The day I graduated from college, I stood for a long time in the bathroom. I studied the mirror for signs of adulthood, as I had not done since I started puberty. I checked to see, if in some way, the event had left any physical markers. Maybe I had developed a wrinkle, or my facial hair had developed into the five o’clock stubble I saw on action heroes. I squinted at every spot and blemish on my skin looking for change. I stretched and folded my body into different postures, wondering if maybe I had transformed. While washing my hands I recited every line of poetry I had retained, and when that finished, recounted theories and the name of every president I could name from George Washington on, as if it were an incantation. When I came to terms that no, I had not, I shut the sink and left.
Waiting outside was my older brother, John. John had left the city for Arizona four years ago and built a house with his girlfriend, Karen. They had met at a rave while he was still getting in trouble with our parents. John was the kind of older brother who keeps your mom up late at night wondering where he is, only to have him show up drunk or high with some girl. One of the girls stuck, and she was Karen.
“Zack, I’m proud of you.” He said a tone familiar to me only through my dad. “For what?” I said.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he smiled, “for skydiving. For graduating, jackass.”
I was the first of my family to graduate, and so for them it carried mystique, prestige and the implicit promise of success. Not success as measured by say, Bill Gates, but success on a more basic level- the American Dream.
“It’s nothing,” I said despondently, “I just did all the work I had to do.”
“You know,” he said, “I could never have done it. Sometimes I wish I could go back, you know, for Karen and all, but, what are you gonna do?” he said shrugging, indicating it was a divine mandate for resignation.
We both looked over to Karen, who at the moment was in what looked like a wild and exciting conversation with our mother. Karen has a knack for making our mother move dramatically, as if possessed by a younger and freer version of herself.
“I’ll be right back buddy,” he said going into the bathroom and tapping me on the shoulder in a way that made me cringe slightly. It makes me cringe to be touched at all, though John never takes notice.
It’s not that I don’t like John; on the contrary, I love him. But in the subsequent years since he moved we had become strangers. Strangers who had shared so much, and yet could not bridge that past to the now.
“Zack!” Karan called out as I walked towards my seat. “I’m happy for you!” “I’m happy too.” I said.
She leaned in, oblivious that she had abruptly left the conversation with my mother.
“John and I have to give you something, but we can’t here. Come with us after the dinner, that’s it. That’s all I can say now.” She gestured a “shush” that my mother ignored. I nodded seriously as though it were the most important assignment, a final test of my ability.
When John got out of the bathroom Karen’s face lit up. It was clear they were madly in love, or mad and in love, or if nothing else, they were to each other the reason to wake up. Like the house they had built, they had created a safety in one another’s company.
I pulled out my phone, which provided for me a place to glance without staring. My friend Bill texted me. “What are you doing after?” “Nothing,” I replied,” I just need to do something with my brother first. Should be quick.”
“What are you doing now?” a voice to my left called out. It was my aunt.
“Nothing,” I said.
“No plans for work?” she said, a bit concerned.
“Oh,” I realized, “I think I’m going to apply to a bunch of newspapers.”
“Hmm” she said, “your uncle used to write for the papers. Actually, he used to deliver them as a boy. You don’t do newspaper routes anymore, right? That’s kind of an old thing?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “I guess it is.”
In truth, I did not know about what I would do now. The thought of a job filled me with anxiety. I had told myself to get through the semester, and things would be clearer. I assumed fate would fill in the blanks. Was this it? I had always felt that amazing things would happen to me. I imagined my life, now, as it looked. I drew a blank.
We finished up dinner. My parents gave a toast. “To the future,” they said. Karen lifted her glass of wine and finished it all, ritualistically. John did the same. And then, so did I.
After we paid, we left the restaurant. John told my parents that he and Karen were taking me out to celebrate at a bar.
“Do not drink and drive,” my dad warned.
“I will be sober as the day I was born,” John said smirking.
We got into the car. Bill texted me again. “Text me when you want to come over.” “Okay.”
We got into the car and almost immediately John drove off. Karen looked in his direction, and even though she said nothing it was as if they were speaking already.
“Alright,” John said.
“What’s the surprise?” I asked.
Karen turned around in the passenger seat.
“Have you ever done molly?” “That’s ecstasy, right?” I asked. “Not really. Not exactly.” John said.
I had tried ecstasy once and barely felt anything. My friends told me it was impossible that I didn’t feel it, but I didn’t.
Karen reached into her purse and took out three clear pills with white powder in them. She fed John one as he was driving and washed her own down with Poland Spring.
“He takes it without water,” she said. “He’s like a garbage disposal.” John smashed his teeth together making machines noises.
She passed a pill to me and I held it. Karen stared intently until I decided to put it in my mouth. I bit.
“It’s bitter,” I said slurring with the taste.
“You’re not supposed to bite it. Take water.” She offered.
I gulped it down and immediately felt better. I had nothing to lose. No destination for which I was headed and no deadline to meet. It was something like freedom.
We went to a bar John used to take me to when he still lived here. I was seventeen, and he was twenty-three. He would tell me how to pick up women there. It turns out there are many techniques, and some of them passed down in the hope that each person and each other person only needs to know the right things to say and then they could fuck. I told John I didn’t want to use his technique, it sounded mechanical.
“You can play it by ear, but you’ll have to learn from scratch,” he had said, “I was trying to spare you the shame of your first few strike-outs. But, you know what, rite of passage, huh?”
I started to get a familiar feeling creeping up my spine as we walked in, as if we had all been on vacation and just now got home. The stale smell was potently soothing.
We all ordered drinks. John gave me a nodding approval for ordering whiskey. After I finished mine, Karen gave me a hug without warning. John waited until she was done to speak.
“Zack, you’re a great brother.” John said. “Why is that?” I asked.
“Because you’re doing something. This is what it’s all about; you’re going to make something of yourself. You’re the good kid.”
“Thanks. I’m not really a kid though.” I said.
“Shit, you’re right,” he said, “not a kid.”
Karen smiled until her face looked strained. He put his arm on my shoulder and I returned it, reluctantly. The summer warmth had overpowered everything. It felt like we were blooming with it.
I excused myself to use the bathroom. After I finished I stood in front of the mirror, again, this time completely fascinated. I leaned in really close and then pulled back pretending that I startled myself. Then I put my hands up against the glass and pressed my forehead to my forehead. I stared at myself with a guilty grin.
I remembered Bill waiting in his apartment. It wasn’t too far from here. Come to think of it, I had met Bill one night I came to this bar without John. He bought me a drink because we had gone to the same high school. We didn’t know each other because he was a senior when I was a freshman. I wasn’t the type of freshman that hung out with seniors.
“What if I was your friend in high school,” he once asked me, “would you still have had that bad spell?”
“I think it’s a chemical thing,” I said, “its hormones and neurotransmitters and all that.” “But if I was your friend, you’d have had different brain waves,” he insisted.
“No, I don’t think it works like that.” “Oh, it definitely does.”
When I returned from the bathroom I told John and Karen I had to go. I said it had been fun but I had made plans before and didn’t expect to be this long.
“Stay a bit, man, we only just got here.” John said.
“Don’t leave already!” Karen agreed. “I want you to stay!” “Shit, invite him here!” John said.
“I guess, yeah, I guess there are no laws against that.”
I decided his apartment was close enough to run the distance. There was no barrier with time. There was only the distance I had to go. I ran the five blocks to his apartment. The exercise seemed too easy. All these years I had been neglecting my body’s capabilities.
I rang his buzzer, feeling unstoppable. He buzzed me in. I ran up the flights of stairs to his apartment.
“Are you training for a marathon?” he joked.
“No. Oh you’re joking, got it.” I said. I went for the hug. “People don’t hug enough,” I said.
“They don’t. Don’t take this the wrong way, are you drunk?” he asked.
“I took molly,” I said.
“The drug molly, or . . .” he left the implication hanging. “Yes,” I rubbed my scalp slowly, “the drug molly.” “Good.” He smiled.
We sat down on his leather couch. Sitting was preferable to standing. Much more so. Standing always seems to imply impermanence. I could be leaving any minute. But sitting was like Zen activity. It was always so present. It was a meditation.
“I think I should read up on Buddhism,” I said.
“You’re not going off to a monastery on me, are you?” he said.
The atmosphere was cozy. There were no real restrictions; nothing universal that could stop me but gravity.
He sat next to me and put on the television.
“I don’t want to watch TV,” I said, “Actually, I quit TV. There’s too much going on in real life. We don’t need it.”
“Alright Plato,” he turned it off. “No more caves for us.”
We sat in silence, but a happy silence. I could say anything in theory, and therefore I said nothing. It was the law of reverse effect. The more I could say the less I could choose. Everything hung on my word and thus was too profound to even begin.
“Does this feel okay?” he asked putting his hand on my leg. I nodded without feeling. He moved his hand up to my stomach and rubbed it. It felt exactly the same as it not being there.
“That reminds me of what kids do. When they want to say they’re hungry.” I rubbed my scalp some more.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
I shook my head no, like a child.
“You’re never going to be in my head. And I will never be in yours, but that’s okay.” He had reached into my pants before I started to speak again.
“Let’s not do anything.” I said. “I want to talk.”
“What about?” He said. It was alienating to not be understood, but the urge to return to the bar was weak now. Even if John and Karen were waiting. Even if the whole world was waiting it made no difference. The world was always turning and in its inertia I knew I could not move at all. I was centered, even if I was not geometrically in the center, I was there
“How does it feel to be done with school?” he asked adjusting his position to the other side of the couch.
“A bit surreal. Kind of nauseating, like I’m in free fall.” I held my head like I had vertigo. “In a good way?” he asked.
I paused for a bit. I chewed on my bottom lip, no doubt making my front teeth look huge.
“Bill, can you tell me your life story?” I asked.
“My life story?” he responded amused, “my whole life?” “Yeah. I want to hear your life story.”
“From birth?” he asked teasingly.
“Maybe,” I said, “if that’s where you want to start.” “Can you tell me yours after?” he asked.
Then, though we talked in words, we spoke of things that cannot be described. We spoke in all the languages of the world, even sign language, even body language, because nothing could be left out.
When we had exhausted everything, Bill went to sleep on the couch. It was a deep sleep and I could tell it was only the sleep of completion. And in a matter of minutes I came down from the high.
I was in the real world again. It was not as bright as before. I realized I had been all the things I thought I had transcended. I was tired, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was lonely. There would always be need as long as I lived. It was complex and yet the first and foremost truth.
When I slept that night I slept dreamlessly. It was just like being dead. Maybe for all intents and purposes it was death, in a small dose. It was easy to die, and thus it was easy to live.
Joe Marchia is an author and artist. His writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Citizens for Decent Literature, Instigatorzine Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Beatnik, Milk Sugar Literature, Emerge Literary Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, The Earthbound Review and Quail Bell Magazine His e-book, For Whatever and Whenever: Collected Poems and Fragments, was published in 2013. His novella, Time, is currently unpublished.