Below is a work-in-progress passage from my novel Ex:Urbia.
Along With Ecstasy
I pass a crumpled pickup on the road tonight heading home from the city. I had given a dinner speech at the Center City Marriott on contract fund management. Red and blue police lights spin in the darkness, a slight fog enshrouds distant traffic lights candied lime, lemon and cherry — an awful combination. One person lies on the ground, another staggers toward the police car. It is fragility that drives us inward at moments like this. We see danger, or are reminded of death, and retreat seems the only option. Retreat into the mind. Retreat into fear. And yet, how precious, anyway, this worthless life. It’s all we have. I am Julia Davenport and the world revolves around me the same way it does around you.
Fear was already beating in my chest when I stepped onto the sidewalk away from the shimmering lights that line the driveway to the Marriott after talking about money and public works projects for an hour. I know it was fear. I don’t like that feeling. I was afraid that first night with Danny. I was afraid my first day at work. I am afraid so much of the time. I feel okay by myself at the mall or driving. Being alone out in public has that effect on me. I like to be in shopping areas for my lunch breaks, somewhere close to the parking garage. I take breaks after putting bags of purchases in the car and have a vodka martini or two at one of those upscale restaurant bars or maybe the Applebee’s on Market Street.
Everything is still slow and easy at that time of the day. I go out back of those places for smokes. Guys hit on me. That’s nice. Sometimes it works. We go to the Marriott. I like to fuck when I’m feeling comfortable with things at that time of the day. They don’t know it, the guys I fuck, but I could care less about them. I’m alone in myself and looking forward into a world that is about to happen. It’s always been like that. It’s impossible to feel like that for very long. Looking into the future is a magic trick that depends on this weird flow along with ecstasy. Maybe it’s just the nature of the work I used to do. Maybe it’s just that fucking is such an imperfect act because it ends so momentously. I like to come. I come hard when I’m on top. I gush sometimes. They don’t know it, but I’m fucking myself when I fuck them. I’m fucking into the future. I hear voices in the distance just before I come. I can read your mind. You’re reading mine right now. I’ve been lost in the world almost my whole life. It’s a world where loneliness produces ecstasy and a weird kind of promise. Promise is the same thing as seeing into the future. The voices, I think, are probably conversations about me that will take place very soon. But not quite yet. It’s all fragile.
Quick footsteps smack the pavement behind me. A man running to catch a bus. It’s so easy to feel a hole open up inside. Fear is actually a response to the possibility of loss — loss of life, loss of love, loss of dignity. The sound of that man’s feet hitting the sidewalk paralyzed me for a moment. It would be so easy to attack someone like me, alone, afraid, well-dressed, in the dark, private about my own insanity and discreet about everyone else’s. And now this small crashed pickup, and the cops with their bright candy lights. Blue and red flashing in the dark mean something has gone horribly wrong.
How fragile birds are, too, with hollow skeletons and web-bone wings. Flapping in the column of the present, their dark colors in the distance like an artist’s confetti falling vertically from the sky. Confetti birds dropping through a column into the present.
The screech of gulls, eighty miles inland, circling a school yard and a few business parking lots, their sharp eyes on the lookout for food scraps and nutritious garbage; they gingerly pick at fresh litter in the refrigerated early January morning: the salty lining of a potato chip bag; a half-eaten, milk-soaked baloney sandwich; sweet tabs of Trident gum that have fallen from a person’s pocket; mashed Hostess pie; shreds of wet and black-tipped lettuce; ketchup on Styrofoam plates; frozen french-fries, micro-waved to ready then frozen again overnight in the dumpster waiting for disposal. All the worthless, castoff stuff of life.
I read in the paper this weekend about the death of a friend. He killed himself. Bouts with manic depression were too much for him. He did not respond well to medication. I spent some of Saturday night and most of Sunday morning crying and feeling despair linger around me. I told Danny I didn’t want to see him. Just the day before I remembered the letter I had been planning to write my friend and his wife. The day before he took his own life. I’d been planning on writing that letter for over a year since the two of them sent the news of adopting little Margarita.
He killed himself only six months after that adoption. He and his wife lived on the edge of the highland range in Washington State. Can you imagine reading in the local paper about a friend committing suicide when you thought he and his wife were just dealing with having a little baby to take care of, trying to adjust their lives, figure out how to stop doing all the bad things that we do until babies arrive and melt our hearts?
I hadn’t known of his fight with manic-depression, nor, finally, his death. I kept thinking in my own fragility how at least I had one friend left in the world, that I could take Danny out to visit him and and his wife and little Margarita soon, and wondered what their ranch looked like and how I would respond to the dry climate and the open, wild beauty of the Eastern Cascade desert.
But he had killed himself by the time I recalled this letter that I needed to finish. I didn’t know. It had been more than several months since he’d left the world. I guess it would have been nice to get a note from his wife on what had happened, but they don’t really make cards for that. “Your friend is dead,” on the outside. And on the inside, “By the way, he killed himself…and it’s okay because he had suffered enough.”
I understand why I didn’t get anything. She is strong. But no one is that strong. Maybe Margarita will learn to be that strong.
What’s funniest about it all is that I never pictured his face or heard his voice in all the years he lived out west, and now his face comes back to my mind like he was just here yesterday, like I have known him all my life, like he was my brother and I saw him every day and it was no big thing.
His voice calls my name over and over, “Julia!”
Yes, there is a hint of questioning in it, a gentle, easy calm. How simple it is to just live life alone, how far away we are from each other. How easy it is for distant friends to commit suicide while we go on living as if they are still out there. And they are out there if no one has told us that what they did was tape up the exhaust system to their car and then run surgical tubing from the tail pipe in through the passenger window, a tape of Miles’ Kind of Blue playing, and a view out to the east from the top of some butte, the sunrise and the prairie. Kind of Blue would not be background music in a situation like that.
And now, on the train heading into work this next morning comes a beautiful girl — four, maybe five. She is with her parents. The girl does not talk. She is deaf. She communicates to her mother and father in sign language. Her father slumps down in his seat tyring to sleep. The little girl has a young sibling — maybe nine months old from the sound it is making. Each time the baby shrieks the mother hits it hard and the child is silent for a time. The little deaf girl watches this and I see her tiny, signing hands drop lower and lower.
Bi-polar syndrome. M-D. Manic depression. My mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic back in the early seventies. She was manic depressive but they didn’t know what that was then. So they treated her for schizophrenia instead. I do not remember the early details well. I recall that she was hospitalized several times when I was between the ages of four and eight. I know also that electro-shock therapy was employed. I know that in the early seventies electroshock therapy was about as sophisticated as blood-letting during the Middle Ages. Back then, when the world was “nasty, brutish, and short,” if you had a particularly debilitating disease, they made incisions in your veins and had you bleed into a bucket (what they did with the contents of the bucket I do not know). Electro-shock in 1972 was similar. As a child, my image of electro-shock therapy was muddled up with what I thought would have happened to Bobby Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan. My father told me he should be electrocuted. I was worried they were going to try to fix him.
I know now, of course, that electro-shock is, basically, a sophisticated slap in the cosmic face. I wonder what would happen to me were I subjected to this kind of treatment. Maybe I would actually be elevated to a new level of consciousness. Maybe it is the best form of mind alteration at our disposal. Orgasms wear off. Perhaps only the negative association with insanity has hindered people from trying electro-shock therapy on those thought of as well-adjusted. I doubt no balanced person has attempted this measure on herself. Only the out-of-control. Only the victim. And they have it done to them.
My friend is gone. His mind was fragile. My mother is still alive, but she too is fragile. She once made me promise to help her kill herself if she ever became debilitated. Birds are fragile. If you have good eye-hand coordination, you can throw a rock and kill just about any bird you are watching in flight. If the initial impact doesn’t bludgeon them to death, the fall will do them in for sure. You have to have that eye-hand coordination thing down, though. Birds are programmed to swerve randomly in the humanscape. As far as I know, there are no manic-depressive birds. I do not throw like a girl. I never did. That’s kind of funny, huh? I’m a wreck of a person but I have superior eye-hand coordination and am, of course, a natural athlete.
And the cops at the accident? The passenger staggering, the driver laid out? Dead? My fear walking to my car in the dark? Is that what separates us from the suicide? We are afraid of harm from the world. The gulls that swarm our town are afraid of us. They know nothing of gravity, nothing of mental illness, nothing of the evil that lurks in the imagination of men and women. They do not know they are fragile. They do not care. It is January and I have just learned that my friend who had a baby and wife who loved him dearly took his own life and didn’t call to tell me goodbye.
It’s inappropriate, but I have to laugh here. Tomorrow I’m expected to get up and go to work. I will be getting married soon. I want to have children. And obviously I’m still quite proud of my athletic abilities. There are rocks everywhere and quite a few birds I could take down with one deadly throw.