―There was no escaping. It was a feeling of total aloneness. Complete isolation. Like my entire mind had been turned in on itself. I walked miles just, like, trying to regain a sense that there was something left of me. Why I was even there. Tyler took a long pull on the beer and moved his hand on the table, next to Paula’s. ―God, and now the summer’s over. Just like that. It happens without you even seeing it. I can’t even, like, remember it. While it’s happening it’s just like blurs. But all you ever get is the present, you know? It’s insane. It was just like in high school, running around the track. The goal was very unclear. You got nowhere. You could break a record by getting to where you started. I saw the ocean, monuments and churches, cherished art, and it was inescapable. It was repetitive and terrible and made me, like, a little horny, but I had no way to act on it. Everything was a divide. I couldn’t even experience it. It was very depressing, I had to get out of there.
―But surely you cannot say all of Europe is the same in this?
―Can’t I? Didn’t I just say that?
―But that was just Berlin, it…
―No, no! Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris, Lisbon. Are you even listening? I went through it all. Portugal! Isn’t that even why we’re talking right now?
―You need to be more quiet. This is verging on the unacceptable.
―Listen, Paula. I’m sorry. Listen, see, my tone. I’ve adjusted it. I’m sorry. I got excited. I had a very difficult summer. It was difficult to control myself. I had a girl not so long ago, but she’s gone. I think I can’t control my voice because I like you so much. One woman called me crazy once, you know. It was a very painful thing. I just want to be, like… I think you are very compelling to be around.
―So you say.
―Oh god, no! I know you think I’m all, like, whatever. I’m sorry I insulted Europe. Maybe I’m not. It’s strange to be back home. I’m supposed to be, like, together. I should get a job and stuff. My cat’s all upset I’m afraid it resents me. I’m afraid it always did and I’m just seeing that now. I had a friend stop in and feed it, but maybe that wasn’t enough. It sleeps on the couch now. It shakes its ass around all brazen and stuff.
―What is your kitty’s name?
―Cookie. No. That’s a lie. I don’t know why I said it. I don’t know how that came out. Her name is Marble.
―Oh… She’s a lady cat?
―I think it’s only right for one’s pet to be of the opposite sex. It makes for a more domestic dynamic. We keep each other, like. We keep each other. Like husband and wife.
―Why does it have to be only husband and wife? You think it is not right for a man to love women and not other men?
―You’re missing the point! Of course I’m pro-gay marriage. LGBTQ whatever. Yes. I am pro all that. I’m very progressive. Believe me, I’m really very put together. About as normal as I could possibly be. I know you’re thinking otherwise, but I’m assuring you this is just an act. I have a very nice apartment, that I keep very clean and orderly and well decorated. It’s just me and Marble and our thoughts and a handful of drugs and things.
―I can’t really want to look at you when your hair is in your face like that. Getting to and inside your mouth.
―I’m sorry, it… It was supposed to be something else. It’s kind of a way of, I don’t know. It got too long. I know it doesn’t look good that’s the point.
―There are a lot of men, it seems, who look like this around the city. It’s been a eye opening experience. Everywhere, it’s like stupidity abounds. Everyone trying to outdo the next. You think it is repetitive in Europe, I think it is too much hoping for difference here. There is a certain homeliness. Everyone tries to look cooler than he is. Like are you thinking to be artist? What must you prove? What do you make?
―Well I don’t know, why don’t you come see for yourself. My place is just a few blocks from here. You don’t even know, the neighborhood’s changed so much. It is all different. That’s what I was looking for. Berlin used to be this cool, dark city with all these possibilities. It might’ve been like that here too, years ago. But it’s over.
―What is over? It’s not a memory here. You can look and see it’s as this now.
―I mean, I get it. Everywhere is over. I feel suspicious of you. What’s so great about your opinion on New York? Why don’t you come over anyway?
―But you weren’t able to communicate with women like this in Lisbon?
―Sometimes I tell people I’m bipolar to get out of difficult situations, but it didn’t really translate… He helped with her coat. ―I should warn you. That girl I told you about, she’s back in town. She’s an artist. A real one. I mean she’s also an artist. She’s showing at a gallery not far away, the opening’s tomorrow. We may be together again soon. We might be in love, the two of us. Maybe you and I won’t last, but, like, who knows? Maybe there’s time for that too. I already feel like maybe we should go. I’m, like, but, hey, so come over here in the bathroom a second, maybe you’ll like this…
―It was just so unexpected. It was scary, you know. And I don’t see why they had to interrogate me like that. Why couldn’t it have been prearranged? The way it went down, I mean, like, they know how unnerving it must have been for me.
Emily touched Esther’s arm gently, righting the plastic glass of wine. She brushed hair out of her friend’s face. ―Well, but why wouldn’t they? Why should they care? I mean, the way things are, what else could you expect?
―I hardly knew her! Esther took the wine back. ―I was barely aware who she was and then I’ve got, like. It feels like the walls were going to come down around me, I could hardly breathe. They’re in my doorway holding up their little wallets and stuff showing me badges. It was like TV.
On the wall there was a large paragraph of bold, black text that Esther had painted with stencils earlier in the week. Driftwood was arranged in the center of the room and again in the corner. In another corner, a thirty foot telephone pole stood. Emily wondered how they’d got in it. She looked back at her friend, who wasn’t far from shaking. ―Come on, it’s okay. They have to cover their bases, naturally. I mean, like, really, consider yourself lucky. I’ve been on and off the phone with them everyday for a month.
―They were acting like I knew something or something. I was crying. I couldn’t even think of her last name. The list of things they said to me… It was impossible. The room was spinning, and I’m trying to explain to them I have an opening I’m supposed to be setting up for. My first ever solo show, as if they gave a shit.
―I know. I’m sorry.
―I only met her those few times, I don’t see why they’d even consider me more than, like. Like a wisp in her life.
―It’s my fault. They probably were using our phones as microphones. They can do that you know. They knew you lived with me. Who knows how long she’d been planning it.
―But why now? Like, why ISIS?
―Why does anyone do anything?
―Does she want to die?
―I doubt it. If she did, though, would that offend you? How many of the people in your life act like they want to die all the time?
―I was reading those excerpts from her Twitter, and I was just, like inside her. Wondering. Thinking of her on the plane, crossing into Syria. The checkpoints, her planning and communications, everything, like, encrypted and stuff. It was all happening and nobody even tried to deter it? How must her family feel?
―I’ll tell you how they feel. They’re treating it like a funeral. They’ve had her Facebook shut down and they’re planning, like, a memorial or something. Her picture in the paper like that, it’s like she doesn’t even exist anymore.
―And what she’s calling herself now, Amatullah Aliyah Muhammad? How the hell did she get that from Megan?
―She always used to sing that song, "Are You That Somebody?".
―The last thing I needed this morning was the CIA in my house.
―Well it’s over. I can’t imagine they’re going to bother you anymore. Emily looked around the room. More people were coming in, wanting to say things to Esther, but seemed afraid to approach. ―And this is amazing. You guys really made it look great.
―Let me get a picture of you in front of that one.
Esther posed. ―Let me see… They passed the phone back and forth. ―Has she tried to get in touch with you at all?
―She did… She tried to, like, convert me. Like a week after she left. It was very weird. I had to, like, contact this guy from Washington and he came over and took my computer and gave me a new one. They said that’s going to happen every time she contacts me, if she does, but I doubt she will.
―I hate this world.
―Well so did she, I guess.
―Hiya. Esther felt someone’s hand on her shoulder.
―Oh. Suddenly she was being hugged and put her arms out, gathering what was happening. ―Tyler. Hi.
―I don’t believe you. Did somebody do something to you? Did somebody try to sexually assault you or something?
―That’s good. That’s a relief. This place looks great! Hi Emily. She walked away. ―I can’t believe you put all this together in just a few months, god. I’m so happy for you.
―Well, thank you. Thanks. I just hope it’s not too stupid. I don’t even care if anything sells, I just don’t want someone to write something for a lot of people to read that says it’s stupid.
―Well someone’s going to say it’s stupid. People always say stuff like that. Hey where’d you get that wine? Not that it means that it is stupid, it’s just that stupid people, like, there’s always enough of them to… You know?
―I guess so.
―So where’d you get that wine?
―It’s on the table, over there.
―Oh, just a second. He poured himself a glass. Drank it and poured another. ―I have a terrible hangover, I’m sorry. I could hardly get out of bed, but I had to come see you. This is amazing.
―You know, like, the artist herself. You were right. It’s good you went back to school. How else would you have had the time, the resources. You were so right. I’m sorry I ever said anything contrary. Like, this is really an accomplishment. You’re the real thing, I mean, look at it.
―All right, okay. It’s just, you know. It’s really nothing. It’s just what I was working on, I don’t know.
―Well anything more like this and you’re made. Like, your career… Listen, I’m just so happy I get to see you. I haven’t stopped thinking about you. Maybe you think I did stop, but I didn’t. You left an impression on me that I can’t get away from.
―How was your summer?
―You know, it was pretty horrible. Running around Europe alone, lost. I wanted to feel like I was enveloping myself. I wanted to believe I could make myself a part of anything, but I couldn’t. It gave me a lot of time to think, though, you know? Maybe I’m not on the right path. Maybe I should listen to others more than just run my mouth and believe in a certain destiny because I’m so much better than everyone. I’m really not. I’m really sad. I’m sad and anxious, and I thought I’d somehow gotten out of that with energy or whatnot. But, like, I think I’m more like I was as a child than I ever have been before.
―That’s a very, um… You sound like you’ve had a chance to really… That’s a very mature realization.
―I mean, I get it. It was my fault things didn’t work. But you’re independent, you’re in control of your life. I respect that. Last winter everything was all over the place for me, but I’m more centered. I see things how they are. I, like, I think you know what I mean.
―Your hair looks better.
―Oh, you think so? Well thank you. You know, I don’t want to alienate people anymore. I want to be a part of people. I think you taught me that. I feel inspired by what you’ve done here.
―It really isn’t anything.
―But it is! It makes me feel like I want to make sculpture and art and stuff. Do you think I could make something like this, if I tried?
―Maybe… I’m not sure. Maybe your thing more is about who you are. Maybe you’re more the product than the creator… Of, like, yourself.
―Well see, that’s what I always thought. You always understood stuff about me before I even got there myself. But I don’t want to be that anymore. I want to be something besides myself. I want myself to be able to, like, to take the back seat to something greater I’ve accomplished or something. I want to be like you.
―I don’t know if you want to be like me, Tyler. This past year was a struggle. Like, just this morning, I…
―But that struggle, see! It’s productive. It’s beautiful. You take something out of your instability, you don’t just see the despair and say that’s it! The insanity alone is not the answer, it’s the thing you work to escape, to express!
―Please don’t try to, like. Don’t put your own ideas on top of my, like. I’m a person. You’re projecting.
―Can’t you just come here and say hello? Why do you have to act like this is some gesture. I have a bunch of friends here and I’m all caught up dealing with you. I thought we let this go after you couldn’t handle trying to visit even just that one time.
―But it has to be now. You’re here now, and…
―Esther! Hi! Matt bounded across the room, wrapping her in his arms.
―Oh, hello, Matt.
―Here you are again! Sorry I’m late, but I just heard about this now! The event just popped up on my Facebook, why didn’t you invite me?
―Oh, you know those things, it’s, like, sometimes it just messes up and never works.
―God, like, this sure is… Wait. So how do you know Tyler?
―Oh, Tyler… He’s just…
―Well, Matt, it’s good to see you. Did you have any luck with quitting your job this summer?
―Hey, you know what, I’m not like you. I can’t just ask my parents for money and fuck around and go travel the world carefree. I don’t have that luxury.
―You think I’m… You think I get money from my parents?
―Well whatever it is. I can’t live like that. I wanted to, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but…
―You left me alone out there, man. I was waffling. I was flapping my arms in the fucking deep end of the pool, man. Like at the edge of losing it. Who would’ve taken my picture if I’d died? What was I supposed to be doing out across Europe all fucked and alone?
―I told you, I’m sorry. You should’ve hit me up when you got back. I’ve missed you, but… Wait, Esther, where are you going? We should, like, catch up. How long are you in town?
―I don’t think this really concerns…
―But of course it does, wait! Wait, please, how long are you in town? I feel so stupid we never got a chance to hang out after that whole fucking ordeal at Myrtle. I spent the night in a holding cell, and then the next night too. They don’t see people on Sundays.
―Well that’s awful, but…
―Well just let me know if you’re in town, and did you change your number because I tried to text you after that and nobody responded.
―I’m sorry. I, like, I live here now, okay? So if you ever, like, really need to…
―Wait! Tyler grasped her forearm. ―How long have you been back in the city?
―A few months.
―What do you mean a few months?
―Well I graduated in May, so… What else was I going to do? Stay living in Rhode Island?
―Jesus, like. You… Tyler stopped holding her arm. ―But why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you tell me?
―Why would she tell you? How do you even know each other?
―What? Matt looked at Tyler. He looked at Esther.
―We dated for like a second. It wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t realize how much it mattered to you. It’s not like you were dying to stay in touch with me the past six months.
―It’s not my fault! You left and I didn’t know how to do long distance. You weren’t anywhere near, and maybe I needed you. And then you came back without saying anything? I was battling my way through foreign countries and we could’ve been hanging out? I’ve been battling my way through just trying to be alive.
―You… But how did you date? How did you even know each other?
―I met her on a dating thing. I used, like, an app on my phone or whatever.
―I don’t know. In like February? It doesn’t matter. Listen, Esther…
She opened her mouth.
―Wait. Wait. Was this before or after I told you about her?
―What do you mean?
―Was this before or after I, like, fucking bore my soul to you? Matt didn’t know what to do with his hands. ―About how I’ve never been able to get over her.
―Man, I really don’t even remember. You think I care about…
―Yes, yes I do! I think you did care. I think you still only even gave a shit enough about it because I…
―You don’t know what you’re talking about.
―Did you, like, fucking stalk her? Did you try to figure out who she was through my social media and shit?
―And what if I did? What if I did? It doesn’t mean, like… It was still total chance. So I looked around and found her website and Twitter and what if I was able to glean she was recently single? Even if I fucked around on enough dating things, it was still complete chance. She had to reach out to me too. That’s how these things work. I might have given it a little shove, I might have tried all the angles I could or whatever, but I couldn’t force her to try back. Your little speech, sure it got in my head, but it was me who got into her life, not you. You didn’t do anything to make us fall into each other.
―I can’t believe this.
―It was kismet! It was true and honest kismet!
―No! No, what Esther and I have is kismet. It was going on for ten years, we keep running in and out of each others lives. We’re the ones falling into each other, not you! You just tried to take advantage of a situation because you’re a… conniving ass.
―Okay, what did my profile say? I made my About me thing specific. It was explicit, it said Must be depressed. It was funny. It was my way of getting girls to think it was funny, to look at my thing and if we had that in common, that’s why they reached out. Esther and me, we’re depressed. We’re the kind of people who suffer through this life looking for something. She’s an artist, and I am too. We have more in common than your little story about thinking she was cool when you were fifteen.
―But I’m depressed! Look at me, I’m depressed too! I’ve always been depressed!
―You’re not depressed. You’re normal. You go to work, you get tired of taking pictures. You’re a couple years away from moving to Westchester with some other dull bitch and sitting at a desk for the rest of your life. You don’t have passion, you don’t have fury. You have nothing to escape, no lust for life.
―I’ve been in therapy for years!
―That’s nothing! That’s meaningless. Think about not even being able to deal with a therapist. That’s real illness!
―You don’t know. I am, like. I’m horribly depressed. I’m crushed. I’ve been betrayed by the two most important people in my life.
―Now how can you say that? Esther, who’d been looking at her phone. People were moving around them now, trying to distract her from the display. ―This is, like, the fifth time we’ve ever even seen each other.
―Face it, pal. You’re nothing to her. You’re not even on her level. You come over here like a little puppy yapping at her heels, vying for her affection. You’re pathetic.
―Fuck you, man. Fuck all of this.
―Just leave. This is awful. This whole thing is, like. God. Why did you even come here? To look at art?
―I don’t need this world! Matt ran out of the gallery.
―Jesus… I’m sorry you had to see that. That’s my old life. That’s behind me. He doesn’t understand the nature of existence like we do. We think differently, we love differently. He just thinks things can, like, fall into his lap if he follows after them. That’s all he is. He’s a follower.
―It’s okay. It’s over. I’m sorry he annoyed you for so long. I’m glad you came back, I can forgive you for not telling me. I understand. I hurt you… He walked around Esther’s turned away body to face her. ―We love each other, Esther. We were always going to have it harder than others, but together…
―I don’t love you, though. I never loved you.
―Don’t say that. But maybe you just don’t understand how to approach something that feels so difficult at first.
―You don’t love me. You don’t, like. Just… This isn’t about that. I got back with my boyfriend months ago. Like, almost as soon as you wouldn’t come visit me. In Providence. We were only ever broken up for like a few months anyway.
―What do you mean? Like if you have a boyfriend, then where is he now? Why isn’t he at your opening?
―He’s right there. A man stood under the telephone pole, admiringly. He waved.
―But why is he… Why didn’t he…
―Because he respects me. I don’t need someone to be, like, irrational and horrible and hopeless around me. He’s supportive. He understands my art.
―But what does it mean? He turned to the man in the corner. ―What does it mean? The boyfriend smiled. He shrugged.
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