I recently turned twenty-five. A quarter of a century. My face is weathered. I can grow a beard in places I couldn’t a few years ago. I have less pimples. More sunspots. I used to have dimples. Now I have creases when I smile. Soon I’ll have wrinkles, though, I’d rather die young.
The average brain of a human male isn’t fully mature until age twenty-eight. That’s the precipice—where my cells will start dying at a faster rate than they’re replaced and I’ll burn up in all the rage, love, and beauty of my young adulthood like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix. I can be a martyr for whatever cause those I leave behind can find to attach to my life. Youth is wasted on the young. I read that somewhere. I wonder if they’ll say that about me.
I used to be a stock clerk at the grocery store and once or twice when I was facing the cleaning products I considered popping off the sturdy safety cap of a bottle of Liquid Plumr downing the every last drop of the sharp syrupy acid. But I’m not so flippant about life anymore. I’m even a vegetarian now.
I like wandering the broad aisles of the grocery store at night. Picking up shapes, memorizing their edges and curves and putting them back. One night I bought a Himalayan salt lamp for 14.87 plus tax and the air in my apartment has never been more oxygenated. Another night I bought a goldfish with a tank, water filter, pebbles, a ceramic villa, and plastic kelp—less than forty dollars all together. The fish died a few days later because I over-fed it but I still keep the tank full and the water filter running because that also oxygenates the air and I like the air-to-water sound of it.
I live in a tall duplex on the main stretch of my town. I live in the left unit; my landlord lives in the right. If I don’t mow the lawn or rake the leaves on my side of the yard, he threatens to evict me. If I make the smoke alarm go off or turn my TV volume up too high, he threatens to evict me. If I have too many friends over. If he suspects I’ve been smoking in the unit and not on the porch. If he peeks through the entryway window and sees a certain level of clutter on the floor. And so on.
My name is on the lease, but my girlfriend, Emma, and I moved in to the duplex together. When our eyes were all pupils and white picket fences symbolized something besides words like “confine.” Normally she’s home from work curled in the caddy-cornered chair watching a show or peering at her phone. When I think of her I see evening incandescence with a digital glaze, I smell coriander and vanilla sage. But Emma went back to her ex again. This is something she does. It’s been over three weeks this time. Half the furniture isn’t mine. Half the movies. Half the wall art. Half the kitchenware. Half the bedsheets. Half the bath towels. I wonder what the place would look like with a chair and no couch, a bare hardwood floor with no area rugs, bare walls with no paintings from HomeGoods, a computer with no desk, a tv stand with no tv. I don’t have to think about these things when we’re together.
Darkness is the absence of light. Death is the absence of life. Space is the absence of anything. But I don’t like to think about it like that.
I forget the name of her ex. She’ll tell me about him sometimes. I won’t ask about him, but she’ll start talking and I’ll listen. “He was too good for me,” she’ll say. “He’d tell me all the time how he wishes he didn’t love me. And I’d tell him how I wish I did.” Then she’ll look at me in this way and say, “Sometimes I wonder though.” I don’t know why she doesn’t stay with him. He’s beautiful, has a good job. He drives a Lexus. A new Lexus, L-series. I find things like that attractive in men. He can afford a flashy sportscar—a Corvette Stingray or a Maserati. But he drives a Lexus. I think that’s classy. I lied earlier about not remembering his name. His name is Darren Yate.
When Emma’s gone I’ll go back to Celia. When I was with Celia, I thought she was the marriageable type. The type you can bring home to meet the family. She was superficially religious, but deeply spiritual. The kind of person who will go to church with her parents and worship God but really, to her, God can be anything. She’s the reason I don’t eat meat. She told me life is fluid and never static. It flows from one living thing into the next. She’d say things like that all the time and she wrote songs too. I thought it was beautiful. I wish I didn’t eat any living thing at all but that’s impossible. Why is it that living things must destroy other living things to survive?
My parents raised me in a Baptist church. They are hardline Calvinists. They believe in total depravity, limited atonement, unconditional election, and so on. Maybe I still believe it too. They loved Celia when we first started dating. They didn’t mind that she went to a Pentacostal church where worshippers prayed in glossolalia and fell prostrate when they were touched on the forehead. We had been together for a year or so and then her grandmother, who’d helped raise her, died of pneumonia. She had Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t swallow properly anymore and she inhaled some food which caused an infection in her lungs. I went to the funeral and not long after, Celia broke things off. She started hanging around different crowds. She lost her faith—though, maybe faith is the wrong word. She started drinking—which led to pills with led to heroin.
Emma texts me to tell me she’s leaving for good. Darren is going to send a U-Haul to our house tomorrow. She says I can be there if I want. It’s up to me.
I remember growing up with Emma. I remember as if I really did. Even though I grew up in Texas and she grew up here. I remember the big Texas sky. Sky wide and deep with cumulus clouds and jet plane exhaust. And I remember her. I see her running with the entire Texas sky behind her and in front of her. I smell sun-warmed cedar mulch. We’re small and the grass is tall in the low hills behind our development. We crawl along the parched cracked ground to hide from the groundskeeper. She shimmers in the grass beside me. Ducking in and out of sight. Funny the way the past changes with the present.
I want to see Celia. Most of the time I’ll find her at Martin Bradley’s place. Martin Bradley’s place is a nice Victorian-style house on north second street. Sometimes Celia is at her mom’s house. She’ll promise her she’s done with heroin and her mom will let her stay in her old room. Let her try to get back on her feet. But most of the time I’ll find her at Martin Bradley’s place. On the couch or on the stained carpet floor. With a group of space-eyed teenagers or by herself. When I see her, if she feels like it, we’ll fuck. If not, I’ll sit with her and we’ll watch cartoons. I might buy some Xans from Martin. I might hold her spoon and lighter while she sets the needle and pulls back the plunger. We’ll talk. Once, I went to see her and she was on the floor, slouched against the leather couch. There was a puddle of vomit on the couch. I said, “Hi.” She swung her head back to look up at me. Her hair pressed into the vomit. “Hi,” she said. She squinted at me for a minute, her fingers absently played with the edge of a white-dusted plastic bag. Finally, she said, “Did you know Martin cuts this with baby formula?” I told her no, I didn’t. “We have no choice but to consume it,” she said. “Us and babies, I mean.”
When I worked at the grocery store, one of the department managers told me when he was going with this woman he helped her raise her kids. When they broke up he did this again and then he did it a third time before he met his current wife. I asked if he had any kids of his own. He told me no, though, there might be one. The mother won’t show up for the paternity test when he schedules one. I wonder if I’ll ever want a family the way he wants a family.
Celia told me about her grandmother. It was one of the times she was staying at her mom’s house. She didn’t want to fuck. She wanted to play me a song she had been working on. She grasped at and hung to every note she sang. I noticed her eyes were green like mine. When she’s high I forget her narrow pinched eyes have color when they open wide. Then we sat on her bed, on the faded pink comforter from her childhood that her mom won’t throw out, staring up at these glow in the dark stars she had glued to her ceiling. I asked her why she left me when her grandmother died. She looked over at me, half-closed one eye, and asked, “Why the sudden interest?” I shrugged and said I had been thinking about things more lately. “Like a new age mindfulness thing?” she said. I shrugged again. “Sure.”
Celia’s fingers absently plucked at the strings on her guitar. Almost a melody. She told me her grandmother was far gone when she died. Most days she didn’t remember her own name. But right before she went, she had a moment of lucidity. Her eyes cleared, she saw Celia, Celia’s mom. She told them, “I’m a little girl, husking corn with my mother on the front porch. Watching my father’s truck drive up the dirt driveway and the dust kicking up behind him.”
Celia stopped talking. I looked at her expectantly. She looked back at me. “Then what happened?” “She died.” “Oh.” I shifted uncomfortably. I wanted to look at the glued-on stars again. Celia sighed and looked at me in this way, smiling this disappointed smile I still see when I think of her.