“I do not know how much of my writing is true, or which parts (if any) are true. This is a potentially lethal situation. We have fiction mimicking truth, and truth mimicking fiction. We have a dangerous overlap, a dangerous blur. And in all probability it is not deliberate. In fact, that is part of the problem. You cannot legislate an author into correctly labelling his product. You cannot compel him to declare what part is true and what isn’t if he himself does not know.” – Philip K. Dick
“…whatever you write down it’s not the truth, it’s just a story. Stories are all we’re ever left with in our head or on paper.” – Eric Sanderson (The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall)
As I write this, my throat is dry, my fingers are trembling, and I feel like I have rewound back to the day where I had spent six hours cleaning and lubricating my eyes.
The final straw was when Jay decided that GCSE girls smelt better than me. With spring coming up, I’m still having lots of arguments with Father Time, who is dying to visit me. They say spring stands for a new beginning that you should leave everything behind.
But I’m not ready for spring.
Our group therapist, Mr. Johnson, is calling me. I’m afraid I have to switch to the mental notebook now.
“Laurie, I hope you are making useful notes on today’s session!”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
At this very moment, Hendrik enters the class and apologises for being late. All the air goes out when he comes in. Or it could just be my breath. He takes a seat behind me. I always wait for those Arctic eyes to freeze me from behind–release me from all misery. Anger clogged my mind, except that I don’t initiate fights or torture animals – I write. Excessively.
But I hate writing from the bottom of my heart. It leads you to a rubbish dump of a thousand wasted days. The moment I put the pen down, another year has passed. I forget how to speak. I forget how to have sexual intercourse. And the worst of all, I grab the pen again, as I don’t know what else to do.
I don’t know if Hendrik, the Swede, is a knight from a fairy tale. If he doesn’t save me, no one will. He doesn’t talk much in class. The only thing we know is that he hates humanity and writes poetry to remain sane.
The back of my head is itchy, and my heart is racing. Can he hear my heartbeat?
“It’s all about expressing ourselves.” Mr. Johnson says. “But the rush of anger that comes with the desire to express oneself is often more than what we want. Anyway, who would like to share a positive experience today?”
Last week no one’s experience was anywhere near positive. This is the third week. I am the only female student in this group of thirteen grown-ups. Most of the men are here because they can’t handle their wives or jobs. The ages vary from 16-66. The 16-year-old kid is Stephen Jenkins, a sixth-former kid, who loves Sid Vicious’s notion of provoking reactions. He likes nobody.
Mr. Voglein is the oldest and most hot-tempered. The slightest irritation, such as forgetting his reading glasses, will fuel his anger. He will throw papers into the air or push tables over. If I were him, I’d have killed myself already. He gives his wife panic attacks.
“Anyone?” Mr. Johnson looks anxious. “Come on, people.”
I hesitantly raise my hand, and a big smile appears on his face. “Ah, Laurie, thank you! Please proceed.”
All eyes are fixed on me, and the ones behind me are poking me.
“Well, I’m not sure if you can call it progress, but I wrote a letter.”
“Wonderful! This also reminds me of last week’s homework!”
Last week I inspired him to have everyone keep a diary to help us analyse our anger and retrace its roots.
If only they knew that I keep a diary hourly, even if it’s just one sentence.
“I’ve been keeping a diary,” says Mr. Kirkpatrick, a lonely alcoholic. I tell him to go first.
“What do you want to hear? The bright stuff?”
“Bright, please,” Mr. Johnson begs.
Mr. Kirkpatrick clears his throat. “Saturday, March 2, Alone again. The days have become repetitive. One beer in the morning, two in the afternoon and even more at Frankie’s Bar in the evening. I figured that all this serves as a warm-up for my fight with Carl outside the bar – the only thing I look forward to nowadays. The days may continue, but please, God, let me keep this daily fight. It’s the only thing that keeps me alive…”
That is the most beautiful thing I’ve heard today. There is silence, and I notice some puzzled faces like they’re unsure what conclusions to draw from that.
“That’s very poetic, Miles,” says Mr. Johnson. “But I think you’re not quite there yet. Remember, we were talking about reaching the core of the anger.”
“Yes, I know, and I think I’m getting there. I appreciate the diary idea.”
I may have extended his miserable life. I feel embarrassed.
“What’s this?” Mr. Voglein blurts out. “A bloody poetry class?”
“Well, let’s see what you’ve got then, Albert,” says Mr. Johnson.
“I ain’t got my reading glasses, dammit!”
He is the only person in the group that fills the room with more negative energy than already tolerable. For the love of Cronos, I can sense almost all these suckers’ auras. I can sense Mr. Voglein’s terrible electric cloud from each corner of the room. Only Mr. Johnson’s signals are peaceful.
The only way to sustain harmony is to fictionalise everything that I can’t mentally and physically obtain. What’s this blank page for otherwise?
“I’m sorry, Albert.” Mr. Johnson rubs his face, but his eyes brighten up as he looks at me. “Laurie, how about reading your letter?”
“Read?” I suddenly feel uneasy.
He nods with an encouraging smile. I think I can feel Hendrik’s breath stroking my neck. I hope he can’t hear my heartbeat.
I take a deep breath: “Dear Nothing, like every year this particularly low point has reached the surface again. I can’t bury something undead. How long can I keep my head above water? The monster of the past is still ever lurking in my nightmares in which I’d rather chop my hand off than have it hold me. In my dreams, I am scared, and when I’m awake, I feel rage…” I can’t continue.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”
“Why not?” Mr. Johnson said.
“I think me fantasising about fistfights and manslaughter is not appropriate.”
People laugh, except Mr. Johnson. I feel bad for having disappointed him.
At the end of the session, Mr. Johnson gives me a sympathetic smile suggesting something fatherly.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Johnson.”
“What for?” he laughs. “Keep up the good work.”
When I approach the exit, I see Hendrik lighting a cigarette outside. He sees me and instantly smiles. I take a deep breath. The alternative world can only be found on a blank page where I build a kingdom – a kingdom over which I rule.
All the trees are in bud already. Father Time has been accelerating time without me realising it. Every time I blink, he seizes his chance to hit the accelerator. I can see him race on the rings of Saturn.
Hendrik offers me a fag. Our faces are close when he lights it for me: menthol – my favourite.
“There is no point in sharing your anger, you know,” he says.
“Why do you think I interrupted myself?”
We walk through the park. It’s almost dinnertime. My favourite time of the day is twilight or at five in the morning (especially during autumn). That’s the sort of dark that smells best – cold particles mixed with wet leaves.
The sweet smell of spring symbolises a new beginning, but as I said, I am not ready.
“Can I ask you something?” Hendrik says.
“Are you here to help or to get help?”
There’s something beautiful about his Swedish accent, which sounds slightly American, especially when he emphasises the ‘R’ like pop singers or Hollywood actors.
“Well, if I can help others – that’s fine by me.”
“Bullshit. Come on, why are you really in the group?”
My pace decelerates. He stops walking and looks at me.
“All right, why are you here?” I ask.
“Same reason as you, except that I’m not in self-denial.”
“Right. What makes you think you know me?”
He flicks his cigarette away and starts walking. “Fancy a drink?” he says.
When we reach the end of the park, we enter a bar nearby. The good thing is it’s in the middle of the week, which means no juvenile delinquents with fake IDs.
“What would you like?”
“Tap water, please,” I say, and he raises an eyebrow.
“I think you need something stronger…”
“Well, tough, I don’t do alcohol.”
He chuckles as he gets his wallet out. “I’m not surprised then,” he mumbles to himself.
I get my notebook out and start to scribble.
“Are you writing what a dick I am?”
I smile as I’m writing this. The blank page is looking to get screwed. If only he knew how he is making me feel right now. Talking to him reminds me of the conversations I have with you.
The barmaid comes to take his order.
“Can I have a Daiquiri, please? And a Strawberry Surprise for the lady, alcohol-free.”
I instantly put my pen down. Sometimes fiction takes over, and you forget you have the upper hand of the story.
“I can’t help but think that you look cute when you drink this,” he says.
I roll my eyes.
Then he places his lips on my ear and whispers, “I can feel your heat, Laurie. It keeps me warm in class, but I think you’re doing yourself no good.”
He turns back to the barmaid, who hands him his change. No matter how captivating Hendrik’s aura is, I’m unable to break through his shell.
“You look hot when you try to be the saviour,” I say with such confidence that even he is surprised.
The barmaid comes with our drinks. Mine is bright pink decorated with fancy picks, a slice of pineapple and a cherry. His Daiquiri looks just as feminine as mine – a red drink with strawberries attached to the glass.
“I know it looks girly, and I wouldn’t order it if you weren’t here. But it tastes so good!”
We both raise our glasses.
He watches me suck at the straw like I was a kid drinking a milkshake. The Strawberry Surprise is the most delicious drink I’ve ever had. It reminds me of Johannes Brahms’s last words before his death: “Ah, that tastes nice. Thank you.”
The day I die is the day I am unable to finish a sentence on paper. The Olympians will outweigh the Titans, and my words will be obsolete.
Hendrik’s still looking at me, grinning.
“I know what it looks like beneath your surface. And sorry, you don’t look cute,” he says.
His compliments are very ambivalent, but it’s not the first time that I experience a man sending out mixed signals. It’s always best not to react to them. Whatever reaction I show, he’ll triumph on the inside.
“Would you show me some of your poetry?” I ask.
My notebook’s still on the table, and I carefully move it toward him. He looks surprised.
“In return, I’ll let you find out whether you’re a dick.”
Finally, he grabs deeply into his pocket and presents his small Moleskine notebook – half the size of mine.
“Pick a random page. Just one page.”
I pick the page where he has placed his string bookmark.
“And I wonder how she touches herself
When the heinous heat in her blood rises
The delicate way it effervesces
If I could taste the wound and wistful wealth
Of her anger, she has kept for so late
An effusive eruption
The molten lava – the suspicious core
Watching her straight back and tilting of the head
Staring peeping holes through her soft body
She reads a letter of regretful hate”
For the love of Cronos! In my peripheral vision, I see him watching me while I’m reading it for the third time.
“Are you done?”
I hand him back his notebook, whereas I’m not asking for mine. Instead, I finish drinking my sweet drink. Then I place the cherry in my mouth. I realise that our legs are touching, and neither of us feels unfamiliar about it.
“Do you want another?” he says.
I shake my head and slowly start rubbing my cocktail glass. Apparently, when a guy sees that, he’ll go all funny inside.
“I think you do…” He calls the barmaid and orders another for me. She takes my empty cocktail glass away. I wonder whether he is Taurean. There is something about Taurus’s stubbornness that draws me to them.
I keep both of my hands busy with a piece of string and bits of paper from a beer mat.
“Do you ever feel alone?” I say. “I mean, really alone? It doesn’t matter how many people are around you or if you’ve just told your best friend how you feel. No one’s ever going to understand you the way you do, because they are not you. Even when lying in bed with someone…the moment you fall asleep, you’re alone in your head. You’re alone in your dreams. What you see is what you wish was there.”
Deep in thought, he puts his notebook away into his pocket.
“What has he done to make you feel this way?”
After a long pause, I say, “He gave me an idea of what love is not.”
My pink drink arrives, and this time I eat the cherry first. He slowly moves my notebook toward me and then finishes his drink.
“So you think we all pretend we’re not alone?” he says.
“How else do we fall in love?”
“So, love’s an illusion?”
I suck at the straw while Hendrik looks at me nervously. I wonder whether I look cute now or not. Evil would be another option.
“Please don’t take everything I say so seriously,” I say. “Don’t you ever look for alternative exits to reduce cognitive dissonance?”
Finally, there is a smile. “You mean like the fox and the grapes?”
I don’t feel like drinking up that cocktail anymore.
“I joined that group because I needed to see how much I am still in control. And I needed confirmation of what’s still real,” I say.
(Do you see the beauty of fictionalisation? We all know the significance of expressing one’s feelings. Only on paper, you’ll realise that the beauty and accuracy are in synch; the words succinct and straight to the point. Escapism is pathetic, but what would we do without it?)
After our drinks, Hendrik and I go back to the park, where we sit on the grass. He offers me another menthol cigarette. The darkness still smells alluring, and so does the scent of Hendrik’s body. It’s the darkness that gives me the confidence to lay my head on his shoulder. Is this how Hades will make me feel when it’s time?
“Do you still feel alone?”
“It depends,” I say, “it depends on whether you’re real or not.”
“You’re strange,” he says. He blows out the smoke.
“It’s the delirium…”
Am I really holding a cigarette? My head is as hollow as a vacuum, whereas my heart is gradually filling with–I don’t know what. I can’t hold the pen any longer.
I drop the cigarette. There’s someone else with a pen.
“Come back,” I hear him say. He snaps his fingers.
“I’m still here. Are you?”
He laughs and presses me against his body, which makes my spine tingle. I feel the liquid gathering in the lacrimal lake, filling the sac. I squeeze the first drops out of my eyes. I’m finally alone with him on a creased page – a lonely island of nothing but puddles of salty water and ugly handwriting.
“Are you all right?”
“It depends,” I say.
A kiss is warm and vivid, like the retrievable images of a Shakespeare play. Yet, the fear of unrequited love is brewing at the core of my page.
“I have to tell you the truth, Laurie,” he says.
I can accommodate any truth. Truths that will drag me out of the vicious circle and help me fathom the purpose of the written word. No more secrets and all the thousand pieces of the mystery will come together.
“I’ll be gone once I’ve helped you,” he says.
I release myself from the embrace, becoming clear-headed again. The darkness smells of duck shit. I hear the speeding cars on the road, and the moment Hendrik grabs my hand, I feel a couple of calluses on the tip of his fingers.
“Help me?” I pull my hand back and try to get back on my feet. My first attempt fails due to pins and needles in my leg. I start hitting myself violently in the leg while forcing myself to stand up.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Help me with what, Hendrik?”
I don’t need help from anyone, especially if they are not here to stay. I sense negative electrical impulses within myself, but I feel nothing coming from Hendrik. Why doesn’t he open up to me? I fall back on my bum.
Where’s my notebook?
No, something else needs to be done first. Short-term happiness is happiness at stake. See Ophelia, see Juliet. Fools.
I look at the waxing crescent moon, which is causing all this madness. I wear a waning crescent moon tattoo on my left shoulder blade, representing every stupid thing that I do. There’s also Cronos’s planet of death and destruction on my right shoulder blade.
“Get up,” he says.
I get up, and I walk away. The ugly neon streetlights hurt my eyes, but it doesn’t stop me from scribbling shit in my notebook. I hear Hendrik’s footsteps behind me – quiet and delicate like those of Eurydice. Orpheus made a mistake and looked back. Do I really want to end up singing songs to Hades?
I enter the petrol station, where Jay works. He’s staring at me from the counter – probably wondering why my phone has been off for months. There are no current customers evident, except for one guy filling up outside. Jay leaves the counter, and I count his steps until we’re two metres apart.
“One step closer,” I say without looking at him.
“Then what?” he says.
My breathing has become irregular since the moment I’ve stepped into the petrol station.
“I miss you,” he says.
I close my eyes as I clench both fists. I have trouble breathing, trouble holding back, and trouble swallowing this lump in my throat. I can still taste the Strawberry Surprise intermingled with the menthol cigarette and the kiss. This moment is real.
I hear Jay take another step, and the next thing I feel is my fist in his face. My eyes now wide open, I see him trip over a stack of Cola cans.
I walk out.
Hendrik and I are on the night bus. I put my head on his shoulder again. I feel how our body heat is becoming one.
Where is my pen?
“How do you feel?” he whispers.
I want to write that wishful thinking has nothing to do with imagination. I was playing hide and seek with illusion and reality. If you can’t distinguish the two, you are fucked. Hint: The prettier one is ‘illusion.’ Sometimes wishful thinking reflects your worst intentions, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Think of a waving figure in silhouette, reminding you of who you are and who you could be. Imagination is what keeps you sane. You can’t escape the dark, which looms over you. If you want it to become a distant memory, you’ll have to look him in the face.
What a long day. I blame Father Time. But spring may come.
“Are you the grapes beyond reach?” I whisper to Hendrik.
“I’m closer than you think.”
“Laurie, I hope you are making useful notes on today’s session!” Mr. Johnson says.
I twitch and lose my pen.
“Yes sir,” I say and look at my notebook. I turn around and see an empty chair.
A week has passed, and a lot has happened. I’ve lent Mr. Kirkpatrick a copy of Bukowski for inspiration. And unfortunately, Mr. Voglein’s wife had a stroke and was in the hospital. He was afraid to go alone, so I went with him. The aura in my class has become more tranquil. The sixth-former Stephen has been smiling at me since the beginning of today’s session. A breeze is caressing my neck, bringing goosebumps to my skin. Mr. Johnson looks happier than ever.
I start packing my stuff together.
“Laurie… you’re going?” Mr. Johnson says.
“I have some work to do,” I say and pick up my pen. Judging by Mr. Johnson’s smile, he knows that I won’t come back. There was even a grumpy smile on Mr. Voglein’s face.
On my way out of the building, I walk past Mr. Johnson’s office. He didn’t close his door, and something on his desk catches my attention. I slowly enter the office and kneel before his desk to marvel at a beautiful grape bonsai tree. Decades ago, Philip K. Dick explained to us: “Reality is that which, when one stops believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
After all, the only thing we care about is our own perception.
For B.W. – I fancied the sh*t out of you and you were oblivious to it. I won’t ever know if you’ve read this story and it’s ok.
by Paula Deckard (c) February 2011