Pressing the sandwich flat with one hand, Sarah pinches the tongue of bacon hanging out between its layers and drags the meat from its casing. ‘It’s best not to think about yourself,’ she says, flipping it onto my plate. How generous, I tell her. She licks a grease spot from her fingers and wipes her hands under the table. ‘I love the taste but I can’t stomach the responsibility.’ I didn’t ask for this, I tell her, watching the bacon encroaching on my eggs. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘but you’re a stronger person than I am. You’ll handle it.’
With Dana in the corner of my eye, I imagine my own profile, a cutout two dimensions wide. She looks pleased, a face full of anticipatory judgement. Self-aware, my body devolves into rigid mechanisms. I take my pill dry. Dana smiles. ‘What you swallow,’ she says, ‘does it make you happy?’ My throat rasps, unprepared. I tell her that’s not what they’re supposed to do. There’s no satisfaction in it for her. She won’t let go. ‘Why do it then?’ Why do anything. To be like you, I tell her, like everyone, to make the lie more bearable.
Caleb pulls up at the stop sign and waits. Nothing happens in every direction. The engine idles with the aggressive portents of a pent menagerie, its rumble unmuffled since the radio’s death. Jenny, feet up on the dash, taps the windshield with a sneakered toe. ‘You can go,’ she says, but Caleb shakes his head. ‘There’s no oppositional command,’ he says, ‘how do you know?’ Looking through the glass, Jenny considers the crossroad and other symbols. We just agree to make it work, she thinks, it’s never going to change. ‘Look,’ she says patiently, ‘it’s time you moved on.’
We drove behind Lake Somerset and spent the night digging, deep holes inside the forest. Afterwards we shared a cigarette. I leant on my shovel like the councilmen do and watched Laura comb the night from her hair. Caked in blood and soil, she looked at the trees as though they were her peers. ‘He wanted to break up,’ she told them. ‘For no reason at all.’ There was nothing in the nature around us, silence. ‘Like being alone is better than being with me.’ Sunlight clawed through the canopy, striking her face. It was then she finally cried.
Jenny has a sphincter where her face should be. It dilates and contracts as she talks. I don’t know where the sound comes from. Behind the vaguely moist sphincteral folds is something more than blackness, a void where nothing should be. If she screams I will be swallowed by it. I am compelled to look. Disgust grows from the middle, assimilates my cells, leaves only the anguish of awareness. Jenny’s words become a howling sough, the torment of air being harvested by the gape in her face. I hope that she gets help, I know I am beyond it.
The skin is taut across her cheekbones and her eyes are diluted as though they’d been swirled together and left to settle, the pupil’s ink seeping meekly back into its well. She isn’t really smiling. I ask what’s wrong and she makes a rusty scoff, the sound of a bullet choking in its chamber. ‘Fuck,’ she says. ‘Everything, babe. Nothing’s right if you think on it enough.’ I put my hand on her knee and squeeze. Surely there’s some good, I tell her. She closes her eyes and stops not smiling, almost peaceful. I ask, what can I do?
Laying on her side like that, with her legs bent beneath the blanket and the flat of her feet pressed against my thigh, she looks like a diver made of felt, ready to spring from the couch without a splash. I’m playing games on my phone while she watches one of her cop dramas. The cameo commits the crime every time but she always acts surprised. After the arrest, she looks at me and says, ‘How come life is never that satisfying?’ I tell her it’s because there’s never any resolution, everything is just a middle until the end.
We sat in your car under the lighthouse beam and told each other what we thought was real. I think I said, I think I love you, uncertain then as now. You questioned it, as you always would, but didn’t stop stroking my hair. Both of us wanted to believe in something then, more than lust and electricity, a renewable energy. There was beauty to be caught and revelled in. Once it was captured we starved our imaginations, taking turns in ignoring the other. Eventually we were wrecked in rocky tempest, divided, as the lighthouse breaks open the night.
Jo runs his hand down the side of my chest. ‘Your ribcage is gorgeous,’ he says, laughing once without opening his mouth so the sound issues from inside his skull. ‘I bet your skeleton is lovely. I wish I could see it.’ Okay, I tell him, pushing his hand away, we’re done. I swing my legs off the bed, letting the momentum help me up. He sounds surprised when I look for my clothes. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ It all feels too morbid, but apparently not. ‘It would be weird if I only wanted to see part of you.’
Two lovers share a perfect silence, there’s a hint of sunset and a subtle string composition pulling the poignancy taut across the scene. I don’t know what’s going on, I haven’t been paying attention because of the chyron, but Cleo doesn’t care. ‘So what?’ she muses, ‘Piracy isn’t a thing. Creating something means giving it to the world.’ She inclines sharply toward the the lovers, ‘Everyone deserves this, but they bully us for money. Instead of raising a fist they should put out a hand.’ Like a beggar? I ask, and she tells me, ‘No, darling. Like an artist.’
In the first hour I’m awake, I do nothing you would call anything, just read news feeds and drink coffee, smoke a handful of cigarettes and calculate the minutes already bequeathed to the strictures of my life. I feel compelled to do it, acclimatise to the day the way a diver avoids the bends, though I hate it and spend masses of time reviewing the way in which I waste it. I repeat this scene at night, before I can stand to put myself to bed, rueing the natural cycle of renewal as a child laments a parent’s directive.
‘Grab one of those,’ Caleb says, pointing to a little plastic basket like the pharmacists put their meds in. The thing bristles with thumb drives, a scaled mountain of information built by an avalanche of bytes. I ask why there are so many and he makes a cadent sound in the back of his throat, an I don’t know with the consonants removed. ‘It’s a breed of social dissonance, people validating themselves by feeding media to others. USB’s are just the latest mix-tape.’ I take one at random, wondering how much thought went into all that discarded data.
While Laura looks for something to carve with, I sit by the meat and think about my last conversation with Dylan, saying he needed us to be more open. I thought he was talking about honesty, not that skank from the coffee shop. Then Laura turns up grinning, with an electric knife and a derelict hacksaw. I let her have the power and take the antique. Truncating a leg I hear cuts of his speech, the teeth sinking deeper with every repeat. I ask Laura if she’d mind stopping somewhere after this, I want to start seeing other people.
Finally found a rhythm and she pushes me off, curls up and goes dark. Still hard, I say, what? limply, shocked not confused. She mutters, ‘doesn’t matter,’ but it does. I am sticky now and absent from two spaces, unable to move forward. When I touch her it’s wrong, like sanding marble, bringing out the finish. I say okay without question and lay back into silence, sarcophagus pose. Pictured from the ceiling down, I see us in tableaux and want to carve it into something, a relief, though nothing ever tuns out as I see it in my mind.
I like watching her on winter nights, matching her cigarettes with the frost in my breath, undone by the thick grey ribbons that spool from her lips and wrap themselves about the air. All the machines read three degrees. A record breaks somewhere. ‘There is always worse,’ she says, voice still clouding between puffs, ‘but we have each other.’ I breathe into the woollen netting of my scarf and try to catch some warmth. Wood smoke rises in the distance, wisps over suburban hills, and I wonder what it feels like to watch a thing burn itself to death.