by Paul-André Betito
In the soft light I see you breathing, blinking, your sights seemingly locked onto the waning crescent moon beyond the window. You're wide awake. I hope you don't mind if I take this time to try fleshing things out — for the record, maybe to bring you up to speed, mostly for my own selfish needs. It's something that I simply have to do, I think: I have a pile of puzzle pieces without the box, without the image of the final product, and the least I need is an outline that'll coax me in the right direction, and, in truth, I don't know if it much matters if you mind, because I need the structure and I'm going to attempt to trace I t right now and you're going to be good and you're going to listen.
Jeff and Hamza — Suneet likened us to Batman and Robin, once, at that bonfire party, and I swear we simultaneously flinched at the implication. A power differential? No way in nirvana. It was too much like you and me were split from the same cell, both weaned too early from the perceptual mess of infancy and left with the same attachment problems. We didn't even have separate uniforms: we shared the same raggedy flannel shirts, and the shirts weren't concerned with contrasting skin tones, meaning neither were we. Call it two seeds from separate hemispheres sprouting on the same wavelength.
If I had to pick a pair for comparative purposes, though, I'd opt for Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street: distinct but essentially the same genus of puppet, the two of us, only with hands yanked out from our asses and the same intimation of the inauthenticity of the reality that we inhabited shared between the both of us. And to be fair to Suneet, you and I did have our own version of a Bat Symbol: we had Pink Floyd on a record player, reverie sounds circulating through the vents, the psychonaut's very own clarion call, his Great Gig beamed to the sky.
There was our mutual love for hard science, how we both decided on in vivo investigation over homework. All much to Mr. Dumont's chagrin, I recall, but shit — how could high school chemistry experiments compare to swilling brain juices and seeing what happens? We had something going on, something all-too-stimulating, seriously symbiotic: you and me plus a lava lamp, a laptop, two equipotent doses of something synthesized in China or cultured in your closet. We had a system, and with it, we logged the taxonomy of conscious experiences, like double Darwins mapping cortical islands, sticking flags in evanescent sands.
Odd Boy — that was the moniker my parents ascribed to you, from the fourth grade onwards. Suppose they were all too happy in their ignorance of the fact that their son was no less odder than his friend. Suppose I owe them the benefit of the doubt — I'm pretty naive when I'm exhausted, too. It didn't much matter what they thought, either way: by our mid-teens, you and I had essentially made a mutual decision to relegate much of the real world to the outskirts of awareness. Family, birthdays, school: their forms were too real, too definite for what I'll call some heavily abstracted tastes. Experiences happened in here, we came to believe, not out there; at the time it was all about having mandalas in our eyes, fractals at our fingertips, and everything else was peripheral, fizz and pop, plain old garden-variety, marginally present at best.
On occasion, needless to say, real life managed to make a rude intrusion, dead center in our shaky sights. Like, say, our dual suspension in the ninth grade, when we were just starting out and didn't know anything about masking kush-stink with Axe body spray, when we didn't understand that meatball subs and chocolate milks were a bit conspicuous to be indulging in during the class that ran after lunch period. Or, say, what happened to your mom — Momma Gallagher.
After she passed, it was if all the fragments that composed my memory of her came to radiate the same essence of tragedy, like they'd been enlightened by hindsight's perfect vision. There was how little time she spent sleeping, a fact I inferred from the endless recession of the bags under her eyes; there was the scratch in her yells, the frumpy maternity dresses she wore… So many bits and bobs which eventually, tenderly, coalesced into something whole, into a focus point, irreversibly. Big and whole and ugly and sad. And next thing I know, she stops cleaning the cigarette butts out of the Mason jar on your deck.
We took to our usual spot after the funeral service, perched on the wooden fence that separated our two meager excuses for backyards. We faced the unkempt lawn that was yours, kept the kempt one behind us. We strung our jackets on the fence and let the patter of midsummer rain soak through our button-ups. You had a lot of bureaucratic nonsense looming in the near future, and I guess you reasoned that if you sat around and waited it out, the lawyers would figure it out without you. You were on the fence in more ways than one, hunched over there beside me, cradling her last carton of bootleg, reservation-bought Pall Malls, so you smoked through a pack in silence while I counted the mounds of freshly upturned soil, the potted plants that your mom had left behind. I wanted to explain to you that sometimes, when pain piles up, some people panic and play hot potato with it, chuck it at some unlucky soul just to get it off their hands. I wanted to tell you that nobody chooses to play receiver.
Fuck it. For all the time I'd spent attempting to pry some speech out of you that day, those were the first words you gave me. Then you pulled a baggie full of seeds out of your pocket.
Devil's trumpet. Datura stramonium. It took me a second to recognize what the seeds were.
Deliriants like Devil's trumpet had always been more bucket list to-do than casual to-do, the freaky subject of empty banter and what-ifs and embellished stories pulled from online trip reports. In my mind, they were the territory of bushwhacking mind marauders, the ones willing to man vanguards — the real deal. We could paradoxically experiment on ourselves with what we took to be LSD we'd imported from abroad, but deliriants? We were too impressionable to plough fields that neither Aldous Huxley nor Terence McKenna had apparently scoured in writing. Influence — who wouldn't have been influenced like we were, after reading all the stuff that we read? Such strident calls to action — revolution! Turn the tables! Flip the switch! Tune in, motherfucker! You know what I mean? We weren't so much volunteers, but conscripts. Luckily we weren't too impetuous with it, what with our tendency to plan things out. As if some foresight and organization could imbue what practically everyone else considered reckless behavior with a special, ritualistic quality, as if some order could somehow dignify the experience or render it mindful. We even tricked ourselves into believing it was all necessary, natural, practically logical: benders and keggers, that unbridled bacchanalia when we needed the profane to loosen us up, cushions and incense and psychedelics when we needed something sacred. There — all desires properly satisfied. Talk about folly, man. Not that the psychic sleight of hands we engaged in ever once consciously occurred to us — no, we were too young, too stuck in a distorted present, the Now, the Moment we were instructed to embrace at all costs, which we dutifully did. Not that I fault us for doing so, everything having been so passionate and sincere when we first started out. Before we'd managed to conjure up a stable image of who we even were. It was like muddying waters that hadn't yet rained down from the sky. But, still, compassion; one thing our predecessors rightly harped about.
Maybe it was all a matter of too much anxiety to kill, a simple case of applying chemical balm to brain itch. Maybe we took the Socrates quote, the unexamined life is not worth living, confused unexamined with lucid and ran with the misconstrual. Or maybe we were just indefatigably bored. Whatever it might have been, every tribe needs its vision quests, its rites of passage, and if a tribesperson doesn't have the guidance of in-the-flesh elders to lead them forth, they'll either turn to the dead ones or figure something out on their own. Not to mention that order is only a prefix away from disorder, and certain things you just do, so you handed me the bag and I counted out my dose.
You might have always been the safer one — set and setting, dude — but that afternoon you didn't even count how many seeds you ingested, you just emptied the entire rest of the baggie into your mouth while I, meanwhile, secretly dropped half my handful of seeds behind me. Maybe pain makes the bearer more Big Picture oriented, less concerned with specifics or else unable to focus on them, more reckless in a sense. Pain: you try to keep it up in the air as long as possible, to keep your hands free for handling life. Like a juggling act. A game of hot potato you play with yourself, only sometimes it's too much and you bail on it. But the thing is that the potato can't be abandoned, and in a masochistic twist, a perversion of logic, maybe the person on the receiving end of someone else's pain potato gets seduced into holding on to it for as long as possible, out of a preference for the burn than for the feeling of absolute absence that whoever abandoned the potato left behind. And inevitably, the potato blows up, sends you throttling out into empty space and into the orbit of questions, essences, unknowns…
Having had to take a piss, five minutes in, I hopped down off the fence and headed to your bathroom. When I got there and saw all of your mom's perfumes, the open lipstick by the sink, her fuzzy slippers tucked in neatly by the toilet — man, I don't know what came over me. Momma Gallagher was a real ragged bitch, most times I talked to her, but oddly enough I started remembering, at that moment in the bathroom, the cakes she baked for our birthdays — dry, chewy, straight from the box — and her drunk flirtations, her slobbering over someone's dad at your 12th birthday, her spilling rum and cokes on the carpet, you always taking the road of reticence and averted eyes in an effort to pretend that she wasn't there — I realized, then and there, that I couldn't do it. Couldn't violate what was totally your and only your experience, your pain — I couldn't do it. I dropped to my knees and stuck my fingers down my throat. Consider that Step One of my betrayal.
Upon my return to the backyard, I was hit with a fear, a selfish one, that you would ask me what took me so long. But you never did: I got back and you didn't say a thing. Just kicked your shoes off beneath you and let your legs sway rhythmically off the fence. So I joined you and we sat and watched shadows run their course, clouds dissipate overhead, listened to the melodies of the material world, sharp bird chirps and branches scratching to the tempo of a gentle breeze. At some point you started fiddling with your lighter, and then you broke the silence.
What is this? you asked me, perplexed, holding the lighter up in between us. A lighter, I told you, to which you replied with furrowed brows, an Oh, Right. You gave the lighter a once-over, shrugged, and pocketed the thing, apparently not quite content.
I spent the following ten minutes in nervous apprehension, afraid that I'd left seeds behind in my gut and that they might suddenly warp the world's music, all the while feeling overwhelmingly guilty for wondering such things at all. You eventually broke the silence again with Where are we? a question that I found admittedly strange but which I nonetheless attended to with In between our backyards, on the fence. Then you turned to face me and asked, Why? and when I tried reading into your expression to see if you were kidding, all I saw was confusion, vacancy, galactic pupils, pupils like black marbles blown through and through. My first instinct was to play along, to play it indirect, not too rational or open-shut, so I smiled like I was in on the joke and replied with Why not? a little smirk on my face, except your response in turn was one of not even having heard me: you hopped down off the fence and went to sit at your patio table.
Clearly, something wasn't being translated properly, since I couldn't figure truth for trip I reasoned it best to leave you be, to watch you from the fence for a while, and that's what I did — that is, until you started moving one of your hands, from lap to pursed lips as if smoking a cigarette that definitely wasn't actually there.
I wasn't sure what was going on, and it was all way too unsettling to tolerate; even the trip reports hadn't done the phenomenon justice. In an effort to make you stop, I think, I went to go take the patio chair beside you, and that's when you opted to get up, amble over to a bush, and drop your pants.
I took a seat at the table and turned away from you for one minute, two minutes, but with no sound of a stream or so much as a sigh of relief I decided to gamble a look at your naked ass, and when I did, I saw you facing the fence, hands by your side, a slight sway to your body, so I made a half-hearted attempt at humor with Pretty long piss there, dude, some stupid fucking remark, and at the sound of my voice you clumsily pulled up your pants, wheeled around, unbuttoned your shirt, and staggered up to a seat on the other side of the table.
After two minutes of me pretending to occupy myself, I saw you turn your seat to face the empty one beside you, and you sat in the position with an empty stare, smoking ghost cigarettes to the bone and yawning, until out of nowhere something shifted in your expression and you started speaking.
Mom, you said, rolling the syllable out with a mighty yawn. Why?
It felt like the sun had paused its imminent descent. I heard an engine throttle to life in a nearby driveway.
Why? you asked again, looking down to your lap then back to the empty seat. You had this dreamy expression on your face, like a child. You left just like him, you went on. Left without a note. You started nodding, nodding, almost pensively. You flicked a ghost cigarette away and continued in a croaky, wavering voice. You were always onto me about cleaning, mom. Well, I cleaned up your puke. Step in the right direction?
Humor is human, morbid or not, and I was happy to accommodate what I thought was its presence in what was turning into an extraterrestrial dance happy to stop holding my breath. But you only let me have half a lungful of relief.
What about me? You practically screamed it — spooked me to the core, sent birds scattering from the nearby tree. Shit was precipitous, nuclear. And right then, watching your face suddenly contort into a grimace of anger, I became aware of something inside me. Legitimate concern. I was frozen stiff. What about me? You asked again, same jarring volume as before. What about me? Can you just come back? Can you just come back? Over and over, each subsequent repetition escalating in pitch and hysteria. I felt like I needed to do something, fast, my hands were shaking and people aren't meant to bear witness to the tortures of someone else's purgatory.
Yo, I exclaimed, jumping up. Let's go get something to drink at Mac's. I phrased it as a suggestion but it meant it as more of an imploration, actually more of an absolute directive. And it was if the trickery, the fact that I wasn't being honest with you, was the first thing you'd heard all day, and I know this because, as I akwardly stood there, praying for an affirmative sure, dude, you turned your head to look at me, and that was all it took.
Shit was exorcism-y, like a straight inversion of gravity. The look on your face — you were mortified, like I had made myself inhuman, utterly unrecognizable to you. Call that Step Two.
And then you pounced up, made a lurching escape through the open backyard gate, left the clatter of an upturned patio chair in your wake, and the panic that had been conspiring to escape finally boomed, then, the unstable compound had been shaken and the reaction was overflowing the beaker and I couldn't cork the lid.
I caught up to you, kept repeating Jeff, dude, it's me, Hamza, it's me, Hamza, to no avail.
Within a hundred feet of the house you had kicked off your pants, fallen hard to the sidewalk, gotten up in a hurry. Someone walking their dog ahead of us cut to the other side of the street.
Back in the day, when one of us would freak out, all the other person had to do was say it's okay, it's okay, sometimes it's profoundly okay if things were really hitting the shitter, and whoever was freaking out would always come back down to earth. I reckon our cherished makeshift mantra singlehandedly kept us tethered to the ground, from coming fully undone at the worst of times. Yet instead of applying it when it mattered most, I appealed to Jeff, you should really bring your shirt, even Jeff, it's Hamza, at least keep your shoes on. Not only could I not muster a countercurrent to the unbuckling force — I couldn't even tame it, not even slightly, I couldn't even gently coax in another direction. Step Three.
By miracle and impending darkness and the hum of busy mosquitoes, we actually ended up at the local Mac's. You whipped off the last layer, your boxer briefs, like a signal of how incontrovertibly not okay it all was, and then you barged into the store.
Once inside, on the entrance mat, I tried for a firmer, more forceful grab, like a parent trying to make the message stick, but rather than merely escape my grasp, as you had done along the way, you met the latter effort by gripping my forearms and physically tossing me to the linoleum floor. Your hands and arms had been scraped raw by falls during our meandering walk, and in my stunned, panting paralysis there, on the ground, all that occurred to me were the lingering phantom feelings of gravel embedded in palm, wet dots of blood from patches of skin shredded away, and it was only the acknowledgement of another presence in the store, a real human observer to our mess, in fact the Pakistani owner fumbling with his cellphone that got me chasing you again.
Mom? you inquired as you peered behind boxes of cookies, tossed things to the floor. My delusional hope, watching you, pleading with my eyes, was that you were frantically looking for something that Mac's carried on its shelves, and like an asshole I hoped that you'd possibly see Momma G's blonde hair in lieu of the graphics on packets of ramen noodles and everything would then be cool and we'd be able to leave before the cops got there and things got seriously, irretrievably not okay.
You flung open refrigerator doors, slammed them shut, repeated I'm missing your molecules, your vibrations, escaped into another aisle. Then, I don't remember exactly when, I just stopped, right in my tracks, slunk down against a shelf, and I started really frantically needing you to shut the fuck up. Step Four.
As soon as I heard I'm sorry, felt those incisive words gouge at my innards, I plugged my ears and tried to blot it all out, la-la style, I prayed for a paradise where everything could be still, totally profoundly okay, a womb or a coma, and I started crying, yeah, a big blubbering bitch — I cried for the voice disembodied from its host, for that hollow voice coming from one aisle and then another and seeping past the fingers I had jammed in my ears, and I hugged my knees and listened to I'm sorry, it's okay, I'm sorry, it's okay distorting, trickling away into the air like words being sucked past the event horizon, down and out the rabbit hole; I cried for the voice that kept tearing me at the seams, one word after another until the very last ones that I remember — they were Gone, gone, goodbye.
I looked at you and your eyes were shut so I decided to shut up and let you get a couple hours of sleep. It's early morning, and soon you'll be eating your breakfast. But I'm not finished yet.
The shrinks say a lot of things — catatonic schizophrenia, hallucinogen persisting perception disorder — but I know you're too expansive to fit to those words, even if your skin fits you a little more loosely now. Say your contents managed to find her after all, and that's why you're mute, too: the language tagged along with everything else.
The rest of that summer for me was dyed gray, haunted by the razor glare of fluorescent lights, specters and questions that circulated like storm clouds. My parents didn't know what to make of it. I tried explaining to them that both of us knew exactly where the network of trails ended, the paths that weaved behind our backyards: they ended at the next copied-and-pasted suburban neighborhood. I tried explaining to them that that was a problem, that that bothered us, and that that was why we took to enchanting the woods. None of it computed.
But what they did understand, in the end, was how closely I hugged my pillows, and that was enough for them to call off university on my behalf. Inshallah, our little Hamza will be heal, they would repeat, like Odd Boy. Imagine the shock, to Egyptian immigrants; they weren't the same until I limped my way into undergrad the following year, at which point everything became cool and halal and back to business but only to them.
My physics professor mentioned something interesting during a recent lecture, something about the possible existence of parallel realities out there — the Many-Worlds Interpretation, he called it. I bet the flower by your bed, the one that keeps desiccating further, stooping lower every time I visit, I'm willing to bet that it has another version of itself, one that's getting stronger on some other astral plane, growing on the dark side of the moon.
Whenever I come to visit you, I make sure to bring a pair of ear buds. I put on Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd and put the buds in your ears, and when I put it on you don't really react to it but I'm there hoping anyway, hoping that the message will reach you as brightly as the death of a star, as eventually as light so many light-years away.
I also bring you cigarettes when I visit; Pall Malls, to be precise. I like watching you smoke, thinking that the smoke you exhale speaks volumes, so much smoke to mend the scission. Dead things don't purse their lips.
We might well have been masochists, the way we took to tearing ourselves into pieces. Never once did we properly consider the possibility that the pieces might not just fall back into their respective places like they'd always had. In our shortsightedness, too, we didn't understand the risk played out by the very Golden Age we so revered: it ended, as all things do, and those who got too caught up dancing to the music didn't hear it stop. One has to stay alert in order to hear it, that somber, blues-y signal: This is the end… Still, I can't help but doubt our capacity to have known. Even Agent Orange's casualties took a while to come around.
And, shit, grief. That's another thing I'm beginning to piece together. Grief is just like pain. It is pain, another hot potato that needs to be juggled carefully, the burns endured valiantly because thermodynamic laws dictate that this particular potato might actually cool down, eventually. Grief is also an enterprise of meticulous elaboration, word by word, feeling by feeling. It's a process of limn and learn, arrange and assess, and while you may never get past the outline, a coherent shape still consoles better than a void. I think I appreciate coherence much more than I — we — used to. I find it comforting to keep things in order, now. A newfangled feeling. Step one, step two — that's how things keep a digestible shape in my world.
Hence, perhaps, why I'm leaving you my Collected Works of Allen Ginsberg. Yeah, that well-worn tramp of a tomb. It's just that, ever since I hung up the phone, I've found its contents too disparate, irrational, too irreconcilable. I've tried letting it fuck me like it used to, but the madness has ceased getting me off.
I'm also leaving you my copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, since I no longer believe in reincarnation. How could I? A human being is biology's magnum opus, its greatest artwork, perfect insofar as it's kept stable in the form in which it's beheld, and the universe has yet to even master the act of putting a shattered one back together, let alone endowing that same feeling of just-right to another bodily form. Oh, and I'll be leaving you with all the flannel shirts — I think I'll be sticking to solid colors, from here on out.
You're fully awake, now, occupying the seat beside me, facing the window. It's just about official breakfast time. Do you remember how Momma G used to whip us up frozen breakfast sausages during our PlayStation binges, when we were younger? The sausages here lack the same story. I don't think I'll be eating with you today, or tomorrow.
I hear a voice, two voices in the hall. An orderly, probably coming to get you. We're both letting an erumpent sun lap at our skin. I still see the moon in the sky, faded as a week-old chalk drawing on a driveway. I hear someone turning the knob to the door. Sometimes, during mornings like this one, I imagine that we're just photons of light in a quantum experiment: going through different slits, destined for the same place. I imagine that I'll be okay — profoundly okay — when we meet, maybe here, maybe on another celestial body. So here's to the flower on the moon, maybe. Wish it were here.