Everybody in the short story class had a dead dad except Dan. At times he suspected this left him at a disadvantage, creatively-speaking. While his peers’ work was dynamic with hospital lights, rain-washed gravestones, and fervent goodbyes, all he could produce was ironic stories about clams. The clams could talk, was the joke, and they often talked shit, twenty relentless pages of mollusks mocking life, death, and philosophy before they were broken apart and eaten by seagulls. This was supposed to symbolize society, or the human condition, or something.
The problem, Dan felt, was that he had a greater appreciation for tragedy than those who had actually earned their sadness. He had immense thoughts about capitalism, God, austerity politics in foreign nations, and the majority of the time he felt doomed in vast and ineffable ways. His pain was not like other people’s pain, he knew. His was in an inchoate and never-ending anguish, precisely because it could never be known.
“You’re so completely full of shit,” his roommate, Trevor, liked to remind him.
Trevor had graduated a year previously and was now dabbling in unemployment. Spring was coming to an end, and the apartment they shared had grown scary. Rust from the drains crept through the shower basin in brown, ectoplasmic spurts. In the backed-up toilet, used paper drifted with the transparent menace of jellyfish. The kitchen had been infiltrated by wasps, which crawled along the dirty dishes as if to taste them with their legs.
The lease had gone on too long, probably, and Dan and Trevor themselves were engaged in constant, psychological warfare. Like hunters they scattered the apartment with booby traps. They piled tacks outside one another’s bedrooms, smeared the doorknobs with glue. There was something at stake, they mutually understood, a tangible victory just out of reach, as if the shoddiness of their lives could only be erased if one of them triumphed over the other.
“You don’t see cruelty, that’s your problem,” Dan told Trevor during their usual morning routine, which was to sit on the living room floor and drink beer. “If you knew how awful the world was, you’d be just like me.”
“You’re just too soft,” Trevor said. He was attempting a handstand. His feet thrashed as if he was swimming, and he lost his balance, hitting the floor in a tumble that shook the whole apartment.
“One of these days I’ll teach you,” he said, propping himself back up with his elbows. “I’ll loosen your ceiling fan. You’ll be decapitated in your sleep.”
“You’re proving my point,” Dan said. “This is America. Nothing is worse than America. A ceiling fan could leave your life irreparable here. A pothole. A thumbtack.”
“America is beautiful,” Trevor sighed, readying himself for another handstand. “America is apple pie. Go get yourself a better attitude. Better yet, go get laid. You’re still seeing that girl, aren’t you?”
Trevor had been drunk, more or less, nonstop for the past two years. Whereas Dan had listened to maybe too much 90s emo growing up, Trevor was oversaturated with beer and Jack Kerouac. He rambled constantly of highways roaring past, desert landscapes sprawling, skies unfurling like sails, even as he wasted all his time and money in the cloistered darkness of the local bar.
Dan checked his phone, which had no new messages. There was indeed a girl in his short story class named Sara with whom he was moderately obsessed. She had willowy hair and wrote about lobsters as a metaphor for her father’s death; they’d slept together twice.
“Look here,” he said. “Sadness is pretty much infinite. A famous artist said that once. You wouldn’t care because it wasn’t Kerouac, but a famous artist said that.”
Trevor was successfully upside down. “Do you think I can drink a beer like this?” he said. His legs trembled. Yet again he collapsed.
Later, of course, they went to the bar. Their college town was a small one, fringed by mountains and cut by constant wind, and from it you could expect nothing new or surprising. When they arrived the bar was already crammed with a crew of students that was there every night, a group Dan particularly loathed. He referred to them as The Shades, in part because he’d heard the term once in a Japanese anime, and mostly because it annoyed Trevor.
These were younger kids with bludgeoned eyes and drooping winter coats they wore even as the weather slackened with the promise of summer. The girls spoke weightlessly, long drugged streams of nothing, while the boys slouched so low in their stools it was like they wanted to switch places with their shadows. There was an incestuous quality about them that Dan had noticed, the couples swapping each night like saliva, an exchange of partners that was almost economic in its regularity, free market of hands, mouths, tongues.
As usual Trevor dove right into the center of their group, laughing, slapping backs, buying shots. Dan remained on the opposite end of the bar, watching his roommate. There were rules to social interaction, he knew. There were things you needed to maintain, the way Trevor did: eye contact, tones of voice, a certain noncompromising angle of the spine. But like how you could be born without a sense of direction, failing to find your way even when equipped with a GPS, Dan felt that he fundamentally lacked the instincts to employ this knowledge, the crumpled, glove-compartmented atlas of it.
He looked up from his drink to discover Sara standing beside him.
“That last story you wrote,” she said. “It was cunning. It was really good. Why always the deep sea theme, though?”
“Because my life feels like a submarine,” he said. He felt caught off-guard, unexpectedly thwarted. “Wait, really, I don’t actually know. How are you? Did you have a good day? Did anything special happen that made your life feel worthwhile?”
“All these questions.” She laughed and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Is this Jeopardy!? You’re doing it wrong. If it’s Jeopardy!, you need to give me the answers first. Or else.”
“Or else,” he said. “Or else what?”
“Or else Alex Trebek. He has a machine heart, he’s lived forever, he’ll never die. He’s a Terminator. He’ll track you down from the next century and erase your future.”
She was beaming. He tried to beam back. She had a face like a starfish’s, which he found attractive. Starfish could regenerate limbs and things. They were impressively, bizarrely immortal. He felt his own face turning red with a sudden shyness, one which could overtake him at times like these. The conversation had stalled. That was what conversations did—they entered you briefly, flitted around, bird-like and teasing, before they smashed into a window you had forgotten to open, dropped dead on the spot. He looked away from her.
“Well,” she said. “I need to head to this party. I’ll catch you later, alright?”
She touched his wrist as she said this, let her hand linger there, and then she was gone. He was no longer paying attention to The Shades or Trevor or his beer. He was aware of himself nodding to no one in particular, thinking, “Ahh. She is a much happier person than I am.”
The next time he slept with Sara he woke to the sunrise splaying itself against her bedroom walls. She’d decorated her room extensively, he was noticing in the growing light, every surface covered in tapestries, certificates of varsity achievement, posters of bands.
His own room—actually, his entire apartment—was barren, aside from the empty beer cans scattered throughout the space. He and Trevor did not have personal affects. They did not own furniture or even a trash can. They liked to view their dispossession as Zen-like, although lately Dan had started to suspect this was not so much a transcendence of desire than it was a carpet-bombed obliteration of it.
He left without waking Sara. On his walk back dust was flying through the air. Dust was always flying through the air in this town, stinging faces, knocking over garbage bins, hurling entire cars across streets. Dan was feeling melodramatic and a bit blighted. He closed his eyes against the wind and grit and immediately tripped, his knee hitting the sidewalk, tearing open. The pavement felt cool but not cold on his bloody leg—it would be summer soon, he knew. This was his last semester of college.
Last night he had kissed Sara languidly before they both fell asleep to a television show, still fully-clothed. There were other men she was seeing, he was pretty sure. He’d dated a few girls before, and he had grown to understand love as something large and mythical, like Bigfoot, rampaging in an unseen wilderness, its existence known only by the tattered traces—maimed deer, clawed gash in the bark of a tree—that it left of itself in the morning.
Critiques in the short story class began to tilt toward the haphazard. Students slouched in late, their coffee mugs over-full and sloshing with cheap beer. They propped their feet on their desks, leaned their chairs back at precarious angles, and fanned themselves with the pieces they were supposed to be workshopping.
They’d become especially hostile toward Dan and his clams. They were tired, month after month, of revising the same absurd story, one so thoroughly irony-glassed it laughed at them for the very act of reading it. He was hiding something from them, they felt, camouflaging the emptiness of his ideas, keeping them deep and bunkered in trenches of double metaphor and monologues that veered nowhere, and his peers sought not to workshop but to interrogate him.
Even Sara had, to an extent, turned against him, their relationship entering that dizzy territory between playfulness and spite. The only time he asked her out to dinner she loosened his salt shaker at the restaurant. Several days later she hid his shoes in her apartment’s oven, then feigned impatience over how long it was taking him to leave.
“What exactly do you think this is, happening between us?” he asked when he finally found his shoes, hunched over to tie his laces.
“I told you,” she said. “This isn’t Jeopardy!.”
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s not a game show, then. It’s not a game.”
“I’m going to be late if you don’t hurry,” she said, her face neutral and angled away from his, in a mock exaggeration of a slighted housewife; although, when he stared long enough, she cracked into a grin.
Meanwhile in class she was more engaged with his writing than ever.
“At the end, when the clams get eaten, it should all just be a dream,” she offered. “Clams dreaming of clams. No one would see it coming.”
“These are mollusks we’re talking about,” another student pointed out, with sarcastic thoughtfulness. “My disbelief can only be suspended so far. I can accept talking clams, sure, but dreaming?”
“Then it could be the dream of a fishmonger,” Sara said. “He’s depressed because he lost his job to market forces. To global trade policy. That’s what the seagulls symbolize.”
Dan met her eyes and she winked at him, maybe a little maliciously.
If you stayed in this town too long, you could get like this. You started to live your life in giddy, improvised lurches. You chugged rum before noon, devoured whole bags of potato chips for dinner, stole traffic cones in broad daylight. Maybe it was something in the air—everything was between that agonizing cusp of two seasons, the world precipitous, delirious as a fever dream. The days were hot but the trees bare; blizzards rampaged in the night only to melt to sloshed, sticky mud in the morning.
Right around this time the sink in Dan’s apartment clogged. Dirty pots and pans rose from the stagnant water like half-sunk battleships, little bacterial galaxies swirling around them. So Dan and Trevor gave up on cooking, opting instead for takeout, Chinese, Mexican, their meals gooey with grease, soft and warm at first, but then transforming in their guts later, solidifying into gastral anvils that left them collapsed and cradling their stomachs.
“We need to get out of here,” Trevor said, prostrate on his back after yet another one of these dinners. “Go West. Chase the sunset.”
Dan himself had been preoccupied with the sensation that a dramatic change was upon him, if only it was that the possibility of any further change in his life was about to cease. The branching paths of opportunity he’d hallucinated throughout college were narrowing into one linear, wax-glazed corridor. He had made no plans past graduation, hadn’t even maintained the basic pretense of looking for a job. His future was foreclosed, and he couldn’t imagine a world beyond this town’s cracked streets and walled mountains.
“Sure,” Dan said. “But where to? It’s all well and easy to say this stuff, but you need a plan. You need to be realistic.”
“Anywhere,” Trevor said. He rolled over to lean his chin musingly on his forearms. “Anywhere but here.”
Dan checked his phone. He hadn’t talked to Sara since their last class. She had a paid internship lined up after college, and then grad school. He put his phone away. There was still some light outside. Every evening the sun took a little longer to set, so that each day felt bloated, stretched to the brink of what was bearable, and it seemed now to Dan that nothing could be more grating than these last few hours of the sky’s prolonged, purpled bruising.
The final month of their lease, Dan walked in on Trevor pacing the kitchen with a steak knife in hand. A few wasps drifted over the stove. The sink’s smell had complicated into something fetid and swampy.
“Need to get out of here,” Trevor was saying to no one in particular, waving the knife about. “Get on the road. Travel the country.”
“Where’d you find that?” Dan said. “I wasn’t aware we had clean silverware.”
“There’s nothing here for me.” His nose was cobwebbed with broken booze veins, and the alcohol on his breath beat out even the sink’s fumes. “Nothing left.”
This could happen in their town, Dan knew. You could go a little crazy, a blade-like sharpness flashing through you, and for a flailing moment you railed against society, the world, the universe. But then you got tired. You went to bed maybe a little too early, while the sun was still out, and woke doughy and dry-mouthed with the weight of another wasted day.
“What are you even running from?” Dan asked. “You’ll be the same person no matter where you go. Actually I envy you a little. You’re a ray of sunshine. People here love you. I’m just the darkness in the alleyways.”
“Did you write that?” Trevor said, eyes bulging. “I hope not. I’ll stab you if you did. Where’d you come up with something as lame as that?”
“Anime,” Dan said, but instead of listening Trevor was shadowboxing with the knife, puncturing what was not there.
By the time they got to the bar, Trevor was truly plastered. The Shades were present, and they promptly subsumed him into their midst. Dan took his place at the other end of the room. Looking around, he spotted Sara talking to a boy he recognized from his writing class. He approached.
“I was wondering if I’d run into you here,” he said.
“Hey man,” the boy from his class said. “How are your clams coming along?”
The boy had a small head and lips that seemed always too wet and gleaming. Dan did not remember his name. He ignored him.
“How are you?” Dan asked Sara. “How was your day?”
“Your friend looks sick,” she replied, pointing at Trevor, who had several Shades propping him up so he wouldn’t collapse.
“He’ll be fine,” Dan said. “He’s a free-spirit. He’s free to get as sick as he wants.”
“I guess so,” Sara said. She checked her phone, glanced at Chris. “Well, anyway, we’ll catch you later.”
They walked away together. Dan watched them go. He was dimly aware that that was probably the last conversation he’d ever have with Sara. He wasn’t all too sure what he had done with her to ruin things—or for that matter, what he hadn’t done; what romantic cue he’d missed, what spasm of passion he’d failed to grasp.
Love, he knew, was a thing fleshless and beyond any two individuals. It was vast, it was nebulous, it was crushingly dense as storm clouds in distant solar systems. He remembered a science class demonstration which proved if you could fit Jupiter into a bathtub, it would sink. Yes, that was love alright: a gas giant plummeting down the drain like a lost bath toy, dragging with it whorls of soap, bottles of shampoo, the walls of the house, the whole raging neighborhood, the entire star-punctured universe.
He blinked slowly for a while, and then he went home. When he woke the next morning, Trevor wasn’t back.
A week slipped by, and then another. Dan wasn’t worried—the few things Trevor had, books, backpack, a mattress, not to mention the beer in the fridge, he would come back for. And he would want to speak to Dan; after all this time they’d spent together, he would want to convince him to go on some highway-streaked adventure.
Dan wasn’t worried, and then it was the last week of his lease, and he was worried. He went to the bar, for once alone. He walked up to The Shades and cleared his throat.
“Have you seen Trevor?” he asked.
He felt their stares like beetles on his face.
“I’ve hung out with him before,” one girl said. She was playing with a ring of water on the bar. Her eyes, unlike most eyes, were not moist and depthless but flat as concrete. “Only a few times. Don’t you two live together? You’d know better than me.”
Dan wasn’t sure what to say, so he finished his drink. When he was done the girl was still looking him over.
“We’re having a fire tonight,” she said. “By the river. If you run into him, let him know. Well, you’re invited too.”
They left shortly after. Dan ordered a few more drinks. He checked his phone. He’d texted Trevor all throughout the week, called several times. He had no new messages. He paid his tab and started down to the river.
The fire, built from driftwood, was mostly smoke. It smelled coarse and lacked warmth. The Shades didn’t look up as he crunched his way out of the underbrush onto the grainy shore, but someone said, “Trevor?”
“You wanted the sunshine,” Dan said. “Instead you get the darkness in the alleyways.” He was already pretty drunk. He couldn’t stop grinning. Although the sun had not yet set, there wasn’t enough light for them to see his face, or he theirs.
When he woke from his blackout, he was beneath an unfamiliar ceiling. Outside it was raining, the morning sky sagging low with clouds. He started the walk back to his apartment. Despite the weather it was hot, the hottest it had been all spring. The humidity was a sponge in his throat, and his shirt was soon a mingling of rain and sweat, heavy as the lead aprons you wore during an x-ray.
The apartment was empty when he got back. Rain lashed through the open windows and puddled onto the linoleum. The wasps had cleared out. In the muggy breeze, empty beer cans sang erratically as they rolled across the floor. Dan was definitely still drunk. He could remember slivers of the night before, the copper-dim fire, The Shade girl’s mouth and its metallic taste, and then he began to remember other nights, months and months back, dead winter, the first time he had walked Sara home.
The cold had been like a vacuum that night, pulling, it had felt—as Sara moved closer into him to chatter senselessly, easily, about seaweed and jellyfish, her body pushing against his—the very air from Dan’s chest, leaving him breathless and empty. But it wasn’t like the daily anxiety he had, that all-too familiar feeling of a trapdoor opening inside his lungs, a free-falling panic into the hollowness of a future that could not be filled. Rather it was as if the cold had cleared him out, frisked the swampy clots of his bloodstream and rinsed the way for the arrival of something bewildering and new. There was room in him now, maybe, he had thought, although room for what he did not know. The streetlights that night were spaceship-orange. His shadow stretched across the frozen pavement ahead of him, took on a distorted, heaving shape, and if he tried hard enough he could trick himself into mistaking it for the silhouette of a stranger approaching.