicity in the absence of time. Though the day and night repeat in cycle, as nature dictates, there is no succession, no accumulation, only euphony, the melody of fealty. Faith is truth and truth a kind of faith, syllogisms have to go both ways, hence, the dialectic that what I believe is what is true must also be true because I believe it. When the galaxy of what you would call time encircles you, as it has for me these past centuries, it is impossible not to create a self-philosophy. And in the absence of scientific time, there can be no subjective ought, only cold hard is. It is true, however, that, for the most part, I have found myself lost in a crevice of stillness. I have seen dust form on the edges of sills, a painted wall slowly suppurates, like an infected wound forming scabs and blisters, and only from enduring its own existence. This is the cruelty of all of life. White lace curtains yellow with antiquity, and the spines of books turn brittle and abraded. My sanctuary takes on the burden of time, but I am exempt. Where the world decays, my certainty prospers, the rose of my faith effloresces in my senescent soul.  I am a butterfly that has lost its quiescent tribe, and so has come to immortality without fanfare, without the crucial ingredient of being seen. But doesn’t this explain my seclusion? Much like the butterfly, who are solitary in their daylit flights, yet sleep in groups of hundreds. They may fly solo, but when the world is most dangerous they acquiesce to the tribe. This I do not want to do. This stranger has appeared to challenge all of my truths. I will face this challenge and act to substantiate my greater wisdom. Thus, in my final act, I shall prove myself deific in an Empedoclean leap of faith. As a martyr of real truth.

Though he is not encroaching nor relenting, the stranger is, nevertheless, still there with the breath of a new day. We have been staring for at least twenty-four hours. I try to see past the distance between us. His posture is that of a victim. He is hunched, he is belittled in his corporeal presentiment. A picture is worth some set amount of words, but a still life is more than just a picture. Representation is more than the totality of one life or two, it is the hand of reason reaching out to cradle, to shelter an entire people from a blurry archetype, from a poisoned version of the truth. Is that who this man is? Not a man at all, but a whole group of men? I stammer through the fog of my own charity only to discover the small kernel of what feels like pity. I daren’t avert my eyes, lest he will seize the virtuous high ground. And the comparison to my own discovery of truth is suddenly brought back to my conscious mind.  

I was eighteen, freshly matured, with a sense of the world I had neatly folded up and put into my back pocket. It was the morning after my eighteenth year began. I woke before the sun. I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed only what I would need for the climb, I slipped into my boots, and headed for the mountain. At first, it was all trees and rocks, with the icy waters of winter melted into the rushing river dividing the terrain. The incline began almost immediately, and did not relent. The trailhead twisted and turned in an epically Homeric fashion. Birds of prey perched just above the rocky path that wound razor-blade thin alongside the edge of the world. Halfway up the thinnest of paths, the trail turned toward the outer edge of the mountain and I was left face to face with the wide-open vista of the outstretched Earth below. Patches of land demarcated like squares on a telluric quilt, and seemingly random bursts of color, of reds, of greens and browns scattered like fallen autumnal foliage. I ascended a little farther toward a stretch of clouds that were hanging down, touching the trail. The feel of mist tickled my face, and my eyes cast down to the ground to keep sight of the terrain beneath my feet, and of the impossible dropping off of the world only inches away. Something in the calm air changed, a moisture rose up from some eternal place, and from this height, clouds enshrined the whole side of the mountain.

The world suddenly wrapped in gauze, a cloud seemed to land right on the trail, like a vaporous marshmallow befogging the world.  I stopped midstride, heavy in breath, and heavier still in apprehension. I could hear the rustling of tree branches, the gentlest of breezes, the whirring of the massive cotton billows that muted the universe. I reached my hand toward the mountainside, and felt the cold permanence of the rock. I felt my way along the face of the mountain, until I saw the shape of a man only a few feet in front of me. I stopped, and to his silhouette I spoke.

“Good morning,” I said affably.

“Why have you come up this mountain?” his voice gravelly and soft at once, “did you not know of the dangers?”  The white swirled around me, and I saw the impending dark gray of the clouds just on the horizon of my vision.

“You must turn around,” he said, “for I cannot let you pass.” This to me was preposterous, for, by the sound of his aged voice, I would most assuredly be the stronger of the two. I say with no small amount of arrogance that he cannot stop me.

“What you will find on this mountain,” he says slowly, “will make all of the rest of your life completely unbearable.” Had I not been so indignant, I may have been intrigued. I said something like, “I don’t really care.” Still shrouded in a diaphanous haze, as the voice of some kind of god, he continued, “It is a paradox. Shall I tell it?” We stood in the silence of the imposing blur. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me a question, or playing a trick on me. Either way, I was completely stuck.

“You have been instructed,” he began, “by the creation of a perception handed down to you by those you claim as your own.” He inched a bit closer, I could hear the gravel beneath him crackle with his subtle steps. I stayed immobile. He continued, “And now what you see is determined by the creation of how others told you to see it.” He inches even closer. “And so now you have to decide, how much of what is true is actually false.” I can almost make out his face, but it is a blur, like a picture out of focus. “Above this nebula of obscure homogeneity, this clouded abyss lies the clearest view of the world, there is more to be seen at once than your mind can invent in a lifetime.”

            “That is what I came looking for,” I say determined to match his ominously wizened tone. His chuckle is at once condescending and genuine, and he says, “It is not as simple as a desire. That which you seek, being so great a vantage point must come with a heavy, heavy, price.” Again, he inches closer, this time, I take a step back. I’m suddenly filled with the sensation of falling, and the whiteness disorients and dizzies me.

“I can’t just let you go up there,” his menacing tone wreaking havoc on my newly discovered awareness of vertigo. I grip the solid wall of rock next to me, and turn slightly away from him. I can hear his footing as he steps again closer to me, and says, “herein lies a dilemma: only one of us may reach the top of this mountain, and I am already there. You have a choice, submit to my greater will, or turn around.”  Leaning back on the cold rock, I felt a flush of heat across my face. Why should I think myself less than any other? Why should I be obsequious to one who claims to have a greater knowledge of this mountain? The latter question seemed to answer itself, but my indignation was anything but stifled.

“I will find my own way,” I said, and then, “I need no help from you.”  After a moment of stillness, amid the cawing of a distant bird, he said, “I, and I alone, know the path to the summit. Would you fall to your death to satisfy your pride?

“Will you not give me directions?” it was then his stride increased, and I saw his face. I recognized the philosopher as soon as I saw him. I would know his face anywhere, and even here in some other worldly realm, the madness of his legend still lives in his wild glare. His fixated stare haunts me to this day.  He moved close to my face to tell me that there are no directions to the top of this mountain. He told me that if I were authentic, I wouldn’t have traversed the treacherous trail, but would have instead gone the gentle way. He then told me that he would lead me to the top, but that I would only be able to see the view he created for me. That anyone who does not climb alone, can only share what someone else already sees. I told him this was impossible. I told him he was a crazy old man. He began to seethe with rage, foaming at the corners of his mouth, his eyes ignited by a fire of unreason. He told me that to think myself as one was the earthliest of all sins. “You are not one!” he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward the edge of the mountain. Scrambling to grab hold of the rock behind me, I could feel my feet sliding as if the gravel were as slick as ice. Again, he stops moving and pushes his face close to mine, “You will try to change my view?” My face trembles with fear, my hands are gripping his hands gripping me. “You must go back down! You cannot seek to claim what you cannot understand! Leave me to my mountaintop or I will throw you from it!” It was then he jerked me forward, and I lost hold of the mountain. A whip of wind across my face as he spins me with my back to the edge of the world. He is gripping my shirt, I fear, not tightly enough as he pushes me back toward the void. When he stops, I can feel the vacant space just behind me, I am dangling at the edge of the path, over the edge of the world.

“Vainglory,” he spits his words, “Vainglorious bastard!” He begins to shake from the distress of keeping our collective balance. He tells me that I am not special, that I am no different than a grain of sand on a shore that stretches on for eternity. “The smallest speck that makes up the cells that make up you, is larger to your being than all of your being is to the universe.”  He keeps screaming that I am nothing. That he has seen the end of my kind, and it is in our collective delusion of some inflated self he keeps calling “The Vanished People.”  I hold onto his arms, in what I am sure is a futile attempt to keep from letting gravity seize us both. Before I gain enough strength to overpower his ancient grasp, he tells me that he has seen the end of me.

“Villain,” he bellows at extended length, as if he’s throwing the word into the valley beneath our feet. It was then, I was able to find my footing, and twist in such a way as to reverse our positioning and with all of the weight of my body I shove the old philosopher off the mountain. He falls backward and grasps hold of the edge, barely suspended by the tips of his fingers, so that his eyes just jut above the ground. Out of breath, and lying on the trail facing him, we are still eye to eye. Before he falls to his oblivion, he says, “You cannot see.” He strains, he pulls himself just high enough for his lips to reach above the rock, “you will never see.” He smiled, and with a deep kind of satisfaction he let go of the mountain, and disappeared.  Vanished into the soft white nothing. Relinquishing his place on my mountain.

I will never see. I say this out loud, but I know the man in the woods cannot hear me. But something in the vulnerable expression of my entire being must be communicating to him through the empty space that distances us, past the glass that separates us, for just as I say these words, he nods. And at once the glass, the distance, the antipathy vanishes like the old philosopher off the side of the ancient cliff. Is there a more perfect moment two human beings have ever shared? It is not apathy, nor is it its opposite, for there are no stakes that fuel our coexistence, only just this. A moment where neither is anything but the thing he is. He cannot see what I see. He will never see it. And with that, he raises a hand, a gentlest of greetings, but also a kind of surrender. He nods again, turns his back to me and disappears into the thick green ever after.

Now it is my turn. I will explain to you, as it happens, and in doing so, will reveal the meaning of all of life. I have no business left to attend. No goals to accomplish. Every nuance of every daily chore has been wrung as dry as a desert stone. I could stay, I think, I could stay and learn more. I could make the duty of menial tasks as beautiful as any work of art. But I no longer know how. In these my last moments, I am suddenly overwhelmed with sadness of all I have not seen, nor will ever see. It is true that this stranger will never see what I see, but what of the things, the infinite number of things I will never see? Winged Victory blanched by time, by her very survival still seemingly mid-stride against a faceless enemy. The goliaths of Giza, monuments of time touching history to the modern world. The ceilings of Rome, and all the tearstained floors beneath them, wrung from the eyes of all who have gazed upward at them, like the invented deities of a bygone people. What monoliths humans have rendered. How much I do not know. What does it smell like on the mouth of the Dead Sea? What textures in a handful of the Amazon? The chimes of Notre Dame? The caw of some exotic island bird. The tick of Big Ben. The cacophony of a street bizarre. And the touch of rare silk. And the taste of foreign fruit. The buzz of the watery ascent of the Hungarian mayfly. My mind is greater than any one of these, and yet the totality of their absence outweighs any idea I might hold. The shelter of my certainty has collapsed. I will seek the man that had sought me, and I will tell him the certainty that was once imparted unto me and you and all who come hereafter. I was truth. I was certain. I was alone. I was able to see what you could not. But unwilling to believe the same.

I place my ageless hand upon the door, and with so gentle a pull, no more than a nudge, I open it. How easy a titanic decision can be. I smell the dawn- it is new, damp and green. Oxygen overflows into my nostrils, my eyes water, my knees quake. I step my foot outside, and it is with great hope that my other foot will follow.  And it is with even greater hope, and maybe something bigger that I shut the door behind me, and I leave the place I never dreamed I could leave. And in my first external breath in so long a time I do not remember, taking in the world I thought I’d lost, the thought fills my head, covers the morning…

I do not know which way to go.

For Andrew

The Man Nothing Happened To

By Patrick Hurley

“Hello Patrick,” his voice thin and slightly frail, “This is Andrew Ronson,” a hint of his native British present in his formality if not his dialect, “and I understand you are interested in becoming a friendly visitor. Give me a call and we can arrange a time that suits you.”

I met Andrew one sunny April Morning at his apartment in West Hollywood. Andrew had been seeing a therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT center, and through the Center he was assigned different volunteers who would make visits to his house. My friend Scott was one such volunteer. Scott, who I went to Grad school with, lived a couple of buildings away from Andrew at the time. Scott was getting ready to move out of the city to take a job in Orange County, but was so taken with Andrew, he asked if I would be interested in meeting him and possibly making regular visits with him. Scott told me of Andrew’s love of movies and fascination with Hollywood. A man after my own heart. I was in. When I met Andrew, he was eighty-five years old, skinny as a twig, with a nervous air about him, as if he were always walking a tightrope. He seemed always a little off-balance. But he was sharp as a tack, and had a memory and knowledge of movie trivia unlike any I’d seen before.

 On our first visit, we spent most of the time talking about his favorite movie star, a woman whose giant photo adorned his bedroom wall, Marlene Dietrich. His eyes lit up when he spoke of seeing her movies when he was younger at the small movie theater in Cardiff, which was the closest town to his childhood home in England. Before our first visit ended, he said something that has stuck with me, as he walked me to the door, he apologized for “monopolizing” the conversation. I reassured him that he hadn’t, and that I was very interested in more stories of his life. He smiled and without any sarcasm he said, “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed there. Nothing much has happened to me.”

 For three years, I visited Andrew at least once a week. Sometimes we would watch movies, sometimes we would go to lunch. I would bring him cookies and chocolates- he had a crazy sweet tooth. Watching him eat a cookie was pure joy. His eyes would light up, he would smile and make a yum sound that was somewhere between a low hum and a grunt of satisfaction. I spent his last Thanksgiving with him, he came to my house with my family. And on his last Christmas we went to the movies. Andrew passed away on June 10th 2020. He had been in a nursing facility in Santa Monica amid the worldwide shutdown. The Covid crisis made visiting him in a nursing home impossible. So from March to June, I didn’t get to see him at all.

Andrew was born in 1932 in Great Britain in Newport, a small town near the Wales border. He described his Father as a functioning alcoholic who was cold and distant. He didn’t speak a lot about his mother, but I got the feeling that she was subservient to his father and equally distant and cold. His childhood home had a wood-burning stove and a boiler that had to be lit every morning, as early as the dawn, and his mother was always up and working in the kitchen by the time Andrew and his siblings would get up for school. He had two brothers and two sisters. He would occasionally speak of them, but he mostly said he wasn’t particularly close to them either.  His father owned a petrol station near the border of their small town, and spent most of his days there. He would then spend most of his evenings at the local pub, and when he was home he could be seen at the dining room table reading the newspaper and demanding peace and quiet. Andrew’s life was mostly about trying not to disturb the stasis of his house, and Andrew was nothing if not accommodating.

 In 1940, as the war across Europe began to rage, Andrew recalled nights when air raid sirens would wake him and his family, and they would seek shelter in the basement of whichever family’s turn it was in the neighborhood to act as host- it was apparently a rotating responsibility. London was far enough away from them that the raids were more a precaution than anything else, and Andrew recalled the nights spent in his neighbor’s cellars as a chance to socialize, drink tea and play with other children. His experience of the war was that it was close, but not imminently a threat to him. Thus, perpetuating a lifetime of being just on the outskirts of the rest of the world, the world where things happened to other people.  There were days he and his fellow classmates would be made to walk to school with their gas masks in hand, just in case. But he always said he never believed he was in any real danger. Andrew is the definition of cool-headed, even-tempered, very pragmatic and he longed so much to find a place he fit in. He discovered the cinema as a young boy, and whenever he could he would make his way to the local movie theater, or on special occasions to the larger movie palace in Cardiff, and he would watch everything he could. Weekends were the best, because they ran movies all day, and it was often double or triple features of the latest and most glamorous Hollywood offerings. It was in his teenage years, as the war was ending, that he discovered the films of Marlene Dietrich, who he would adore until the end of his life. He was also a huge fan of Bette Davis, and to hear him describe the disgrace of the Academy Awards when she lost for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, was the most eloquent shade you’ve ever heard.

One Sunday afternoon, just as he was enjoying a lemon square, he got lost in a thought, and cocked his head slightly before speaking.  “I regret not being an actor,” he said. And the weight of sadness in his voice made the words heavy, as if they had been coated in molasses. Andrew often spoke of regrets. So many regrets. His parents disparaged his love of movies, as so many of their generation had. Andrew wasn’t the personality to defy his duty to his family’s expectations. He wasn’t the guy that would run away to Hollywood to become famous. He was the guy nothing happened to. In his mind, he had failed at life. He said as much on more than one occasion. I wanted to tell him he was wrong. I never did.

He loved performing, and discovered, as a septuagenarian, his voice. He took singing lessons from Los Angeles Community College and a senior learning center in Santa Monica. He spoke of the Irving Berlin classics he got to sing in front of the class, and once a semester to a larger audience. In 2008, he flew to Germany for a friend’s wedding and in front of the entire wedding party on a stage with a band, got to sing Yes, Yes- with some updated lyrics appropriate to the happy couple.  The performance was caught on someone’s phone and posted to YouTube*.  I watch it and I see the joy in him. The pure joy of a true performer. *The link is at the end of this story.

After spending his required two years of British service, which he served in the Royal Air Force in post-war Germany, Andrew decided to go to college across the pond. His sister had moved to Toronto and talked him into attending the University of Toronto. He graduated with a degree in Psychology, and decided to pursue his masters in the subject at the University of Chicago. “Why psychology?” I asked him. His answer, “I wanted to find a way to fix myself.”I don’t think he understood the impact of telling a queer man in 2017, so matter-of-factly that he spent seven years in college pursuing a degree that would serve to change him from a homosexual to a heterosexual man. Yes, Andrew was gay. He came out in his seventies. And he told me another of his deepest regrets was that he waited so long. And that he wasted years of education in what he called a “deplorable attempt,” to fix what he considered to be the broken parts of himself. He spent years writing a book to heal homosexuals. He was convinced if he could cure himself, he could cure others. He abandoned the book before he finished, when he realized that he wasn’t able to fix himself. He still waited to come out for decades, but lived with the shame of being “incurable.”

When he was nearly eighty years old, he wrote a letter to each of his siblings detailing his “coming out.” And while, one of his sisters told him she assumed as much, his older brother told him he didn’t want anything more to do with Andrew because of it. They weren’t close, and Andrew said it didn’t affect him much. However, when his brother reached out to him a few years later to apologize, he had saved the letter. I saw it. I told him what a tremendous thing it was that Andrew had changed the mind of a man in his nineties. He shrugged it off. Unaware of the activism he had created.

In the early 70s, he moved to Los Angeles, and with a friend, decided to move into an apartment in West Hollywood. The irony being that Andrew claims he had no idea, at all, that West Hollywood was a gay area. When his friend backed out of moving in after they signed the lease, because of financial reasons, Andrew moved into his final apartment alone. When I met him over forty years later, he was still in the same place.  And had lived alone the entire time. Incredibly without much contact with the gay community around him. He spent the entire AIDS epidemic in one of the hardest hit areas in the country, and he said he only knew one person who died. A man he barely knew. Again, he existed on the outskirts of a world where things were happening to everyone but him. He never had a boyfriend. And when he came out, he told me he realized it was too late. He didn’t like to talk about his sexual past, but he did tell me that he never had a “real” experience with another man.

Shortly after moving into his West Hollywood apartment, he became a massage therapist. He’d abandoned his psychology path, and so for the rest of his life worked different jobs, in an attempt to find what he was “supposed” to do. He was enterprising as a massage therapist. He would write to certain celebrities and offer them free massages for an endorsement. He was taken up by several. The most significant being Rock Hudson. I was so fascinated that Rock Hudson had been in the very apartment that I visited Andrew in, that I brought it up a lot. “You got Rock Hudson naked in this apartment!” I would tease him. He still had the massage table. I remember when he showed it to me, he said he was disappointed that he couldn’t “remember what Rock Hudson’s cock looked like.” That’s a direct quote. He remembered that he reeked of alcohol, it was early afternoon and Andrew found that very unpleasant. He also vaguely remembers a sexual proposition, as if it were expected. “Wait, wait, wait,” I remember our conversation exactly, “Are you telling me,” I started, “you had the chance to give Rock Hudson a happy ending, on this very table anand you didn’t do it?”  Andrew laughed at this, and threw his hands in the air, dramatically, “I was never okay with that, but looking back now, I think he thought it was expected because of the neighborhood.”  His face changed a little and with a tinge of remorse he said, “I never did that.” And that was that.  This sparked a long talk about his “type,” a conversation he must have wanted to have for a long time. He had photos, cut from magazines, he kept in his photo albums, photos of shirtless men, actors he had been into, and even a gay porn star. There was no shame in his voice, and he in no way hesitated. In that moment, he was like a young man that had finally been given permission to finally reveal a long-hidden desire. A light was shining on something he had only ever allowed to exist in the shadows. He had very specific details. He liked broad shoulders, he liked tall men. He liked biceps more than triceps. He wasn’t apologetic. It was fabulous.

And then he told me about the first man he allowed himself to fall in love with. And in true Andrew fashion, it was something just outside of possibility. Right after he came out of the closet, he started seeing a therapist at the LGBT center in Hollywood. He saw the man for quite a few months, and it didn’t take long before he developed feelings for him. When he spoke about it, I swear, he had a tinge of teenage angst. “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t see me outside of the office.” He would say, as if his critical-thinking ability, like all of us with our first serious crush, had abandoned him. He had a hard time telling the story. He had connected, in a very real way, with another man for the first time in his life, in a manner that made reciprocity impossible. The man was “handsome, warm and just perfect.” I don’t even think Andrew was aware of his own idealization, but it made me immediately grateful for him. As awful as unrequited love is, it is a sign that we think we’re worthy. Andrew thought he was worthy of this thing he ran from his whole life. The cruelness of life made his obtaining it not possible in this scenario, and he never tried with anyone else, but he felt it, however briefly.

In February 2020, Andrew was admitted to Cedars Sanai Hospital. His gallbladder was seriously inflamed and he was septic. He had to have his gallbladder removed. I saw him a few days before he went to the hospital. He was struggling a bit more with his memory. He complained of being confused, and he said loneliness was surrounding him. It was a strange way to express it. “It’s like I’m surrounded by things that aren’t there.” He was also forgetting things unless they were in front of him. So I wrote my phone number next to both of his phones and I told him to call me whenever he felt lonely. He never did. I feel bad for leaving that day. But I couldn’t stay. Had I known it was going to be our last visit in his home I would have taken it in for a last time. I didn’t.

Andrew and I shared a love of Shakespeare. A love of words. He wanted to be a writer. After he abandoned writing his book, it took him years and years before he would pick up writing again. Apart from Journals, which he had kept regularly for fifty years, he worked on a gay version of Romeo and Juliet. He still had the original copy he had typed on an old typewriter. His idea was pretty clever, Romeo and Juliet were both men, Juliet was Julio, and instead of just changing pronouns, he pulled lines from other Shakespeare plays, lines that would be appropriate to the moment. So instead of Romeo saying “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand,” he would use a line from Richard II, “He does hold such fire in his hand,” and then “O, that I were a glove upon that hand,” still works. So rather than change the words of the great Bard, he borrowed them from other plays to change the gender.  He was very proud of the piece, and it must have been a lot of work to find so many different quotes apropos to the story. When he was finished, he sent the play, along with a fan letter to Kenneth Branagh, who took the time to respond to him. Andrew kept the note he got from him. He showed me once, and while I don’t remember the exact words, Mr. Branagh told him that he liked the idea, that it was truly clever, and that he would love to work on something like it someday.  It was polite, if not a little dismissive, and Andrew never pursued it any further.

He wrote a lot of fan letters. He had a few framed photos of celebrities with autographs- though no big movie stars, they were character or television actors who had long since been removed from pop culture. I didn’t recognize any of them, and I pride myself on knowing a lot about early Hollywood. I did recognize his nearly life-size portrait of Marlene Dietrich that decked the wall next to his bed. It was a black and white movie still, and though I forget the movie it comes from, I’ll always remember her expression, that no-nonsense diva that clashed entirely with who Andrew was and so was a perfect snapshot of what I knew he secretly always wanted to be. One of Andrew’s favorite movies was Witness for the Prosecution, the Billy Wilder courtroom drama that showcased one of Marlene Dietrich’s best performances. We watched it on Thanksgiving last year with my dad, my brother and my best friend. All in my living room, on my large sectional. Andrew, curled up in the corner of the sofa, knees to chest like a little kid, it was his way of sharing a piece of himself through a movie he loved so dearly. He also loved Morocco, which garnered Marlene Dietrich the only Oscar nomination she ever received. A fact he always found staggeringly difficult to comprehend. There was a local movie theater in Santa Monica showing a Marlene Dietrich double-feature, Morocco and Blonde Venus, two of his favorites. I bought tickets for us and planned to take him, but he was hospitalized three days before, and the tickets were never used. Someday I will watch Morocco.

The last time I saw Andrew was at the end of February. The Covid crisis hadn’t begun in America yet, but there were rumors that it was imminent, and in reality, it was about two weeks away from shutting us down completely. He was about to be transferred from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility because he was aspirating. When he swallowed food, small pieces of it were getting into his lungs, ensuring an infection which would most likely lead to pneumonia. They were feeding him intravenously. They wanted to put a feeding tube in, but he didn’t want it. And his caregiver said Andrew’s wishes should be honored.  I walked into his room in the ICU and he made eye contact, and it was the first time that he didn’t respond to seeing me. His eyes were alert and he turned his head to me, but there was no recognition, and no emotion. I was worried that he didn’t know who I was, but he did. I got close to him, I said, “Hi Andrew,” and he asked me for food. And he asked me for water. And he said he was being held against his will. He tried to pull the tube from his nose. He tried to remove his catheter, and when the nurses came to subdue him, he was verbally combative and not at all the Andrew I had known. He was battling, not only being away from the home he had known for decades, but the autonomy that had kept him going. What as I saw as loneliness he must have seen as sovereignty. What I assumed was isolation, he knew as freedom. I didn’t know that his freedom would be gone for good, or that it would be the last time that I saw him, but I stayed with him that day for longer than usual. We watched The Lion King, occasionally he would ask me for something to eat. He would tell me they were starving him to death. I reassured him it was temporary because of his surgery. He would accept my answer and we would sit in silence, watching the movie. After the movie, we sat a little longer, not speaking, I would smile when he looked at me, and sometimes he would try to smile back. He said he was sorry for not saying more. He was tired. Before I left, he grabbed my hand and we just looked at each other. And I said, “I love you, Andrew.”  He didn’t say it back. He didn’t nod or smile. After a moment he let go of my hand. I said I would see him soon. All he said was “please.”

I sat in my car in the parking garage of Cedars Sinai crying for close to an hour. How did this happen to Andrew? How can the world contain so many people and be a place of such loneliness? Here was a man who made it nearly ninety years, who lived on two different continents, in three different countries, had two degrees, found his way to West Hollywood at the birth of the gay rights liberation movement, and was dying with so little. I was crying partly because I felt Andrew’s burden. I am Andrew. All gay men run the risk of isolation and rejection. Some of us don’t find a spouse or a partner for life. Some of us don’t have children. And with the competitive nature of gay life in Hollywood, some of us don’t have the luxury of collecting a group of friends to substitute family because we get in our own way. We don’t come out until we’re too old. We don’t fall in love, because we can’t reconcile our own brokenness. Andrew tried. He tried so hard to find a community. Family. And he had some of us. But man did he regret his life.

He let the world define him. His gentleness, his kindness not shared by a multitude but only a select few of us graced with his presence. He jumped into the world in his seventies, but never let go of the line that held him back, that anchored him to the man he wasn’t, and never could be. The man that nothing happened to is the man Andrew thought he was, but of course it wasn’t at all who he was. His face told the story of regret in each line, every imperfection.  His eyes shone more what if’s than triumphs. I don’t know that he ever knew how much he offered others. His soft voice, seemingly afraid to speak too loudly, always uttering words of wisdom, unheard by too many. His heart never broken, and yet never entirely whole.  He kept himself where he thought he belonged, because he thought he started too late, but he persisted. He went to classes. He went to the Center. He went to movie nights with other queer seniors. He actually never gave up. This is the reminder. This is what Andrew gave me.

I hold his legacy, his unbroken heart, and for the rest of my days I’ll carry a piece of him. The piece that’s the same as me. A little Andrew when I watch a new movie that we would have analyzed together while we ate brownies. A little Andrew when I write about being queer and what it means to love one another. To let go of the outside and cultivate what’s deeper, what matters. A little Andrew when I’m afraid of trying something new. Or falling in love. Or using my voice. His regret is my fuel.

Andrew died on June 10, 2020. Alone in a nursing facility amid the global shutdown. I don’t know what his last words were. I don’t know what he looked like at the end. I don’t know if he knew he was loved. Andrew was a gay man who lived his life to accommodate the comfort of others. He never fell in love. He never dated a man. He came out when he was in his seventies. He wrote a gay version of Romeo and Juliet. He knew all the lyrics to the Irving Berlin songbook. He was a member of toastmasters. He loved Marlene Dietrich. He loved movies. He hated Donald Trump. He listened to NPR. He read self-help books. He exercised every morning. He loved desserts. He spoke with eloquence. He was always cold. He loved to sing. He loved to listen to other people’s stories. And though he thought he was a man that nothing ever happened to- he happened. And my life would be greatly diminished if he hadn’t.

R.I.P My Dear Friend…