Stray Dog Rut

The beginning of the end kicked off in Belize City courtesy of a little cabana bar down by the ocean. The water there wasn’t the crystalline blue you might see in travel advertisements. It was brown and frothy, slapping at the thick plastic barriers that kept it from engulfing the sidewalk just beyond. Not much to look at, really, but I was lost and I was hot and the sign outside the little hut promising cheap beers just spoke to me.
The interior was nicer than I expected. Several low tables spread around a medium-sized room. A short bar off to the right with a handsome black man tending it. He smiled at me, shining teeth standing out. I smiled back. It wasn’t a bad start.
The windows — really just clear plastic stretched over and bolted into wooden frames — were all open, rippling softly in the afternoon breeze. Records hung up on the wall next to the bar, paired with portraits of the reggae artists who recorded them. That same music, easy and relaxing and very Caribbean, played through speakers I couldn’t spot.
At the bar I ordered a bottle of the local beer. There were signs every ten feet throughout the city advertising it, so I figured what the hell? When in Rome. I asked for a shot of one of the local rums as well, and the tender slid a plastic cup full of light gold liquor next to the beer. A small bowl with two salt and two slices of lime followed.
“What, am I supposed to drink this like tequila?” I asked.
“You drink it however you like, my man. It is your drink.” He leaned across the bar and extended his hand. “Rámon.”
I took his hand in my own and shook it. His palm was coarse, callused. He did more work than pour drinks. I liked it.
“Jack,” I said, which was close enough to the truth. “This your place, Rámon?”
“My father’s place. He and I take turns here and on the boat for fishing tours. Do you fish?”
“I do not.”
I held up a finger to pause the conversation and took the shot. It went down smoothly but tasted a little too sweet for me. I left the salt alone but bit into one of the lime slices.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think I’ll stick to the beer.”
Rámon laughed and grinned at me again. I couldn’t tell if it was because he thought I was genuinely funny or he liked me or he was just doing his job. I was a pretty decent. Picking up hints coming the other way? Whole different story. Two more hours and twice as many beers only made the issue fuzzier.
And then the storm hit.
Now, tropical storms aren’t unusual in Belize, and especially not at that time of the year. Blue skies turn to dark gray clouds at a second’s notice. Rain starts pummeling down. Perfectly normal, lasting anywhere from ten minutes to several hours. This storm, while not particularly ruinous, was one of the latter. I helped Rámon close and strap shut the windows; the plastic wraps fluttered violently in the wind but held tight.
“These going to be good?” I asked when we were finished.
“They will hold. Thank you for helping. Next round is on me.”
“Suits me, because I’m not planning on walking out in that shit.”
My idea wasn’t original. Even as I posted back up at the bar, a group of people rushed in looking to escape the rain. There were six of them: four women, two men, all tourists like me. They were too bright-eyed for a place like Belize City. Hadn’t had enough strangers yell at them yet.
It was impossible not to eavesdrop on them when they shuffled up next to me at the bar; if proximity hadn’t been an issue, the decibels would have sufficed. They were American — again like me — and young, though I suspected most of them were able to drink legally back home. They were a diverse group, vacationing down from some college I had never heard of. I raised my beer in a toast.
“Wait ’til we get ours!” one of the young men shouted excitedly. He had a pronounced nose and slicked-back hair. A real partier by the sound of him.
Rámon loaded up a mixture of cocktails and beers for the group. They each took turns tapping my bottle and then filed off to a table in the back corner. One of the girls — blonde curls and full lips — walked backward, her eyes on me.
“Why don’t you come join us?”
“I don’t want to be that creepy older guy crashing the party.”
“You can’t crash the party if you’re invited. You’re American, right?”
“More or less.”
“Well, it’s pouring rain outside and you look lonely, so why don’t you come over and tell us where you’re from?”
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe in a few.”
My beer was empty. What number was this one? One less than was necessary at the very least. I ordered two more.
“Looks like you’ve made new friends, Jack,” Rámon said. He placed the two beers down, one in front of the other.
“I don’t know about all that.”
“Maybe you should take another look.”
I turned around and gave the group another glance. The blonde was staring right back. She crooked a finger. She gave a wink. Rámon might have seemed a mystery, but even a clueless idiot like me could pick up what she was throwing down. I grabbed my beers and headed over.

*****

“Do you want to see a magic trick?”
The words came out of my mouth mumbled, more for myself than the groggy girl nestled in the crook of my arm. The words were habit. A welcoming call to strangers on the street approximately 120 seconds before I hustled them out of some cash.
The room around us moaned in response. I had stayed in worse places, but not many. The chipped turquoise walls sucked the light out of the single exposed bulb on the ceiling. The ceiling itself angled inexplicably downward, creating a hazard for even the average-heighted person. But the girl (Jennifer? Jessica? No, Jennifer.) hadn’t seemed to mind, so neither did I.
“What did you say?” she murmured into my chest.
“Magic trick. You want to see one?”
“Mm. Mmkay.”
She placed her palm equidistant between my nipples and used it to help herself up into a sitting position. I reached down to the floor — there was no room for any kind of nightstand — and snatched up my pack of cigarettes. I tapped one out for myself, then offered her one.
“I thought this was a No Smoking room.”
“It is.”
“Won’t you get fined or something?”
“I don’t care.”
And that was true: I didn’t. It wouldn’t take much for me to get rid of any lingering smoke or smell, but considering how much I had paid for this shithole, I thought just as much about setting the whole bed on fire.
Jennifer took a cig and placed it between her lips. I scooted my ass a bit so I could face her better and then touched the tips of my middle finger and thumb together in front of her cigarette. She looked at my hand, bemused, going a bit cross-eyed in the process. I checked a chuckle.
“You ready?”
She nodded.
“Alright. Presto fucking amazo!”
I snapped and a light purple flame danced at the tip of my thumb. I was disappointed. Outside, in the dark of night, it would have looked beautiful. With the shitty paint job of my hotel room as a backdrop, it came off washed out and muted instead. She gasped all the same, and I used it to light her smoke and my own.
“Blow it out,” I said. When she tried, I willed the flame away. She sat back, any trace of the lethargy she had shown vanished just the same.
“How’d you do that?”
“Trade secret.”
“Butane?”
“Sure.”
“It’s just like the movies!”
*That* made me laugh. “Yeah. Just like it.”
The next couple hours went like that: her asking what kind of things I could do and how. Me politely deflecting. She talked. I listened.
No, I didn’t. Who was I kidding? I was too busy asking myself why I showed her the flame trick in the first place. Was it just out of sheer boredom? Or, even worse, *nostalgia*? It was a blessed relief when she finally lay her head back down, this time on a pillow.
“Goodnight, Jennifer,” I said.
Several long beats of silence passed. She slowly rolled over so her back was facing me.
“Jessica.”
Dammit.
I kept still until I was sure she had fallen asleep, wary that jostling her might provoke a stronger rebuke. My mind wandered, away from the room, away from the country entirely. I found myself missing home. New Orleans. The Big Easy, though I never called it that. Found the nickname insulting, if we’re being honest, to everybody who had to scrape through the days.
I had been one of them once upon a time, back during the best years of my life. Hustling catty-corner to trumpet players crooning for bead-bearing tourists. Keeping track of just how much more money I had to earn for a cheap bowl of gumbo and to kick up the line for permission to keep using the gift. I missed the hot weather, the beautiful women.
I glanced down at Jessica. Belize checked off those last two boxes at least.
But what had happened back home? How did things go so wrong? Now it seemed like everyone I knew was either trying to kill me or were ratting me out to the people trying to kill me. What the hell happened to friendship? Pinky swears used to mean something. Blood pacts used to mean a whole lot more.
“What’s the matter, tiger? Can’t sleep?”
“Uh.”
Jessica’s voice startled me. I hadn’t registered her waking up, and she had spoken in a lower octave with some gravel in it, like she was trying to tell a campfire ghost story. I turned to look at her and she slowly rolled my way until she was laying on her back, only her head turned my direction. Her pupils had dilated so far that I couldn’t make out any other color in her eyes, just two black pits in little white seas.
“What’s the matter, Jacob? You look concerned.”
That voice again. I could feel goosebumps rising.
“It’s Jack,” I said dumbly. “Wait, is this because I called–”
“Your name is Jacob. Or tiger, if we’re feeling frisky.”
And then suddenly something clicked in the back of my mind with all the subtlety of a grenade going off. The words came out of Jessica’s mouth, but it wasn’t her saying them.
“Milo?”
“Ding ding ding!”
Jessica (or her body, anyway) tried to smile. Her lips slowly spread apart, exposing her teeth. Her cheeks retracted. Instead of the inviting expression that hooked me at the cabana bar, I got a rictus grin.
“What the fuck?”
I didn’t mean to, but I could feel myself drawing out each of those words as if I were speaking in slow motion. It had nothing to do with the hinky hoodoo going on in my room; I was just shocked because I had only heard of the spell I was witnessing the results of, and it didn’t work out well the last time someone tried it.
I rolled out of bed and began scrambling for clothes. Pants? Necessary, check. Shirt? Got it. Socks? I’d buy more later. I did a quick pat over my body to make sure I had my wallet and passport, then reached for the door.
“Jake,” Milo croaked through Jessica. “Meet me at the big studio. You know the one. One hour. One hour, tiger.”
I damn near ripped the door from its hinges.
#
There isn’t a cool story behind my discovering magic. No candle-lit basement sacrifices. I didn’t wander into the back room of a Santerían shop and meet a skull-faced death goddess. No blood moon on my birthday; it was a waxing crescent, the week before Thanksgiving. How boring is that?

No, what happened is I was lucky enough to be born with the gift — more people are than you might think — and I stumbled ass-backwards into it about the time I hit puberty. Most with an innate ability to use magic go their whole lives without tapping into it, or they don’t even notice when they do. See, some spells require ingredients to prepare, while others need a clear verbal invocation. Some spells just need intent and the right gesture, but you still have to do it correctly.
My experience was… well, you know how some kids would pretend to telekinetically bring something closer or throw something away? It was basically that, but after getting my ass kicked for wearing a purple windbreaker. Eighth graders are savages.

I remember getting up from the field, mud dropping off the front of me in chunks, mixing with the blood I had spit all over the ground from two split lips. I made a gesture with my arm, awkward because my whole body hurt, where my fingers curled and my wrist turned at an odd angle. The gang of hooligans saw none of it as they walked away, thank God; their laughter would have finished what their fists and feet started. They also didn’t notice the filthy puddle next to them until it rose up and drenched them head to toe.

I ran as fast as I could in the other direction, saving my laughter until I was home.

By the time I got there, though, I had almost talked myself out of being responsible for the splash. The thought persisted anyway, keeping me up late into the night: what if I *had* caused it? The day had been calm. The puddle had been deep but still. I couldn’t come up with any other explanation, so I caved to my ego. I decided I needed to recreate what happened.

That weekend I went back out to the field. The mud had dried but the puddle remained, and I stood still next to it until I was certain no one else would be wandering by. Two straight hours of failure followed as I flailed, gesticulated, and windmilled to no effect. I clenched my jaw and squinted at the water. I tried to project my mind at it.

Nothing. I trotted home, dejected.

I would learn later that I was off base in more ways than one and just had no idea. I was missing intent, for one. For another, my gestures were completely wrong. But my biggest misconception? I thought I had affected the water and tried to do so again. It was actually the *air* around it.

I spent the next month nearly mindless. My schoolwork suffered. I suffered, too, at the hands of the same bullies. In times of boredom or loneliness I would fling my arm out again, always in a different arrangement, but my heart wasn’t in it. By the time the semester ended, I was thinking about what I would need to do to drop out of school without anyone getting on my case. My dad was dead and my ma might as well have been, so it was just the school and the state I had to worry about. Plots and schemes to get aroune them were going through my mind when I heard my name from the front of the class.

My science teacher, Mister Artur Cormier, held my test paper up. Even from the back of the room I could see the fat red F he had drawn in the middle of it. He was saying something about how unbelievably poor I had done, that it must have been deliberate, and then he began to read off some of the answers I had written.

I didn’t hear anything after that. Rage consumed me. My temples pounded. My arms shook. I flung one of them out and muscle memory I didn’t knew I had contorted my limb into the proper gesture. A gust of wind rose up in front of Mister Cormier’s desk, scattering the tests of my classmates and ripping mine from my teacher’s hands.

As the papers floated down to settle on the floor, the classroom was stone silent. Most of the kids had turned to stare at me. A few had turned to look at the windows, which were closed. Sorry, guys. It was me.

I reached down to grab the backpack slumped against the front leg of my desk. I didn’t say anything as I walked out and nobody said anything to me. That was the last time I stepped foot in a classroom.

Instead, I devoted the bulk of my newfound free time to scouring the library and the internet for anything and everything I could find on telekinesis, element manipulation, and — eventually — full-blown motherfucking magic. I read for hours at a time, sifting through nine parts bullshit to find that one part goldmine. I memorized rules and legends from the worlds of magic and visited every hoodoo, voodoo, and black crafts store in the city. I discovered new spells and practiced the ways to move my body so I could cast them. All of this I did alone, mostly in secret. It was a lot like masturbation, sure, but more fun and informative.

I learned, for example, that air magic was the most accessible for beginners because air is all around us. I branched out from there into related magics and then sub-branches of *those*. That’s how I discovered illusory crafts. My first love, the one that pulled me fully away from the tatters of my old life and moved me into my new one.

If you head into any city with a lot of foot traffic, you’re bound to find a hustler or two working a crowd. ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ is an expression for a reason. It isn’t always stupid people that fall for it, either: there are a healthy amount of bright, brilliant people that believe they simply *can’t be tricked*. Their wit and observation is greater than your petty sleight of hand. Your base deception. Sometimes they’re even right! But most times, people can’t outfox a hungry thief with thousands of hours of practice.

So I bought a half a dozen decks of cards with money I pilfered from my ma while she was on one of her benders. I got a bag of marbles and some red plastic cups. I practiced. I got good, *really* fucking good. Then I tossed some magic in the mix.

First it was basic illusion work. You’re looking for a Queen of Hearts, but suddenly it looks like a Ten of Clubs. You think you saw the marble roll under the left cup, but did it really ever move at all? From there, I graduated to full on displacement magic and moved the card or the marble wherever the hell I wanted it.

Sleight of hand stacks the deck against you. Magic yanks the carpet out from under your feet. I left school when I was 13 years old. I left home three weeks before my 15th birthday. I celebrated Christmas that year by tricking nearly three grand out of drunk tourists with no sense and no better place to be.

Weeks passed, then months, then years. The money was good but seemed to disappear just as quickly as I made it. Fancy meals, designer clothes. Nice hotel rooms when I didn’t feel like camping outside somewhere, tucked away just off the street, in an alley that smelled like spoiled milk. It sounds bad, but even that had its charms. There was a three-circle Venn diagram I found myself a part of: the street people, the street hustlers, and the street practitioners. All of them had a magic about them in some way, and they became the family I had lost when my father passed.

I narrowed my studies to refine my craft. I was no wizard or warlock, no sorcerer. I wasn’t a magician with a pretty assistant and a collapsing rod or a hat with a bunny in it. I was a young man with a gift and a vagabond life. I was a grifter guru and, “You want to see a magic trick?” was my mantra.

“You want to see a magic trick?” And people did. And they put their money on the belief they could outwit me. And I twitched the right fingers, turned the right palm, put the right feeling into it and came away richer for it. Things were good.

Then, for better and worse, Milo came along.

I was still learning what it meant to be a man with the gift in Louisiana. I had learned a lot but knew next to nothing. So, eighteen months or so before Uncle Twist and Inchpatter dragged me through a bone tunnel, read me the Cold Word, and drew my blood, all I saw was a handsome mark making his way toward my table and me.

Milo had three days’ worth of stubble — the perfect amount — when I first met him. His dirty-blond hair was cut short and messy near the back. A cowlick he could never quite tame. I noticed his gray eyes and enjoyed them, but it was the devil in his smile that I picked up on most.

I should have known then that it was trouble and called it a day right there. I used to have good instincts for that, back when I was getting my ass kicked into my throat three times a week. But I was 20 and I had magic and I had yet to discover my talent for fucking up a good thing.
#
I moved through the Belizean night like a phantom, sticking to shadows where I could and pushing a little magic out for cover when I couldn’t. What scattered lights there were cast a pale orange shroud over the street. I was careful to watch each step, though the ground wasn’t uneven.
In fact, the sidewalks were actually pretty well built, thick concrete squares settled into the sides of the road. It was just that every so often, one of those blocks would be missing completely, leaving a two foot drop into filthy water for the unwary. All matter of gross stuff could be found in those holes: plastic bottles and chip bags, holey socks and dead animals. I saw a condom floating in one; that was enough to convince me to pay attention.
My hotel shrank behind me as I moved and disappeared from sight completely after the first corner I turned. I felt kind of bad about leaving Jessica there, but I didn’t know what Milo would have done to her if I had stuck around. I didn’t even know he could pull off what he did! It was best just to leave and hope she would wake up before checkout to do the same.
The buildings around me leaned in conspiratorially. Unlike the sidewalks, these were crooked and wore their years like a bad suit. Doors had slivers missing from them. Windows were just holes: the glass, the frames, everything was just gone. Where there was paint, it was chipped. Hell, the buildings themselves were chipped and crumbling.
In the daytime, there would at least be a little life in the area, people sitting on steps, blaring music from their yards, walking to and from work or school. It might not always be fun in Belize City, but it was certainly busy. The quiet and empty streets now were, dare I say it, spooky. I felt like I was about to be mugged.
As if sensing my fear, a small figure darted out from behind a car on my right, and I nearly shat myself. I reeled backwards into some kind of shoddy fence, not wanting to fight but ready if I needed to. Which confused the sad-looking mutt standing in the middle of the road.
“Oh,” I said. “Hey. What’s up, dude?”
He cocked his head at me and then trotted back in the direction I had come from. A half dozen vehicles back, he tucked himself under the bed of a truck and lay down. Stray dogs were rampant in this city, drinking out of gutters and picking through garbage. I would feel worse about it if I hadn’t felt so much like a stray myself lately.
“He scare you, white boy?” asked a voice from behind me.
“Jesus fuck!”
I whirled around. The fence I had been propped against was a horrendous alternating mix of chain link and slats of corrugated metal. A man with skin like charcoal stood on the other side in an empty lot, looking at me through the links. His hair was draped over his shoulders in two long gray dreads. He gave me a gap-toothed grin.
“So now what is scarier? The dog? Or me?”
“You, old man. What the fuck?”
“Someone who smells the way you do should be careful of the language they use.”
“I just had sex, that what you smell? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
The man laughed at me. It sounded like a wheeze and held no mirth as far as I could tell. He pointed a gnarled finger at me. “You people, you are halfway to an animal.”
I didn’t know if he meant white people or Americans, but it didn’t matter. “That’s rude,” I said. “But true. I never had to flip off a child for aggressively panhandling before I came down here, though.”
“And you were a good child?”
“I wasn’t bad!” I thought about that for a second. “Grew up to be a bit of a bastard adult, I suppose.”
The old man wheezed again. “That must be why you smell, then. Not sex, boy, but, like bad magic.”
“That ain’t me,” I said, trying to ignore the chill in my blood. “I don’t *do* bad magic.”
“You just the type that dance near it.”
“Not if I can fuckin’ help it.”
“But you can’t help it, can you?”
I bit the inside of my cheek while I tried to come up with a good answer. None came to me. “Apparently not.”
“Get on, then. And after you do what you are set to do, maybe you leave the city.”
“Maybe.” I started to turn away, but one last thing was bugging me. “Hey, you scary old dick. What’s this trashy fence even for? Of all the eyesores in this city, this monstrosity circling nothing might be the worst. What was here before?”
“This place?” He grinned at me again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Was a house. Not for everybody, only a few. It was a place for the in-between.”
“What, like ghosts?”
“Meaner.”
“Meaner than ghosts. Alright.”
“Twenty years ago, just about, two men come. White, like you. Stink of bad magic. Like you. They tear the house down. Then they leave, but you people? You are not very smart. The building? Gone. The power remains. This fence, it is a warning, not an obstacle: stay out or you might catch the Bad Wind.”
It was like every thing he said found a new way to creep me out. “You know, I don’t really like it here.”
“What a coincidence. We don’t really like you here, either.”
“Yeah, fair enough.”
That was enough of that. I left the man and his lot behind, feeling no better but suddenly clear on one thing: I wasn’t skipping town. Not yet. When I had left the hotel, it was to try and keep Jessica out of the line of fire, but actually going to meet Milo had been up in the air. If I really whiffed of bad magic the way the old man said, though, I needed to address the issue. I had already let it go three years since Milo put me in the shit the first time.
Belize City was never going to be home to me, but I had got to know it pretty well. It was my routine any time I wound up in a new place to walk around as much as possible, no matter how many people offered a taxi ride by yelling at me. You get a better feel of the culture by walking, and the people, and you get a passing familiarity for the layout of the streets which could really help out in a pinch. That’s how I knew which turns to make and roads to follow to get to the studio Milo mentioned. Yeah, I did know which studio he meant.
After all, it was my favorite building in the city.
The studio had seen better days. Not a single one of the windows — glass set in twenty-four gridded slots per frame — had all of their squares intact. A railed staircase running along the side of the building up all three stories was littered with buckets and bags full of trash. A second staircase wrapped around the side and back with no railing for support and wood that looked like it could go at any moment. A third staircase rose directly into the building to the second floor through a hallway painted red. The rest of the building was mostly purple-black, meant to signify outer space, with huge chunks of dirty white wood clawing through like old bones. The painted stars dotting it had faded almost completely away.
I loved it all. The dance studio must have really been something in its heyday.
Now Milo was up in there, waiting. It had been three years since I had last seen him. My friend. My lover. The son of a bitch who used bad magic on a poor girl who just wanted to sleep with a degenerate.
My heart sailed its way up under my Adam’s apple and set anchor.
#
Regulations on magic are kind of a shit show, but they’re something you need to know if you have the gift and plan on using it. Groups band together. Organizations… organize things? Territories create clearly defined boundaries, some with rules and restrictions to moderate magic use, some without. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear Texas is without and that things get more than a little hairy out there among the cacti and casual racism.
Louisiana has the Cold Word, an 150 year old creed scrawled, for some reason, across a preserved sheepskin. I mean, Jesus. But the rules are solid, even smart, and breaking them within Louisiana territory was grounds for consequence up to and including execution. Being cut off from your gift was on the table, too. Some spells could do that, known only to a few, and many considered that to be a punishment worse than death. Once you have access to weird powers, forced normalcy is like getting chemically sterilized.
The only problem with regional restrictions, of course, is that people with the gift are *people*. Outside of the higher-ups in a territory’s regulatory council, nobody gives a shit about catching anyone up on all the Dos and Don’ts. They see someone who can do the same things they can and either want to hang out or have a piss fight.
That’s pretty much why I wasn’t introduced to the concepts of acceptable magic and *bad* magic until I was 22. Milo, a couple years older, was equally oblivious. We had been friends for a year and a half at that point–since he correctly called me out when I tried to game him with the cups and marble–and been a couple for nearly a year. Milo was the first man I ever slept with. He had treated me with patience and respect, and I loved him for it.
As we got to know each other more, the gift became a frequent topic of conversation between us. He wanted to know how my illusory magic worked in detail; I refused him. I demanded he help me branch out in elemental crafts, but the most notable thing he did was arm me with my little purple lighter trick (which, admittedly, I would get a lot of use out of). Typical couple spats.
It was on one of those many evenings we were together–in every sense of the word–that we were rudely interrupted by a sharp rapping at the door. We took our time dressing as a passive-aggressive Fuck You to the knocker, one I would never think to try again with the man at the door knowing what I know now.
Besides his signature wide-brimmed hat, it’s impossible to describe Uncle Twist. Or you’re not supposed to. Or you really can’t, I’m not quite sure. His illusory magic is on an unfathomable level, mostly because it’s literally designed to leave you staggered. I had met a good number of people with the gift on the streets of New Orleans, but none of them began to touch the power of the man at my threshold.
“Uh, hi,” I said. The clothes I put on made me feel no less naked.
“May I come in?”
“I mean, sure.” As if there were any other answer.
“My name is Twist, called Uncle Twist by some of the youngers. Are you two…”
“Together?” Milo asked. “Yes.”
“That makes this easier. No secrets, and I can cut to the chase: you both have the gift and have been using it for some time without any oversight.” He held up a hand before either of us could say anything. “Don’t worry. I didn’t come here to be an earth-shaker or bear any bad news. Y’all are fine. That said, it has come to my attention that nobody ever ran y’all through the ropes, told you what would fly and what wouldn’t. It’s best for all of us if we fixed that. Does that make sense to you?”
“I… yeah?” I managed.
“There’s an oversight committee?” Milo asked.
Uncle Twist shifted his weight to one leg and put his hands on his hips. “Son, you could start a fucking forest fire with your hands. You don’t think oversight might be a good thing?”
“When you put it that way…”
“Right. You boys from around here?”
“I am,” I said.
“Oregon,” said Milo.
“Alright,” said Twist. “Very good. If you’re planning on using your gift, at least in Louisiana, there are some guidelines you need to follow. So’s I can get an idea of where y’all stand on magic in general, why don’t you tell me exactly what you know already?”
I offered Twist a seat while Milo and I spoke, but he declined and leaned against the wall instead. Still on edge about the intrusion, we did our best to come clean about everything, backtracking and correcting each other when necessary so no detail was left out. We covered our individual discoveries of the gift, our first times using it, my con jobs and Milo’s accidental arson as a teenager. We rattled off the books we read and were reading, the areas we were dabbling in, the areas we wanted to pursue next. Twist just listened, nodding to himself until we were finished. He took his hat off and held it in front of his belt buckle.
“Well, it seems like you boys have a pretty good handle on things. We’re pretty lax on most activity here in Louisiana. There are a couple big things I just want to cover: don’t use flagrant displays of magic in front of people without the gift. Your card and cup tricks seem fine, but setting a car on fire, something like that, that’s not good. Don’t use your gift to kill anyone, accidentally or otherwise. You want to commit murder? Use a gun and don’t tell me about it. Most importantly, absolutely no use of bad magic is tolerated.”
“What the hell is bad magic?” Milo asked.
Twist blinked in surprise. “You ain’t never heard of bad magic? Alright. It’s any type of spell, enchantment, or other kind of general mumbo jumbo that directly affects the control of a person’s body. So no mental intrusions, no possessions. Stay the hell away from any kind of necromancy or post-mortum divination.”
“You can do those things?” Milo asked, eyes wide.
“They’re possible, but you *can’t* do then. That’s my point.”
“Understood,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, alrighty then. Just one last thing.” Twist fished around in his back pocket and came up with a card, which he handed to me. It was the darkest black I had ever seen and completely blank, save for an address printed in maroon. “Meet me there in a couple days, say around five. We’re just going to have you sign a few papers basically covering what we did here. We file every agreement to the Cold Word. Think of it like visiting the customs office when you land in a new country. Easy as pie. Oh, and there is sort of, hm, let’s call it a membership fee for using the gift in Louisiana. We’ll go over that when I see you next.
“Uh, okay,” I said. “Two days.”
“So are you, like, basically the guy who runs Louisiana’s magic department?” Milo asked.
“Oh, I got my bosses, too,” Twist said. He put his hat back on and headed for the door. “People just seem to prefer meeting ol’ Uncle Twist.”
#
I can tell you one thing: signing an accord with the Cold Word was not like going to a fucking customs office. Customs employees don’t meet you in the basement of a butcher shop, for one, nor do they bag your head until you’ve fully entered a secret second basement, then lead you down a tunnel packed with bones for support structures. There aren’t rules written on a piece of dead animal, and they sure as shit don’t cut your arm open and make you sign your name in blood.
That’s how we met Inchpatter for the first time. Uncle Twist described him as one of Louisiana’s enforcers. Break the rules, you might find Inchpatter ringing your bell. It was funny to think about because he didn’t look like much: wiry figure, terrible haircut, and not much more than five feet of length to him. His eyes, though, that’s where he sold you. They were flat, hard. Once, Twist called him “the funniest sumbitch” he knew. I never saw that side of him.
After all the skull and dagger, secret society ritual shit was over, Inchpatter helped us up from our knees. Twist bandaged our arms and handed us a pair of pamphlets.
“That’s basically an FAQ right there. It should clear up any lingering questions you might have.”
Milo slapped his into an empty palm. “Couldn’t you have just handed us this and had us sign the papers, instead of…” He gestured around the room. “The spectacle.”
“Welcome to magic for adults,” Inchpatter deadpanned.
“Christ.”
And that was pretty much the end of it. What had been a terrifying, nearly traumatic hour for Milo and me had been routine for our two companions. They sent us on our way with what basically amounted to well wishes and a pat on the ass.
We took turns showering when we got back to the apartment, then changed each other’s dressings. The cuts were shallow and would heal quickly, but we didn’t want to risk getting any blood on the bedsheets. Then, clean and proper and tucked in, my boyfriend and I went through one of the pamphlets together.
To be fair, it was a lot more than an FAQ. It was actually a pretty handy resource for two young gifted like us. There were lists of magic shops and relevant bookstores. A glossary for magic terms and techniques we had never heard of. Even a two-page spread that went into further detail on what was prohibited under the definition of bad magic.
I hadn’t noticed Milo’s expression when Uncle Twist said those words to us for the the first time. If I had been more observant or less self-absorbed, maybe things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. As it stood, warm in bed, I was oblivious to the fact that even though Milo and I were reading the same pages, we were seeing vastly different things.
#
I stood facing the door to the studio, annoyed. The steps leading to it had all groaned loudly as I walked up them, announcing my arrival as effectively as screaming from the street. I wasn’t sure how much of a point there would have been to sneaking up on Milo, but I had been hoping for at least some time to deal with my thoughts and feelings when I saw him.
Still, I had come this far.
The doorknob didn’t fight me when I twisted it, so I stepped inside and closed the door gently behind me. The first thing I noticed about the interior was that the air was *old* despite all the broken windows. It hung in the halls and doorways, full of dust, pressing down on my clothes. I waved a hand in front of my face before taking a breath and hoped there wasn’t asbestos or something similar in it. No magic in the world had figured out cancer yet.
I found a long hall that curved to the right and walked down it carefully, avoiding empty bottles and unidentifiable pieces of scrap metal. Posters advertising dance performances from years ago hung from the walls and littered the floor, faded and tattered. A room — some kind of office — sat on my left. The door was missing and the space was empty except for a desk that leaned heavily to one side.
Everything opened up once I rounded the corner, and I found myself in the massive hexagonal practice room you could make out from the ground. Papers and glass were strewn everywhere. Mats once meant for dancing and tumbling on were stacked in one corner, ripped, their color dulled. At the back of the room, peering out through a shattered window, stood Milo. He waited a few seconds of awkward silence before turning around, but when he saw me, he smiled.
His hair was lighter than I remembered, but his skin was more tan. Signs of good time spent in the sun. He had lost weight and his toned frame spoke to a primal, sexual part of me. The eyes, though, I had a hard time recognizing, and the bags beneath them; they were a little too dark.
“Hey, tiger.”
That’s all it took. Two goddamn words and I found myself traveling through time.
Our first kiss, on the boardwalk after a movie. We had been flirting for some time, but I never would have made the first move. It was dark, and I was looking over his shoulder, admiring the moon on the water. He leaned in and I froze until our lips touched, and then my legs nearly abandoned me completely.
Watching him sleep. The way his mop of dirty-blond hair fell over his eyes and the light snoring that accompanied his deep rest. The way he couldn’t fall asleep unless one foot stuck out from beneath the blankets.
That last vacation we took, just before everything went to shit. The concert in Portland and how everything was so vibrant, how we felt the music in the marrow of our bones, how the lights painted us with colors we didn’t have words for. Not because of magic, but because we bought some ecstasy off some kid that hadn’t showered for three days.
I went on that journey just on the inflection of Milo’s words. Like the concert, no magic was at play. Just the tricks of an aching heart and a whiff of the Good Ol’ Days. Like any good thing, it passed quickly enough.
“You’re a fucking asshole,” I said.
“Really, Jacob? Three years and the first thing you say, you call me an asshole?”
“I’d have told you sooner, but I was busy hoping I would never see you again.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
My jaw dropped. “You framed me for *bad magic*! You put a girl in a goddamn coma the last time you tried the trick you pulled tonight. I can’t go home, Milo!”
“You wouldn’t have had to leave at all if you had just trusted me.” He stepped away from the window and held his arms out. I went nowhere near them. “Things were bad for you, sure, but they would have blown over. I was working on a solution. You leaving… complicated things. Considerably. Inchpatter is dead.”
I felt my throat go dry. “How?”
“Several gunshot wounds. A random act of violence as far as anyone’s concerned.”
“Right. And now you’re here to, what, bring me home? Clear my name?”
Milo look confused. “No, I’m here to kill you, Jake. I could have cleared your name years ago, but you didn’t trust me. Me! That torched my heart, tiger. Then you pissed in the ashes when you left me behind.”
“Fuck you! What you did–”
“Nobody has ever hurt me like that,” he interrupted. “But now, now if I bring you back, the council’s investigation ends. Their culprit is dead after being on the lam and any suspicion lingering on the guy that brought him in slowly fades away. Like magic.”
What I was hearing was so unfathomable it might as well have been a different language. I had loved this man, and here we were… here I was. On my own. Of all the things I had imagined for tonight, fearing for my life hadn’t even been on the list. But what else could I have expected once Milo reared his head? Some people find a limit when they break bad and retreat from it. Milo had always been too curious for that.
“Speaking of magic, you bring me back reeking of it to Twist and the gang, it’s not going to do you any favors.”
“Did you not hear what I said about Inchpatter?” Milo reached into his pocket and came out with a neat, shiny little revolver.
I’ve had my ass kicked more times than I can count. Had a few knives pulled on me, even got stabbed in the leg once. This was the first time I had ever had a gun pulled on me. A small voice in the back of my head was telling me that of course it was going to be someone I knew, someone I cared about. You spend your life cheating people, you’re going to wind up on the wrong end of a bad play.
The thing is, I had spent three years being persona non grata in the only home I had ever really known. I had been drinking my way through cheap bars and fucking my way through cheap hotels, but my head was always on a swivel. You don’t spend that kind of time being hunted by others and not learn a few things. Everyone thought I cast bad magic? Well, I didn’t, but I could still get a little dirty if I had to.
“If that’s how things are,” I said, “can you at least answer a question for me? It’s been eating me up.”
“Of course, Jake. As long as you know how this is still going to end.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve made that clear. I just want to know… you want to see a magic trick?”
I was almost too cheeky for my own good. I saw Milo’s eyes tighten, concerned, and I saw him raise the gun to fire. I had been working my spell while I was talking, though, and I came out just ahead.
My air magic had improved considerably since my middle school days. Though the effort took a lot out of me, notably in my shoulders and the square of my back, I was able to use the thick air in the studio to raise and hurtle the mats from the corner to the space before me. Milo’s gun roared. A sound somewhere between a rip and a thud came from the mats and I was quite relieved to not be dead.
My next move was even trickier as I cast two spells nearly simultaneously. I snapped my fingers and brought up the purple flame on my thumb. A swift gesture and a hard blow on the fire essentially turned it into a flamethrower, lighting the mats ablaze. Immediately after, I brought the tips of my fingers into my palms and thrust my arms out in front or me; a gust of wind pushed the thick, flaming mats and sent them flying in Milo’s direction. He fired again, again to no effect.
Those weren’t easy spells to cast. They required physical energy and a certain level of precision that had never been my forte. I had taught myself the basics but hadn’t had much opportunity to practice them. I was proud to have pulled them off.
That said, I am also kind of an idiot and had not considered the consequences of setting a fire in a condemned wooden building.
The studio *erupted* in flames. I darted back down the hall, around the corner so I wouldn’t be an open target if Milo was still set on shooting me. Smoke spread like ivy, tendrils twisting and wrapping through the room. Though my eyes stung and my tears made it difficult to see (whether I was crying from the smoke or Milo’s newest betrayal was a mystery to me), I peeked around the corner, looking for a glimpse of my former lover.
A glimpse, I got. Milo staggered toward the hall, his arm pressed over his eyes, the gun still in his hand. Then he disappeared as the floor collapsed beneath him.
I turned and ran for the door. Ripped it open. Bolted down the stairs, gulping for air, clean air that felt like barbed wire when it mixed with the smoke and dust in my lungs. I rounded the corner, angling for the ground level entrance, hoping I could still reach Milo. The door was already aflame. Fire belched out through the windows next to it. What little glass had remained in the studio was blowing out and raining down. There was no entry. There was no escape.
My mind was having trouble processing everything that had happened and was happening. The drinks from several hours ago were a distant memory. The sex, with the girl, in the hotel… that was all gone. My favorite building in the city was collapsing in on itself with my favorite person in the world inside. I tried to remind myself that he had framed me, hung me out to dry, and tracked me down just to kill me. I still felt terrible; love is a bitch.
I walked backward, eyes on the inferno, until I reached the sidewalk a safe distance away. It wasn’t long before a sizeable crowd joined me.
“You got a big way of dealing with bad magic, white boy.”
I turned to look over my shoulder. The old man from earlier was standing a few feet behind me, tugging at his dreads. He grinned at me. Some of the teeth that had been missing had miraculously returned. I was exhausted.
“You ain’t going to scare me like you did before, Grandpa.”
“You know the man you met in there?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“But you deal with him anyway. Maybe I misjudged you, boy.”
I turned away from Milo’s funeral pyre to face the old man. I just couldn’t get a handle on the guy. He was slippery, like Uncle Twist, but with airs of a magic I had never encountered before.
“Tell me something,” I said. “Does BelGuatamala territory have any rules against accidentally killing someone with magic?”
“No, boy. Nothing for that.”
“Then I don’t really give a shit what you think of me.”
The old man wheezed his laugh at me. I turned and started walking away, what energy I had left spent pulling the shadows of Belizean night closer to my body. Sirens sounded in the distance. Whatever the fire department managed to save, I knew a healthy chunk of me wouldn’t be included.
As I walked, a runt of a mutt fell in step beside me. Droopy ears, watery eyes, tail tucked down near its legs. I didn’t know what it wanted and I didn’t care. Right then, it was my only friend in the world.

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The City of Angels Part Four: Love and Tribulation

I’m just going to jump into this fucker: with DJ gone, RJ and I were more stressed than ever on how to make ends meet. I was working the front desk at minimum wage. RJ was doing desk and shuttle driving and going to school to become an EMT. With my funds rapidly diminishing, I even considered becoming an escort. Not caught up?

Part One: Departure
Part Two: A Perilous Journey
Part Three: The First Month

Yeah, so I wasn’t hearing anything back on auditions. I did get an audition for As the World Turns, but despite being obviously located in Los Angeles, the audition was in New Orleans. Too bad. I would have done a soap opera. I’m good at acting bad.

So with few jobs in the pipeline, one caught my eye, and I swear to God this is true and I’m not necessarily proud: male escort. I submitted pictures and some information about me and had the arrangement explained to me like this: your profile goes up on a website. Someone can select you to be their date to an event, a gala, a red carpet thing, a dinner, whatever. $400 for a three hour commitment, $150 for each hour after that. Company only, sex optional. And honestly, I’d even fake being gay in public for three hours for $400. You want to know how close I was to doing this? The only thing that stopped me was that there was a $100 surcharge for them to build my page, and I was so broke, I didn’t want to throw $100 at a maybe.

Luckily for me, not long after that, I had an interview for a job with Best Buy. I got a haircut, and it wasn’t exactly professional (it was a Mr. T level Mohawk honestly. It looked dumb as hell on me), but I interviewed well. There was a second interview and I think I benefitted from the hiring manager being a fellow Dallas Cowboy fan. I got hired full-time, provisionally for the holidays, at $10.50 an hour. I still maintained my job at the hostel, and worked that schedule around my existing schedule with Best Buy.

The hostel situation got interesting, though: turns out for 2/3 of the year, the owner would rent out fully half of the available rooms to oil and gas workers that would come in – usually from the mid-south to south-east- to work on the refineries. Which meant that we had a lot of hard-drinking burly hicks to deal with on a regular basis. As employees of the hostel, it also meant we had to deal with them whenever they started acting unruly.

RJ and I did the smartest thing we could: we made friends with the biggest of them and the boss as fast as we could. Johnny Ray was a fucking massive man, soft-spoken but quick to defend his friends. If one of his crewmates began to act aggressive and get in my face, Johnny would simply put a hand on my shoulder, stand up behind me and say, “He’s with me. Listen to him.” That ended shit really quick.

Mike Jones, mind you, was the complete opposite of Johnny. He was a lightning-quick-witted man, generous, who had suffered a stroke that had rendered the left side of his body largely useless. And as goofy as he acted, as quickly as he got drunk, everyone respected Mike. When he spoke, they listened. That’s huge weight for a guy who, when he got too fucked up, we would sit him down on a luggage trolly and wheel his ass to his room. I tucked Mike into his own bed many times.

Johnny, meanwhile, skipped out to his own private bungalow early on. He threw a handful of parties out there and if we weren’t working, he would have us work the door for entry fees. We’d receive a cut at the end of the night.

At some point during all of this, I recall asking Zhana’s ridiculous struggling actor boyfriend for audition tips. He said a lot without saying anything and then I overheard him telling her he was always talking to “nobody’s” like me. I was blackout drunk the next time Robbie went in. Johnny told me I threatened to “smack the shit” out of him if he insisted “on talking all that shit”, until Robbie apologized profusely and bought me a drink. I took the drink, but man, fuck that guy.

There were plenty of other amazing people passing through, though. The Russian New Yorker whose name I couldn’t recall, so we all called him Niko Bellic, after the Eastern European protagonist of Grand Theft Auto 4. His last night in town, he asked Selma how much she would charge for a pitcher of Long Island Ice Tea. I think she charged him $13. Fucking ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is how she would only charge me $6 when I asked her to do it again on other nights when I wanted to sit and drink and right.

There was Irish Tommy. He had these ridiculous glasses with fake Elvis chops on them. I remember I made the mistake once of promising RJ I would DD for him and some of the others at the hostel and take them down to Hermosa Beach after I got off work. I was so tired and so grumpy by the time I got back to the hostel that I tried to renege, but he wasn’t having it. So I’m driving. There’s someone sitting in the middle of the front (not a seat), someone in the passenger side, and four people crammed into the 3-person back seat, including RJ, Tommy, and this absolute knockout named Dale.

We’re about halfway to the beach when I pull up alongside a police officer. She glances over, sees how many people are in the car, and I immediately know I’m fucked. The light turns green, the cop pulls back behind me, flips the blue and reds, and I pull over. Now, the driver’s side window on the HMS DB didn’t roll down, and I opened the door to try and explain that. The cop immediately put her hand on her gun and shouted for me to stay in the car; I realized this was the kind of dumb shit that got people killed on accident, so I closed the door and kept my hands on the wheel and begged everyone to shut up. They didn’t listen.

Everything got resolved pretty quickly after. We weren’t far from the beach, so she let us off with a warning and insisted a couple people cab it on the way back. That didn’t happen, of course, but we promised anyway.

There was Becky, the British surfer, and Kirsty, a Scottish beauty who sent me a calendar of her beautiful country once she returned home. There was Guy, a British actor/writer with some bold ideas and no idea how to string them together into something coherent. There was Nick McDonald, nephew of Christopher McDonald (you may know him better as Shooter McGavin), and colossal asshole. Chris, the Australian, who told us a delightful story about playing with his puppy and saying, “Come here, ya little cunt”, and asking RJ if he needed his girlfriend to help him when he was working on the car.

But the best by far was probably Pat the Pirate. A Canadian man in his late 40s or early 50s, he was one of the most genuinely nice guys I’ve ever met. He always bought rounds for people, always had a smile on his face, always video chatted with his daughter. When he talked about her, he just beamed. Hell, there were days I was so broke I couldn’t afford to eat. He’d give me a few bucks to head down to Jack in the Box and get something, and he never made me feel ashamed about it.

The most interesting thing about Pat, though, is that he worked as a lighting tech for concerts and events. He set up stages for a massive variety of people. “I remember shaking hands with George Carlin and smoking dope with Snoop Dogg,” he told me once. “And the craziest party I’ve ever been to was one where Motley Crue did $40,000 worth of damage to a hotel floor.”

When he finally left, it was to go work on a tour with Kiss. We kept in touch for a while because I genuinely wanted to write his biography. He never got me the notes, though, and we drifted apart over the years. I hope he’s doing well. He helped me out a lot.

The point is that there was a revolving circus of diverse people, not all of them savory, but all worth a story. It kept things busy at home while we were trying to get our feet under us with work. RJ was finishing up EMT school with a new friend, Phil, and beginning ridealongs.

And I started at Best Buy. We lived in Inglewood and I worked in El Segundo, but there were a couple of buses that took me directly there. That’s one thing that surprised me about Los Angeles: the transit system is surprisingly clear and easy to navigate.

I went in a day or two before I was officially supposed to start and met a good amount of the people I’d be directly working with. My assistant manager, Jenny, was a tremendous sweetheart who became a lifesaver for me later. The other assistant manager, Brittni, was a very close friend. My direct manager, Stephanie, is one of the best bosses I’ve ever ad, and the fact that we’re still friends after the way things turned out is incredible to me. The hiring manager, Kevin, became one of my best friends in the store and turned me on to some video games and movies I’d have no idea about otherwise. Jason and I used to go dsy drinking down to the beach. Jaime saved my ass. And Angie became my rock when everything started to fall apart.

I worked in the front lanes, where most of the registers are at. Now, there are several different departments throughout the store (Gaming, Digital Imaging, Home Theater, etc.) and those departments have reps trained specifically to sell those things as sort of certified experts. And once they close a sale in their department, they’re expected also to try and sell Black Tie Protection (insurance) on applicable devices. That means, of course, that a proper sales rep would know exactly what it covers and what it doesn’t and how to personalize and leverage the benefits for the customer.

But not every sale is closed out in that department. Most are actually grab and gos, so in the front lanes, we’d see just about every product except maybe home appliances. We had to get to know what BTP covered for every department. There was no compensation for selling the stuff, but there was still an expected percentage of attachment, so whenever I had a spare ten minutes, I’d go to each department and learn, and I got very, very good at selling it.

Besides becoming sales oriented, I also met a woman I would come to love very much. I had met her when I’d gone in a day early, but it was a couple days more before I saw her again. Caramel skin. Thick, dark, curly hair. A dazzling smile that came easily, a laugh usually ready behind it. She always made my heart skip a beat, mi boricua princesa.

We got along great early on. We made each other laugh. We spent a lot of time together. She made me feel welcome and being so far away from home and with so much stress going on and only one of my two friends still around, I clung to that. I was lonely, and she was kind and beautiful and funny.

She invited me early on to Jaime’s place for beer pong, and RJ and I went. Turns out he didn’t live too far from where we were staying, so it was convenient for everyone involved. Her and my friendship grew stronger, and Jaime and I became closer buddies as well. He gave me a lot of shit, but I gave as good as I got and I think he respected that.

Thanksgiving came soon after. Knowing I had no one to spend it with, she invited me to spend it with her and her family. RJ had to work and I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could, so I eagerly accepted. To this day, it ranks as maybe my favorite Thanksgiving. I got along great with her family, played around with her dog and stole every soft smile and caring glance I could from her. And man, her mom would not let me stop eating. When you have spent months borrowing money to eat off the dollar menu, a home-cooked Puerto Rican Thanksgiving dinner is like seeing God. And when I literally couldn’t eat anymore for fear of getting sick, of course they made up a plate for me to take home.

On the drive home, we held hands. I don’t think we kissed that night. She made me nervous. I know I couldn’t stop grinning.

It was that weekend or the weekend after that we went to a party, probably at Jaime’s, probably to play beer pong, and she and I both wound up drunk. I don’t think she wanted to go home like that and risk upsetting her parents, so she asked to come home with me. That was the first night we slept together. I don’t know if she had gone in expecting just a hook-up, but I fell for her even more and afterwards, holding her in my arms, I asked her if she would go out with me. “You want me to be your girlfriend?” she asked,  and I responded, “I really, really do.”

She didn’t respond until morning. When she did, she said yes.

December was more or less perfect. We didn’t really go out of our way to tell anyone we were together, but we didn’t exactly keep it a secret, either. Any time we were away from work, we were all over each other. It was fast, it was passionate, it was horribly naive and going 100 miles per hour because it was a love born of youth.

And love it was. I don’t remember what the place was called. It was a sports bar with high ceilings, booths and pool tables. She was sitting on the side of one the tables and I was standing between her legs, about to leave to pick up RJ and bring him out. I told her I’d be back in a few, and she responded with, “Okay. I love you.” And there was a pause as we both realized what she had said.
“Do you?” I asked.
She thought for a minute, nodded and said yes. So I kissed her and said, “I love you, too. I’ll be right back.”

And December was nice and December was good, and I helped celebrate Hanukkah with her and RJ’s mom sent us a care package for Christmas.

Then New Year’s rolled around and the first real hint of how bad things were going to turn out rolled through.

RJ had to work that night, so she and I went together to a party at this guy Jesus’ house. I’m still pretty new around these people. It’s only been a couple months at this point. It wasn’t a huge party, but there was ton of liquor. We started playing beer pong and I was getting tipsy. She was decently drunk and dancing and being flirty. I got jealous. She liked to dance and I didn’t. I still don’t. But she was the kind of oblivious who thought guys were just being sweet instead of blatantly hitting on her in front of me. So I got jealous, and I handled it by doing the absolute last thing I should have: grab a bottle of Jack Daniels and just start swigging from the bottle. A group of friends pulled me into a room and asked if I wanted to do some cocaine. I had done blow a couple times before, I was drunk and in a bad mood, so I figured, fuck it. Let’s go all in.

She found out somehow. Maybe she saw me do it, or I told her. She was pissed, and figured if I was going to do I it, she might as well, too. That pissed me off. She had never done it before, and as far as I know, she’s never done it since. She didn’t know how she would handle it. I was worried about her, and part of me felt she was doing it to get back at me, which – while there are no good reasons to do drugs – may be one of the worst reasons to do drugs.

We got into it. I blacked out and stormed out of the house. Apparently I slammed the door on the way out, something I had to apologize profusely to Jesus for. Not that Jesus. The other one. I stumbled through the road and called RJ to come pick me up. She came out right after and wanted to come home with me. Neither of us were in any condition to give appropriate directions, so it took him some time to find us. It had to have been 3 or 4 in the morning. I blacked out. RJ told me he blared Depeche Mode while she and I argued nonstop.

Nonstop. I came out of the blackout to see her sitting at the foot of my bed. I was standing in front of her, yelling, and I realized I no longer had any idea what we were arguing about. I shook my head to clear it and mumbled an apology. I realized it was now morning, neither of us had slept a wink, and I had to go work a full shift. I staggered out of the room and left her to watch the Rose Bowl parade with RJ.

At some point, I managed to convince the desk manager to let me catch just two hours of sleep. I was exhausted, crashed hard off the drugs and I was still pretty drunk. I went up to the room. She followed me into my bed and we wrapped our arms around each other and she fell asleep with me. When we were good, we clicked so fucking perfectly. When we didn’t, it was usually because I was an asshole and she would bite back twice as hard.

I woke up, and we learned a few things: 1. Shawn the shuttle driver had a meth addiction.
2. Shawn the shuttle driver decided to let that addiction make him think it was okay to do meth and drive the shuttle.
3. Shawn the meth head drove that fucking shuttle over some people and parked it halfway up one of the columns at LAX, and RJ would have to cover the rest of his shift with the larger shuttle that RJ was in no way qualified to drive.

New Year’s wasn’t good for anyone.

And then things continued to be rocky. Towards the end of January, she and I were at a party. I wanted to leave because I had to wake up early for work. She wanted to stay. I walked home. I figured she would crash at Jaime’s. I got up to use the restroom around 4AM. When I came out, RJ had let her into the room and she was laying in my bed. It scared the shit out of me, to be honest, seeing a person where moments before there was nobody, but then I got curious. How did she get there? Who drove her? Which friend? And through some drunken questioning, I found out a guy friend of hers had driven her and at some point they made out. I don’t know if it was someone from work; she insisted it wasn’t, but just a guy she had known for a long time. I don’t know if she initiated it. I know she was drunk and a lot of her guy friends didn’t seem to give a fuck about her relationship status. I do know she felt tremendously, horrifically guilty.

I reacted extremely poorly. I only found out this year that I’m bipolar and anxious and depressed. At the time, I had no idea why I felt things so intensely all the time. I just knew I had a really hard time regulating my reactions. I threw the blanket against the wall. I threw my phone against the wall. I yelled and I cried because I was so hurt. That’s what I woke up to is this feeling of betrayal. Was it because I wasn’t good enough? Did she want to be single?

I scared her. She thought I was going to hurt her, I think, and that appalled me. I would never hurt her or any other woman. The realization made me sick. I sank down on the bed and she came up next to me and she apologized and we both cried and we told each other we loved each other and we made love and we fell asleep on damp pillows.

It would always eat me up, though. I never really got over it. I talked with Angie about it, and Brittni, and my girlfriend’s friend and they all told me the same thing: that she was so guilty over it and all she talked about was how much she wanted to make up for it. And I struggled to keep my jealousy and anxiety and anger and propensity for over thinking under control to middling success. We went out for dinner and a movie once, and I was still so bothered about it that I broke up with her over dinner before realizing it was Valentine’s Day. I immediately recanted and we talked about it and we had a tense movie date after.

Towards the end of February, things were getting tense amongst the employees of the hostel. I found my money was still running tight. They hired on RJ’s friend Phil as a shuttle driver to replace Shawn. The HMS DB had finally shit the bed and RJ was making preparations to move to Seattle to live with a couple of our friends from Alaska. I began to make plans of my own.

In the meantime, my girlfriend and I continued to patch things up. Her friend managed an AMC theater, so we saw a lot of movies together, often for free. One night we had a really great time together and afterward she dropped me off in front of the hostel. She couldn’t stay over that night, so I kissed her and got out. She took off and the manager of the hostel caught me in the parking lot. He wanted to take a walk and discuss how my schedule working the desk would coincide with my Best Buy schedule.

As we walked and talked, I heard a loud shot from behind me. Something moved so close to my cheek, just under my eye, that it tugged at my skin. It cracked into the wall in front of me. I turned and saw a white car with tinted windows suddenly tear through a red light away from me. A half inch of difference is all it would have taken. I hardly left my room for three days.

And even after all of that, the Adventurer still had one good story left for us. RJ was working the desk night shift. Phil was working the shuttle. I was behind the desk with a drink. RJ pulls out a pair of letters a customer had dropped off. Both were similar in content but contained such ramblings as, “I am a man vacationing from San Francisco and am interested in your rooms. I would like to purchase [specific] room at [specific rate] from [this date] to [that date] which comes out to [total].” (He included a handrawn calendar). He also said “I am familiar with both the insides and outside of the closet” and some inanity about his occupation. One was signed “John Rockefeller”, while the other, “John Rockefella”. On one envelope, he had written “Enclosed is a $10 tip.”

“Was there a $10 tip in there?” I asked.
“There sure as shit was,” RJ said.

They’re trying to explain to me what this guy looks like and Phil gets the bright idea to call this guy’s room and pretend to want to meet him for a good time in the shuttle bay, causing him to walk directly by the office. Well, Phil calls and comes on to the guy in a low voice, but he hangs up and cackles when the guy seems receptive. RJ called bullshit, so Phil called again with me listening in. I heard him sound receptive and Phil broke and hung up again. RJ insists we call one more time and I tell him it’s probably a bad idea, that I doubted anyone else knew the guy’s room number and so he probably thought it was RJ. RJ laughed that off and Phil calls again. Before he can say a fucking word, ol’ John asks, “Are you coming or should I go to the office?”

Phil slams the phone into the receiver and he and I double over in laughter. RJ is aghast, repeating “No. No.” over and over, stopping only when a heavyset lady came to check in to a room. While RJ checks her in, a short man in his late thirties or forties steps into the office. Parted brown hair, thick glasses, wispy mustache. Holy shit, of course this was him. He set an envelope and a bottle of orange juice down on the counter. Phil is sitting on the couch across the room, bright red from holding his laughter in. I’m sitting on awe, aware I’m about to witness something beautiful. The lady leaves with her room key.

“I brought you orange juice.”
“I do not want your orange juice.”
“Know what’s in here?” *taps envelope*
“I do not.”
“Male pornography.”
“THAT’S weird. AND uncomfortable.”
John’s eyes turn into dinner plates and he stammers, “OH! OH! SORRY!” before darting from the room. I have rarely laughed harder.

Anyway, as RJ’s departure neared, I arranged to sleep on Jaime’s couch for a month or two until I could get situated. My girlfriend helped me smuggle my things out of the room and over to his place. The morning RJ was set to fly out, we had one last breakfast that we charged to the room. We shook hands, he took the shuttle to the airport. I took the bus to work at Best Buy and never went back. I left behind a bill of $2,000-$3,000; Phil told them I snuck off to Seattle as well, and they tried to hire someone to track me down. Whoops.

A week or so later, Phil called us to let us know John Rockafeller/Rockafella had moved to a dorm room. The cops were called when everyone else woke up to find him in the center of the room, buck naked and masturbating furiously. That’s some vacation.

Part Five: Awry
Part Six: Ruin

A New-ish Leaf.

It’s been quite a while since I updated my blog. I met someone I really wound up liking and only had a couple weeks to spend with her, so most of my time on those days was spent going to lunches, dinners, movies, comedy shows, and laying in bed with the sheets wrapped around us while we read. It was the best couple weeks I’ve had in a while.

She flew back home a while ago, and I’ve been trying to maintain a certain level of productivity, but I’ve had a lot of thoughts going through my head these days. Not bad ones, strangely, but busy ones. It’s a little tricky getting back into the routine I had before she arrived, but today’s the day! (he said, hoping against hope that Procrastination won’t rear its ugly head and devour him once more as the eagle does Prometheus’ liver).

Anyway. I’ve spent most of the last month sober, which is a massive change in lifestyle from most of the last three years. I went from drinking a half a bottle of whiskey or more on a nightly basis to maybe having a beer on my lunch every once in a while. For a long time, I drank to grieve. Then I drank because I was just angry and depressed and lonely. Then I drank because it was a health issue to just quit cold turkey. I’m over that hump now.

Over the last year, I had another horrific mental and emotional breakdown that cost me some close friendships with people that meant the world to me. It almost cost me my job. It put me in a very bad, unstable place. I’ve come a long way since, and for once I’ve taken action to hopefully keep my head above water. I saw a therapist (and plan on continuing again once the new year starts and insurance kicks in). I’ve got medication. I’ve dialed my drinking back significantly, in fact, almost completely. I’ve started writing again. I’ve been reading A LOT.

What’s weird is that, for the first time, I feel like the world is truly open to me again. It’s scary some days because with so many avenues of opportunity, I don’t know where to start. I saw a TED talk once about how the plentitude of choices can sometimes work as a detriment to the consumer. How when presented with too many options, someone can be deterred or frozen into inaction. I feel that same way sometimes now, but it’s also kind of exciting. I haven’t felt as determined to set out on a new path than I did six years ago when I first made the biggest change I had ever done.

Six years ago, I was a wily-eyed 21-year old with dreams of an acting and writing career (the former is laughable in retrospect; I still hold out hopes for the latter). I was going to take the world by storm through sheer brazenness and bravado. My grandmother paced back and forth in the kitchen, fretting. Bless her heart, she was worried about all the little details, convinced that any number of things would kill me during my journey into a better life.

To be fair, she had every right to worry. I was setting out with two friends, one car between us, $2,000 of my own with no job lined up, no other known associates, no place to live and I was moving to a city I hadn’t been to since I was seven years old. It’s an absolute miracle I managed to make it as long as I did, and it absolutely involved a lot of drinking cheap wine and vodka and eating two weeks’ worth of food on $30 (thank God for the $1 store).

My grandfather just sat quietly as my grandmother paced, and when she moved into her bedroom he stood up, came over to me and gave me a tight hug. All he said to me was that he was proud of me. My uncle had talent as a musician but never pursued it, instead settling for a career (that, by his own admission, he did love). My aunt married early to a pilot, had three kids, got divorced and married another pilot. My dad was also a talented musician but a troubled life that involved hard women and harder drinking. My grandfather told me he was proud of my talent and proud of me for attempting to go out and make something of it where his kids did not.

I mean, six years, a few failed auditions and three novels that don’t sell later, I don’t know how great a plan that was on my part. I’m $30k in medical debt and never got out of the nomadic mindset. I sleep on an air mattress and could pack up and leave in 20 minutes or less (is that a bastardized line from Heat? You know it is). And there’s a certain kind of freedom and a certain kind of loneliness wrapped up in that. I do want to settle down some day. I want a family. I like being able to come home and have my own room to plop down in and escape from the world sometimes. I spent two years on couches, futons and floors and it wasn’t the greatest, you know? But I also like knowing that I can pick up and go.

Even though I haven’t.

Even though, really, I couldn’t.

See, here’s my problem: after a year of scraping by in Los Angeles, an unemployed stint in Seattle, scrabbling for my feet in Redmond, being on solid ground again in Anchorage only to hit rock bottom all over again three years ago, I hate feeling poor. I hate eating cheap shit. I finally found a job that pays me well and reliably, but for the past two years, I’ve been living check to check because it’s so much easier to live IN THE MOMENT. You know what I mean? I like going out and having $15-30 lunches and dinners, good food that other people cook to me. I like going out and having drinks with friends, and I don’t drive and I’m impatient, which means I spend a lot on cabs every time that happens. I blew money on single issues of comic books when I know it’s better and cheaper to wait half a year and pick up the trade paperback, and I know that it’s all going to go into storage anyway. Living check to check leaves no money for emergencies, no money to move, no money as a safety net. And it’s that last thing that really makes a huge difference in my life, because my grandparents are dead. My dad is newly out of prison and already blew my inheritance on legal fees and the abusive harpy wife that put him there. I have no idea what’s going on with my mom. My aunt and her husband are saddled with medical problems. My uncle would help me in a pinch, but he’s already helped me so much and it isn’t his place to help me at all. His parents ADOPTED me. I’m a nephew he didn’t ask for and one he has already done so, so much for. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

So if I pack up and leave on a whim again, I’m on my own. 100% and that’s fucking terrifying. Exhilarating, but terrifying. See, I could save more money. I could try to transfer down with my job (instead of working for a local credit union, I work for a nationwide company; instead of being there for five months, I’ve been here for over two years). I have friends down there now. Connections.

But I had no money. I have no safety net.

And yet.

And yet.

I can’t fucking live here anymore. Not on anything like a permanent basis. Sobriety has brought a sense of clarity that I smothered over the last few years. I’m stuck in a sea of comfort in Alaska. I’m stuck in this cyclical loop of going out to the same bars, eating at the same restaurants, staying home to avoid running into someone I slept with every day of the week, or someone who has heard a rumor, or a former friend, or friends of people I may have wronged or made an ass of myself to.

I like bigger cities. I like reliable weather and normal sun cycles. The seasonal depression wrecks me every year. I like being able to have a measure of anonymity when I go out. I miss the beach. The real fucking beach and the sounds of the ocean. I need to be somewhere I can make actual connections with other authors, with more readers, with publishers, with people who might know people. Anchorage is home, it will always be sort of home to me, but it’s hostile to my soul and it’s easy to grow complacent. I can’t be complacent. I have a heart that cries out for travel and for seeing new things and meeting strangers in passing and for collecting stories of myself and others.

Long story short, I’ve decided to cut back my expenses, to budget money from my check and – for the first time in years – set money aside in my savings account. I need to survive one more winter and maintain some discipline and hopefully by next spring… by next summer at the latest, I’ll have solidified a plan to take another leap. And even though I’ll have a little bit of a safety net again, maybe this time I’ll focus on not missing the fucking bar I’m jumping for.

Oh, and hopefully I’ll have a couple more books out by then, too.

I’ve always wanted to be someone my grandparents could be proud of. But I want more than that. I want to be good at what I love to do. I want my friends to be proud of me as well. I want to be able to experience life more fully. I’d love to fall in love with someone else some day, but I also want, more than anything, to find love in the creases, cracks, shadows and backdrops of the world.

Decisions, Decisions

I’m beginning to feel as if I’m approaching a crossroads, or that I may already be at one. This would mean more if I didn’t constantly feel this way with irregular severity; you’d be surprised how anxious I get decided between two places to have lunch every day. Still, even though I wake up each morning wondering when I’m going to change what I’m doing with my life into something I enjoy more, lately I’ve been plagued at night  by rack after rack of details. Let me break it down.

1. Professionally (Writing)

I’ve been so terrible at maintaining consistency with my writing lately. I haven’t written more than a couple thousand words on my fourth novel. I’ve been exceptionally lax in updating this blog. I’ve replaced free time and motivation with sleeping too little and drinking and flirting and fucking too much and reading where I can, which is nice, but always pausing before I put pen to paper or hover my thumb over this app.

I haven’t submitted Waypoint to any more agents or publishers, despite the fact that I’m aware it won’t magically manifest itself onto their desks with a kind letter and a gift basket. I feel like it’s a good book that needs to find itself in front of the right reader. I feel like it has a solid, small but positive and vocal following of a few thousand readers, and that it (and its sequels) are things I can be proud of creating.

It still always manages to slip my mind. I just… don’t do it. I forget to look up the next publisher on my list, or if I do, I forget to look up the submission guidelines, or if I do, I forget to put the submission together.

So I’ve got to ask myself: do I still really, really want to be an author as a career? Somewhere inside me, the answer is still a resounding YES. I still carry around heaps of notes and notebooks. I update color-coded files in my phone on a daily basis. I write excerpts for future novels and stash them in those files. I have concepts that I think are ambitious and entertaining and I’m excited to bring them out and share them.

And Jesus, I’ve already written half a million words in three books in four years, so I’ve proven I can and will put in the work.

Do I still want to write the book I’m currently “working on”? I think the answer to that is positive as well, but I’m skittish about it. Earned or not, my I initial trilogy landed me a reputation among my peers that is more favorable than not. They really enjoyed those first books, and though I have no degree or professional experience to draw on, though I feel woefully inadequate, people ask me for writing advice and I feel flattered that they do so.

My newest novel lacks a lot of the grit and maturity of the Convergence trilogy. It’s a lot more straightforward and action-filled and even a bit slapstick here and there, and I’m concerned that even though it’s obviously supposed to be a different genre and style of prose, I feel clumsy trying to put it together on paper and I worry that people will dislike the finished product as it will likely be completely different than what they expected.

I’ve been planning the book for probably ten years. It’s a concept that’s very dear to me with a story that seems pretty fun. I want to get over that mental block, but I’m not entirely sure I know how.

Except to take the time. Sit down. Force myself to stop watching Netflix or jerking off for a few hours and tough through it. That might do it.

Sigh.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: I read a quote the other day that was along the lines of, “If you aren’t writing to say something, then what’s the point?” and while I’m an advocate for the importance in writing as a form of escapism (both for the writer and the reader) and the necessity of entertainment to keep the weight of the world’s stresses at bay, there is something equally valid in those that write to illustrate passionate ideas and ideals, those who touch on cultural, social, sexual, mental, emotional, intellectual and religious topics. There is something captivating about those ruminating on life, something that taps into the primal node tucked somewhere behind the rib cage, next to the heart.

Nietzsche. Bukowski. Kerouac. Angelou. Thompson. Hemingway. Oates. Poets and travelers, journalists and philosophers. Men and women who wax poetic on love, life, loss, and the lust for more from each day, from each other, and from themself.

Here’s the thing, I think: it requires a certain type of narcissism to believe one can really pick apart the intricacies of those topics. It takes a confidence to put definitive insights onto a page and push it out into the light for the open eyes of strangers to see. While I have always endeavored to write things as clearly and as detailed as I’ve experienced them and the insights I’ve gleaned personally from my experiences, while I have been and will always be honest about the failures I’ve endured and those I see around me, while I will tell you how I believe certain things can be improved or the frustrations I have in whatever regard, I just don’t think I could be so fantastically sure of anything as to write it with such fervor that people would quote me years down the line as if I ever knew what the fuck I was doing ever, with anything.

Would I write about love? Hahahaha. Hahahaha. I have, at length, and I’m still no better at it. I could give no advice that would feel helpful beyond a “What Not to Do” list, chief entry being “Whatever the fuck I did”.

Social studies? Race relations? I have opinions that I don’t feel qualified to give. I know the struggles of being broke, homeless, in debt, bullied, but the fact remains that I grew up as a middle-class white male and that has always and will always give me inherent advantages over others. While I hope to bring as much light to some of the conflicts tearing (still) our people apart, while I want to share conversations and perspective pieces from those more directly affected, I don’t feel I have the proper insight to contribute in a fruitful way.

Do I write about mental health and disorders? I’ll write about my struggles and hope people can continue to relate and maybe find some peace in that, but seeing as how I’ve historically handled my breakdowns with as much grace and aplomb as a whale tapdancing on glass, maybe I should keep my high horse stabled.

So with all that said, I’m torn. I’m torn between finding my way back to pursuing entertaining and commercial writing as a career, taking the steps to treat it like a career instead of letting my anxiety shuffle it off until I can drink the nightmares away for another evening; and writing something deeper and more impactful for people to take to heart and mind. I want my writing to mean something. I want people to be affected by my words.

2. Professionally (Occupation)

Let’s be honest, though, it’s going to be a long time – if ever – before I can fully support myself and pay all my bills with my writing. That means I’m going to need a day job. I do have one. I’ve been here for two years and one month, but the way things have been going, it looks like I might only be here a few months more. I’m just not very good at it, and to be honest, some days it’s difficult to want to be.

My job pays well, but it’s tedious and stressful and my boss has grown difficult to work for. What was once an excited, competitive atmosphere has turned into an intimidating, bullying spectre sucking any joy out of the air that could be found. I find myself popping xanax on days I’m lucky to see a panic attack coming and escaping to the bathroom to get away long enough to breathe when I don’t. I’ve reached a point where, despite working with salespeople I generally like and even admire, I count the very minutes from the beginning of my shift to lunch, from lunch to end.

I’ve worked varying forms of retail for 13 years. I like people. I do. I get really annoyed with them and I’ve grown increasingly introverted as I grow older, but deep down, I love meeting, talking to and learning about people. And yet at least twice a week it hits me that a common part of my job is processing payments for people too lazy to do it any of the other three ways one could it do on their own. What mediocre, pointless, trivial bullshit.

My job isn’t exciting. It’s the same thing day in and day out, and because of that, I feel drained at the end of each day, and because of that, I’ve been blowing my money on things to try and stimulate any sense of reward from the base of my skull. I’ve been living check to check, but now I know I might not be here for much longer, and I’m going to need to save up. Something has to change. I need to do something different, but I need to make sure I’m in an okay position when that shift happens. I suspect I’m going to be grumpier than normal for the next few months.

3. Romantically

This is far and wide the aspect of my life I’m least worried about. Yeah, I’m heartbroken. I’m lonely. I’m pushing thirty and the last serious relationship I was in was six years ago. The last two that seemed they could turn serious ended so poorly it completely shut me down for months. It’s difficult for me to open up, and even more so to find a connection with people I open up with. When I do, I fall pretty hard and I give my affection fully. I love deeply. It has given me some of the best moments of my life, and it has also historically not often ended well.

I would love to have a connection and to be in a relationship, to share experiences and memories with someone special, but I’m not trying to force anything. I’m gradually learning to just let things happen as they may.

Still, I’ve learned I’m fucking terrible at talking to women I find attractive. New women, I mean. Like, someone I’ve just met. If it’s someone I’ve known a while or at least met a few times, I’m able to relax and it’s a completely different scenario. Crushes are had. Sex isn’t uncommon. For a chubby, nerdy guy who too often lets his hair grow out to an awkward length, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t attention from multiple people at almost any given time.

And I like those women. They’re friends and lovers and there’s a shared trust, comfort and intimacy there. I’m a huge fan of sex, even in a casual regard, because I think there’s a created, emotionally charged release that adds passion and closeness. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s fun, and it’s nice to feel desired and to make someone else feel that, too. And I’m good at creating those connections, even if sometimes I’m terrible at the act itself. I know for a fact that I’ve conducted myself poorly on occasion, but have remained friends with that person afterwards and become closer for it.

That connection, those bonds, those are easy to me, and I value them. But trusting on an emotional level, on trying to arrange dates, on gauging a woman’s romantic interest in me, on working out compliments and genuine relationship building conversations… in those instances, I am a bumbling, mumbling mess. I think I really suck at dating, and it bothers me because I would like someday to have a family.

Be that as it may, I know I need to get my life together, first.

4. Life

I do not know what I want to fucking do with my life. I live lightly, and I kind of like that. Most of my things are either expendable or able to be stuffed into the storage unit I’ve had for years. My bed is a borrowed air mattress. Anything essential can be narrowed down to two suitcases. Realistically, I could probably make it one. If I had to, I could drop my phone bill down to $30 a month and rely on Wi-Fi for any Internet related things I needed.

I’m at that age where I kind of really need to figure out what I want to do and make a plan to do it (and then stick to the plan, obviously). I considered Greyhounding and hitchhiking and couch-hopping around the states. I have  friends everywhere, and it would give me a golden opportunity to see amazing – and probably awful – things all over the country. But how much money would that cost? Bus fare, hostel rooms. I can eat on a budget, I’m no stranger to the Dollar Store Diet. Emergency funds? Laundromat costs? How long could I last?

I’ve considered moving back to Los Angeles, as I have every day since I left. I’ve considered moving to New York. I think I’d like it there. I’ve even considered Pittsburgh because for as much as I hate the Steelers, I really liked the atmosphere there, the food, and the fact one of my best friends lives nearby.

Hell, I’ve even considered trying to find some kind of visa to move abroad and work a while. I love to travel, and I especially love other cultures.

All I know is things need to change. I need to change. I’m just flustered by all the choices, because I’m really, really good at making the wrong ones. I’m just starting to hit an age where the right one once in a while would be a welcome change.

First Sight

I want to meet her while standing at a railing, the two of us looking out over a dark blue river, likely abroad, likely one of those old countries where half the roads are still cobbled and every building has stories to tell. We would stand there in silence for a while, me mustering up the strength to say something, her waiting for me to get there, and finally I would say, “Beautiful.” She’d say, “It really is,” but we’d both know I was talking about her.

I want to meet her in a tavern. Not a bar, but one of those worn-in places where folks nip in for a lunchtime pint and you can people watch through window panes stained with age. We would catch eyes from opposite sides of the counter. I would raise my drink in a toast. She would lift hers in return and accompany it with an assured smirk and a small wink. I’d finish my beer and order a fresh one, then walk around, through a room occupied with a handful of regulars but otherwise empty, and we’d talk. For hours. The topics would range from the personal to the inane and the sky outside would slowly darken until the street lights glowed from outside and the evening crowd filtered through the door and we smiled at each other over the lips of our glasses.

I want to meet her in a bookstore. It’s a small affair, privately owned. The shelves are stacked tight with used novels, dog-eared and broken-spined. The pages are yellowed with age and worn with love until a day came when there was no longer room in their home or in their hearts and the paperbacks are given up for adoption. I would walk by her and she’d whirl around and ask my opinion between two books. I’ll have not read either, so we’ll read the backs together and work out a list of pros and cons until a decision is eventually made. “If it sucks, I’ll kick your ass,” she says.  “Take my number so you’ll be able to find me,” I agree.

Or maybe I’ll meet her at a group dinner. It wasn’t supposed to be a double date. Just a group of friends agreeing to meet for a meal and a few of us hadn’t met before, but she and I suddenly hit it off and start having our own conversation off to the side, the rest of the group be damned.

Or maybe we’ll meet on a plane, seated next to each other by chance and conversing because of boredom, and the seeds are sown for what starts as a long distance relationship and possibly blossoms into more.

Or perhaps we won’t meet.

Or perhaps she’s someone I meet again, someone who has been or is in my life. A circumstance changes or a reunion is had, a random meeting in a grocery store that turns into a lunch to catch up.  Maybe I know her already.

Maybe I don’t.

My hope is I’ll meet her, our eyes meet, and I feel that connection again. The kind of current that runs both ways. That kind of tension that raises the hairs on the arm. That flicker downwards as we look at each other’s lips, wondering what that first kiss will be like, taste like. The kind of rapport that leads to a whole lot of nothing that feels like everything and simultaneously lasts a heartbeat and forever.

If she’s out there, I’d like to meet her. It doesn’t really matter how, I suppose.

Today Has Been A Day

When I went to lunch today, I considered catching the bus to the airport, buying the cheapest ticket that would still get me out of Alaska and just figuring things out somehow when I arrived wherever I was going.

I obviously did not do that. I thought it would be better if I saved a little more money first. Then, we’ll see.

Some days I feel confident and charismatic, creative and smart. Even a little funny. Then there are days like today that just *crush* me and I don’t know why. It’s like some days I’ve got nothing to talk about or the words just spring forth, a tree bursting through concrete. Then days like today, I’ve got SO MUCH to say, I think? probably? But fuck if I know what the words are. They’re wrapped up as a cannonball in my ribcage. It’s a pressure, like my heart and my lungs are going to tear out of me to make way for some book that has an answer or asks a question or is filled WITH A SCREAMING OBSCENITY OVER AND OVER. This is Jack’s bullshit angst. All work and no play makes Jack tear down a door with a hatchet.

I’m so angry and frustrated with myself, and I’m sad that I can’t articulate that I’m fucking feeling everything all the time. I’m in love with beautiful things and I lust for the world. I crave intimacy but value solitude and the introspection and observation that comes with it. I’m scared of hurting – myself and others – because when a good person comes into my life, I never feel good enough for the friendship and/or relationship.

I love my job, truly, but it’s not me. I want to be out. I want to explore. I want to travel and just make it by the skin of my teeth if I have to and meet new people and hear their stories and write about them, and I can’t…quite pull the trigger. I can’t scrape together the guts or brain out the math because I’m bad at these things.

I don’t know what my life is, but I don’t feel like I’m doing very good at it or what I’m supposed to be doing or the best way to do it, and it builds up in me. This restlessness and this desire to be free while I’m following the same goddamn routine, putting the same work clothes on to deal with other people complaining about the phones they don’t need five days out of every week just so I can have money that FUCKING I CAN’T EVEN FINISH THIS SENTENCE. I’m bored with my own paragraph, because the routine is drivel and writing it down is giving me a fucking aneurysm because it shows just how much it takes over my life.

I feel crazy. Standing in a food court, trying to decide which unhealthy concoction to poison my body with and being on the verge of tears because who the fuck knows why is not normal. I don’t want to end up as another one of those artists that gets to a point in their thirties or forties and just gives up on everything. I don’t like quitting.

It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. I’m going to get a hot dog and a soda and watch Run All Night (you’re welcome for the plug, Liam. Have your people call my people) and go home at some point and work on this book and take a bath, maybe, and get some sleep, hopefully, and go back to work tomorrow and look at pictures of the Maldives or New York City or flowers or some shit while someone tries to come up with a good excuse to not have to pay their data overage fees.

This is been Positive Thinking and Life Assurance with K. Jered Mayer. Tune in next week when I’ll be discussing the Satanic qualities of single-ply toilet paper.

You, the People

My co-worker asked me today what my favorite thing to do was. “And you can’t say writing.” It took me a moment, but when I replied with “traveling”, it was with absolute conviction.

I do, I love traveling. Different states, different countries, it doesn’t matter. I love seeing different cultures, I love eating foods local to the area, and I love feeling the street beneath my feet. When I travel, I walk around a lot. Certain places have the “must-see” landmarks, and I check those out – the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Sangrada Familia in Barcelona, Bill Hickock’s grave in Deadwood – but I don’t do it on a tourist bus or with a group of like-minded visitors. I like to go off the beaten path, I love seeing the city and the people who make it come alive.

I remember being in Dublin with my friend Sean and we got lost wandering around. We ended up in some neighborhood walking past a guy on his back, fixing his car and some kids out playing in the road. I will take that 10/10 times before I take someone pointing out landmarks with a practiced speech that doesn’t quite distract from the half-dead eyes looking through and past the audience.

“I love exploring,” I told my co-worker. “I’m restless by nature.”

That’s why Alaska fucking sucks the life out of me. The nature’s gorgeous, best in the world. Anchorage is easy to grow comfortable in. There’s work here, and good money in it, but it’s not for me. It’s funny how the biggest state with so much open space makes me so claustrophobic. I need variety, I need people, I need new.

“I love seeing new places, trying new things. I love meeting people, man.”

The minute those last five words left my mouth, I realised that they were absolutely true. I update my Facebook and my Twitter fairly regularly with stories about awful customers or asinine questions I’m asked, and people occasionally think I hate my job, or that I hate people. Hell, sometimes I think I hate people.

The truth is, those customers are rare. That’s why they stick out so much, that’s why they make such fun stories to tell and retell. Honestly, though, I work retail and I have worked retail for almost thirteen years because I goddamn love people.

Don’t get me wrong: if I could support myself with my writing, I would in a heartbeat. I’d even take a pay cut if it meant I could write full-time. I’m not a materialistic guy. I love diamonds and flashy shit, I love video games and cushy shit, but if I made enough money to buy a van to live out of, a gym membership so I could score showers, and enough to eat at least once a day, I’d fucking do it in a heartbeat.

But I don’t. Not yet. So I work retail, and I’ve got to tell you, even if one asshole can ruin my day, they are few and far between. You meet loads more interesting, hilarious, tragic, beautiful people working a customer service job. As a writer, that’s the best goddamn material I could have.

And traveling? I love meeting new people. I love the locals, who tell me about their lives and their culture and their families and the holes-in-the-wall. I love the tourists, who tell me of their travels with the same kind of free soul and wide-eyed wonderment I’ve got going on in my own cage of a body.

My first day in Munich eight years ago, Sean and I arrived early. Too early to check into our hostel, in fact, so we tottered down to the laundromat to clean our clothes. The machines were unfamiliar to us and the instructions weren’t in English, either. The German owner didn’t speak a lick of our language either, which was frustrating for all parties involved, but after spending several minutes trying to demonstrate how to operate the machines, he just did it for us. He must have seen the relief and embarrassment on our faces, because the tension immediately left his, and he laughed and smiled.

Sean and I dropped our stuff off at the hostel afterwards and went to Oktoberfest when it opened (10AM, if I recall correctly) and…well, it was an experience. I met loads of interesting people, all of whom I could write about at length, but it was after the festival that stuck with me.

Sean and I wound up at the hostel just down the street from ours. It may have even been next door. That hostel was the party hostel, and where a couple Australians we had met in Barcelona were staying. We hung out there a while, drinking more, and chatting. I wound up dancing on the table with a woman from the east coast. What the hell was her name? It started with an L. Maybe a D. Brunette, pretty. We danced on the table until we got kicked off, and I lamented that I wasn’t able to get a photo. She dared me to jump back up, promising to snap a picture for me. I did and she did and we laughed and bought another round.

The next morning, I was in the lobby of my hostel using the computer. She was on her way out, on to the next destination. I walked her to the door, we chatted a bit, and she kissed me. I kissed her back. She left, and we never spoke or saw each other again. She may never even have thought of me, and that’s fine. For me, it was an experience and experiences are stories. I think you know I love stories.

I fucking love traveling. I love people. That’s where the good shit is at. That’s where all the interesting nugs are buried.

I fall in love every goddamn day with people. Not necessarily a romantic love. I love who people are. I love their motivations. I love what makes them, them: their fears, their hobbies, their weird quirks, their first loves, their disastrous sex stories, their tearful losses and reunions, the girl or boy that got away and the one who didn’t that they can’t stop talking about.

I get frustrated with people who don’t appreciate life, with the things that they have. I get frustrated with people who are unnecessarily mean or who are unnecessarily difficult, and that’s hypocritical, because that has been me. I admit to being an asshole. I’ve hurt people. I’ve talked some shit. I’ve been selfish, and those are all things I try to work on, because I don’t like hurting and I don’t like hurting others.

You fuckers are so goddamn beautiful, so intelligent and creative and strong, you’ve got so much drive. You’re capable of so much, and I love meeting you. I love learning and writing about you. You’re everything that is right with the world, when you want to be, and I’ll travel all over the world to share in a little piece of that.