Only Life, excerpt

When I was first dating Michael, our talk grew out of the fact of our meeting and soared, baseless, into the future. Not a vine or a map but a tower balanced on a pin. We stood at the railings of rooftop bars drinking cocktails and describing our dreams, giving each other versions of our past edited, the way we will around new people, to culminate in each other. We talked about our old loves, even, the messes of them now lambent in the light of our excitement; we talked about our respective industries, making much of how similar our struggles were. He was a filmmaker; he would act, and one day, direct. From the time he was six, he told me, his goal was to be in “history books.”

“Me too,” I told him, cherishing this fantasy he seemed to let me indulge in– that I would write the next Paradise Lost. Michael was already “talking to Warner Brothers,” and “taking meetings,” with people from NBC Universal. We both joked about flirting with the gatekeepers, the myth of it, the shit-talking other aspiring types at every conference and festival.

I have to admit I thought he knew what he was doing. At the farm-to-table restaurant on Rivinngton street, he showed me the photos he was tagged in with Judd Apatow, with Zoey Deschanel. I thought, surely he’d make it: Lena Dunham follows him on Instagram!

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Excerpt from Only Life, a novel

I have lots of pictures of myself as a teenager; thanks to the internet, mostly. Myspace, and the fact that through college I obsessively copied and saved my old Myspace albums and posted them on Facebook, with ironic titles like “Young, Loud and Snotty.” Now the NSA and Mark Zuckerberg have access to them forever, to me and Joey and Stella, our damaged hair and unwieldy makeup.

Unfortunately, there are almost no good photos of me; I spoiled all of them by the face I insisted on making: cheeks sucked in and lips out, like a duck. A duck-face. All the girls I knew did it. And those of us who don’t live in the valley any more, who date men from Belize and Washington D.C., who teach English classes, will be ridiculed for it forever.

Alone in our apartment, listening to the rain, I go through old albums. Since getting engaged I’ve mostly stopped using Facebook as anything but a spyglass. A telescope. From far away, walled up in my own life, I look at lives that aren’t mine, stare at their pictures, read their thoughts, and leave no traces.

Michael used to go on, when we were first dating, about how jealousy is a form of insecurity, a weakness. The way men do when you’re first dating, I guess, and all other things, memories of other men, just lead like ramps to the pinnacle of themselves. 

Later I learned not to “like” things male friends posted, if Michael didn’t know them. Not to let them post things on my wall. There would be conversations.

“Who’s Dylan?” he’d ask, with a light, casual, mocking tone.

“An old friend, I guess,” I’d be tearing up a paper napkin, or mindlessly scrolling through emails on my phone. “He’s gay.”

“Well, he’s got a shitty haircut. Especially for a gay guy.”

That would be the end of it; the food would come, the band would start, the night would go on. Until six or seven hours later, I’d be about to fall asleep, at last, against his shoulder and he’d sit up, as if he’d forgotten to pay a bill, call a dying relative.

“That Dylan guy whose Facebook you’re always stalking. Are you sure he’s not straight? And why do you need to spend so much time looking at Facebook anyway?”

The gentle grays of the dawn light would just be filling up the spaces between the blinds.

It was six A.M., too, when he proposed, though that was in another country, in the summer, and it was broad daylight, white sun on the stones, brightness on the grass that surrounded that messed-up house. It was, Michael said, the house where Jane Eyre took place. He had needed to take me someplace bookish.

Now he’s at work, and I’m on Facebook doing exactly what he once accused me of: though I’d never done it until he’d accused me, as though even in rebellion, even in betrayal, I needed to be a follower. I find the pages of people I’ve known for ten or fifteen years, people I once knew well, and I start going through their pictures, reminiscing. Stella has deleted her account, but I’m still ‘friends’ with Joey and Megan, and I look at their albums now. Joey still uses embarrassing, Valley slang, lards her words with dollar signs and emogis, and in her recent photos, only one or two years ago, is still making duck-faces. Not a hint of “punk” about her: she’s posed next to shirtless guys in board shorts, she’s in crop tops, ball gowns, in Las Vegas, in Las Cruces, where her ex-husband lives, but she still seems frozen, as if she’d settled into the past and just made a home for herself there; built a life amongst the wardrobes and gestures of fifteen years ago and just never left, maybe sort of like the migrants who grew tired and settled in places no one has heard of, the ones who never made it to California or The New World.

There’s a picture here of Joey and I, taken on a low-quality phone camera in about 2005, and our makeup is the same, and for a second it is actually hard to tell which one of us is me. I remember, then, a punk rock band shirt I used to have; I’m wearing it in the photo, it’s pale yellow and went so well, I remember thinking, with my pink and blue hair, my polka-dot barrettes, the unbearably lame nose-stud I used to wear.

What is it about now, that I almost seek out fragments of my old life, my self, that I’d come so far away from, done so well denying? I credit Michael, though I don’t know how to put into words. I want to say he’s tried to stamp out every part of my life that doesn’t contain him, but that’s so much harsher and less natural than what actually happened.

He just wants us to share everything, to be ordained for one another in that cosmic and unalterable way of characters in already-written stories. I have almost no little things in common with him; rugged where I’m twee, we’re ballet-flats and cowboy boots; since a few months into our relationship we’ve never been able to agree on a restaurant; he’s bored of ethnic, gourmet, wants only greasy spoons, the kind that’ll leave me feeling queasy and stopped-up for days. On long car rides we divide the music into half hours: a half hour of his Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, a half hour of my Beat Happening and Coco Rosie and Grimes. Sometimes this system breaks down and we just listen to his music the whole way: I’m generally indifferent to what he likes, bored by it at most, but he has a passionate distaste for some of what I like, will grimace, cover his ears for miles at a time, frown out the window, then finally snap and just change the song, with a smile at me as if to say, “I tried.”

It’s only the big things that hold us together. The force of our personalities, our will to love and stubbornness in love. We are like insurgents, I tell myself; in love, we wage an asymmetric war against our differences, the armies and navies of them; like the Viet Cong and the Bolsheviks, we will prevail or be utterly annihilated in the struggle.

Excerpt from The Odyssey, a novel

She kept asking him what gift she could give. He felt turned on and the moon was rising, giving the pale curtains and the stone pillars of the room a pearly brightness. She talked about how rich she was and she kissed his neck and he felt divided between wanting to be faithful and moral and wanting to experience what was happening. He told himself that it would be a shame if he didn’t get anything at all out of this. The night air was still warm and he could still smell wine over the faint salty smell of the island, and as she sat on him he moved his hands under her thin silk gown and he felt her hips.

Aeolus’ daughter told Odysseus how she could go anywhere, could use her father’s machines to direct the winds and take them anywhere in the world. 

“Frozen Thule or the Ethiopian shore.” She told him she’d planned on just daydreaming about him, but when she heard he was leaving tomorrow, so soon, she unexpectedly felt like she couldn’t bear it.

“I can’t stand for you to leave,” she said. She made a slight, painful sound. The waves gently broke against the ramparts below and Odysseus told her that of course he had liked her, of course he thought of her when he was telling stories to the whole crowd at the feasts.

“So what do you want?” she said. She shifted her weight on his hands and leaned forward letting her chest touch his shoulder, and brought her lips close to his ear.

“I don’t know,” said the Navigator.

“You’re such a fool,” she said. He felt the warmth of her on his neck and his face, her stomach move up to his when she breathed. She talked more about how much she knew about the world, she was smart, he thought, plying him with the tease of new knowledge; facts were to Odysseus so much more seductive than bodies. He kissed her and let his fingers explore beneath her until they moved with her, until his wetted hand was splayed wide and his thumb, bent back, found the front pleats of her, the point.

“I don’t know,” he said again, feeling a weak, plangent urge to give in and be swept away.

“I always get what I want,” she said.

The wind lifted the curtains and spread them wide for a second, showing the sparkle of the deep, the unimaginably distant night, the milky way and the unknown celestial bodies.

She made a soft whistling sound, then grabbed him firmly and instead of letting Odysseus kiss her she bit his cheek and then softly bit his ear.

“You don’t think of this as anything it isn’t,” she said between breaths. “Fine. Me neither. Ok.” She sighed and said ok again, said it was fine, it was great.

She shifted and pushed him down onto the couch and he went to start going down on her.

He would realize, later, when she was crying and the rosy dawn was sweeping in like a fire through the open window, that he had made the only choice that had no redeeming qualities. That he had been neither faithful nor kind, and he thought about it with a sense of shock and wonder, how he had been so lousy. He tried to think about it logically and, even in his memory it made no sense. He’d begun the act with her, thus making him already completely unfaithful, but then, overcome with guilt and sorrow, he’d refused to complete it, making her feel unsatisfied and rejected. He must have made her feel terrible, he thought, and he was full of shame. How after all that he hadn’t even given her anything, not even a decent orgasm, just a shitty joke which of course she didn’t laugh at: he’d told her the wine made his swordfish into a minnow.

“More like a slimy catfish,” she’d said in bitterness after getting dressed. “Too fearful to swim in the open water, it slides along the bottom and eats shit.”

She didn’t appear at the send-off. When Odysseus and his crew were getting ready to board, and Aeolus’ sons were loading gifts onto the refitted boats and the sailors were taking their last things up the gangplank, Aeolus’ daughter was up in her airy room, hand-writing a note on a piece of paper.

Down the pier, Odysseus’ ship gently rocked in its moorings. The sun was high and the surf lapped at the pilings and seabirds circled the towering island. The Navigator stood holding Aeolus’ gift, the ornate object with its thin metal antennae. Zephyr, it said in a fancy script. He went to shake Aeolus’ hand but was drawn into a hug again. He felt peevish and uncomfortable and tried not to imagine that the King and Queen and their sons and their other daughters were judging him. But apparently they hadn’t heard anything. The Queen only apologized and said that her youngest wasn’t feeling well.

Just before they were about to board, a messenger came and gave Odysseus a pice of paper. Odysseus thanked him unconsciously and then walked up the gangplank and waved to Aeolus and the Queen and the ship began moving. After she got clear of her moorings they unfurled the mainsail and the steady west wind urged them on. The other ships followed, white sails full and wide. The Navigator stood at the taffrail for a long time staring at Aeolus’ isle as it shrank from view. When it was little more than a white rectangle on the face of the receding distance he finally turned and took up his place at the helm. Meanwhile the steady, unnatural wind impelled the ships through the glassy water with almost fearful speed. Odysseus steadied the helm and then paced the deck, the unusually still and unlisting ship. He noted the changes Aeolus’ engineers had made; the smooth, polished fins projecting from the hull, the triangular gussets around the mainmast and, high above, the lofty kite sails whose shadows, as the sun dipped, began to completely cover the ship from forecastle to taffrail. Finally when he had finished his tour and could put it off no longer, he took out and read the paper the messenger had given him.

You don’t have to visit me or write to me the note said. And I hope you find your happiness, though it is very hard for me to wish that it would be easy for you. But you have my father’s Zephyr and its remote controller with you so I guess you’ll be home soon. Anyway, what I ask, in the name of the gods, is that you just don’t tell any mean stories about me. Don’t tell anything at all if you can help it and please don’t brag to the seamen about it. Your people are vicious toward women in their stories, so don’t write about me, and when you get home, let your wife write her own story. Let her unravel it and tell it again if she wants to.

She signed it, it was interesting to know you, and her name, Susan.

That’s all there was. He crumpled the note and put it in his pocket. The wind stayed absolutely steady, strong and even and the twelve ships all seemed to fly along the water. Hours went by and the dusk closed up behind them as the earth spun eastward and the ships sailed westward along it, unrolling the black screen of the rising water as they went.

All through the night Odysseus kept to his post at the helm. Regret and agitation and fear kept him awake and on deck. He’d stashed Aeolus’ “remote controller” in a wooden chest, since the only instruction he had on how to use it was ‘don’t break it.’ But as the night went on, their knots holding steady over the glassy water, the spray of stars like a forlorn audience, he began to get paranoid. He feared that some sailor, the master-at-arms, maybe, would open the ships’s treasury chests to make sure they knew how much gold was on board, and that they would not be cheated. So as the watch was changing he went into his room and took the controller and laid it in a pile of clothes with some wine bags and old goatskins to disguise it. Then he quickly went back on deck and resumed his fixed place at the wheel.

Before dawn he thought he saw land, and as the world in front of them slowly lightened he recognized the shapes of the hills, black against the gray and rising dawn. It was the silhouette of home. It was Ithaca. He felt the tears come to his face. For another hour the ship sailed toward the land and as the land grew to meet them he could make out the tops of trees, the green sides of a high pasture, the spires of the terraced city on the hill. He drank, with Eurylochos the Captain, a full glass of rum and then he openly wept and, overwhelmed with relief and having been up for almost thirty-six hours, he fell asleep on deck.

He woke to the roar of a raging wind, the men scrambling to furl the mainsail and cast the sea-anchors. Fat drops of rain beat the deck and the sea was churning and foaming like a mad horse. The ships pitched and rolled in the roiling waves and in the sky above them there was a strange, low cloud shaped like a waterspout but in reverse, a grayish dark spiral that seemed to be sucking the air and the sky itself as if into a drain, and the winds turned around and the Captain cursed his crew and no one seemed to remember how to use the extra sails. The Navigator clung to the wheel in misery and despair. The ship rose fully out of the water, pulled aloft like a kite and when the keel plunged down again everyone was thrown flat onto the deck. The sky behind was blue and placid day, but the rocky shore of Ithaca was quickly disappearing, and all around them were lowering, violent winds and soon they sailed into a dense bank of clouds and home was once again out of sight.

Odysseus turned the helm hard about but it was no use; the whole ship was a captive of the unknown force Aeolus had installed and the crew had untethered. The Navigator thought about throwing himself overboard, letting the flood pull him down to death, and he lay flat on the tilting deck for a long time, until he decided to accept and endure and, rising, gave orders to his crew. In his room, he found that some sailor had broken in and, as if out of spite, rummaged through all his old clothes and tossed the goatskins aside and poured out bottles of wine and smashed the controller Aeolus had given him, probably assuming it was a box that hid jewelry. A strange light, now and then appeared along the broken ends of the metallic string which had held it closed. Like sparks from a flint, but white or blue in color.

Towards evening the white rectangle of Aeolus’ island appeared again before them. The storm had finally settled and the winds resumed their usual ways, but Odysseus by now felt he had no choice but to return and put in once again at the island.

Full of sadness and dreading how he’d be received, he had his ship moored at the pier and went ashore as the crew ate and drank. They took on fresh water, and the Navigator walked as far as the main gate at the base of the rampart. The gate opened and there were Aeolus and his sons.

They said they’d seen his ships on the horizon while they were feasting in the upper gallery, and couldn’t believe their eyes. What could possibly have made them return?

“I forgot my coin-purse,”  Odysseus said, but no one laughed and then he just fell to his knees in front of the King.

“My luckless crew broke in to where I kept the controller and in their ignorance they smashed it.”

When he looked up it seemed like the King’s sons were ready to punch him in the face. Aeolus himself had on a firm and considered and overwhelming look of wrath.

“Hearing with a father’s ears what you did here,” he began, “and then to see you return, so you say, by complete accident, it would be utterly wrong of me to help you any more.”

He shook his head and his sons stood in a threatening half circle behind him.

“The kindest thing I can do is let you and your men go with your lives. Surely you have some heavy karma, or a god must truly hate you.”

Then the King ushered his sons back inside and the gate shut itself with a heavy sound and then there was only the bare empty strip of shore, the high, featureless white walls, and the sea.

The End of Exploring

I drove around my old neighborhood, the one my parents had lived in when I was a teenager and which I now had to drive through in order to reach the place where I was staying, and I marveled at my decades-long failure to leave the orbit of the place. An orbit, I thought, is what it was: a circling yoked with gravity. It was exactly like that, I thought. As if the place exerted some invisible force that kept me coming back. Locked in the pull of those streets of dingbats and dilapidated signage and invasive, Australian trees, the eucalyptus which gave the neighborhood its character and always shed large branches and swaths of bark whenever there was wind.

They measured gravity as a wave, I remember, they measured with lasers a wave from two black holes running into each other.

We are always standing on a wave between the single universe of the past and the many of the unlived future. The possibilities are always falling off like petals, they are always constantly dying into the one. I recall a line of poetry from somewhere as I drive. The One remains, the many change and pass. Or something. Life, like a dome of many-colored glass. When I roll the window down at a light there’s the loud sound of frogs croaking in a cement walled creek that runs somewhere beneath the road. The air conditioner hums and when the traffic light changes I drive off again, into the low and flat exurb where now I live. The signs I’d see there were the ones you saw on road trips. High and lonesome and common: they belonged to fast food places and gas stations, they glowed mildly across the dark, empty universe.

I was going home to reconstruct a memory, which would become a written story, which would become one day part of a film, and so on. I was going home to watch Buzzfeed videos about people who had figured out things I hadn’t, drink six shots of vodka and fall asleep. I was going home to look at old pictures of myself and picture my exes and be sad. I was going home to kill myself. The future was always coming and always falling apart minute by minute, peeling off into the single thing which it would turn out to have been.

There’s a mountain range near where I was. If you looked from that neighborhood to the north or the east it was all you could see. At night it would appear as a towering and inviting soft darkness, in the daytime the foothills would be like green folds of a towel and behind them the sometimes snowy rocks of the further peaks, hazy and abiding and mysterious. From the valley below I used to go on adventures driving up into those mountains. They called to us when we were teenagers, in those years when we had cars or friends with cars but no houses of our own. At night when nothing was open except for bars, when there were no house parties or anything we used to drive up into the mountains, heed the urging of all that velvety blackness, the song of altitude and the unknown. We’d put on our music and it would be loud over the wind in the rolled down windows when somebody smoked. We’d climb along the winding and imperious roads, Big and Little Tujunga Canyon, Angeles Crest Highway, Angeles Forest Highway. They would take us up out of the flat sameness of our neighborhoods below, and we would be able to stop on turnouts and with the car’s engine ticking softly behind us gaze out over the twinkling grids of the place we’d left behind, marvel at how small, how far and pretty and insubstantial it appeared. And the only sounds would be the turned-down music from the car, the distant racket of cicadas, and our voices. Sometimes it would be just me and Alice, and we would look in wonder briefly at the world from which we’d risen, and then we’d share a cigarette and then go in the car and there would be music and we’d start making out and then move to the passenger seat or the backseat. Whenever there was a pair of headlights on the road we’d duck and sometimes for an instant we’d be wholly visible to each other, bodies we’d unclothed in the dark open to their beams and I remember her smile then, the half laugh when like a Kilroy I’d rise to the level of the side window and we would go on.

Other times there’d be a whole group, me and Alice and her friends Joey and Stella, or else Billy and Christina and Tristan, or me and Alice and Greg, her ex, who I think cheated on her with Stella. And once, I remember, he was trying to get Stella to take her clothes off and he’d already proposed we stop the car and play strip poker or spin the bottle and everyone vetoed it so he just got drunk and took off all his own clothes in the back seat. He and Alice had been in a band together, though I don’t know if they ever played any shows, but he did talk constantly about genres of music and where various bands belonged… I called him the Linnaeus of Bands, once, and he got the joke and laughed really hard, and Alice rolled her eyes at me like she usually did, and only snuck a smile under her lids when she was done rolling her eyes. Then Greg said he’d compose a great chain of bands, like the Great Chain of Being, only that was the Neoplatonists, not Linnaeus.

“It’s going be the world’s greatest Wikipedia article and it will be my legacy to future generations,” he said. In the rearview, I saw him swig from a plastic vodka bottle. He was not wearing a seatbelt but straddling the center, and I remember I made him put a seatbelt on and it was more important to me that he wear a seatbelt than put his clothes back on. I actually said I was going to stop the car, like a dad in a sitcom.

The mountains were always coaxing us to explore. The roads wild and with things by their sides like abandoned gold mining forts and half sunk wagon wheels and trees of otherworldly size. Like with so much else we would keep going further. Alice’s friends would graduate, and they would keep meeting new people, be on famous blogs, have threesomes, meet their idols, try heroin, and get engaged. And if, as I always half ashamedly thought, sex was the denouement or concluding epigraph to the novel of childhood, the awaited solace in the sense of an ending, then love and independence were at the climax of youth, love the awaited, coming through to make up for the shock of yet another ending. And what was at the end of it all, on the other side of all the abortive strip poker games and nights of drinking and plans and threesomes and mildly regrettable drugs?

If you kept going on any of those canyon roads that traversed the San Gabriels you would find yourself on the other slope, looking down only at hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert. Once or twice I did drive all the way to the end of the Angeles Forrest and Angeles Crest highways. I was alone and I remember stopping on a turnout and the desert spreading out tan and dry and unending, the land finally blueing and blurring into haze among some far away ghosts of other mountains. I was at the end of the road that had called me to adventure and all I saw was the dead shrub and tumbleweed of the Mojave, a few squat buildings and the grids of a sad, low lying town, tiny, white hyphens of trucks. At the same time I sometimes think that in life the sweetest promises of adolescence led to an adulthood as barren as that desert.

At the end of all the experimenting there was addiction and 12-step programs; at the end of all the meetings with idols there was the disappointment of internships and graduate degrees that arrived with laughable, otherworldly bills. Greg, who I was still friends with on Facebook, shared a post of someone who’d gone to his college and graduated, and she said it was a third of a million dollars, more than her entire family made in two years. You leave the bracing, interesting mountains for the brute and open facts of the desert. You leave college for a world in which no one reads your resume and you stay in the fashionable hip neighborhoods until you get evicted or can no longer bear the number of roommates you’re obliged to have in order to afford to live there. At the end of sex, we’re told, is a family or else loneliness. You have children and pin your hopes on them as you grow old.

I parked on the last rise of the foothills, overlooking a great dry wash and the gray tabletop of the high desert and there was a bird moving silently high above, the air was still and hot and different from the air in the mountains. I thought about Alice and then I thought about life and how it was all such a mystery to me.

I got back in the car and turned the A/C on and turned around, and that’s where the metaphor ends, I guess. Of course if I wanted to keep on drawing conclusions about the substance of life from the accidents of its description I’d have to note that those weren’t the only mountains. There were other mountains, too, if we drove west southwest instead of north from our neighborhood we would go up likewise into the inviting folds of a canyon with smooth, black roads. And at the end of these other, more frequent mountain adventures the highway ended not at a desert but at a very good Thai restaurant, a beach community where old hippies lived next to middle-aged celebrities and executives who drove Teslas. There were stands of tall sycamore and eucalyptus trees, a salty, sea-moistened wind and at night the drift of fog faintly reflecting the lights of the city.

At the end of the experimenting there didn’t have to be an austerity of life, painful addiction and 12-step programs and vast college debt and settling with a disappointing job and renting a string of sad apartments whose utter lack of the hip aesthetic your generation demands seems like overt punishment for failing to join the one percent. There didn’t have to be disappointing children on which to pin your futile hopes as you got old. In other words, I thought, I didn’t have to just become the downgraded, post-neoliberal version of my parents. But what haunted me was the fear that mere refusal wouldn’t be enough. It was like how, in the story of Oedipus, or of Jason, or any of the ones where a King tries to escape a prophecy, it is usually his attempt to avert the thing that brings the thing about. King Laios exiles young Oedipus and that’s why Oedipus happens to be on the road in the middle of the night and mistakenly kills his father. In trying not to be boring, working-class squares like their parents, my parents smoked lots of weed and went to college and dropped out and worked odd jobs and lived in communal houses and then to keep surviving they got working class jobs where they had to act like squares and then eventually became squares, or so it seemed to me. Refusal was limited, and fraught with peril. To get out of the class you were born in you had to be as careful as a hero on a narrow bridge. You would probably fall into a pit or a swamp and have to climb out.

But there was also that other set of mountains and the roads through them that led to the city and the seashore. I was at that Thai restaurant on the beach on the last night that I came close to the sense of home. It disappeared like an island in a storm but there it was for a minute. I remember watching her sip the red wine the waitress brought and having an uneasy sense of borrowed time wash over me as I desperately prayed that words which she would like or find interesting might keep coming for me. How I begged, like an addict, for the fix of words, for some genuine laughter and a look in her eyes as of someone in love. And the whole time I was somehow not admitting to her that I was even in love at all. It was weird. I remember the smell of the ocean, the sand in the parking lot, how in the car after we ate vegan thai food we didn’t know where to go and I didn’t want the night to end because then we’d be on different coasts again, though for a length of time which at my age now seems impossibly tiny. I remember how back then “three months” seemed big enough to fit worlds and lives, whole novels in.

I wanted that night to be followed by thousands of copies of itself and by days that grew out of it. It seemed so weird to me. I preserved for decades the memory of a few nights with this person, and I’d forgotten almost every day and night that I’d lived. I forgot everything about love except that feeling of gasping for words next to someone I wanted to keep. I forgot everything except the fear of ghosting, that like the photograph in Back to the Future she would disappear and turn out never to have been my love at all. I think about the past and the future switching places all the time, wonder if where I’m at now is just the stage of an ending.

It’s after two when I finally pull into the parking lot of the place I’m staying. I don’t call it home, not even in my thoughts. In the parking lot I pass an RV with a light on inside of it and I don’t know why this bothers me so much. At night I can’t see the yellow grass that covers the medians on either side of the parking lot. Only the street, with its single street light, the mostly crappy cars, the inky dark of the streets beyond and the velvety dark of the mountains. When I get out of the car after a drive that began in the city I always notice the smell right away, how it isn’t Los Angeles. It’s a desert smell, made of dust and industrial and agricultural things, some combination of fertilizer and exhaust.

It felt like falling through the whole web of the world, sliding out of the places where a person could stand and look around and be. I was somewhere else, still dizzy from the fall and unprepared for what it was like. That night, I went to get a snack and something to drink at the nearest convenience store, and it too, I noticed, had exactly one street light and it only lit one particular, empty parking space, like a spot light on a stage waiting for the performer to come out. I got a few cliff bars and a bad iced coffee and as I was walking out a guy who looked like the Meth: not even once commercials came out from the darkness and followed me to my car. First he asked if he could use my phone and then he asked if I had any money for gas, though there were no cars around, and then if I could go back inside and buy him some beer.

I kept shaking my head, doing my best to seem unapproachable without seeming like a total dick. I felt stupid, both unable to help in any meaningful way– I didn’t have any a rehab in my pocket, or even a few thousand dollars or a home or some codeine or anything, and yet I was still on the hook because not only was I unable to help but I was also unwilling. I felt afraid and repulsed, not filled with charity, however much I might lack the power to make that charity life-changing. I nearly ran to my car and drove away, having, if anything, made a poor person’s life worse.

I remembered where I’d fallen from and that, too, made me dizzy and it made me think a lot about death. I went back to my shack, with my brown paper bag of bad coffee and camping snacks, and when I turned the heater on, it smelled like something which brought me back all the way to when I must have been a toddler, and my parents turned on the gas heater in our house after it had been shut off for two weeks because of the Northridge earthquake.

Thousands of miles away, the people I once knew were slowly forgetting about me.

Less than a hundred miles, but also a world, away, in the city, my friends were drifting into the final shapes of their own lives. Youth was shuttering for most of us, like a bar that obnoxiously always plays the song, “Closing Time,” and turns the lights up high when it’s last call. Leaving us like blinking, unready drunks to stumble out into the world, fill out lots of forms, compromise, stare blankly at the plus sign on a pregnancy test or a summons or a repossession notice. Sasha with his job that he now at nearly forty recognizes as a dead end, Margot who keeps trying to escape it all, with commissions, with jobs that seem gilded by association, but offer little in the way of actual gold. Other people I once knew have vanished likewise into worlds of their own. One is a sound engineer for a studio and only talks to other sound engineers, lives in a luxury trailer in the parking lot of a warehouse that is sometimes used for steampunk-themed raves. Another moved to Argentina, and another is a successful graphic novelist with a book out from Random House and seems to make rent on her single in West Oakland, but she only talks to the people who donate to her monthly Gofundme pages.

Deferment

I would wonder for a long time why I found it hard to look forward to adulthood. I had situated the things I was after, and they belonged to the years that were, by the time I had my college degree, basically over. For another decade or so you could linger on, spending your time in the ways that people in their early twenties spent their time, surrounding yourself with people still in their early twenties, but by the time your friends all started getting married and talking about getting married, by the time they all started talking about how they should have kids soon, wished they had houses and stable jobs so that they could have kids, it became awful to pass out in a taxicab, to do cocaine, to hang out until 5 in the morning with Belgian tourists, sleep on floors.

We were taught not to expect a future. We were implicitly told not to bother and I think that’s what made a lot of people my age so angry. College was, for many of us, the last time we experienced relative equality. Afterwards a very few of us would go on to have the enviable, laughable hipster lifestyle that became the main way our generation was represented on TV and in popular novels. A very few of us would win prestigious fellowships, invent apps that sold to VCs for many millions of dollars, get signed to production companies or record deals. In the year after the Trans Pacific Partnership was signed into law I knew one person who got a six-hundred-thousand dollar advance for a novel that traced a group of people who attended an exclusive prep school together, nine years and then eighteen and then twenty-seven years after that. Apparently her agent had done a good job of pitching it as the next Freedom and Purity rolled into one. I read the novel when it came out and it was very good.

The rest of us found, entering what was supposed to be adulthood, that in fact the house of expected things had really been hollowed out. Jobs, if we could find them, paid absurdly less than we needed to live in any city where there were jobs. We were aging. We were losing the things that made youth bearable, firm, unwrinkled skin, health, most of all the permission in our own minds not to have already achieved everything yet. And with each year and each very public success of one of our peers that permission faded.

By the time I was back in my parents’ old neighborhood there were plenty of counterexamples to look at. Plenty of inspiration to compose other lives for myself.

When I left school the only paperwork I got was a form I had to sign at the registrar’s that said I was aware my first loan payment would be due on the day that the deferments expired. My diploma would be sent in the mail when all of my account balances were cleared. I paid forty-five dollars for three sets of transcripts, and they said I would receive them at my permanent address in four to six weeks. That was it. I remember the career counseling office dispensed these forms with basic resume advice and well-meaning templates that always included ethnically stereotypical names and an implausible number of internships and the quaint suggestion that some company looking for a junior communications director would care that “Dimitri Orlov”or “Maria Gonzales” had been part of the honors youth mentoring program.

I remember taking some of those forms, though without ever feeling motivated to apply for too many jobs. The stories were consistent and by that year almost universal: you would probably not get a job. If you did, it would be a place where you would feel miserable, be surrounded by people you disliked, and be paid very little. I and the people I knew from the same classes, English Lit graduates at a state college, had, most of us, the general, oppressive sense that we were fully trained and adapted to a world that did not exist.