(Originally published 7 September 2009.
It is presented here in its original form: raw, rambling and possibly terrible.)
I . . . let’s see, yes: I went to Texas, don’t you know. I’d never been before. To be frank, I cannot be certain if I would have ever ended up in Texas in any other way. That is, I don’t know if I would have ever found myself in Texas later in life, if last week had not happened. When I was a wee one, we were taught that Texas was just a big place where them Mexicans entangled themselves in that dusty red Southern culture, and there were a lot of drugs coming in from, well, them Mexicans from across the border. A couple hundred years ago, this was a place where people were riding around on jackrabbits the size of cattle, and all they ever did for fun was watch the sand blow off the back of a Mexican hooker while the sun stirred a hazy orange across mile after mile of godless dirt. After awhile, enough was enough, and the lone star state was broken up into crumbs and sold off to dirty salesmen who lived with their deaf girlfriends and had deep-rooted gambling addictions. I mean, I’m not saying I believed any of this, but that’s what I was taught. And anyway, as I have said, I was content to let Texas be Texas, and I would be Ryan. For whatever it was (fort) worth (that’s a Texas joke), we’d only stare at each other from opposite ends of the grocery store, pretending not to know each other as we stocked up on kidney beans and canned corn, both on sale that week due to overstocking. And then something unexpected and beautiful and mortifying happened: we had sex. Now, calm down, okay. Although it was a surprise when it initially happened, I felt good about it. I didn’t regret it. I haven’t regretted it yet. When a boy and the second-largest state met, they fell in love. It is something I have a hard time talking about, but I’m going to do it anyway, in a few thousand words or so, to boot.
Over the course of this essay, I will give an alphabetical grade to each state I visited. This story begins in Iowa. Iowa gets a C minus. I went to Iowa because the Reverend Capo saw fit to move his ever-shrinking family there, having previously lived in Texas for a good long time. He’d been given his own church in Iowa, finally, and it made the decision to uproot and move his family from probably the greatest state in the continental U. S. to one that smells like raw oats all the easier. As far as I can tell, his family primarily consists of his wife and three cats; two of them are invisible to me. I never saw them. The third is a nameless, three-legged one who likes to be scratched on the left side of his head, on account of his hind leg having disappeared forever. He limps along like a champ. He’s a dark, affectionate cat that looks like a scurrying cloud of dust. The rest of Reverend Capo’s family were keen enough to stay in the far more superior state of Texas (which, if I must spoil it this early on, gets an A plus). These are two men of varying ages and opinions on the appropriate length of time in between bathing. Both are accepting of most everyone, which may very well be attributed to their upbringing, having been guided for approximately two decades by a whimsical Unitarian Universalist preacher who, perhaps thirty years earlier, sported a reddish white man’s afro, if the pictures hung in his basement are of any indication. (The viewing of said pictures proved to be a pivotal moment in my adult development, but we’ll get in to that later.)
Before I learned any of this, something came first: it was a plane ride. Before that, a story.
Let’s get on with this beast.
• • •
The Reverend Capo (Rev. C. is what I ended up calling him (as for his nickname for me, I won’t say . . .)), being the gentle old soul that he is, wanted to make sure that his son, a man known around these parts for shitting out bears, made it from Iowa to Texas in one piece. “That’s a hell of a trip,” I’m sure he thought. “I don’t want Jacob getting roughed up by a bunch of non-believers.” Jacob, a well-known concert pianist, probably didn’t think too much of it. I’m sure he would have been content to bang screw all the way from Kansas City to Houston, if it came down to it. Eyes hidden behind coffee-colored aviator frames, the strained yelping of an underprivileged young black man blaring out of his speakers, and the endless rows of corn and later nothing at all: that would have been all right with Jacob Capo. There would be corn, and later nothing at all, to be sure. At one point there would be hateful rain and an Oklahoma gas station. But it was God, or whomever it is the good Reverend believes ultimately determines which path we walk on in eternity, had other plans in mind. For whatever reason, I was involved with these plans. Plucked from my quiet residential retirement in the lush suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, I boarded a plane for Iowa to live amongst the corn people, if only for a little while. There were dreams of jackrabbits and prostitution punctuating my sleep for days before I was to leave. If only I had considered for even a moment that something so utterly harmless as a plane ride to a different place could rewire me so. And it did, damn it!
Days before I discovered that Texas was to pound me into rubber to melt in the sun, mouth ajar, drooling, full of mathematical arousal, I checked out of the hospital. It was my second summer of selling my body to science, and what a colorful summer it had been. First there was that week where I lived in my grandmother’s home while she was on holiday in Austria. Champagne and Bach and that strange night where I put on her wig . . . It was a cherished memory, to be sure. Later, I would find myself swimming near a hydroelectric dam, and in that same place I witnessed freshwater albino eels kissing — or perhaps warring — under the constant flow of a miniature waterfall. Later still, there was a day where I stood like a foolish god on the roof of my father’s house, thinking back to the days and weeks earlier when I’d worn my grandmother’s clothing to a dignified dinner party that I threw in her honor. Why, why, why. At some point, I nearly fell off the roof repeating this three-letter word in my head, a question mark the size of Nebraska hovering over my sun-blasted scalp like a retarded fishing hook. My father would ask me, in carefree earnest, what exactly I was thinking about, all the way up there on the roof. “Shingles,” I would go on to tell him. “Is that so?” he’d reply, perhaps automatically. His reply might only have adjusted itself if I’d told him, for real, Dad, I put on my mother’s mother’s wig and cashmere cardigan and served what I believed to be an excellent meal to what had been, only two months before, my closest and most cherished colleagues. Those mashed potatoes, I would add, were probably among the top five mashed potatoes I’d had in my life, up until that point in time. “That good, huh?” he might have added. “Wait, wait — she wears a wig?” I know, right? I would have said. She’s got such a nice head of hair at eighty-two-years-old, what on earth is she doing with a wig? What gives her the right? And anyway, her wig is identical to her natural hair, so what gives? “I’ll tell ya, your ol’ grandmother . . .” he would have trailed off before offering me some pink lemonade — why it’s pink, I don’t know. Lemons aren’t pink, so what’s going on there? I nearly fell off the roof at this point, and he told me to be careful, holding his hands up above his head as if to catch my falling body from across the front yard. He looked genuinely concerned, which I guess is a pretty natural response for a fifty-two year old man to have when his twenty-one year old son accidentally becomes suicidal at the thought of wigs and pink lemonade.
As I have said, it had been a colorful summer. And sometimes that color was very meek and muted. Sometimes it wasn’t so colorful. Sometimes it was black and white. At times I felt like coughing, although I don’t profess to understand why, exactly. Often I would read by the window, as the sun had been generous in those months. When I tired of that, I would sit down inside of an ice-cold bath and, frost forming around my nostrils and mouth, consider my days colder than not. I should say that I had thrown a wrench in this thing, and flipped the switch for some time in those outstretched days and weeks. What I mean is this: there wasn’t a whole lot going on, and I might have sabotaged any real meaning to be gleaned from the primitive life I had been living. When I was not long for this world, I would sleep it off. When I awoke, there wasn’t much of a difference. Things were still frightening, and the baths were still cold. I would lift heavy things and watch the skin of my arms stretch and bend. I would do this until the skin stretched for good. When the sun was overhead, roasting all of that asphalt and tar, I would read a book. And so on.
At noon on some day of some week in a time before this moment now, I scheduled a metamorphosis. I had recently retired from being unemployed, and was content to live out my twilight years in the pages of old books with a cup of decaffeinated green tea resting on my chest, up and down, as I breathed in the death of summer and sneered quite sneeringly at those damned girls and their miniskirts. These girls cavorted around my neighborhood like overly excited dogs: Look at me! Look at me! No, God dammit, no. I would snuff and snort and blow fire from my nostrils until the pages of my book caught a flame and became dust in my hands. It had been a colorful summer, all right. Now an old man with my wits still about me, I padded along the carpeted hallways of my quiet home — my fortress — in hopes of better understanding what exactly had happened to me, and why I’d fallen to the ashes on the floor, crying out uncontrollably for a father in the sun, cursing the breeze for not blowing through me, and hollering at the rainclouds for “missing a spot” on the lawn. The sun was not quite bright enough, some days, and my social security checks left a lot to be desired. My life savings was a paltry sum, I’ll be the first to admit, and the belongings I had kept in boxes were only badges of my own mortality that I wore shamefully on my chest. I’d look in the mirror, sometimes, and I’d scream in horror before calming down. “Look at you, you old man.” Like crusty old friends at the pub, the smeary black and blue beneath my eyes commanded me to remember that I am an old man, somewhere, and that I have only fifteen years or so to live yet. I didn’t need to be reminded, but there you go. Thanks a lot, you assholes. Thanks for the fucking post-it note.
Uncle Sam hadn’t exactly been shitting out gold bricks in those summer months, and from the looks of it, he wouldn’t be doing so for quite some time. I just had to have some extra money on the side to slake a recent peach addiction, so I filled a few vials with the red sticky stuff, slept on a waterproof mattress, watched God hate Baltimore by way of a brick-crunching lightning storm in the middle of Baltimore City, ate the same food over and over that I was told somewhere, someone paid real money for, and polished off a novel a day. It kept the doctors happy. I wasn’t allowed to stretch my muscles or eat grapefruits — the only bright spots of my existence, let me say — and so I read and I ate and I slept and I filled those plastic tubes with my body’s favorite fluid. Occasionally I would urinate in a cup and pass breathalyzer tests like it was my job (and, really, it was). I’d wake up at five in the ay-em and let a humble Middle Eastern man place EKG nodes all over my chest, both of us pretending in earnest that there wasn’t anything mildly homosexual at all about what was going on, his thin spidery fingers tumbling over the pale plate at the front of my body like thin strands of fiber. Alboozah was his name. All of the women would always pull him aside and ask him, “Alboozah, just how are those children of yours?” He’d remove his oversize baseball cap and pat his shaven head and smile sheepishly, the hair on his chin curling outward as though they’d been politely asked to do so, almost resembling a taped-on Amish beard. In a snardy, cartoonish voice that I know everyone found both sweet and endearing, he would go on about how old his daughters were, what grade they were in, and how they hated to eat what he and his wife prepared for them. He said this with such textbook certainty that it appeared as though he were reading all of this off of a note card in his mind — and maybe he was. His voice was tinged in sadness, perhaps because he wasn’t able to spend as much time with them as he’d wished he could. “Twelve-hour shifts and all,” he would say, looking down at the ground as though his shoes were suddenly very interesting, having been covered in pornography.
On the morning that I was to leave my life behind like an animal carcass and brazenly tour the Midwest with Texas’ biggest export, Alboozah awoke me from a starless, sexless daydream, and put a plastic-coated metal rod under my tongue to check for a change in temperature. My vessel had stayed steady throughout the night, and there was nothing this machine could report back to him that would keep me from my flight. When it was time to take my blood pressure, he and a flamboyant, rotund young man inspected the faceless computer that told them, quite bluntly, that my heart rate had shot up from moving from supine to a standing position. In fact, if I must be honest with you, at this point I had already missed my flight. A week before I contacted the airline and told them this was a very real possibility. “Alboozah is a son of a bitch when it comes to those systolic and diastolic numbers,” I said to the woman on the other end of the receiver. “But I won’t lie when I say that I love him.” She was stonewalling me, to be sure; she didn’t quite know how to reply. “Look,” she began, “I don’t know a raccoon’s ass from an armadillo’s face.” The sheer eloquence of her tone made me wish I could be sixteen all over again, if only for one night, and only if I could spend that night with her. She said something about “adequate seating” on “the flights you have listed” and that was enough for me, really. After prattling on about the anatomy of different animals for some time, I thanked her and snapped back to that precise moment a week later, when Alboozah, true to form, was eying the systolic and diastolic numerals that flashed on his wire-rimmed glasses like all of that NASDAQ bullshit that I’d never bother to learn. “It looks a little high,” he said in a trusting way, his eyes a little sad, as though he intended to convey to me through facial expression alone that my body had betrayed me and that he was very sorry about that. Of course I didn’t dare mention that I’d sneaked in some power squats and grapefruit gorging only a few hours prior. Still, I played along with the charade — there was a plane to catch, after all — occasionally glancing at the machine in bewilderment, twitching my eyebrows and rubbing out the lines on my forehead with my mouth slightly open, like a dazed father who comes home from work to find his son murdering the neighbors’ kids with a ride-on lawnmower.
If I had any chance of catching a stand-by flight from Baltimore to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it meant smooth-talking Alboozah. “I’ve got a flight to catch, is there any way you can manually take my pulse?” I hadn’t trusted that infernal machine since the day we’d met, all those years ago, and here it was knifing me in the back when I’d counted on it the most. If the machine displayed colorful little numbers that said I had a normal heart rate, I would be released from my employment and bound for Iowa. And so I put all of my money on the tips of Alboozah’s quaint little fingertips: we were doing this thing manually. He held the wrist of my left hand and watched the clock, counting aloud in a tiny voice. Meanwhile, I cleared my head of all of the sex and violence and thought about something that made me both calm and happy: I couldn’t think of anything, so I pictured a microfiber blanket and a cup of strawberry yogurt. I had to get that heart rate down very quickly if I wanted to make a timely departure from this place to that one. Jacob Capo, somewhere in Iowa, was purring like a kitten in a breadbasket, entranced in a dream tinged only in primary colors. He was, I’m sure, stretched out on his white-metal-frame day bed, perhaps chanting the same song over and over again in his mind:
“Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking goouurrrdddd.”
When Alboozah was satisfied with the thumping repetitions of my second-to-least-favorite-organ, he relieved me of my duties to medicinal science, and I was on my way. There was a small interval of time wherein I ate a lot of food in the span of few tens of seconds from the comfort of my suburban fortress, and then all at once I was pulled from my quiet life of retirement and thrown into the world of air travel like an unwanted scrambled egg hitting the kitchen wall. I waited patiently in the terminal, read thirty pages of this one novel I’d been reading, and put a tarp over the fire in my head. It was a searing fire that I hoped to get away from for a few days. Minus the whole time zone thing, it would be another six hours until I touched down in the state I have rated a C-. In front of me was a bickering couple that had only one thing in common, other than their union to one another: they were both fat. And I mean proud of it, too. They scarfed down Sbarro like they had no other choice. “What do you mean you forget to unplug the dryer?” the wife said in a voice that was both hushed and alarmingly rude at the same time, somehow. Her husband, a nice enough guy, I wagered — a man half the size of his wife, if you can imagine — was noticeably frightened to have forgotten to unplug the dryer, of all appliances. He swilled down half of a bottle of water and said in sad voice, “I’m really sorry.” Staring straight ahead, he might have wished, at that very moment, and at that very moment only, that he’d been born a gay man. She continued to go on and on about the dryer, the toaster — the electric toothbrush we share, god dammit — until, perhaps depleted of her energy reserves, she looked genuinely tired. In an effort to fuel this loathsome machine of hers, she ate an entire piece of pizza in one monstrous bite, like pushing a blue whale into an oversize wood chipper. It was almost sexual, the way she ate it. At that moment I wrote down this question: “Have you ever seen a fat person eat?” Was I asking myself? I wondered, and looked away from this creature in great haste, as though I was embarrassed to have asked myself that question in the first place — and even more than that, that I could solemnly affirm that I had.
My name was mispronounced over a loudspeaker hidden somewhere in the ceiling. “Linton. Ryan Linton.” The extra ‘n’ stabbed me in the throat, ran up my spine and into my brain, taking with it any dreams I might have had for the children I didn’t plan to ever create. I took my ticket and sat back down in my leather seat. When the plane started to board, I found myself one of the first people to be allowed on the plane, despite flying stand-by, and despite being what you might call a second- or third-class citizen aboard Airbus 567. As I stepped up to the roped-off entrance to the plane, the woman cleared her throat and, as if embarrassed to have to enforce such an asshole law, reminded me that stepping on the red carpet is for first-class and gold star preferred fliers only. Lord Jesus the Lamb, I thought, what in the hell is the difference? And anyway, I didn’t even want to step on the red carpet. I gladly moved five inches to the left and stood at the edge of the roped-off part of the entrance that was for real human beings, far from the regal dressings of what amounted to little else than a shitty red carpet that looked like it had once been the bedding to a jerk-off cow who had absolutely no manners to speak of. Upon hearing the words “first-class,” “elite,” “gold star,” and “preferred” on the loudspeaker, the human garbage bags of the world arose from their thrones and ascended to their thin, cockroach legs, gliding like intangible spirits to their natural habitat, which included generous leg room as well as an in-flight meal that probably had something to do with expensive grape alcohol and a dead calf. After the porcelain princes had been properly seated at the front of the plane, their iPhone ear buds firmly in place, loud conversations filling the cabin as if they wanted everyone to know “what I do for a living, god dammit“, I found myself in an exit row with an adequate amount of leg room, a window seat, and no other soul occupying my row. I flew stand-by, and got a better seat than the people who had actually paid for their tickets. Huh! Feeling guilty, I placed my bag in front of me and allowed my feet to feel cramped and stiff like the rest of the lot — my sky brothers.
The was a brief layover in Chicago. I ate a gala apple and swilled down a carton of low-fat milk, punctuating my sips with a dry-roasted peanut or two. Again I managed to snag a nice seat on the next flight — the last seat available. The previous occupant might have died, said the woman behind the counter. Her hair was coarse, round and raccoon-like, making this the second time I’ve said anything about raccoons in this essay. Her eyes had a kind of hateful gleam to them, and I offered her a dry-roasted peanut. After all, I said, it looks like you’re having a shitty day. She rubbed the side of her head with a pen she kept between her ear, and I half-expected her Davy-Crockett-hat-like-hair to fall to the ground and scurry away. “Finally!!!” it would scream in a frenzy as homeland security pumped it full of shotgun blasts to the witness of small children and the elderly. Instead, she snorted and twisted her witchy nose as though she was picturing my genitals on display in her china cabinet, and told me in a warm but strict way that I should get on the plane as soon as possible. “Litton”, she said with such gusto that I suddenly respected her with every ounce of me (she had, after all, pronounced my last name correctly), “get on the plane before they leave you in Chicago.”
ON BOARD THE PLANE: My neighbor was a sleepy Asian girl who had (and I don’t know how else to phrase this) plastic grapes glued to her flip flops, which obscured her small Asian toes in a bevy of green balls. She snored and slumped over onto my shoulder a few times, but having spent an entire day reading a novel on a Japanese train on a weekday during morning rush hour, I wasn’t at all stirred by her rock-hard skull constantly clattering to a halt on the shoulders that my father had given me. I felt like talking about her footwear, at some point, but the situation never arose where I felt it would be appropriate to talk about why she had plastic fruit on her feet. Sometimes, still half-asleep, she’d glance over and, with squinting eyes and a scrunched up nose, as though she were about to sneeze on my face, would try to make out the title of the book I was reading, but I never paid her any mind otherwise. Not even when she was snorting and violently kicking the seat in front of her like a crazed donkey did I say anything to her. She was sleeping, anyhow; probably dreaming about kicking her ex-boyfriends ass with those grape shoes. Sometimes she would chirp, and I would pretend to find something interesting on the wing of the plane. “Look at that wing,” I said in a tiny voice. “What a wing if I’ve ever seen one.”
• • •
Part One: Was Dead Before, Am Alive In Iowa (C-)
We touched down in Cedar Rapids, Iowa approximately twenty minutes later. The captain sounded overly-confident on the loudspeaker. I say this because, upon landing, I felt as though the wheels were going to snap in half like Q-tips, and the flaming shell of what was once a fifty-five-seater plane would rocket down the runway before torching an entire summer’s worth of corn in the adjacent farmlands; we touched down that hard. Just before the rubber hit the pavement, it sounded like a nervous flash graced the pilot’s tone for half of a second, his voice snaking upward a bit, almost like “Oh, shit!” In the rows in front of me, I heard several children belt out, “Yipppeeeeeee!” as the adults braced for what may very well have been instantaneous death. No kidding, I asked myself: “Is my death worth this?” I played it cool for the peculiar number of fifty-something-year-old women seated nearby who were all polishing off hardback John Grisham novels. They were each seated next to angst-dripped teenage daughters who appeared as though they’d woken up in Kurt Cobain’s laundry basket (I mean, if he ever even had one; I don’t know how well this joke works). When it looked like we weren’t going to die after all, I played it down real smooth-like, as if to advertise, “Yeah, I didn’t care if we were going to die anyway.” The Kurt Cobain Girls seemed to understand this, seemed to genuinely believe this, too.
The airport ended up being very small. I judge the size of an airport by the size of their bathrooms, in which case this place had a grand total of two stalls and a single urinal. An old man combed his hair in front of the sink, and twisted his nose to one side as if to signal his disapproval of me wearing a backpack at a urinal. I wanted to tell him that I’d almost died, and that I felt more comfortable carrying my bag on me than letting it rest on a very dirty floor, but I didn’t. I urinated for a good long wall, pack snugly on my back. After that, it was just a quick sweep around the main entrance and right past security. They had a single line for boarding passengers to pass through, and numerous unmanned entrances into the terminal. At first I considered, for research purposes only, how easy it would be to get in to any part of this airport. I soon became frightened: Can they hear what I’m thinking? I mean, no kidding: for a moment I was honestly shaken to the bone with fear when considering the kind of mind-reading technology they were keeping in tow at airports nowadays. And anyway, I dispelled this thought when I remembered that in order to illegally board any plane in the Iowa Airport, all one had to do was walk behind a trashcan next to the bathroom.
From the air, Iowa had been a green place. When I first breathed in that Iowan air, it tasted like green air: crunchy, smokey, brisk. It was fresh, to be sure, and I thought to myself, This is the air that real people breathe. I had, I surmised, been an artificial person until that very moment; or, I was simply a false person breathing in the air that real people had created. Either way, there I was, breathing. I sat on the pavement and watched a schizophrenic man smoke fifteen cigarettes in the span of maybe ten minutes. He let each burn for no more than thirty of forty seconds and extinguished each under his expensive-looking shoes. He paced around, uttering some the most grotesque vulgarities I’d ever heard into his cell phone; I felt sorry for the life on the other end. It was probably a woman, I thought. Sure enough, a very sad young woman pulled up and collected this sketchy motherfucker some time later. He made her wait — and I’m not even kidding here, I promise — for him to finish smoking two cigarettes before entering the car. When he finally felt confident enough to continue ruining this probably-well-meaning human being’s life, he opened the door, screamed at her for being late, and slammed the door shut. Once inside, he lit yet another cigarette and rested a fat, sweaty log of a foot on the dash. She held her face in her hands, and for a moment I thought she was crying. This quickly became irrelevant to me as something dark and powerful and stormy became erect on the horizon. In the distance I could make out the burned-out silhouette of maybe God, or at least someone who was good friends with God. It ended up being neither. It ended up being Jacob Capo.
Unwashed, unshaven, flipping and flopping down the sidewalk in his stalwart garb, Jacob approached me with a brisk coolness that had Steve McQueen’s corpse blushing underground somewhere far away. Eyes hidden behind smoky aviator lenses, he controlled the orbit of everything around him. His languid arms were deep-fried brown, hanging at his side like thick, elegant tools. On his rugged face was an expression of indeterminate origin. He could have just put out a fire at a local orphanage, or had finished up stabbing a postal worker with the corkscrew tool on a Swiss Army knife. For all I knew, he was doing long division superimposed over a static, black and white image of violent pornography. To me he said this: “You’re freaking me out, Ryan. I thought you’d be taller.” I said what I always say to this: something like, “I guess not.” We meandered through the parking lot and said floaty things to one another, and I wondered if my dryer was still plugged in.
Iowa went from green to gray, then back to green, and at some point it smelled like burning oats. Eventually it settled on “multicolored suburban neighborhood” and I didn’t feel all that estranged from the world, for a time. We pulled into the driveway; I shook his mother’s hand while she read a thick paperback novel; I looked at all of the books on the bookshelves downstairs: hymnals, a guide for Windows 95, encyclopedias that looked older than the Constitution. On the wall was a poster of some sort whose main attraction was, of all things, a devilishly-grinned monkey wearing hiked up clown pants and a big bow tie for a hat, holding an enormous snubbed cigarette butt like a floppy sex toy. He looked like a huge jerk, as far as monkeys go.
There was a trip to Walmart and a frank discussion on cart-pushing. “It’s as much of a science as it is an art.” There was the critique of human beings, and the sticky malaise of Small Town, Somewhere. Reverend Capo showed me the bed I’d be sleeping in, and shook my hand in such a way that, from then on, I would trust anything that came out of his mouth. He had a wily beard and thick glasses, behind which were small, squinting eyes that might have belonged to a wizard, once. His voice was one that I imagined never rose above the volume of polite conversation. He opened a box with a knife that I pictured one might skin an ox with. Around one in the ay-em, there was a pot of hearty grits. We shoveled it into our mouths like trash compactors, and let the warm stuff slide down our throats like Drano. In the morning, there would be twenty hours of highway, truck stops and damning evangelical billboards selling hellfire like it was a tourist spot. I collapsed on a squeaky bed and had terrifying nightmares segmented into small episodes. I awoke several times to one thought: I am in Iowa, and I give it a C minus.
• • •
Part Two: Missouri (F) Doesn’t Necessary Love Company
I awoke at dawn. I lay in that squeaky wooden bed for two hours and tried not to move too much. After all, I was afraid that the squealing frame and mesh mattress’ combined decibel levels might shatter every window in the Capo household, so I stewed for a bit, and lived out little memories in my head. Do not misread me: that was a hell of a bed. I slept like a baby in the thick of it, which is to say I felt birthed anew that morning. I gave partial credit to the grits I’d eaten the night before. The texture, of course, was a troublesome thing that I feared; it is something I have always struggled with in my lifelong relationship with grits. Jacob had done something to those grits, though — something that bordered on what I can only assume involved the black arts. The texture in his grits had been nondescript, almost undetectable; in its place I found only culinary ecstasy. And there I was, stretched flat out like a pancake at the bottom of the short stack, thinking about those grits and the nightmares I’d had and of Texas and Kansas and all of those places. The day before had been one of splotchy, syrupy raindrops falling from the sky like cake batter, but from the small framed window above the place that I slept, this new day appeared to have settled on passive deafness. There wasn’t a sound that I could detect, nor a drop of water from any direction that included up.
At some point I wandered away from this nest I’d made for myself and joined Jacob and the good Reverend in their tireless work of loading the car full of boxes. We’d strapped a plastic clam shell container to the roof of the car the night before, but it was now that we filled it to the brim with Christmas presents and plastic bags filled with corduroy pants. I carried a blue cooler — and this is important — out to the car and placed it on the floor of the back seat; it was filled to the brim with Colorado peaches and Iowa’s finest sweet corn. Our objective, above all — even more important than returning Jacob to his institution of higher education — was to deliver the contents of that cooler to the proud mother and father of Reverend Capo. These were two human beings that I would meet later on in my furlough. One of them offered me a diet root beer from the garage refrigerator. The other was having a big birthday bash that week. He received a pair of track pants for his eightieth-something-birthday. He also ate a lot of gumbo. He would go on, I assume, to eat those Colorado peaches and that Iowa sweet corn; we can presume that he shared some with his wife.
When we’d filled our ark with all that she could shoulder, we set off, the three of us: Jacob Capo, the outdated GPS unit named Mio, and I. Mio was a son of a bitch that wanted us dead, but that subplot doesn’t really kick in until Kansas. Jacob outfitted himself with aviator sunglasses and said something so testicle-shatteringly bad-ass that I completely forgot what it was. The cloud obscured the sun and its rays for some time, kept them at bay, and so we set out under the crushing grayness of that morning. After stopping off for milk-infused coffee at “that Starbucks where all of the Juggalos work at”, our tires rolled on Interstate 35 for many hours, unflinching, still, locked on to the asphalt and cordoned by white traffic paint. We blazed the trail for hundreds of miles, diligently obeying the words of our master, the curt and fascistic Mio.
At some point, after mile upon mile of black tar and green tree, we entered Missouri. Jacob pipes up at the border: “The Show-Me State.”
Missouri looks like this: ______[ YOU’RE GOING TO HELL ~~ Jesus Saves]______
Being in Missouri feels like this: “. . . . . . .”
Eating in Missouri tastes like this: :-(
We shared a “meal” at Ma and Pa’s Country Cafe. This was a place famous for its “25 cent coffee”. Ma and Pa, whoever these assholes were (if they ever even existed at all), had made a name for themselves by filtering water through ground-up brown beans. And they only charged two dimes and nickel for a cup of this stuff. We passed on this famous coffee for food so utterly bland that I swear I saw a few truckers offended with their meals. I concluded this conversion of “food” (???) into “energy” (???) with a rousing restroom visit. There was an old man equipped with an enormous walker headed in the direction of urination as well, and his bones cracked and gave themselves to dust as he crept along like a disheveled slug tangled up in fishing wire. This man was a relic of the past, a real dinosaur. He looked like a benign Bond villain piloting a malfunctioning spacesuit, but in more ways than not I respected him. He’d gotten out of bed and left the house for this place. No kidding: it took him upwards of fifteen minutes to finally reach the stall. Going to the bathroom, then, was a thirty-five-minute affair at least.
Jacob injected himself in the stomach with insulin, and we drove by a barnyard yokel with red hair steering a ride-on lawnmower around a major road next to the highway. We stopped for gas a mile down the around, and were met with snarling fangs from a local biker gang composed of Vietnam vets and fat people. We paid our respects by not making eye contact with any of them, and drove in the direction of Kansas. Missouri, you swindling son of a bitch, I thought. You get an F, and I don’t even care. P. S. Why was that chubby red-headed kid driving a tractor at full-speed next to the highway?
• • •
Part Three: Electric Clover Field, Tornado Countdown; or, The Kansas (B-) Cauldron
There were rolling green hills and the outstretched roads trailed off endlessly like an infinite Fruit Roll-Up. There, the land met the mournful sky and became faded and smeared and indistinguishable. I’d never known that the space above the earth could appear so vast. The clouds grazed in that big open place and didn’t pay us any mind. This was a place where tornadoes roamed the fields like the ghosts of giant creatures. The gas stations were clean and inviting. I bought some peanuts and a banana.
• • •
Part Four: Oklahomeostasis (C) and the Homes of Oil Barons
Mio had tried to kill us in Kansas, but we survived — tried to send us to far away places that weren’t at all where we wanted to go. “Turn left in 255 yards,” he’d said. The sign read: “Cattle Ranch”. We ignored him and made it to Oklahama, which didn’t look too terribly different from Kansas.
Some truck drivers were taking showers at a Love’s gas station when we stopped off to urinate for fifteen minutes straight. The sun drifted off behind the flatlands and left us with a swollen orange sky; we drove through the haze until the color bled itself from the clouds and gave way to a sullen black void. In this void something happened: it started raining. It rained so much and so hard that I felt as though we were driving under the ocean. The plastic clamshell storage box on the roof of the car had produced a fault in its creation: the straps that kept it from flying off of the roof and slamming into the windshield of some poor soul had weakened the weatherstripping on the windows. In order to properly secure these straps, the windows had to be rolled down, and here is where The Problem began: the straps blocked the rubber from doing its job. The rubber’s only job was this: keep the rain out. The rubber wasn’t doing it’s job, so here’s what happened: the rain came pouring in. It splashed through the windows in constant intervals, never ceasing once, and all we could do was laugh like psychopaths. In front of us skilled or perhaps suicidal truck drovers deftly swerved in and out of their lanes like enormous armored snakes. This caused the rain on the highway to splash onto the windshield of the car. You might have been a B before, but because I may very well die here, you’re a C. You’re average. Oklahoma shrugged and produced harder, fatter rain. “Fuck you,” it seemed to say.
“Watch,” said Jacob with an invariable coolness to his voice. “This shit is going to clear up on the Texas border.”
• • •
Part Five: The Forlorn Remembrance of Forgotten Things: A Diary of Texas (A)
The rain immediately ceased as we drove by a welcome sign; it felt like stepping out of the shower. The falling water seemed to be kept at bay by a five-letter word scrawled on this sign: TEXAS.
I knew it immediately: I need to die in this state.
Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about Texas? I wondered. What in God’s name had kept me from this place?
Everything felt big and warm and eternal, like it’d always been there — a giant slumbering in the center of the earth. We drove through a slew of cities and townships and everything in between, saw Dallas lit up in neon green. When the wheels of our chariot were finally reunited with the Houston asphalt, the road stretched itself between eight mighty lanes, and the exhaust belched fire into the mist of that murky morning air. We arrived at Jacob’s brother’s apartment complex around five, and the tires squealed to a halt and exhaled a mighty gust before murmuring dirty words and drifting off to sleep. It had been twenty hours. We stepped out the car, and were instantly covered in sweat. Jacob laughed and uttered a sentence that contained both “100%” and “humidity”. I felt like deflating and sleeping in the parking lot, too, but settled for a white IKEA couch in a Dr. Seussian living room. It felt strange, then, to go to sleep in a place that already felt like being asleep. But I did just that. When I shut my eyes, they would not open for another eight hours. I felt neither uncomfortable nor sore. Something miraculous had happened to my body, and I thanked Texas for its medicinal air before sliding off of the mountain and resting under the snow. It was one of those sleeps where only a second of consciousness appears to be lost: black and blue, dreamless. My head hit the pillow, and when I rose again, the sky had become a different creature, and the place I was in looked sunken and gloomy with the addition of the noontime sun and dark curtains that filtered its light. The light that came out of the other end of the curtain was smokey and swirling and unnatural, almost. In the thicket of this sullen cavern was I. And I wanted some Taco Cabana.
We stopped off at a Valero gas station and I bought a really big banana; I was afraid, at first, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. It felt like brandishing a revolver. Once I sunk my chompers into this fiend, I was sure I could handle the sheer girth of the thing. My body sunk and expanded and sweltered in the brute humidity of that afternoon, and I tried to think back to a time when I’d ever seen the sun so bright. There were no available memories I could pull from the archives, so I concluded that the sun had been brightest it had ever been on that day, at least to me.
Jacob said something about delivering the peaches and the sweet corn to their rightful owners, and so we went on in the direction of these people until we pulled up in their driveway. This was the home of the Capo Grandparents. I recalled my many encounters with the enigmatic family of human beings we refer to as “Old People”, and having properly safeguarded myself against any surprise attacks, I gulped a mighty gulp and prayed for the best. How does one admit to a member of this insidious cult that a relationship with their grandson had been cultivated from thousands of miles away by the means of computers? I buried the thought, and we knocked on the door. Old People, I remembered then, always have small dogs. And, if both parties of this union are still amongst the living, they always answer the door together.
Some dogs barked, and the door swung open like the entrance to an Arabian fortress. There stood a grandfather and a grandmother.
We unloaded our vessel and, bags and boxes in hand, took part in the ancient ritual of “leaving all of your shit in grandma’s garage”. She was happy to comply with this age-old formality, and offered us bottled diet root beers. I’m not so much for soda (or as they say in Iowa, “pop”), these days, but I wasn’t about to turn down a bottled beverage from an upbeat elderly woman who had been sweet enough to not scornfully inquire, “So you say you met Jacob on the internet?” Plus, I’m pretty sure it was 115 degrees. Our acceptance of the beverages, too, was more or less in line with the ceremony of “visiting your grandmother.” For whatever reason — maybe it’s the fifty-or-so-year age difference — grandchildren are lawfully required to only receive things from their grandmothers, while showing the minimum amount of gratitude in the process. Grandmothers, on the other hand, are all-giving creatures of sugar-coated generosity: a check in the mail, an unconditional, nonjudgmental hug at every major holiday, the conveyor-belt-offering of hard candy.
Grandfathers are different beasts altogether. They like the way things are, and that includes not having you in their house at any given time. They snort and read the paper and make frighteningly closed-minded statements about generally everyone and everything. When the news comes on, they’ll point their hammy arms at the screen and feel completely justified about having slandered any given racial group in the past seventy years. At some point they might even point to a picture of themselves in full navy garb hanging over the fireplace and tell you about “the greatest generation that ever lived” (referring to their own) and then they might just call you a dickless shithead or something, and insist that you’re probably only attracted to Hispanic girls. There might be a tinge of sadness in their voice, as though Death Himself is expelling stale breath on the back of their necks. And then you go home and hope that Thanksgiving never happens again. But it will.
Anyway, Jacob’s grandfather wasn’t like this at all. He was an all right man, I thought. This guy really knew how to unwind. And really, all the man wanted to do was crack open that cooler we’d diligently hauled from Iowa and gorge on Colorado peaches and Iowa sweet corn. Who knew that Colorado had peaches, I thought. “They’re your grandfather’s favorite,” I might have heard Reverend Capo say to Jacob at some point. “Oh boy,” Jacob’s grandfather might have said in a thick Cajun accent upon opening that cooler.
And so we left. There was the matter of Taco Cabana to address. I wanted to eat as much cheap Mexican food as I could. This ended up being a lot of food.
I had a burrito with stale chips. “Those things are always stale,” Jacob informed me. A real Taco Cabana expert, that guy. Or perhaps he’s just from Texas.
When that wasn’t enough, I finished off a big plate of whatever Jacob couldn’t finish: Mexican rice, lettuce, tomatoes, and a slopping mass of brown something (I think they were refried beans). I’d been living off of peanuts and fruit and some shit-ass meal from Ma and Pa’s Country Cafe in Missouri, so I was happy to eat anything, really, even if it was from a fast food restaurant that most Texans just shrugged off when I asked them if they thought the food was decent.
Later, we met up with Nick Pacifico. According to someone who knows him, he has to “dress like a douchebag” for his job. Personally, I thought he looked downright dapper, but people are always going to have their say, I guess. I will say one thing, though. Nick: Look, you live in Texas. It’s humid. I get that. Maybe you’ve got your reasons, I don’t know. All I’m saying is, if you’re going to wear a button-down shirt, at least throw down the three bucks for a white undershirt. When we accompanied you on your lunch break to Whataburger, man, I could see your chest hair. If this is the look you’re going for, I understand. But when the regional manager starts poking his dick around your store, I mean, I don’t want to be the one to have to say “I told you so,” but that guy is going to flip shit over that chest hair. (Thanks for letting us sleep at your house for two days, Nick.)
Anyway, so I bought a pair of socks from him (they were on sale and it was a tax-free shopping weekend) and he promised to track us down once relieved of his slave labor.
We then met some more people.
They had names.
Their names went something like this: Chantal, Harrison, John, Sydney.
Each of them are radiant gems that shimmer before each coming night; they are tethered to my heart like little parachutes. Not one of them had chest hair even remotely comparable to Nick Pacifico’s.
THE CAST OF CLEAR LAKE, TEXAS
Nick: calm under pressure; pleasantly odored; sharp; multi-talented; charming; upbeat; melodious “phone voice”; lets sleeping dogs lie; scented candle aficionado; collected.
Chantal: born on punk rock island; estranged to the tyranny of socks; genuine; amiable; unconventional; stealthily wistful; variegated; perceptive; fathomless.
Harrison: a son of a bitch you can’t help but love; Teddy Ruxpin-esque; encyclopedic; wonderfully irrelevant; a fine man to cuddle; a sensual man to hug; direct; tumultuous; endearing; surprisingly nimble; pacified.
John: moored; gentle; a “Culinary Jesus”; untapped strength; probably wears flip-flops when it snows.
Sydney: prefers Cici’s shitty pizza over Hans Mongolian BBQ; animated; genial; an indecisive driver; in perfect alignment with “how I feel about other human beings”; self-effacing; offbeat.
• • •
We drove around in a small town and did small town things. It made me strangely nostalgic for something that I had no memory of. There was a two- or three-hour block of time when all Jacob, Chantal and I did was forage for cheap belts in thrift stores. We played with old electronics and thought of creative places to put every porcelain figurine of a Mexican angel playing a harp that we stumbled upon. Our shopping concluded with an apocalyptic sunset that smeared the clouds like glowing embers of charcoal.
Nick swooped in at some point, freed of that loathsome machine that he’d been feeding his time to, and offered us dusty motherfuckers a place to hang our hats for the night. It was a stealth affair. Still wary of having to say aloud, “Yes, that’s right, I met Jacob on the internet,” I wanted to avoid contact with any persons that might strike up such an inquiry. The only group of people who could ever possibly care about such a thing were a peculiar subculture of human beings called “Parents”. Thankfully Nick’s father was not stirred by our brambly midnight entrance, and we padded up the stairs on a carpet so deceptively supple that I imagined his father skinning thousands of purebred Chow Chow puppies in order to achieve such a godly texture. My feet, at this point, had been confined to the cages of my shoes for days and days, so to plant my stalks on this regal upholstery made my heart flutter and glimmer with the faint traces of a female orgasm.
I was to sleep in the guest room. Let me tell you about this room: the sterility and quaint neatness of the place made me feel like I was staying in a hotel. I shut the closet door tight because I was afraid there might be monsters hiding in there. I sat on the end of the bed and neatly withdrew myself from the cotton husks I’d been wearing around all day in the Texas sun. I folded my jeans into a tidy square and on its head I placed a snug roll of socks. Next to this sculpture of clothing I lined my Adidas Sambas up in uniform length. Once satisfied with the obscene work of obsessive compulsiveness I’d created, I slipped into a pair of red-and-black checkered “old man pants” and read from this novel that I’d be gulping away at since I first sat down in the airport in Baltimore. When it was time, I threw a bookmark at the edge of a gripping chapter and placed the book back into my bag, my feet squealing like delighted piglets at another chance to walk on that carpet.
The bed itself was an erotic one. Mr. Pacifico, I thought, really knows a thing or two about comfortable materials. First of all, that mattress must have fallen out of a UFO or something, because that thing was not of this world. My body sunk into the otherworldly layers of foam sex like a timid spoon in a cup of cottage cheese. My head, too, was alive and sparking with gluttonous felicity. These pillows, I thought, must have been plucked from the Bosom of Abraham. I could think of nothing else to do but sleep — but alas, this meant abandoning the physical realm, and with it the ecstasy of this paranormal sleeping apparatus. Before I could muster another thought on the matter, something pulled me in to a black space and hugged me tight for hour upon militant hour. In this dream was a warm silence that I had not felt in maybe a decade or more. I tried to speak but could not. Hush, little one, said a gentle voice from beyond the cool darkness of the glade. You’re in Texas now, motherfucker.
• • •
The morning flipped me over like a pancake, and I awoke instantly; I sat up fully recharged. Downstairs I could hear the sound of men playing guitars. A buoyant man with a cheerful yip to him said something about chord progressions and punctuated the otherwise still air with hearty chuckles. Our escape would not be easy, I thought. Now, you have to know that at this point in time, I’d never seen Nick’s father. I would end up meeting him the next day, but that morning I had a mental picture of him that turned out to be completely false. The image was this: shoulder-length blond hair and a Hulk Hogan mustache. I have absolutely no idea why I thought this. There was, as far as I can recall, no definitive evidence for any of these thoughts. Maybe it was just an aura that I felt, in which case my extrasensory perception failed me on all accounts. With this Hulk Hogan mentality, I felt as though we would be better off not crossing paths with this man. After all, Nick had presumably left for work that morning; all that was left were the deadbeat scraps that his son referred to as his friends. I read a novel and cherished my time with that mattress, determined to find a hole in Mr. Pacifico’s Saturday morning routine. That guy had to duck out sometime, I thought.
At 12:15, a breakthrough: I’d been listening intently for stark silence, and that moment came when the microwave buzzer went off, signifying that the food was ready. In my years of experience with microwaves, I knew this: a single beep ring out every minute to remind you to take the food out. I heard the initial beep when the microwave shut down, but then, in the thick fog of that Saturday afternoon, I heard yet another beep. And another one. Mr. Pacifico is not in the vicinity of the microwave. He had not yet returned from some far off place to retrieve his lunch. As soon as I pieced this together, I was on my feet, by which I mean I was sinking my toes into that wonderful fabric that iced the floors like sweet, sweet marmalade. I hustled over to Nick’s room and awoke the sleeping giant. Jacob roared to life. I brought him up to speed on my findings, and we quickly gathered our belongings and made a dash for the finish line. Once we’d hit the kitchen, there wasn’t a soul in sight. The front door was an eternity away, but we made it. It swung open, and we fell into it all. The thick air and the malevolent breeze sucked every fluid from our bodies and spit us out on the surface of the sun. We changed into fresh t-shirts and applied deodorant and complained about the bright light in the sky.
Later that night, after exploring Clear Lake on vapor and fumes, we visited an elementary school and played with construction equipment for a very brief amount of time; no one died. The men I was with discussed things I had no knowledge of, as I hadn’t been granted the esteemed privilege of having grown up in Texas. I sort of got mad at my parents for a little while. I felt embarrassed to be from Virginia. Why Virginia? Man, that place, I thought. What on earth had kept them from copulating in the lone star state? I mean, my dad had lived in Texas before. He knew how bad-ass was. He’d been to Taco Cabana. Maybe it was the stale tortillas that sent him packing. But why Virginia, of all places? Sure, I was thankful that they hadn’t moved to Missouri. But then I stopped and accepted that this had all been fantasy; this wasn’t what it was like all the time. I would go home to Baltimore, just north of my home in Virginia, and that would be that. We’re all living boring lives, but damn! That illusion is something to hold on to. I will seek it out until the day I die.
And then we stole a rubber mallet and felt like that was a pretty cool thing to do.
There was another night in the Pacifico household. I met Nick’s dad, and he didn’t at all look like Hulk Hogan. I sighed in relief. I’d been under the impression that he was was going to stomp my skull in, dressed in a red-and-yellow spandex suit that he’d rip apart with arms as thick as septic tanks. He ended up just saying hello to me and asking where I was from. I went upstairs (God, that carpet) and took a thirty-minute shower. It’d been a while, hadn’t it? I thought. I was neither grimy nor black with grit. I was simply tired.
After repeating my nighttime ritual of neatly stacking my clothes at the end of the bed like library books, I read a few more chapters from a novel and again sank into that place somewhere in between here and there. I had a dream about faces in varying shades of light. It wasn’t at all discomforting. I felt like I was in between two different planes, or maybe dead. This didn’t really bother me. It’s a nice thing — to be retired — I thought.
In the morning, Jacob informed me that he had to go to his grandfather’s birthday party. That Old People still had birthday parties, I had no idea. Maybe I just came from a different place. Maybe my family was different. I mourned birthdays, as far as that was concerned. That anyone over fifty would want to be reminded that another notch had been carved into their belt, I couldn’t comprehend. God damn that’s depressing as hell, I thought, and severed any blood flow to such ideas.
I picked a place I wanted to be instead of milling around uncomfortably at a birthday party for an elderly man who had known me for all of six minutes: I wanted to go to Fry’s.
And even more than that, I wanted to go to the space-themed Fry’s.
Fry’s, for the uninformed, is a large electronics store that the other side of the country has been enjoying the hell out of for some time now. Fry’s does not like the east coast, I guess. This Fry’s in particular was, as I have said, space-themed, which is objectively the coolest theme anything can ever be. Space, as you may or may not be aware of, is my favorite anything. My second-favorite anything is the deep, dark ocean. Both are similar, I guess, which is why I like them so much.
Anyway, so this place had a black ceiling with plastic satellites and shuttles and solar panels hanging from that infinite void of up. The whole place felt like an amusement park where no one ever fell out of any of the rides. There wasn’t a snow cone machine in sight. I felt at home immediately. The black walls stretched out on either side for what seemed like miles. There were aisles and aisles of electronics and movies and videogames. There was even an aisle for books. In the center of this grand hall was an enormous capsule that housed what appeared to be a startlingly ritzy cafe that was just a little overpriced. I ended up eating a very large sandwich in that capsule. I swilled down a diet Snapple, too. But that hadn’t happened yet. That wouldn’t happen for another two hours. In total, I spent maybe four hours in this place altogether.
And I did fuckin’ everything.
I read three short books (including Steve Harvey’s “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment” (it wasn’t very good)); browsed their cheap videogames; bought Dragon Quest V (for very little money); read the full descriptions on everything I picked up; adjusted the mass of hair on the back of my head in the pleasantly well-kept restroom twice; saw a dude with no arms; saw a dude in a wheelchair with no arms and only hands; took business calls in the fax machine aisle; tested the cooling capabilities of the refrigerators (which were plugged in!); paid six-fifty for a massive sandwich and a diet Snapple (I’m cutting down on sugar, okay); had my massive sandwich and diet Snapple delivered to me while I sat at an expensive-looking marble table in the middle of mock-space-capsule; talked to my mom about how bad-ass Texas is (she agreed); talked to my dad about how bad-ass Texas is (he told me to be wary of drug-peddling desperadoes (seriously)); “listened” to some kids “play” Willie Nelson songs in Guitar Hero.
Finally, at the end of my long journey, I concluded the day by reclining in a leather sofa and watched David Gilmour fuck up a bunch of Pink Floyd songs in a live concert that happened at some point in time. Nick Pacifico, the resilient, lovable lamb that he is, called me and offered to pick me up from Fry’s. I was reluctant to ever leave this place, but I accepted his cordial invitation. Outside, he and Sydney waited for me in a red Ford Focus named “Rosie”. I sat in the car and was unable to buckle my seatbelt. Sydney jerked the wheel and I did my very best to not look ridiculous / die as I flailed around in the back seat like a chicken tied to a ceiling fan.
We were on our way to see “(500) Days of Summer” (D).
The movie opens with this line: “This is a story of boy meets girl.”
It goes on to try to break down “romantic-comedy” cliches, but I found the movie neither romantic nor funny. At every turn, the script is eager to force-feed you not-so-subtle references to The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, Pixies, and Oscar Wilde. We get it.
“YOU LIKE THE SMITHS?”
(Instantly falls in love with otherwise uninteresting girl.)
Here is a bitesize review by Nick Pacifico, used without permission from Nick Pacifico.
(500) Days of Summer: a review by Nick Pacifico
“LISTEN 8-YEAR-OLD SISTER, I GOT PROBLEMS, AND IT’S REALLY CUTE HOW MUCH YOU KNOW ABOUT LIFE GIVEN YOUR YOUNG AGE.
WHAT? YOU’RE A TIRED GIMMICK LEFT OVER FROM A BUNCH OF MOVIES THAT HAVE COME BEFORE THIS ONE? WEIRD
ANYWAY THOUGH, SUMMER IS REALLY QUIRKY AND SENSITIVE. HER FAVORITE BEATLE IS RINGO, DID YOU NOTICE? I’M ALSO QUIRKY AND SENSITIVE, SO I THINK WE’D MAKE A REALLY GOOD COUPLE. AND IF WE HAPPEN TO APPEAL BROADLY TO THE FANTASIES OF EVERY QUIRKY AND SENSITIVE INDIE KID, WELL THEN THAT’S JUST BONUS POINTS HUH? HOLD ON, MY BOSS IS MAD AT ME BECAUSE I WORK IN AN OFFICE BUT I DRESS LIKE A GUY FROM GRIZZLY BEAR”
The night ended, and the lights went down, and I spent another eight hours of dreamless sleep in the Dr. Seussian living room of Jacob’s brother. I slept like a day-old kitten, eyes closed tight, gurgling milk and having no memory to glean the building blocks of dreams from. It was a happy, empty sleep.
• • •
Final Chapter: A Place Where Things Happen: Merge to Austin, Texas (A+)
I have been quite a few major cities on my coast. I’ve seen them, and I’ve even liked a few. Here is how I feel about some of them:
New York City: D
Washington, D.C.: B
Austin, Texas is maybe the first A+ I have ever given a city. As I have not yet toured every city on the planet, I can’t say for sure that it is the best city. When I write another meandering essay in my 80s, I’ll let you know then. For now, it’s pretty damn nice, as far as cities go.
To get to Austin, we had to stop off in San Marcos. This is where Jacob goes to school. I won’t bore you any more than I have already, so all you need to know is that we painfully evolved Jacob’s bed from four posts and mattress to four very tall posts and mattress. We did this so that his desk could go under it. It was a nice enough loft. His roommate ate powdered doughnuts and watched “Malcolm in the Middle”. He’d slap his hands together to try to remove the powder from his fingertips before clacking away at the keys on his new laptop. At some point, we had sandwiches. At another, Jacob took a long shower while the internet reminded me that I still had a life in some other place; I had completely forgotten. He got out of the shower. I got away from the computer. We shrugged. We drove to Austin.
Carved out of brass and garnished with tin cups and wreaths of aluminum foil, Austin is the epicenter of the universe. Forget the sun. The planets, as far as I was concerned, were revolving around this place.
There were three co-ops we sampled, each less conservative than the first. Each a little wilder, more interesting. At the top of this totem was a place called Halstead. It had lime green walls and purple laundry rooms. The building itself was a gigantic square with the middle dug out, creating a sort of modern day castle. I could not find a moat or a drawbridge; instead its base was lined with a parking garage. From the top floor looking down, the well-lit hallways and stairwells gave off the image of some sort of Mexican fortress, if Mexican fortresses were lime green and populated with couches that I’m sure were found somewhere. To stare down at the carved out doughnut hole was a thing of beauty. Below little people scurried about under the open sky, and it sort of felt like being inside and outside at the exact same time. This place must have been expensive as hell to board in. It would have been worth it, then, I later found out, because each person got their own bathroom. I heard a lot of people talking about how nice those bathrooms were. It’s probably the most important room in the house, I wager, so a good bathroom is nothing to shake your head at.
Jacob and I were unwittingly roped in to a “meet and greet” in the dining area. We had to say our name, where we came from, and what superpower we’d have, if the choice were up to us (and when is it ever?). This is one of those quirky questions that “student leaders” like to tack on the end of these bullshit parades in order to get you to let you guard down, so that you’ll think, “Oh! They get me. They’re young.” It fools almost no one, I would hope. Still, most everyone seemed to have a school-oriented utilitarian purpose to their desired superpower. “I want the ability to control time . . . so that I can catch up on my sleep in between classes!!” “I want super speed . . . so that I’m never late for biochem!!” And so on.
I want the ability to control time . . . so that I never have to watch every human being I love and care about give themselves to the icy grip of Death, and sink into the black void of some wicked place beyond the grid of human comprehension!! I wanted to say.
Instead, I simply told them that I did not believe in superpowers.
Jacob said something awesome: “I guess I would want the ability to, like . . . punch a guy so hard that he dies.”
It had been the only superpower mentioned whose sole purpose was to murder people. There were some scattered laughs here and there, but none of them were sincere, and all of them were timid and meek. On the other hand, I was attempting desperately to keep from laughing.
When we heard someone say “break up into groups”, we hurried to the elevator and flopped back onto the streets of Austin. The air was like straw. Onward to Pearl Street.
This was a lukewarm place — the middle sibling. There was no talk of superpowers, no awkward greetings. At the same time, they weren’t doing shots chicken blood, either. The whole place looked like a converted 1973 Las Vegas hotel. Chantal met us near the entrance. It was here that we met a charming young man named Sean, a friend of Jacob and Chantal. He looked like he should be living on a beach somewhere, running a pizza place on the boardwalk during the touristy seasons. When we walked inside, there was shirtless man in camouflage pants screaming at the top of his lungs, telling everyone to shut up and eat some fried tofu. Human beings of various shapes and colors were drinking cheap beer and talking about whatever it is semi-normal people in their late teens talk about. I stepped out to the pool area, which was surrounded by the parts of the building where people lived out their lives and slept. Again, it looked like the whole scene had been stolen from a hotel in Las Vegas in the early 70s. There were half-naked people jumping in the pool with beers in their hands. I would think that the last thing you would want in your beer can is pool water, but so be it. Everyone appeared to be 100% real versions of their real selves and I admired that so much that I ate a piece of celery. Whenever you go to a party or a gather, there exists, without fail, a vegetable tray. And in this tray, there is always an abundance of celery and cauliflower; everyone eats all of the carrots right away. I like carrots, all right. I like celery too. There were a few carrots left, but they were mostly ghastly, crippled leftovers to be thrown into the fire. I was relieved to be around real people. I ate a piece of celery. It didn’t bother me so much, that I had to eat a piece of celery over eating a carrot. I snapped the stalk in half with a happy chomp, and we moved away from the confusion of the outside world and examined the inside world for a bit.
Chantal’s dorm room was a cavernous loft at the top of a crumbling tower. It had expansive windows lined with plants that she loved like children. Each of them stood upright like little green soldiers and stretched toward the sun, yawning. The length between her bed on the north-facing wall and the windows south of that was that of an Olympic swimming pool; it took approximately ten minutes to go from one end of the room to the other. This was a room for one person, somehow. It was an incredible thing, to know of a dorm room of this size. The drawback, of course, was a sneering, ugly brute: the room next to hers was connected with a communal bathroom. This bathroom was the size of a rabbit hutch. This bathroom did not have locks on the inside, only a hanging chain from the bedroom side. Chantal told us a horror story about a small furry creature with long black hair that drowned in the shower drain, and whose corpse was left to rot there for all eternity. She couldn’t bring herself to dispose of it, and her suitemates did not appear to have any inkling to do so, either. Upon reexamination, we made a terrifying discovery: the enigmatic cadaver was actually a large tuft of Chinese-girl-hair. Chinese-girl-hair! It was a gruesome thing to behold. Days later, Chantal would inform me that, in addition to the horrendous wisps of swirling black hair that routinely clogged the shower drain, she’d also stumbled upon what I can only assume is an ovary-exploding cultural divide: these Shanghai bitches toss their toilet paper in the trash can.
The road to heaven is paved in hell, indeed.
I sat in a chair and read a book on Monet. After we’d tired of sitting in that room for a good long while, we hit the streets good and hard. The hallway just outside her room was laced with slapdash garnishing. The whole place was lined in bizarre artwork and old mattresses. From the low, low ceiling hung outdated Christmas decorations. It was so psychotic that I loved it to death. The charm oozed from the craziness of it all. It felt like a nice place to live. People were shuffling in and out of doors, opening and closing them, constantly moving and snaking around. It felt like a slow-motion chase segment from Scooby-Doo, except it was real, and it wasn’t retarded.
The outside had become all black and fragile and lit up by the city that lined the place we inhabited. The breeze was lazy and comforting. Houston had been wet and bright, but here I felt dry. It was the perfect weather to be alive in. Young adults were splashing about in the peanut-shaped pool, coolly sipping beers and talking about things that real people talk about; none of it was fake or forced. I didn’t know what to make of this. I liked it. “Kids” by MGMT was blaring away on a big speaker in the armpit of two intersecting buildings, and everyone seemed genuinely happy to be in that place at that exact moment in time. I was, too.
We walked over to the 21st Street co-op.
This is the bottom of the totem. This place is so far down that the god damn moles are complaining about the noise. It was a bizarrely designed habitat for human beings, and at first glance appeared to be nothing more than a replica set of the Lost Boys’ tree fortress in Neverland from Hook. I half-expected Rufio to glide past me on a skateboard outfitted with a sail, ERR-ERR-ERRRRR-ing and running a leather-gloved hand through his ridiculous red mohawk. There were swinging bridges and glass buildings encased in wood. From any point in this strange development, one could see the happenings of other people from long distances. Some of them slept on couches in common rooms, others raced around on skinny bikes. Others still collected rain water from large vats housed in the same tree-house-themed buildings. Everyone looked happily crazy. We had walked over to lend a hand to another character in this tale, a gentleman named Nick. He was stout and bearded and had lots of expensive toys. His eyes lit up like little flares when he spoke, and the gingery hair on his face gave the rising of his cheekbones a sort of lumberjack charm. Atop his head was a curly mass of brown coils. I wanted to put him in my pocket.
When we’d finished placing the innumerable amount of boxes and bags and expensive-looking-things in his strange home, we sat and talked. Multi-colored cats walked in and out of the bedroom, and appeared to have limitless access to every part of the building. His walls were the blue of a semi-dreary sky, and a wooden loft hung above the cavern where he was to hang his hat at night. The wall facing the door was made out of stones colored in various shades of Reese’s peanut butter cups. It was a peanut-butter-chocolaty wall, held together by marshmallow foam.
I left the room and explored the hallways for a bit. Across from Nick’s room was a common room where homeless twenty-somethings slept undisturbed, despite the ceaseless chaos of noise and motion buzzing above their homeless heads. A black woman in a gold and red dress was discussing this one time when she had a conversation with God. It was irrelevant and beautiful. Everyone sat around in cracking leather sofas, listening intently on a conversation that twisted around various philosophies on being alive. Those listening made all of the appropriate noises and responses. They sipped cheap beer and gazed at the unlikely set piece in the otherwise kaleidoscope-coated room. “And God spoke to me that night, though I can’t remember what She said. I only remember what I felt.”
That night, Jacob and I slept on firm mattresses on the floor of Chantal’s massive room. We dragged them in from the hallway, praying in earnest that no one had leaked on our temporary beds. My flight was at noon the next day. We went to sleep at five in the morning.
I awoke on my final day in Texas at ten. There wasn’t much time to do anything else but sigh and grab my things from the back of the vehicle we’d driven some twelve-hundred-miles in. Chantal and Jacob drove me to a place where flying machines live. Once parked in front of this place, for maybe the fourth or fifth time in my life, I didn’t say a whole lot of words. This must come as a shock to someone, somewhere. I was still tired from the meager amount of sleep I had in me. I gave Jacob a hug for the history books, and hopped out of the car and into the aching heat. The car sped away. I checked in at the ticket counter and reclined in a thin leather chair for an hour and fifteen minutes, reading a book and staring at the hulking machines that touched down on the runway like ballerinas. Once aboard, I discovered that I had the whole row to myself. This was no mistake: I’d planned it this way. American Airlines lets you pick your own seats, and later, on the day you are to check-in, lets you change them, if you’d like. I changed my seat to an empty row. This fantasy was quickly shattered when a fat man in a row next to mine decided that he’d rather have the aisle seat on my side. He took up a chair and a half. It looked like wedging a baked potato in a keyhole. He looked so uncomfortable, sitting there.
When the lady came around and asked for my beverage order, I told her that I could go for some hot tea. I read a book at twenty-five-thousand-feet. The pilot had our plane swoop in and out of towering cumulus clouds. It felt like drifting through an abandoned porcelain kingdom with translucent walls. I said good-bye to Texas. I hoped that maybe the plane would never land. Maybe we’d just keep flying until we felt like touching down someplace new. Maybe there were enough cans of soda and tiny bags of pretzels on board to sustain us until we reached a place no one had ever been before. We hovered above the white plains of that intangible world for a long time. The passengers were silent as they swilled down complimentary beverages. I looked out the window; the earth appeared quiet and dark. I turned a page and kept reading.