To be honest, though, I felt kinda lucky that day. Everything really felt like it was gonna be better for once, like maybe I’d turned some kind of corner. I thought maybe there was some sort of beautiful alignment in the cosmos, some misstep in fate that somehow now rewarded my…uh…debauchery. Like waking up hungover the fourth or fifth day straight and eating frosted fruity flakes with warm whisky was somehow a good thing. Waking up, at least, was a good thing.
But then if I hadn’t passed out at Gill’s I would’ve missed it all, that’s all I mean. If his tap hadn’t broken that morning I wouldn’t have passed out. There were nachos too, and if not for those I dunno what. I just don’t know. Everything leads into everything else so I can’t really just pull one thread out and say “what if?” It doesn’t work that way, you know?
It took me awhile there in the back booth to even remember, took me a second to realize I had company. That I wasn’t alone. He had this nasally little voice I remember, quiet but just too high. It was sort of familiar, like the voice of everyone’s little brother. Like he was nervous or excited and wound up, and maybe confused a little too about being so nervous and excited and all. He was just going on and on there on his phone and by the time I woke up I was stuck. I didn’t feel like I could leave or anything without shattering whatever it was I was suddenly part of.
See, the thing is sometimes you are just kind of meant to be somewhere and sometimes you’re not, but then sometimes we’re not but we think we are. And how do you even know? Most of the time we really don’t even know until we’re looking back on it, and even then it’s hard to say. It all gets very difficult to work out between what we know and what we think about what we think we know.
My point is, I was there and that’s a fact. There I am in Gill’s picking nacho crumbs and fuzz off my shirt when I really tune into the words I’m hearing. I mean, I actually listen for a second. This guy’s over there sobbing, kind of half-wheezing and his voice is all muffled and wet and snotty, and then he chokes and laughs just out of nowhere.
“Aint it though?” That’s what he says. “Ain’t it though?” And I’m not really sure if it is or if it really ain’t. I’m just wondering if he knows he has an audience, whether or not he’s aware. But he must not’ve been because he starts to open up big. Real big. Like the difference between coming home after a day of painfully long, boring work to hang his jacket up in the closet versus coming home that same day and just “doing it already.” It was all very dark to be honest.
“No, I’m sorry, I’m still here,” he said. “Just the other night, I come home and open my fridge to grab a beer when I realize there’s something on the floor, a note or a piece of paper or something. So I go to pick it up and turns out it is a note. It says, ‘Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.’ Some kind of fortune cookie bullshit.”
“But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Like what does it really mean to shoot for the moon? And if we land in the fucking stars then what? We’re in light years of empty space cold and alone and suffocating? Crushed? But I just couldn’t get that little note out of my head. Not just what does it mean but where the hell did it come from? How? So what I did was this: I took my beer right up to the roof. That’s right, just right up to the top. Shoot for the moon.”
“It was a beautiful night, all the lights stretching out as far as I could see, and the trees kind of poking up through the city like weeds on a sidewalk. I stood there on the edge with my toes hanging over empty space, just the same up as down. Them trees waved in the moonlight and the breeze felt so nice and cool against my face, like childhood. Like fresh chances. The moon was huge. I stared so long, got lost in it, all the shifts in color, the craters and the different little auras shimmering the longer you look. And the longer I looked the more stars I could see. I’d been on that roof a dozen of times, but it’s like I’d always been looking down. So I looked up.”
He kind of sighed when he said this, like a big exhale of relief. “Maybe I was going crazy,” he said. I guess maybe it’s nice sometimes to hear your thoughts out loud. Once they’re out there they become real, or maybe they’re real before they come out, but I think we can only know that for ourselves. Maybe not even then. So basically as he tells his story, that note was a real game changer, like a wake-up call I guess.
Not the slightest clue about who it was from though, mind you. No idea who slipped the message under the door. That’s the big mystery. But it really meant something. Something like hope. It was like a signal screaming, “I SEE YOU, I’M HERE” from the universe or a neighbor or maybe a good-hearted kind stranger. Because it’s two-way, you see. The whole universe could dump signs and signals at you forever but it takes the person to see and feel it before it means anything at all. Some treasures are immeasurably priceless. Things just really “felt up.”
As the days passed he said he felt a general sense of improvement in things, like the air was fresher. Little things, like his apartment smelled better. It felt cleaner. Maybe there was less dust, or maybe the sink had less crusty white toothpaste and spit caked to the rim. Even his clothes felt a little better, or were less wrinkly or something. They didn’t smell like dirty feet, and the pillows felt fluffed. The TV remote actually had batteries for once. “There’s no secret maid.” How many times has a mom said that? “There’s not cleaning fairy.” Maybe there was.
And then one day at work flowers were delivered. Can you imagine? Really, try. Just out of the blue this massive arrangement of white daisies and red roses in full bloom, with little explosions of baby’s breath and a trim of little plastic silver stars sparkling in their midst. “Who’s it from?” his colleagues clamored. Again and again, “Tell us!” “Who’s it from?” At the water cooler they asked him; in the bathroom the guys seemed to look at him differently. “Nice arrangement there, Perkins,” his boss said as he passed. “Who’d you get it from?” He just blushed and said he didn’t know. You know how he gets when he’s nervous. In his pocket was the tiny card, with only two words written on it: Love Yourself.
Could it be any more obvious? I even stopped picking at the nacho stain on my shirt to listen closer. His mysterious, secretive admirer had struck again, you see. First the note under the door, and now flowers – with little stars even. So corny. “It couldn’t be any more obvious,” he said. “It’s like a message loud and clear. ‘Stop and smell the roses,’ right? Life is too short, we have to enjoy the little moments.”
The roses, you can imagine, were deep and rich, like perfect incarnations of the very idea of a rose. They were sparse but agonizingly beautiful in the field of white, the daisies that were plentiful but lovely in their own right. Life moments big and small, he said, and they are all the more beautiful for the way they fit together. Even the explosions of baby’s breath, which curved and danced and trembled so perfectly, seemed to just say ‘it is what it is. And isn’t it beautiful?’ Peppered throughout, the stars twinkled under the harsh office light. There’s more out there, they said.
Eventually all things die, I mean don’t ever forget that. The flowers became a memory. When the first petals began to fall, he watered them in tears. His heart wilted as they shriveled and the color drained from their tips; the petals slowly dropped, “but I knew I had to be positive,” he said. “For everything, there is a season, isn’t there? We must not mourn when we can celebrate and remember their beauty.” Something from a new book he started reading. He said simple statements made the most sense. They became mantras. The world isn’t complicated, at the end of the day. It is basic.
But even when the flowers were gone, the mystery remained. Who’d sent them? More importantly, why? Or maybe “who” really was more important. I’m not sure. Both mattered and it’s not like there’s one without the other. You can’t just compartmentalize everything that way so you might as well stop.
He started people-watching. Became obsessed. Each day he sipped a coffee or sat around the park or bus or street corner and watched the steady stream of strangers parade by. At night he saw them all again; they came like ghosts from the darkness, one by one marching past him, through the blacks of his eyelids no matter how tightly shut he squeezed. Some ignored him, stared ahead, while others spared him just a glance even as they hurried past. In rare moments, one might make eye contact, or smile a thin, sad little smile. It struck him dizzy each time, the voltage of attention unbearable, he said. What did they know? What did they see? They looked so alone. When he woke, his heartbeat kept the rhythm of their footsteps as he plodded into his own day.
Day by day he sat, stared, wondered. His body rocked and jolted with the potholes and twists of the bus route, and the crowd swayed as one with its motions. Men and women alike, in hats and coats or smocks or sneakers or boots, scarfs and chokers and earrings and piercings on browns and tans and whitish cream skins, blondes and brunettes and blacks and oranges and stunning fuchsia hair. No matter, when the doors creaked open the warm press of lifeless bodies surged forward as one, oozing in and out of every available space. Strip away all the other pieces, and just stale breath mingled with the sour heat remained. It was in those moments when his breathing came shallow and quick and he most feared losing consciousness that he closed his eyes and let their spirits fill his lungs.
Somewhere out there was the face that sent the flowers. Where and how, what that face looked like was secondary to the knowledge that it did exist. Must exist. Whether cast in the glow artificial light of a cell phone or staring hollow and dead-eyed out the window or sparkling with laughter and joy in a warming sunshine, it was his face out there to find. If he could only catch a glimpse of that knowing spark, that recognition.
He lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and listening to the sounds of the world going on outside. Cars passing, creaks in the wind. The pieces were there but the picture wasn’t. Grand ideas like fate and destiny and chance marched through his mind for hours in ceaseless, looping parades, the forking roads we follow irrevocably with every step. Each left its kiss in the dark circles he wore deeper under his eyes with each passing day.
“You okay?” his boss asked. “I just nodded my head,” he said. “What else could I even do? At lunchtime, I crawled under my desk and closed my eyes. Anything to escape. My phone rang but I let it go. What could I say that really mattered? I was sure I’d be fired any day.” In fact, the paranoia mounted until he couldn’t take it anymore. He called out sick and stayed in bed waiting for the light to creep across the wall, but with it followed the shadows. The next morning, he called sick again and spent several hours abed.
Until a knock came at the door.
“I didn’t order nothin!” he shouted.
“I hadn’t ordered anything, so just imagine me standing there in my robe,” he said.
“Sign here,” a gruff voice said once he’d opened the door, shoving a clipboard into his chest. His eyes flickered over this disheveled Guy, blanket-wrapped and gaunt-eyed. He took the clipboard back and shoved a box into Guy’s chest, practically knocking him right off balance. “Enjoy.”
Inside the box was a leather journal. Deep green and supple, beautifully crafted with a gleaming golden buckle to clasp it shut. The cream pages were thick and heavy as he ran his fingers over their surface. He stared in wonder.
His fingers trembled as he opened the cover. On the first page, where the dedication of a book might go, a scribbly hand had sketched two words: Love yourself. He sobbed.
It’s surprising, and a little scary I guess at the end of the day, how I still hear his voice speaking dully into that phone, face smushed into the table, body rocking back and forth, back and forth. When my fingers trace the fading ink of his hasty, manic scribbles, I think I can still feel the quiver in his voice, right up in my fingertips. Love yourself, it said. He said. Like a gentle kiss on the back of the neck, or a cold gust of air. Still gives me goosebumps, you see.
The journal is just as he described it, though it is more worn and broken now than when he got it. These little cracks ripple down the spine and the cover bends up in a gentle curve, like so. The golden lock is dull and chipped, and it no longer locks. That would be my fault though, not his.
When I first skimmed the pages it was the words themselves that struck me, leaping off the page like thin little imprints and ghosts as they were. It was a sick feeling, looking through with heart racing, all curious but disgusted and ashamed. By the second time, I think I felt each line and stroke, each slash and swoop and savagely punctuated dots and jabs. “Reading between the lines.” My heart rose on the upswings and slumped on the back-slopes. Even my breath held and rushed in his rhythm, as if they were not just words but a music, and he the conductor.
I did feel lucky that day in that booth. I heard those words as I lay in a heap and picked crumbs and crusted cheese off my chest, and it really felt like we came through things together, me and Guy. “Thanks for listening, seriously,” he’d said as his call wrapped up, sniffing in a little mucous and choking on a strangled laugh. “Don’t worry about it!” I wanted to say. But of course, I couldn’t. How could I? When he rose to leave, I felt like I was standing, too. I wasn’t.
As he walked away I noted everything I could about him. His back was hunched, kinda bent a little, and his shoulders pinched at the neck as if the whole world piled on him at the base of his skull. Though his neckline was untidy, the rest of his brown hair was neatly cut and styled, swooshing out in spirals from a point at the back of his head. The eye of his storm, I suppose. It was a back that could have belonged to anyone, but it was his, and looking at it, it was so relatable. It was his, mine, everyone’s maybe. It was a human back for sure. The door closed behind him and I wondered if our paths would ever cross again.
We never really do know when or how things are going to play out. I mean, even in the best plans there’s just no way to be totally sure, you know? The world kicks in, does its own thing. And whether you believe in fate or God or chemicals and some kind of brilliant cosmic luck that brings us all to be as we are, the only thing I really know for true is in those moments, in the exact way it strikes you dumbfounded, it is wonder-full. It must be the origin of that word. A wonderful revelation – that knowing. Even at our most alone and lonely, there’s a hum in the fabric of this life that seems to say somehow we are not in fact alone. And I felt in my heart there was no conceivable way our paths could ever cross again, me and Guy, but the past has a gravity of its own against the incessant pull of the future. We all have our own haunts.
It was a gray morning. The wind tugged at my clothes and blew a cold mist into my face, and I lowered my head as the first raindrops bulleted down, harder and faster. The bus was late. You see, I’d really been turning things around, right? Looking for a fresh start and piecing things back together as best I could, and yet I found myself just staring at the cracked sidewalk underfoot, cold drops trickling down my neck and under my shirt. Drops splattered into the puddle and I tried to track a pattern in their plips and plops. The puddle rippled against my shoe and my toes curled up into the squelchy cotton.
By the time the bus actually arrived, I was already past late, but I trudged up the steps anyways and scowled at the driver. Through the windshield, the rain came down in a slanting mist, blowing sideways and stretching off down the street. The driver stared straight ahead, not a look at me, slumped with both hands dangling over the wheel. How hard it really must be. “Come on, now,” she said as we piled in. “All the way back!”
We swiped our cards and trudged back to the scattered empty seats. The passengers looked away. By avoiding our eyes they tried to escape the press of our bodies, the encroaching warmth of our breath and our crammed, human clutter. Taking up space. Hydraulics coughed and the bus lurched forward. I stumbled into a seat.
Next to me was a smiling guy in a threadbare suit, and I was irritated to see he was dry. “Rite Aid,” he said, patting his umbrella and spraying water drops across my pants. I nodded and brushed a sleeve over my face, then brushed my sleeves across my pants and finally gave up, sitting back in my own small puddle. We sat side by side as the bus bumped and jolted us along, past Fitch and Green and Fessenden streets through the tunnel of rain and muted headlights, like search beams probing the windshield and flickering over souls like us in the back. Waves of acrid air drifted back to us from the mechanical vents and I turned my head, trying to draw a fresh breath, when I saw him.
About three rows up in front of me was a spikey whorl of brown hair. I knew that whorl, standing like a locator pin in a map and spiraling out of the back of a beautiful head I thought I’d never see again. It was mousey and damp, and even from a distance I could see little drops of water rolling and racing down his neck, disappearing beneath his collar. I’d already forgotten the hunch of his shoulders, the bent neck and limbs tucked in close and apologetic. He wore a dark green raincoat, one with a big hood.
Stop after stop crawled by and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. New faces shuffled on in pale shades and flushed cheeks, while others braced themselves before dashing out into the storm. I watched Guy watch these people, peering into each face and ducking away. Beside me, the threadbare man pulled the chord. “Stop requested,” the friendly automated voice announced. “Franklin Street.”
Outside the rain-slicked windows I watched gray facades and the dull brown of faded brick slide past like a moving canvas, wiped off and floating away on the rivers and rivulets streaming down the windows. 1516 Franklin, I double-checked the paper in my pocket.
“Excuse me,” Threadbare said. I was trapped in the swirl of brown hair in front of me. “Excuse me, please,” he insisted. I stood and let him pass. At the front a new line of faces were boarding, swiping cards and plodding back. Out the rear door a blue umbrella burst open against the rhythmic drum of the raindrops as Threadbare leaned into the storm. The doors stood open for a moment longer as he hurried away, and the bus jolted up as the doors closed with gasp. Rain-streaked glass blurred his figure as it dissolved toward 1516 Franklin. Blue faded into gray; I slumped into my seat.
“Seat taken?” I looked up into a damp, indignant scowl and shook my head dumbly, shifting my legs and letting the woman through. As she settled, I felt rough denim scrape against my leg through the wet cotton, and she wriggled beside me seeking comfort, distancing herself from my wetness like a contagion, pushing desperately for a bubble of dry, clean space that just didn’t exist. Not today, not anymore. More houses slipped by; I no longer knew or cared what my destination was.
It wasn’t until we’d stopped at Cleveland and I moved to let the “seat taken” lady out that I realized Guy was not ducking shyly as I’d first thought. As each new face came aboard and turned their seeking eyes to the back, he watched closely, really studied them, and then hunched down to focus on an item in his lap. I walked forward to make it out, pushing past a mother and her son, when the bus chugged to life and nearly sent me sprawling into him.
I grabbed a pole and clung tightly, one with the rocking sway of bodies until we settled and resumed our collective inertia forward. I bumped past a teenage boy and wedged myself into the seat behind Guy.
So close, I could smell the sharp, clean spiciness of his shampoo, or maybe his deodorant—just him, a scent of cleanliness mingled with rain and nature unbottled. I bent to adjust my pant leg and check my shoelace, and I saw a green leather strap and burnished golden buckle. It was the journal, the same journal from the story, I realized. He was poring over it, scribbling in frantic, manic bursts. We hit a bump and his pen slid crazily across the page, but he just kept going right where he left off.
The stops clicked past, and we were coming up on Davasham when I pulled the yellow chord, “Stop requested.” Amid the shuffling jockey for space I stood right next to him, even leaned my arm down on his shoulder a bit. He was turning his head to look at me when we came to a stop and I fell sideways, bowling him over and knocking his pack to the ground. In the little chaos, my hand darted out and snatched the notebook, and as he began to regain himself I shoved his head back down to the ground. I sprinted out the door into the rain and I didn’t look back.
The wind pushed and shoved me and drove the rain sideways into my ears and nose and mouth. With cold, sharp teeth it bit into my already damp clothes, whipping through the threads and chilling me head to toe. I finally stopped running and the howling in my ears dropped to an achy moan. The bus trundled away, about two blocks back.
In my head, I could hear his worried tone, his plaintive request of bystanders to look about, to check the floor around their feet. “Please, could you look under your seat?” You can always count on the kindness of complete strangers, a rallying cause for daily good deeds in debilitating moments of distress. They were probably already searching, checking under seats and scouring the aisle. Checking twice. A strange force gripped my chest and my breath came in short, sharp gasps. My hands trembled as I looked at leather, rain-spotted and growing darker, the green melting from forest to an almost black. The wind whistled past my ears.
Even as I stood there another bus rolled toward me, moving quickly in the wake of the one I’d departed. The ticker above the windshield was the same route, and I hopped on. What I’d thought to do was follow him, see. I picked a window seat and slid in, the journal still clutched in my right hand while my eyes searched the rain. Within two stops he must realize it had been taken; he’d get off immediately, see if he could spot anyone standing around with a green journal just waiting to give it back. “So sorry! What a mix-up,” that person would say. “No worries, I’m just glad to have it back!” I hadn’t the slightest thought of how I’d explain to him how the journal had ended up on my person, but he would be so relieved there would be no issue. In fact, I’d be thanked. Celebrated.
After two stops I had yet to see him along the sidewalk, and none of the cowering figures at the bus stop awnings wore the same green as that coat. There were no damp hurricane swirls of brown hair trudging through the deluge, and it became clear to me what he’d do. There was only one real course of action, after all. Guy would ride out the line until it had cleared off and he could check the floor himself. You can’t ever count on strangers to be bothered with your personal belongings, least of all a journal. No one cares for someone else’s missing shit, unless it has some value and there’s something in it for them.
I began to trace the raindrops along the windows as I rode it out to the end of the line. I tried guessing where the next drop would land and anticipating its winding path along the pane. It was mindless. Impossible. I knew their general direction; I knew they would fork and split. In the end, it made no difference. More raindrops followed.
Eventually, I turned instead to the journal. My fingers traced the edges as I’d imagined he had done, feeling the soft, supple skin and the contours of each crack, each worn scuff. It was a fine book, a sturdy little thing, and its firm pages seemed to cling tightly to themselves. I began to read.
Let me say this. There is a gross horror to the total disregard of privacy, and I felt a surge of excitement as I flipped slowly through the pages, even as the vice around my chest cinched tighter. Sometimes the words were barely legible, the slashes and cuts more like symbols or cave drawings than anything else. Words gushed and tumbled over themselves, ran into one another like wave upon wave crashing toward a rocky shoreline. Feelings surged and sprayed; emotions oozed in slippery patched pools. My damp finger smudged the ink, my imprint left on the page.
I became lost. Stop after stop slipped past in a background hum. Each time the doors opened I could not help but glance up, quickly searching each onboarding face, hunting for him through the eyebrows and curved noses, the dripping foreheads and mops of hair plastered down as the lips below them sucked in breath. And why would he consider the fact that I would ever have gotten on another bus? Even if he assumed – and there was no reason he should – that someone had deliberately stolen his journal, he had no reason but to expect that thief to be long gone. Just a shadow melting into the gray mists, carrying away his ghosts forever.
The pages crawled with these shadows, imprints embedded in the heavy paper. Since he got it, the journal had become a depository, a box to dump all his fears and frustrations in his frantic search to find his mysterious benefactor. In those brief moments where two strangers’ paths collide, he burned with the potential of joy, if it happened to be his admirer, or debilitating depression should the stranger continue to be just that. The uncertainty thickened, turned in on itself. His hopes and desires dwindled as the pages flipped on, overcome and shadowed with twisted musing on the search itself. Listen:
There is an experiment called Schrodinger’s Box. The first guy to think of it – Schrodinger – was a scientist, a physicist. Basically just imagine a cat in a box, and in that box you put a little thing of poison, and some type of device that will break the poison open at some unknown point in time. That’s important. You don’t know when. Once you close the lid, it’s closed. The more that time passes, the more uncertain you are. Is the cat dead, or does it live? And until you open the box to know for sure, they say scientifically that cat is both. Dead and alive. It is, but you know it can’t be. It must be something. This is what we’re made of.
I sit on these boxes shooting through tunnels and streets and in my hand I dump these words into just one more box. Their clothes and weary expressions are plastered on as they step in rhythmic routine, one after the other day after day. How many footsteps before, and how many since, I wonder? If eyes are windows through the box then somewhere behind one of these countless apertures there must be a spark. Dead or alive?
So imagine then you try to run this experiment on yourself, only you don’t know what dead looks like – you don’t really know what alive looks like either. You don’t even know for sure how to open this box to find out, anyways. You just have it, it’s there. And you’re wondering what’s in the box, but you’re also afraid – like really afraid – to know. Because maybe it’s not what you want it to be. Maybe you open the box and you find death, when all along you thought it was life. Or maybe you find life, and this whole time you thought you were literally dying, but maybe that’s it, and it doesn’t get any better. You start to say the word “maybe” a lot more. You just don’t know. And the more you tuck this fear away you’re really just stuffing it into another box, and the boxes really stack until everything is crammed in and you can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think.
Now you’re aware of the box and it starts to eat you up inside. Listen, please. Maybe the box is actually in you, actually IS you, crying and thrashing to get out like a cat trapped with a thing of poison. Once you’re aware you can’t be unaware any longer. You might start to see boxes everywhere. You might check the boxes on your to-do list, or maybe you put potatoes in your box-like grocery cart, check the box on your grocery list, stuff the potatoes in a bag and throw them into your boxy SUV in the boxed-lines of your spot in the parking lot, only to drive all the way home and move them to another box, perhaps a crisper in your refrigerator. And this was just small potatoes. The days pass and you X the boxes on your calendar, climb into moving, motorized boxes, hold boxes in your hand and in your pocket and talk with your box to someone else’s box; go home and stare at a glowing box and reach into a box to grab boxy little snacks and cram them into the gaping box on your face while the binary buzz of chatter and codes explode into a pixelated soup that pours through your ears and eyes and nose into the box you call a brain where little worker boxes box up the incoming bits and boxes and organize and store them in boxy little boxes that stack up into you, the ultimate box. And when you finally are dead, they put you in a box, and put that box in a hole, and someone waiting on the other side gets to open it up and wonder: dead or alive?
And where are we supposed to go from there? We shoot for the moon in busses and boxes. There’s no command or mantra or spiritual guide in this box unless it’s already there in another box, that’s all. It is what it is what we make of it. That’s the point, see? The rain sprinkles and we dive deeper into cobbling it all together; the more it comes. Torrents and waves and we gasp, watch the air bubbles float off, the end of the line. Here we are. Love yourself, okay?