Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Cactus

"But metafiction isn't even cool anymore," says my friend, rolling a cigarette. "That shit hasn't been cool since Vonnegut died in '06." he licks the paper and twists it into a tight bundle before he presses it between his lips. He lights it.

"He died in 2007," I say. "And he wasn't the only one who did it. I gave you that Kundera book." My friend inhales and looks at me. "Fuck that guy," he says, and spits near my shoe.

"How am I supposed to write about the word mint without making it self-referential?" I ask. "If I talk about people in a bar it's cliche. If some guy roofies some girl it's cliche. If some girl roofies some guy it doesn't make sense. The only things left are mojitos and mint chocolate chip ice cream."

My friend scratches his face and then runs his hand through his hair --the one not holding the cigarette-- to create a kind of static lift. He does this whenever he is thinking.

"Ok," he says. "How about this: the story could be about a guy. This guy's name is - is - is fucking Dave, or whatever, right?"

I nod.

"Ok," he continues. "Dave is gay, right? But he's married and has a kid, so, he decides that, one day, he can't take it anymore. He gets really drunk. On mojitos. He makes himself like seven mojitos in his nice backyard in his nice house on a nice street in a nice neighborhood in a nice part of town and then leaves to pick his daughter up from school. He makes a mojito for the road.

I nod again.

"So --swerving through traffic and shit-- he picks up his daughter and drives her to an ice cream shop where he buys her two scoops of mint chocolate chip and tells her that he has to go away for a long time, that he might never come back. And the whole time he's telling her this he's chewing up mints like fucking crazy. Yea, mints, because his breath smells so bad, like alcohol, just handfuls and handfuls of mints into his mouth, crumbs of them dripping down his chin.

"He leaves. He gets into his car, this mint colored Cadillac from the fifties, and then he leaves her in the ice cream shop. Just fucking leaves her there. This girl is in fucking kindergarten, right? And then he drives to Mexico. They live in San Diego or some shit and have a house made out of coral.

"He drives and doesn't stop. He can't stop. If he stops, something will catch up with him. He can't explain it, he just knows he has to keep driving, eighty, ninety, a hundred miles an hour, to escape this feeling. He makes it through border patrol, and keeps driving.

"He gets lost. He has no idea where he is. He pulls over at a bar. He ends up getting wasted because he feels so guilty, he just wants whatever it was that he was running from to catch up with him, and so he's waiting. Just waiting. There's all of these locals at the bar. Some of them speak English and they invite him over to come sit with them. They drink. They order mojitos and mint chocolate chip ice cream and tequila and they're laughing and drinking and eating ice cream and clinking glasses and spilling alcohol all over their dry, dirty fingers while the ice cream crusts against the corners of their mouths, and then someone drugs Dave. He passes out. They strip him naked. They drive him to the middle of the desert and leave him there to die.

"In the dim light of the moon, Dave wakes up and wanders through the desert past the tall rows of cactus that line the earth. They glow a soft mint color in the night. Pretty soon the cactus start looking like people. Reminders of the abandoned. He runs his hand over them, carefully. The spines of the cactus brush against his fingers. He thinks about how fitting this is. Like, how, even when he touched his wife, his daughter, his family, his lover, this affair he had with this other man, it's like they were never really his -- like he was never really touching them at all, like he had never touched anyone in his entire life. He hears a coyote in the distance. This is what he's been waiting for, you know? This is what's been trying to catch up with him. Not the actual coyote, but, the sound, an omen. Like he's arrived at himself. And so he walks, naked, through the desert, towards oblivion. And like, that could be the end. That could be it, you know? Why don't you write about that? Why don't you make that your story?"

I look at my friend and don't say anything. I wear my disapproval on my face. I shake my head "no."

He spits on the ground again and stamps out his cigarette, which he has finished smoking in the time it took to tell the story. "Fine," he says. "Fuck it. Don't write about it. Write about some other fucking people putting drugs into their drinks so they can fuck each other like awful, dying animals. Here's a story for you. I tried quitting smoking once. Chewed on mint toothpicks until my gums bled. Why don't you write about that? Why don't you write about that dumb shit instead?"

I shake my head. I do.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


She was so tall I wanted it to be illegal. I hated her for it, and I wanted them to take her away. I wanted to see blue and red lights reflecting off pale skin as they tilted her into the back of the police cruiser, hands cuffed behind her, face somber, eyes still. Too tall to sit up, she would curl into a ball and lie sideways on the backseat where, I imagine, she would cry quietly onto the cushions, more out of embarrassment than anything else. But I would miss her. I would miss her if they took her away like that. I wanted her close. I Wanted to protect her from other men. From the officers who held her arms back. From men who were better suited for her. Healthy men. Men with five o' clock shadows. Men who wore basketball jerseys. Men with better taste. Men who could identity blackcurrant fruit in expensive bottles of Pinot. Men with rhythm. Men with deep laughs. Men with bigger penises. Men who had large, white teeth and argyle socks. Other men. Men who were, more or less, just like me.

I pictured us together, dressed, a cocktail party anticipating, her already towering above me and asking would it be all right if she wore high-heels. My response would be to stand on a phone book so that I could kiss her on the lips, and I would say, The taller the better, my dear, and I would brush her hair out of her eyes and call her My Little Skyscraper, which is an oxymoron, which she loves. She was so tall. She was so tall I wanted to climb to the top of a thick tree and shake its branches; shake its branches and yell crude, obscene things at her so she would look around and see me and say, What a curious boy. Or, What a strange boy, or, What an interesting boy. Any of those things, so long as she was looking.

I tried to picture us; a well-adjusted couple. A couple who held hands, conversations. Who had a dog. A short-haired dog who shed too much. My great, big, redwood of a woman would brush the hair off of her jeans and say, Where does it all come from? and then she would throw her head back and laugh. A laugh so big and tall it would break up the clouds. We would take the dog out to eat with us, the three of us, outside, and people would try to pet the dog, some would try to scratch it behind the ears. And they would always looks at you and ask about the dog. Always you. Always.

But I cannot picture us as this kind of couple. Something tragic needs to happen. The dog has cancer. No, she has cancer. No, we all have cancer, the three of us, all of us, shedding and shrinking and sickly. We met at a cancer support group and fell in love. We adopted a sick dog because we knew that we could nurture it back to health with all of the extra love we had to give, which was so much. We had all kinds of cancer: brain and skin and lung and finger, but we fought on, the three of us, eating scrambled eggs and Denver omelets and extra bacon that we fed to the dog under the table. It was the three of us, eating while our diseases ate away at us from the inside out, and it was ironic, and dichotomic, and contradictory, and an oxymoron, which she laughs at; which she loves.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Art Feet

I was growing my hair out. On my face and on my head. It made everything itchy. I knew I couldn't stay this disheveled because I needed to work, needed a job, needed to finish my resume, but, in the mean time, I was growing my hair out. I'll clean up when I get the job, I thought, if I get the job.

Halfway through the resume I realized I didn't know what I was doing. I drove out to my mom's house, though, technically, a trailer, where she was sitting out back rolling a joint. I sat next to her on plastic lawn furniture and we passed it back and forth while I asked her questions. "What exactly do I need to put down?" I said. "What exactly are they looking for?"

"You're asking the wrong person," she said. "Ask your father."

I thought about my father, living in Dallas, driving his Corvette with his new wife, her hitting the ignore button on his I-phone when she saw that I was the one calling. I decided to ask someone else.

But there was no one else, and so I found myself driving through town high as fuck in my small, beat up car that shook like it was laughing whenever I tried to stop too fast. $1,200 to fix it, the mechanic had said. I'll get it fixed when I get the new job, I thought, if I get the new job, but only if they don't drug test. I'll quit smoking pot if I get the new job. Where was I?

I was at my ex-girlfriend's house. Her dad would help me with the resume. He still liked me. I got out of my car and rang the doorbell, saw him trotting in from the living through the front window. "Nate?" He said, when he opened the door. "Mr. O'Hara," I said. "I need help. With a resume." He looked behind him to the living room, where, against the wall, two sliding glass doors opened up to the back deck. Valerie, my ex, was sunning on the patio with her new boyfriend. I could almost hear Mr. O’Hara’s brain turning. "I just need look at one,” I said. “Only for a second." This was the same man who taught me how to set a table; taught me how to tie a tie; taught me how to drive a stick shift. This was all before his daughter. This was before I through a brick through her widow. "All right," he said. "Come in quick, to my office. But don't let my wife see you."

I barely remember the office. I remember being overly aware of my hair growing out. I remember feeling hot and crowded, that Goddamned itchy feeling spreading from my face to all over my body. I remembered that my mom sometimes laced her pot. I remember Valerie's dad asking me if I was OK while he pulled up the Word doc., and I remember sweating and saying, No, no I'm not OK, and then pulling off my shirt and running down the stairs. I remember him chasing after me. I remember Mrs. O'Hara in the kitchen screaming, the sound of something breaking. Glass, I think. I remember taking off my pants, my underwear, being naked in their dining room and feeling that fire all over my body. I remember seeing the pool and running for it, hearing Valerie scream "Jesus Christ!" while her boyfriend pushed himself up from the deck chair and shouted "What the fuck?" at me, right before I dove into the pool. I remember opening my eyes from the deep end and then looking up, looking up at that turbulent blue reflection of the world outside, at everything all around me. And then, underwater, when I decided that I couldn't stand it any longer, I opened my mouth and screamed all of the air out that I could, like an undomesticated, wild animal.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One Word, edited.

The year that I turned eight years old – the same year that my mother left, that same year my father’s second biography received unfavorable criticism in the New York Times Book Review (“Stratton's latest excursion into the minds of Russia's greatest novelists reads much like the countries current economic climate: dismal, bleak, and saturated in vodka," they said), resulting in the loss of his job as the writer in residence at Columbia University, leading to our having to relocate to Aurora, Illinois (which, more than likely, coincided with my mother’s decision to leave, her being so embarrassed of having to move out of the city she could no longer stand the sight of my father), that year, that same year – was the year my father started doing what I hadn't known was possible. Drink more. And, not to be wrapped in melodrama, but it was also the same year he started to beat me. Trashed, he would stumble through the house slurring my name until he found me and, when successful, ask me problematic questions about the origins of Russian literature. At eight years old, of course, I never knew the answers, and so he would pummel me.

Once, after a particular beating had landed me in the hospital (Poor kid's so clumsy he fell down the stairs, he told the nurses, true only to the extent that he had pushed me),  on the drive home, as an act of unspeakable kindness, my father asked if there was something he could do to make amends.

“I want a pet dog,” I said, and my father said nothing, only nodded.

That night he got drunk again, but, instead of hitting me, he went into the yard with a shovel and a bucket. He came stumbling in some forty minutes later, dropped the bucket onto the floor of my bedroom and said, “Here. Your pet.” I peered inside and saw, not staring, because it had no eyes, but tilting its head up at me, a small, gray mole.

“Thanks, dad,” I said, not wanting to be slapped, or kicked, or punched. “What should we name it?”

“His name is Dostoevsky,” he said. “And he’s blind, just like justice. He’s going to teach you about the futility of utilitarianism.” And with that, he hobbled drunkenly back into the hall. I looked back down into the bucket and stared at my new friend, who was wiggling his nose at me. I leaned in close to it and whispered: “It’s a good thing that you’re blind, Dostoevsky, because things have gotten kind of bad around here since mom left.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Quatrain

So much bacon
all of my immigrant children
they need bacon to grow
I must nourish them

Sunday, May 8, 2011


Sarah, much like the apes, had come a long way. At least, she thinks that's what Kubrick was trying to say. She wasn’t quite sure. She might never be sure, she thought, but, having just taken two hits of acid, supposed that now was a good a time as ever to figure it out. The original assumption was that we're still not much better than the first versions of ourselves. But she decided she could be wrong. She usually was about these kinds of things. She continued to sit cross-legged on the ground, waiting for the drugs to kick in, determined to come to some kind of conclusion.

On the cold wooden floor of her living room next to her cat she listened to the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack on her mother's old record player and envisioned each scene from the movie using only the orchestra’s cues. She was in the middle of emptying out her apartment when she found the acid (preparing herself to move in with her half-sister one city over, a city very close, essentially, while at the same time being worlds away from the house where she now stayed, here, in a college town, where to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence was absolutely acceptable) in a Ziploc bag and decided to take it. Two strips. They had to be at least a year old, she remembered, having purchased them at a music festival where she camped out for five days, but it was one of those places where being uninhibited allowed for you to do other people's drugs for free, and so she was able to save them. Her mouth filled with the taste of pine. She had used the bag for not just acid, but nuggets of pot as well.

Sarah closed her eyes and began to count backwards from random numbers. Forty-seven. Sixty-two. She closed her eyes and listened. Music. An Orchestra. This was the scene where the monkey's first discovered how to use tools. An epiphany, she thought. A revelation.

Sarah opened her eyes. Tall heaps of trash were piled all around her. Coffee pots without machines to steam the grounds, lamp shades without lamps, broken ironing boards and boxes full of books she'd read only once and hated. Clothes without hangers, hangers with no clothes, notebooks and papers and essays and notes, all of it having defined her in someway at some point in time. Wait a minute, she thinks. This was the scene where the monkeys first saw the slab. It loomed high above them, much like her garbage did now. It sounded like locusts were coming. It frightened her. Her breath became shallow and spastic. She tried taking deep breaths through her nose to calm down, but it only reminded her that the house smelled like a forest fire.

Two weeks ago, Sarah almost burnt down her house. A kitchen fire. After throwing a handful of pasta into a pot of boiling water, she went to to smoke a joint while she waited. Feeling lightheaded, she decided to lie down, and when she woke up, she woke up to the mouth of a fireman's wrapped around her own, pushing hot air into her, inflating her, like a balloon animal or a blow-up sex doll.

The firemen and the police asked her questions. She told them she inhaled too much smoke trying to put out the fire. She wandered into her bedroom and fainted. No one seemed to believe her. But No one could prove otherwise. Was this where they first launched into space?

Coming in to rescue her, the firemen had punched a hole through the front window to get in through the front door. She imagines they must have looked like astronauts in their suits, wading slowly through what for them must have felt like a dangerous new planet. On the window there was now a murky, plastic sheet. Sarah hated it. What scene was this? What am I even listening to? Sarah wondered. Was the music speeding up or slowing down? Was the acid kicking in? Taking it was a good idea, she decided. She started to feel sick.

She hadn't replaced her stove because she was leaving, and so subsequently couldn't cook anything. She had sustained herself by eating through everything in the fridge – including a jar of minced garlic – but the only thing left now was a bag of Krab Delight and a shriveled red pepper. The Krab Delight was making her nauseous and the pepper was no longer safe to eat. There was no money to buy food because there wasn’t a job. There was no job because there was no desire to work. There was no desire to work because there was no desire to do anything with the degree that was just earned. Sarah didn't want to be a sociologist; she wanted to be a sculptor. But she couldn’t afford any clay, and she couldn’t afford any food, and she was running out of things to sell, with one week left to go before she moved in with her sister. Maybe she could sell the cat, she thought. She didn’t like him all that much anyway.

Three months ago Sarah rescued the cat from being stuck up a tree. It had remained ungrateful. Initially she kept the cat because it hobbled, its rear left leg much larger than the others, a trait she found endearing, but now she had no idea why she kept the cat. The cat did not like her. He scratched her when she tried to pet it and hissed at her when she walked by. The only time the cat was non-threatening was when it was eating, and there was nothing left to feed the cat but Krab Delight, which was making him sick. She’d fed him Krab Delight all week and now his hair was falling out. The cat might have fared better in the tree, she thought. It tried to run away when she first brought it home -- still did, even -- but Sarah felt that because she’d invested so much time in the cat she should keep it, and so she trapped it inside by screening in the bottom half of the front door. She was determined to have the cat show her gratitude.

The cat lifted his large leg to lick himself, tufts of fur coming loose on his tongue, his mouth smacking open and closed. Sarah became concerned when the cat's leg shrunk back to a normal size. Seeming to notice Sarah's watching him, the cat squinted his eyes and hissed at her, an echo that vibrated somewhere within her. The cat made to his feet and galloped on his uneven legs towards the front door, but was thrown backwards when he bounced headfirst into the screen. He hobbled through the living room, shedding as he went, a testament to his slowly dying. He disappeared behind a pile of garbage. The record spun but made no sound. Silence. The scene where HAL wouldn’t open the bay doors. Maybe taking the acid wasn't such a good idea after all, Sarah thought.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Monday, May 2, 2011

And then . . .

I recently went back to Saint Augustine to see my good friend Leah before she moved to New York. “I’m glad I’m leaving,” she said to me as we lay in her bed drinking warm Rolling Rock. “I’m sick of all of these fucking guys who walk around with no shoes and then don’t call me back after I open myself up to them. It’s the same thing every time. They just fall off the face of the earth.”

It was true that the small beach town was home to hundreds of adolescent males who wandered around barefoot contemplating all the ways they could make themselves more appealing. They cut their jeans up past their knee, wore shirts without sleeves, and didn’t shower. To the girls attending Flagler College, they were irresistible. To me they looked and smelt like stray dogs.

Driving to Leah’s house, I passed my old community college and thought about my last semester there before moving to Gainesville. For whatever reason, Dustin, a fellow student from my writing class came to mind. In a conversation we had had, he explained to me that he moved from Pennsylvania because he nearly beat a man to death with a dildo. “We called it the fissure,” he said. “It was so massive. Any woman who used it would have split herself in half.”

Before moving to Saint Augustine, Dustin had a job in a sex shop selling X-rated videos, costumes and sex-toys; dildos among them. The story goes that, one day, coming out of the back room after eating the sack lunch his fiancĂ© made for him (everyday, before he went to peddle erotica), he saw his manager backed against the wall behind the front counter with his hands up. A man wearing a hoodie was pointing a gun at him with one hand, stuffing bills from the cash register into his pocket with the other. According to Dustin, to this day he still has no idea what happened. He doesn’t even remember doing it. One minute he watching the holdup, the next minute his manager was pulling him off of the man whom he had been beating senselessly with a giant, rubber dick. 

“I think they had to life flight the guy,” he said.
The point I think Dustin was trying to make is this: People find themselves in new places all the time because sometimes things just happen.