The drive was about two hours south. He drove. There was a box of chocolate cereal on the passenger seat. He took small handfuls from it and ate. He hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours but every couple of weeks that was normal. Ahead on the road there were a few tankers, a family in a sedan, the occasional speeder. They passed, he passed, they passed again. When he saw billboards, tall lamps, lighted signs, the moon, he saw long sparkling trails of purple pink magenta cerulean blue star-like shapes. The sort you see when you clench your eyes shut at the end of the day, stressed. When you push your palms into your face. When you open your eyes and see something strange. He turned his head toward the window which he’d sometimes open to stay awake. The light would trail in his peripheral vision.

In his gut he felt this good kind of anxiety, as if he’d have the use the restroom at any moment. Relief was waiting. To keep himself focused on the road, he’d carefully pull a single nose hair from his nostril and wince each time he caught one. For every city sign he passed, Indianola 61 Miles, he’d blink his eyes as many times as the first digit the remaining distance told him. He called a girl he worked with. She was an accountant with very dark brown hair and a piggish nose. She talked too much, he thought. She sometimes wore funny boots. The kind a horse rider or a Nazi would wear. She was somewhat less attractive than the girl he was driving to visit.

Aren’t you there yet?

You know I only left a little while ago.

I’m teasing you. I bet she’s so excited.

She always is.

So why are you calling?

I’m sitting here driving and I’m thinking: What are we going to eat?

Get take-out.

Do you think she would like that?

I don’t know. Has she ever mentioned any place she likes? You could pick something up. Surprise her.

What if she’s cooking something for me?

Good point. You’ll have to call her and fish it out.

I probably should.

Alright.

See you Monday.

Conversations like that. He’d call Elise maybe once a week. Just to see if she’d be presumptuous or excessively friendly or if for whatever reason a border might be crossed between them. He did this only because it felt like the adventurous thing to do. He met his current girl the same way, once at a party another girlfriend was holding at their apartment. Right in their home he and the new girl found good conversation. Future trips to Seattle that both of them would plan. In just a year, he told her. Me too! she said. It’s going to happen. Seattle ‘09. It will. It will. It will. Neither ever went to Seattle because neither had really seriously planned much of anything, but they did start to talk regularly, and she did leave her boyfriend in the Air Force for him. He thought that memory was the best they’d shared so far. He remembered when she left that guy:

I just talked to Colin. He’s out West, in Wyoming at a base there.

Doing what? he asked, knowing full well.

Waiting, she said. Waiting for news on his deployment. He told me he caught a salmon from a river and bit into it right there, where he and his friends were wading.

Well I don’t believe it.

Just like a bear. He said it floundered in his mouth but once he bit through the spine it died, and he said he could taste the river.

What does your mother think about him?

She thinks he’s going to propose to me before he leaves, like GIs used to do after World War II. But she doesn’t think he’s a good idea.

He could die over there.

That’s not really nice of you to say.

I’m just saying. There’s a good percentage of people who go over there and die or are maimed horribly and never walk again or never get erections again or never speak or whatever.

Why are you saying this to me?

Have you never thought about it?

I don’t plan to.

Well that’s going to be a big shock, he said.

She hung up on him then, and he drove the same flat highway stretch to Indianola, down to the old house she was renting a few streets from where he was headed now. And when he got there he knew he was guaranteed something. Just like he figured he was now. Though he hadn’t really botched any same such conversation in a while. There was a rhythm to this, you see.

The star-likes he saw were about as frequent as the insomnia. A good side effect of whatever he was taking regularly to sleep. The streaks shone only at night. Like real stars, close to his head and untouchable. Halos, light arias. Since college he’d had them. Wished to all hell they were something interesting, supernatural, real or even of a religious kind of miracle evident enough to make him a religious man. Like stigmata. Rather, the star-likes were “a semi-permanent perceptional distortion” as reported by the doctor. There was a good chance, he sometimes thought when he lay awake at night, they were his own eyesight failing. Cancer, even. Or the worst viral infection. He’d think this and become very anxious and fall asleep in a sweaty fit and never think it again until a similar restless night.

 

Under the bridge where he parked there were glass bottles left among dry leaves and cars that lined both sides of the road and somewhere atop the short summit that came after the underpass were long lines of houses: fraternities and sororities and apartment buildings that were more like stretches of actual suburbia than old college row. This sort of setting, this place that was alive even deep at night—this was the kind of college he’d been to years ago. To go now, to be somewhere close enough to feel nostalgic, it felt odd. On some level it hurt. It was this notion: he’d escaped before. He made it through college. Met girls. He’d been with girls and grown up in enough ways that he felt qualified to use the phrase, “more than you’d imagine.”

So here he was. Not a faculty member nor a townie but again night visitor from out of town. Another man headed to the room of a girl to whom he’d made a promise at some point so far off in his mind that now he could hardly remember. Who am I? I’m still me. I’m here. Carry on. Who am I? I’m a security engineer. Who am I? I moved out of my mother’s condo three years ago. Who am I? People need me. I’m dependable. I moved out, I was mad at myself for all the responsibility. Mad at myself for not having done so sooner. Mad at myself for even getting to this point in life. For being so lonesome. Loathsome, now. Not career-minded. Not a grad school expat. Not a Puritan ethicist. A reader, a studious person. Someone who’s true nature is to rely on others. Who exploits trusts for safety. Who isn’t comfortable alone overnight in his own bed. Who isn’t comfortable a day without a message, a call, something from someone for almost any reason at all. Dead and plain and simple. A man who relied, relies, who craves and seeks and wishes for satiation in a bed with a girl or a woman no matter how goddamn fat or red-haired or, forbid, you know the word.

Past the first block now. He stepped over more Heineken bottles drained and left dried. Small effigies, a wiseass smart little college kid might say. If he’d been a different student, he’d have taken up humanities. Fucked the smarter chicks, you know. Tattoos were in now. Smoky black made-up eyes. Angels with pink mouths that begged for their fathers. He could never fuck some blond, perfect gym-shorted little whatever. He’d never last. Never even work it up probably, for worry she’d laugh. Aim small and focus and find a path and go.

There was a lawn like a steppe that ran from the inner edge of the sidewalk up to the sets of steps and the vinyl exteriors of the apartment buildings. He walked up, heard voices. Rang the bell and he swore so many faces peered out of the windows. Girls who pulled the blinds just partly open. Girls he imaged were half-clothed or just in their bras and underwear. Guys who stood in the middle of their windows and parted either side of the treatments dramatically. Who am I? I’m the older guy at the door. Knock. Please and answer. She did, wearing a pair of short pushed up blue sweat pants, hair in a long and tapered braid. Big eyes, green ones. Whatever shape, almond. The right sort of lips, hear me. The kind that had drawn him here after eight hours of work in an office full of fuckups whose dumb endless bitch jokes about chicks in bars getting fucked were so tired and so far from what sort of canonical appreciation he had for the shapes of these verily delicate very things.

Hey, you came! she shouted.

Wince. He thought: yes. Of course. And he thought: there was this pervasive phenomenon among people younger than him in which it was only slightly expected that you, the agreer, would actually do whatever it was that you agreed to. He said: hello. She reached her arms up around the back of his neck and they hugged for a moment. First, he always would inhale and gather a scent. Each was a different smell and without the smell there was only a face and a moment. With the smell, well. That’s what built into his memories. Cinnamon, maybe. Petiole. Hair spray from an aluminum can for absolute certain. She’d showered. Somewhere down the hall a girl wearing just about the same outfit carried a basket of dirty clothes to the laundry room. He could hear from up through the stairwell where a bunch of people were laughing, and she led him to her apartment. The first one on the right where he entered and waved to her roommates and looked into the kitchen and saw a stock pot steaming on the electric stove amid green awful countertops. The pair ignored her two roommates rummaging in their rooms or the bathroom and they walked into her room and she shut the door.

Was the drive long? she asked, untying her tight bottoms. The soft curve of her belly tightening as his eyes reached the area. The red banded indentation from elastic. His action, her instinct. No matter.

I usually listen to a book on tape, he said.

Which one?

VALIS.

Who read it?

I don’t know.

Who wrote it?

William Gibson, he said. He lied: Philip K. Dick, she wouldn’t know the difference.

Her short white legs lay in front of her, two caught ocean fish drained of color. Thick near the top and connected as trunks to her center patchy with red-brown muff. The way her stomach lay flat atop the rest of her body was an interesting anatomical thing. It looked not taught and pushed out like a pregnant woman or even a woman who was slightly overweight but still athletic in parts. Rather, it was flaccid and reminded him of something that had the potential for true bottomlessness. He wasn’t sure how else to think it. Toward her hips there were the faint stretch marks. Long lines where something on the inside of her body stood atop mounds of old rotting beef brisket and scratched at the walls in protest. No matter, he thought. This was it. Still fish, and again with the ocean, he thought, in a barrel. When he knelt in front of her, she inched herself toward him. She outstretched her arms to pull him in. He undid his belt and she did the rest and the two of then were then conjoined. All the while he could hear her roommates talking in the other room. The television. A sink running. Through the window above the bed where they were having sex he could hear people at the fraternity houses milling on their porches. Chattering. There were distant sirens. Cars that passed. Students’ dogs and the laundry machines in the outer hallway. Her breathing sunk, lulled then rose again at the end. Both they lay supinely while she rested a cup of orange juice, pulp on the glass sides and mixed with vodka, on her breastbone.

Want some of this?

No, thank you.

Outside of the door, the other two other girls that lived there had begun to argue over something in the kitchen. She sat up. She turned to him. He had begun pulling on his pants, and she dressed herself.

I made chicken soup with matzo. My mother’s recipe. I think I have some beer. Do you want one with your soup? You must be wound up from work and the drive.

He stood, stretched. He pulled apart the blinds and peered out of the window toward the fraternity. He saw two guys there, drinking. One spat onto the lawn and set his can onto the porch. They looked at him looking back at them.

These guys ever talk to you? he asked her.

We’ve been invited over there a few times. I think the one on the left knows a couple from an LSAT study group I’m in.

This guy’s weird, he said. He keeps looking over here.

You’re looking at him.

Do you think he saw me come over?

Does it matter?

I don’t know, he said.

Do you know anyone over there?

I’m almost ten years older than everyone on this block.

That doesn’t matter.

Maybe they heard us.

Let’s have some soup, she said.

There was nowhere in the kitchen for them to sit. A four-chair particle board table was pushed against the wall near the door and the adjoining sitting room and covering the table were various textbooks, pens, an empty backpack. On one of the chairs there was a brown paper bag with grease stains and he saw small ants climbing up and down the leg, meeting at a discolored spot near the baseboard on the vinyl floor. She handed him his bowl. It rolled curls of steam. He sat on a couch there at the center of the sitting room and she put a fifth of bourbon on the coffee table.

I don’t have any beer, actually. We can run out and get some.

This is okay for now, he said.

Want me to mix it with something?

No, he said. Just ice and a little water.

They sipped their soup. It was good, he thought. A perfect bowl. Better than any he’d ever had. The kind you’d really think it would take a mother to make.

Ever ride horses? he asked.

Once or twice when I was little. I don’t really like the country. I’m not outdoorsy.

I love a girl on a horse. That little helmet. The way her body has to perch and ride the animal.

Jesus Christ. We just had sex.

I know, he said. I was just thinking of that.

You can’t say just what you think sometimes. It hurts my feelings.

I’ve never done that before, he said.

I’m just telling you. I don’t like that.

He sat sipping his bourbon. The bourbon was good too. With the chicken soup it didn’t quite match, but he would sip either one and take a drink of water, wait a moment and continue. He found for ten minutes he had the perfect living structure for any being worth his salt. Life compressed into a short series of complete actions, each of which respected and complimented the other. He came upon another good realization: what this was, him having come here like this, having not invited her elsewhere, having seldom called throughout the week because she’d ramble about LSATs or try to have phone sex after he’d already masturbated—it was a sham. They shouldn’t be sitting in this room with its hand-me-down curbside furniture, its Wal-Mart television, its barely tacked down low-pile ripoff carpet. He had money. Not a heap but enough and more for fun. No, they should go somewhere. Across the city, past the river where there were hotels and motels that seasonally housed potential students, their families, sports fans, business men. They’d get a good rate, he thought, have a good laugh. A movie, more drinks.

Let’s go to a hotel, he said.

Jesus. I said we just had sex.

So what? he said. Is that it then? Just that time for the whole three days.

What’s gotten into you? It took me a while to make this soup. To get it just right.

It’s perfect chicken soup, he said. But let’s get out of here. I hate your roommates. I hate your stupid room. I kind of hate the way the room smells after you cook no matter what you cook. It feels like that guy was just in there, just sleeping there with you.

The guy from the fraternity?

Colin.

Oh.

I just want to do something different. I’ll buy the room. We’ll get two nights.

Where?

Past the river somewhere. So I don’t have to deal with traffic when I leave.

Just past the river?

Where else are we going to go? We’re already here.

Alright, she said, placing her spoon in her bowl.

It isn’t the soup, he said. The soup is perfect. This bourbon is perfect. That’s what’s inspiring me. In this moment I feel something and I think for once that I get it. I see that there are these exact moments that let us be happy if even for a few hours. You know, a good moment for a few good hours and after that more shit.

She frowned a little. Okay, she said.

He sighed, not yet defeated. You have ants, you know that?

Actually, she said, raising a leg of her jeans. We had fleas.

Had fleas?

She revealed the back of an arm: I got all of these bumps the other week. We had to get it bombed.

They stopped coming?

I told you I was at my mom’s last weekend.

Jesus, he said. He pulled up the legs of his own jeans. He scanned his arms, felt the nape of his neck. He looked across the room at a vacuum cleaner still plugged into the wall. He looked at the dining room floor where the ants had begun to congregate over a mustard smear. He took his cellphone out of his pocket and called for a hotel in the area. The first number he was given was the one. It was actually a motel, the man told him. They had a room: a double for the weekend.

He stood up and carried his empty bowl to the kitchen. The other girls had been in their rooms, kept, and she still sat on the couch looking listless. He took her bowl, drank the remaining broth and left the dishes in the sink to dry and encrust and he grabbed her forearm and she grasped his and stood. He grabbed the bottle of bourbon from the table and went back into her room where she packed while he lazed on the bed and listened again to the ambient sounds outside of the building. I’m going to tell my roommates, she said, turning the light off as she left. He remained there in the dark. The star-likes returned. Long beautiful aubergine streaks this time. Purple-pink adornments like rock crystal spires from a drug store kit. The ends of every trail of every flash of light that he could see. Neon and Day-Glo and unabashed anti-Midwestern fluorescence. He tried to trace the air like he held a sparkler, running a finger about nothing like an old-man. He checked the fraternity porch again. No one was there. A beer can left near the stoop. He looked under her mattress. Not for any one thing but just to see if she was the type to want to stow things away near where she slept. There was nothing. A few long hairs. Under the bed he saw bunch of clothes. Crumpled panties that he bet were filthy. Mens’ white socks. A faded pair of black gym shorts with the waistband still folded over. A streamer. A torn black condom wrapper with gold lettering far back where the mattress met the wall. Far back where more hairs and more ants had erected something in collusion. He wasn’t quite sure what, but something dark and awful.

She left the apartment parking lot in her simple car, taking with her a backpack of things and a pillow and an manilla envelope of pages for a criminal law paper she hoped to leave in her professor’s dropbox in the morning. It would be convenient. He went back to the line of cars under the bridge. There was the impulse to kick empty bottles down the street. Throw them over the bridge with the idea that they might land on the sidewalk or near a runner or on a parked car down the way if he missed the bridge entirely. Star-likes whorled around him still, a kaleidoscopic headdress.

He took a drink and tucked the bottle under the seat. He drove behind her part of the way and left to turn into a gas station. He got out of the car and pumped unleaded and waited in line to pay. In front of him a couple of attractive lesbians sort of swayed against each other. They were buying a six pack. The one was tall with perfect posture. Had bangs swept across her eyes. He speculated for a moment, taking out his wallet and offering money to the old cashier: if he followed the girls, where would they go? Back to the apartments and the rentals and the frats or to the dorms or a hotel? Obviously not to the bar. Maybe past downtown toward the nicer brownstone blocks where the school administration and successful post-docs went to live. As they left he studied how they walked and were tender to each other even as they parted hands to enter either side of their beat up old white Honda. He couldn’t see which direction they turned. He went back inside the station and told himself to calm down. They were lesbians, after all. He picked out the same beer the girls had and he bought a domestic six pack for himself.

At the motel he parked next to her car. Light from a chicken joint glowed a ghastly kind of red gloom’d across the pavement. He had a weird vision of a neon cross hung inverted on the side of a brutalist hospital with dirty white concrete and the scaffolding still on its roof. He ran his hands across the hood of her car and drummed his thumbs. He looked up at the second floor where he thought she’d be. He tried the handle on her car door and it opened and he immediately felt she was a ridiculous person. He sat down in the driver’s seat and shut the door. He ran his hands around the steering wheel and smelled it. For some reason he expected to smell french fries but he didn’t. Just vanilla hand lotion. He looked at the seats. Crumbs in their creases, little flecks of salt or pieces of pretzel, multicolored sprinkles or just fucking filth.

 

After the rest of the bourbon was gone there was no telling where he’d been in his mind or what he’d said. So she slept now. But before, she was awake and upset and she’d thrown her keys at the hotel mirror. Nothing broke.

The television was on. So many nights with the television on. This color. This blue everywhere he looked. In the light of the moon or the fucking light around his head or the television wherever he slept or in the dark black holes of every one of these girls. Gypsy harlot Jewess whore. Pretty enough. Long hair that curls into tendrils more pleasant than greasy-ropy and beautiful as the right man might imagine should he have himself the great ability to observe this fine thing as she breathed alive here and now.

He got up and poked his head past the curtain. He was always investigating and everyone was always investigating him. He thought maybe the lesbians from the gas station would be outside, waiting for him to give them the signal. The signal for what, he asked himself. Fuck us, please. Two at once. Stop that and pay closer attention. He checked the small refrigerator. It was empty and the six packs were probably still in the car. Anyone’s guess which one. The hard hotel floor hurt his bare feet if he stood in one place too long.

 

He tended to know too much about lives he’d never led. When he felt real stress and all of gravity upon him or when just too much seemed to matter, he tended to drop into these imagined existences and remain sanctified within. He’d put himself alone in New England, near the water, near a thin-walled saltbox where before him swells would move over violent rocks. He’d stare out at the windowed sea. There would be gulls dipping down a hair above the waterline and freezing, replaying endlessly. An image fixed on air. In another existence, he’d write poetry American and imagist. He’d keep a voluminous library and he would rant to other academics in the liberal Wyeth town where he’d live. All the smug people he could hate just for being their selves. His criticisms would extend to religion, mostly. But perhaps as well he’d take to nature and feel the balance between its own right to an existence such as his, real or not, and whether to him it lacked any useful sentience. In either case he’d still celebrate the rich history of place, the deep sense we should all consider paramount in our lives.

In his condo complex there were people who hadn’t the slightest figurative or literal grasp of the concept of the place in which they lived, or of him or themselves or the people they slept with. In each of his existences, and there were more, he had not a single superhuman ability or gift that elevated him above his meek and flawed self at any given real moment. He fantasized about multiverse realities, not, he sometimes reassured, boyish bullshit.

Since he was thirteen or fourteen he had a good clear vision of adulthood that stuck with him and spanned across all other visions that attempted to penetrate this golden concept which to him was the clearest of goals and the savior kind of thing he thought of while his mind begged to rest, when he washed his dishes or drove to work in traffic or when he lay awake unable to sleep at night, alone or with a woman or drunk and squinting at the clock in the cold dark. This vision was always clear: near Tahoe, maybe. Someplace with pines but out of the Pacific Northwest where really he’d always assumed there was rain and bleeding heart women and an ugly coast. He’d have a house with a woody exterior, something maybe like a modernized cabin. He’d have big picture windows and plate glass that brought in the sun and the green that gilded the forest yard and the stone path driveway that wound long away from the house whereat the rear there was a simple deck off which one could see from the clean stainless kitchen. And oh, there were birds and birdsongs and angels at the dial.

It was this vision he assumed would someday be his life after he finished whatever hardship we were all meant to pass. After his parents’ divorce, after every girl’s dirty apartment he’d slept in, after his own pillbox house. Somehow this future was his home and it would be delivered to him as a matter of predestination. He could let himself rest, then.

 

When he opened the door to leave the motel she stirred but did not wake. Blue and still. An infomercial for a bacon cooker playing on TV. Water in the pipes from another room. Light traffic, breeze. Maybe some boys shouting in the distance—it was unclear. Downstairs were those six packs and with those six packs came glory. In the morning was the road and with it the miles of farm along the way. Maybe the lesbians would be out in the late morning, same clothes and lipstick smeared on their faces. He could call Elise again. Hear in her pretty way how no one has fucked her in days and how she apparently does not want to be fucked. He could just drive, he supposed. Return home to cleanliness. Stand on his driveway and grill a fucking piece of chicken. Maybe spray the crabgrass in his yard.

Ascension was one thing. Deciding to change through a small paradigmatic shift. Maybe in consciousness, maybe in doubt—that was much another.

 

Late at night the sky became no longer sky but space and the real stars emerged from behind their fluxing curtains like new precious glass or glowing embers stuck in a coagulated blackness that hangs over this part of the city and slowly stiffens as the air comes to a trill from small frogs on the river’s gray urban bank. Softly along paved streets around the motel buildings and fast food chains and the grocery store and the derelict buildings ordained on equal plots of land made solid by the brick blessings of contractors from out in the country. He walked barefoot to absorb the cooled heat of the day and take it into his core. He imagined his toes pushed deep into the road, his heels pierced with wings of low gliding grasshoppers clicked above broken parts of the grassy pavement edge in hopes of escaping the force of the soles at the backs of his feet.