(from Bryan Edenfield's upcoming book City Maps, soon to be available from Pretend Genius Press)
Everything looked flat.
The parking lot was narrow, a long black spread-out strip lined up against the sidewalk, which was lined up against a brown brick wall. The cars were sitting on the wall. The windows were under her feet. There was no depth, everything was reduced to two dimensions. Color was equally bland. A black and white visual landscape wouldn’t do; there would still be variation, too many shadows and gray zones for the imagination to lurk. This was not what she saw; everything was washed out in faded reds and browns and whites. There were no shadows for anything to lurk. The sun was high and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was a slight breeze, a soda can tumbled by her feet like a dislocated weed, uprooted from the desert and blown across town. There were two restaurants, a laundry mat, a comic book store, a barber shop, and a local video rental store. She brushed her eyes across all of these.
Jenny felt her forehead and wondered if she was getting a fever. She remembered answering the phone and pretending to be nice. She was sitting in her room, quietly, the music was probably on, maybe the television, and things were most likely moving somewhere outside her window. Her head was draped over a chair, her feet jutting out into the air, and maybe she was snoring. Maybe she was talking in her sleep, revealing her deepest darkest secrets. It didn’t matter. Her deepest secrets consisted of lying to her parents when she was five and cheating on a math test in 9th grade, and she would tell these things to anyone who cared to know. But these weren’t her deepest, darkest secrets. She romanticized self-mutilation. She would tell this to anyone who asked her as well. "How do you feel about self-mutilation?" "I think it may be the key to salvation."
And then the phone rang, it woke her up, she answered it, and heard a distantly familiar voice. She was a bit dazed, having just been woken up, and wasn’t sure if she was actually talking to a human being, or if she was a human being, or if any of the words coming out of her mouth were understandable. Apparently they were. Apparently she was carrying on a conversation. Her eyes wandered over to a kitchen knife laying on the edge of her small table. She could carve her name into her upper arm. It’d be funny.
She was now meeting the man who had called her. He wanted to eat at this small, cheap restaurant at the corner of 4th street and Vine that had recently opened. It was within walking distance from her apartment; she drove anyway. Jenny scanned the parking lot to see if any of the cars looked like they might be his. She had no idea what kind of car he had, but maybe she would be able to tell. Certain people are inseparable from their automobiles. Jenny often forgot what kind of car she had.
Martin had called her. He was a friend of hers from a few years back. He moved, she stayed, and now he was back in town. She never really liked him that much, but thought he was the type of person she should like so she spent a good amount of time with him. The more time she spent with him, the more she realized he quite possibly wasn’t all the things she thought he was (and thus, all the things she thought she should be around). He was intelligent in the respect that he wanted to be intelligent. He was witty in a manner the was stained with effort. He was self-deprecating in an almost shallow sort of way. He tried very hard to have a vivid imagination, and usually succeeded. He was more interesting than most people, which was his goal.
Jenny remembered the conversation on the phone as if someone else had had it, videotaped it, and then sent it to her to memorize. She disliked it when people called her and woke her up from naps. Her brain didn’t function correctly at those times. He wanted to meet her, catch up, see how she was doing, grab a bite to eat, talk in a colloquial manner. He always struggled to be casual without being casual, and seemed to make that struggle apparent. He wanted people to know that he knew he was fake, and in doing so, reveal that he was quite real. For some people, this worked.
Was he the same way now? Would he buy her lunch or somehow trick her into buying him his? Her arms felt warm. She was definitely coming down with something. Maybe she should see the doctor; it was quite possible that she was coming down with a serious illness.
The place was dingy in a charming sort of way, though Jenny had to put effort into being charmed. She wasn’t really in the mood to do this, instead she just languored through the place as if her arms were anvils and her feet were weightless, a giant gorilla floating in space. She saw him sitting in a corner booth, sipping an ice tea. His hair was shorter, but he otherwise looked the same. She realized, as she approached the booth, that she had no desire to speak with him, though he had already spotted her and was smiling. She found herself smiling back, but she only smiled out of habit.
"How are you, Jenn, have a seat," he said this as if it meant something. Jenny sat down and felt like reminding him that she never liked being called "Jenn".
"Hey, Martin," Jenny paused to find some words to fill the void. She snapped up a common phrase, "long time no see."
Martin sighed, "Yes. Long time. A couple years. I was surprised you were still here."
"I was surprised you called."
"So we’re all surprised," Martin laughed a little. There was a note of scripted melancholy in his voice. "What have you been up to?"
"Have you ordered yet?" there was a rumble in Jenny’s stomach.
"No, I was waiting for you."
"Oh. Well, that’s nice of you." She looked around to see if a waiter was coming. A thin Mexican guy spotted her, could tell she wanted food, and came over to the table.
"Can I get you two anything? Do you need something to drink?"
"Can I have a coke and a cheese enchilada?" Jenny asked.
"Can I have a bacon egg and cheese breakfast burrito?"
"Okay, will that be all for you guys? You need a refill on your ice-tea?"
"No, I’m fine, that’s all, thanks."
"I’m good too."
"Okay, I’ll bring that too ya as soon as possible." He walked away. His accent had been sanitized. He talked like everyone else and had a nice haircut. His ethnicity had been reduced to a sun tan. Jenny didn’t know if this was a bad thing or a good thing. It didn’t really matter either way. She briefly flirted with the notion of never speaking another word again.
"So, what have you been up to?" Martin asked again. He tried to put pressure on his words, as if the world hung on them.
Jenny thought this was the perfect opportunity to boycott speech. She could just shrug. She could bat at the air with her hand. She could storm out and leave. Words did her no good. They all sounded the same. She had said everything at least once and didn’t feel like repeating herself. Her life was constant cycles of deja vu.
"I haven’t been up to much. Working. Still in school. Mostly working."
"Same job. Let’s not talk about that."
Martin shrugged, "We can talk about whatever you want to talk about."
"Where have you been?"
"I went to Europe."
"Really?" Jenny thought she should have been interested by this. She wasn’t. Europe was an older version of the world she knew.
Martin photocopied a laugh. "No. I went back home. Lived with my dad for a while, then I got a job, moved into an apartment. Had to have a roommate. Really weird guy. He was in a band."
"Yeah, I think so.”
“He tried to teach me how to play guitar. I just can’t seem to concentrate on things like that. Too much going on, you know. You remember how easily I get distracted."
He hadn’t changed a bit. If anything, he had galvanized all of his minor quirks into one large archetypal personality. He had as many secrets as she did, but he longed for many more. She could feel it in every word he spoke. He wanted them to have presence. He wanted to be a presence. Jenny wanted to shrink back into the shadows. There were no shadows, so she was failing. He, on the other hand, was not. His eyes glared into hers and told her that he was about to say something interesting. She anticipated. For a moment, she almost felt engaged.
The waiter brought Jenny her Coke.
"I got tired of the job, though, you know. I sort of flipped out, I think. I had saved a good amount of money though. I kept living in the apartment, without a job. I took up some strange hobbies. You know how I’ve always been really into art. But anyway, I took up some strange hobbies." He began glaring at her in that way that suggested he was reading her mind. It was a studied glare. He practiced it in the mirror and she knew it. Practice made perfect. ‘But what the fuck does it all really matter anyway."
Jenny nodded. "I don’t know."
‘How have you been feeling lately?" Martin asked.
Martin nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean." He looked around as if searching for the inherent sadness in the surroundings. He wanted Jenny to notice his search. He was on the verge of tears. He looked at her again, "Can I allow this conversation to become vaguely serious?"
"Well, serious, though not without moments of levity."
"You can do whatever you want, Martin. We’re friends." Jenny thought of something funny to say that would satisfy the requirement of "moments of levity" but opted not to say it.
"I think there may be something wrong with me."
Jenny nodded. "Do you have cancer?" Moments of levity.
Martin laughed. She noticed that his laughs kept ending in a strange little cough. "No. I fear there may be a chemical imbalance in my brain. I can’t sleep, or I can, I mean, it depends. Have you ever heard of hypersomnia? Sometimes I have that. I sleep too much. All day sometimes. I don’t get out of bed. And then, I go days without sleep. I jump back and forth from insomnia to hypersomnia."
"Well, then things should even themselves out," the conversation was becoming interesting for Jenny. Martin had a way of making life seem like a badly written but infectiously entertaining play.
"Yeah, you’d think things would even themselves out, but it’s like a rollercoaster ride. And it’s not even good sleep when I do sleep. I have god awful nightmares about the most mundane things. A few nights ago, I had a dream that this guy was ripping apart a mattress with his teeth, and it frightened the hell out of me."
"That’s not really mundane."
"Okay, mundane isn’t really the right word, but they’re not like falling dreams, or being chased by bloodthirsty animals or anything. It’s like the whole normal world is becoming some sick twisted nightmare."
"I don’t really know what to tell you."
"Jenn, we were close, right?"
"We were pretty close." Her name had never been Jenn.
"And we talked about things?"
Jenny looked around. The walls looked like they would smell good if you put your nose right up to them. "Yeah, I guess. Where’s my food."
"They take a while at this place."
"How do you know?"
Martin shrugged, "It’s an observation. They’re taking a while."
"Oh, I see." Jenny scratched the side of her face and decided she wanted to be entertained. The whole world was here to amuse her and it was, for the most part, failing miserably. "Martin, if there’s something that’s really wrong, you can tell me. I know we haven’t seen each other in a long time, but, well, this is what we do. We talk."
"Yeah, right, I know. So, I’ve been thinking about things, you know, and I’ve been reading books, and well, I don’t know. I’d really like to do something like that. I mean, like write a book. Or be a painter, or a musician. Something worthwhile. Don’t you think those things are worthwhile."
"Maybe." She wanted to say, “No, be an electrician.” She then thought that she should vocalize every thought that crossed her mind at all times, even if no one was around.
"What if I just keel over right now and die? What have I left the world? Nothing. I need to leave the world something. Isn’t it my responsibility? Yet at the same time...I don’t much want to be alive. I swing back and forth from good moods to bad, I enjoy my job and then I hate everyone. I really think I’m a manic depressive or something. And I swear I can’t concentrate on a thing, and I see people and I get so nervous, and I just don’t know what to do. I think I’ve been drinking too much lately as well."
The food came. Jenny started in on her enchilada without saying a word. She allowed Martin to be her Dinner Theatre Entertainment.
He didn’t touch his burrito. "You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to go to Europe, charm my way into people’s homes, live off my wit. I could do that, don’t you think? I could be this exotic, debonair character who drinks constantly, experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, and has affairs with countless women. I could try to kill myself once a week, scars would run across my arms, I’d be bruised and battered from self-inflicted brutalities, and I’d slowly be killing myself. I really think, in some sick way, this is the repressed American dream. I want to smoke cigarettes and ingest things into my blood while my brain is vacant and my body is all over other people’s bodies, inside their bodies, taking a year off my life everyday, and each day I write about it, or I throw some paint on a canvas, or I go to a Parisian jazz hole and fucking wow people. Isn’t that how people are wowed? But I can’t seem to get a handle on anything. I just want to curl up in a ball and hide myself from everyone."
"And you want to be on display while you’re curled up and hiding." Jenny didn’t really mean to say this out-loud. But she did, and it didn’t bother her.
"I don’t know. I seem to be one big pile of contradictions. I took this quiz, Jenn, and you know what?"
"What is that, Martin?"
"According to this quiz, I am clinically depressed. I should be seeking help. I probably need Ritalin or Prozac or something. Maybe I just need heroin."
"Where did you take this quiz?"
"It was on some pamphlet I picked up."
He read what the symptoms of depression were, then answered the questions accordingly. Nothing would make Martin happier than to be clinically depressed, except for possibly clinical insanity. She could tell what Martin was doing. He was always the showman. He romanticized the mentally unstable. She romanticized self mutilation. It was no wonder she felt she should enjoy his company. And she did enjoy it, in a way.
"I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. I haven’t really had anyone to talk to. I swear, I’ve taken to talking to myself. I think I’m kind of losing it. I barely know what to do with myself."
"It’s a problem. You should probably eat food."
Martin looked at his burrito. "It doesn’t look too appealing."
"Should have gotten the enchilada. It’s pretty good."
"Everything seems so bland to me. I really don’t see myself caring about anything."
Jenny suddenly had the urge to stab Martin with a fork. She considered that the urge might have actually been to stab herself with the fork. She imagined doing this, without any build-up, without any warning, just causally shoving a fork into her arm, letting the metal sink into the skin, letting the blood billow out, pulling the fork out, covering her wound with a napkin, and indifferently walking out. That was how pain should be. Pain should be casual, indifferent, lackadaisical. Pain should not be an event, but she enjoyed watching it erupt into an event in others, even if it was a well rehearsed event. She saw Martin practicing this conversation in his car. She again wondered what car was his. He probably bought one that was pitiful, small, falling apart and dying. It would reflect his character. Everything reflected his character.
"What do I care about?"
"You must care about something to be asking all these questions." He cared about his own genius. Jenny admired this in a distasteful way. At least someone had the ambition to be a true-to-form genius. He studied very extensively to get down all the symptoms of genius. He had the symptoms down pretty well. One day he might actually be able to convince others, and himself, that he is a genius. He’d never be able to convince her. She could always see through him. Jenny wondered if he knew how well she saw through him. Maybe he was seeing through her too.
"I need something concrete to care about."
"Would you care if I took this fork and shoved it into my arm?" Jenny said after a pause and a swallow.
Martin didn’t answer immediately. "Yes. I would. I think I would. I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t. There’s no way to know unless you actually did it."
Jenny lifted up the fork and aimed it down at her arm, "I’m going to," she smiled.
"I know you’re not. There’s nothing real in this situation. It has to be real."
"You aren’t even slightly concerned that I may not be joking?"
"It wouldn’t even hurt you that much. You probably wouldn’t even break skin, no matter how hard you stabbed yourself. Well, maybe you’d break skin. But there’d be no long term damage."
"So, you don’t care what I do to myself as long as there’s no long term damage?"
"We can’t speak in the abstract like this. It has to be real."
"You’re getting agitated."
"That’s because I think you’re not taking this that seriously."
Jenny put the fork down. Her enchilada was finished and Martin hadn’t even touched his burrito. Someone dropped some dishes in a back room. All sounds blended together to become one loud hush. There was no opportunity for the situation to escalate into anything dramatic. No one in the room had the initiative to do anything dramatic. Everyone sat there, eating their greasy Mexican food in their quiet, jovial, stability. This included herself. This included Martin, though he tried hard not to show it. He was ashamed of his stability. She was too.
"I need to go now. I’ll leave you some cash to pay for this. How much do I owe you?"
Martin shrugged. "Don’t worry about it. Are you sure you need to leave now? Did I make you upset?"
"No, I just, I’m really tired, Martin. Call me tomorrow maybe. I think I’m getting a fever as it is. I need to go home and get some rest. Sorry, maybe I’ve been a bit weird here today. Call me tomorrow if you can. Maybe we can just have dinner at my place. Public places make me uncomfortable, I’m sure you remember this."
Martin nodded. "Maybe I’ll call you tomorrow. I’ll be in town for a while."
Jenny walked out of the restaurant, onto the hot straight street. She desperately tried not to notice everything around her. It was all sharply in focus, flat, right in front of her eyes like an easel rolling in time with her footsteps. The telephone wires shrank and moved up. The road diminished to a tiny dot. The cars grew in size, screamed louder as they enlarged and then faded away into nothing. Every roadside sign was perfectly legible, every word was as readable as if it were permanently imprinted onto her eye.
She drove home, turned on the radio and the muted television, fell into a chair, and let her eyes rummage across the words of a short novel. She fell asleep almost immediately. Jenny didn’t have a single dream. It wouldn’t have bothered her much if she had never woken up. It wouldn’t have bothered her if she did wake up. It was about the same either way.
She woke up the next morning, the sun was coming through the window, the television was still on, music was still playing, and her book was propped up in her hands, on page 24. It was a Sunday. She went back to sleep.