I. Midnight Premonition
I wake up in a dark room to the sound of a blade cutting the wash of traffic outside. My body completely wet. It feels like I’m going to throw up. Everything is light, like I’m floating underwater. I think I’m in a dream at first. That I’m back in my apartment in Philadelphia. I open my palm and scrape the empty dark around me. The plane ticket on the bedside table. Beside it, I feel the piece of stationery that my friend hastily scribbled the address on. The image blushes in the silent vacuum between my pupils and me:
“Historic MayFair Hotel. W. 4th Street. Los Angeles, California”
The room is formless, but I am already putting it into place, rebuilding its content. I need to. I focus. The colors of the carpet. Burgundy. It reminded me of that movie, The Thirteenth Floor (I remember making a joke to myself when I first walked into the room). To my right. The smooth lump outlining a portion of space in the bed next to mine is the friend who scribbled the address at a bar in South Philadelphia two months ago, saying: “It’s a writing conference that you have to go to. I’ve already got a room. We can go half on it. It’ll be fun.” At that moment I was desperate for anything to distract me from how small time was getting on the east coast, how small my office job was making me. The delusion that I’d be a best-selling novelist is just the escape I needed. The weight of my body. Breathing is hard. Stress has been pulling at me nonstop for the past year-and-a-half. I know that I haven’t read or written anything since college. I also know that college happened ten years ago. I know that the whole conference is an elaborate money-making scheme bordering on a scam. I know all these things, but I’m desperate for something to distract me.
A diagonal beam of vanilla light pulls me toward the window. It’s sort of how I imagine abduction stories starting out. An escape, I think, how wonderful! An escape! A reset button would be ideal. After all, I wouldn’t mind meeting E.T. I get out of bed and walk toward the light. Feet are heavy and balance is unsteady, but I ignore it and press forward. I peek through the curtains at the phosphorescent sea creatures hovering above the ocean floor of LA sprawl. All little lives like mine collapsed into single points of light. “I am a single point of light,” I say softly. Experimenting with the idea. Seeing if it makes me feel better. The heaviness in my feet vanishes.
The room has more definition now.
My eyes are growing accustomed to the dark.
I can see the TV staring at me dumbly, perhaps wondering why I’m awake. I also wonder, too. Everything in the room takes on shapes: squares, rectangles, circles. Their boundary lines sliding into shape like water filling up a container. I feel my way through the dark carefully, worried about knocking over something fragile and waking my friend. My hand outstretches until I feel the door.
The brightness of the hallway cuts the last tethers of sleep from my body. I step out on my tiptoes and slowly push the door. It closes and locks with a magnetic buzz. The carpet is black and white filigree. Red dots strategically placed. My eyes are easing into the light. It’s less blinding now and more like rose-tinted piss. I find an elevator and decide to ride it for a while, hoping the steady rise and fall will act as some sort of soporific drug.
The doors close and I press 12. I walk out and mull around, looking for the god of the Mayfair to find me…perhaps he’ll have somewhere for me to go? I think again, “Why did I wake up?” Bored, I go back to the elevator. The doors close. I notice that there’s no thirteenth floor and chuckle to myself. I hold my chest. The weight of my breath. I breath through my nose. Slowly. In. Out. Every floor I come to thereafter is unfinished. The sixth, the eighth, the fifth: all under construction. I’m shocked to discover that there are men are working on the fifth. Even now at whatever-in-the-morning it is, there are people working. They’re putting up dry wall and singing duets in Spanish with the power drill. All this unbeknownst to those of us on twelfth floor. In. Out. What else happens here while we sleep? I wonder. Do those men know what time it is? Do they even have a concept of time? “A single point of light,” I say again. My voice echoes off the wall of the elevator. I visit every floor. Maybe to answer my question. Although I’m not really sure what I’m doing…
At three in the morning, I come back to the room. I’d stopped at every floor in the hotel, even mulled around the lobby downstairs, pocketing a handful of mints from an empty front desk, and contemplated going outside in my socks. I sit on the edge of my bed and stuff mints in mouth. In. Out. Sleep presses on the inside of my forehead. Sleep and something else. The heaviness appears in my shoulders now. Where is everybody? I think. Laying motionless on my back in the darkness, it occurs to me that I awoke scared. I was frightened. That’s why I woke! It was a nightmare, some sort of premonition that did it. It unsettles me that I can’t remember the dream. My body’s wires tauten with anxiety. I press my fingers into my temples. I’ve had a prophetic dream of some sort, but I’m unable to decode its symbols or even retrieve them for interpretation. I try to work backwards, to remember how I created the room when I first awoke and had nothing but a vacuous space to work with. Nothing. I clench my eyes shut and try to squeeze out the images like I’m having a bowel movement. My friend turns over and his mattress creaks. I sigh, feeling like an idiot, and stick my feet under the covers. Suddenly, I feel very alone. Like I’m trapped in a small box.
The memory of shapes sliding together like water filling the room comes back to me. The vision of all those points of light containing people. The universe of LA sprawl I saw from the window. How from far away lives look like the bottom of an ocean filled with creatures that have bodies that speak bioluminescent languages. My eyelids are getting heavy… a soft explosion. Some small explosion in red fabric of my ear. “Burgundy,” I say softly. Somewhere outside and below us. Yet, it feels like it’s right next to me. Like a loud cough hidden beneath a wool blanket. The terrible dream that had awoken me begins to stain itself on my vision. Its colors return to me. Sprays of green and red light. A tightness in my chest. I can’t breath. A pale-yellow beam of artificial sun collapses and I see the room as if in full daylight. It comes with a shriek in tow. A tightness in my chest. The windows and the walls collapse. It’s like an explosion. Like a bomb went off somewhere. As if emotions had been building in this place for years and the dams had collapsed under the pressure. These dams held back fire though, not water. It’s as if someone is sitting on stop of my throat and pulled all my muscles taut. My limbs are both primed to pop off and sink into themselves at the same time. I feel so heavy. Right now, at this time of night, intuition is an evolved form of sight. My breathing turns sharp and focused like a needle digging into my brain.
After the windows and walls, the rest of the room follows suit. Floor, ceiling, television. This doesn’t really matter. Nothing matters. The tightness in my chest, in my throat. I don’t need any answers. The most important thing now is that I knew. I woke up and I knew. Spaces shrink. Everything is closer to me. If I stretch out my arms I can touch all the corners of the room. The know for knowing’s sake, I suppose. …bed, dresser, closet, refrigerator... It all comes toward me. For the moment that I could know, everything opened so wide that it was made of light. I feel my arms extending. My head growing larger. A strange warmth fills my body. …wall, television, desk, window... My job, my dismal romantic prospects, my deadening sense of purpose, the colors, red, vanilla, yellow, green, “Burgundy”… I try to pull the cover me to hide, but I can’t move my body. Reset, I think. Reset. E.T., I think. Please, come…please, come… If it’s a dream I don’t want to be here when I wake up.
II. Red Eye
I’m jetlagged and thinking of Angela’s angular features borrowed from her father. His own features sketched out by Frank Lloyd Wright on some forgotten pieces of brown paper. The smooth lines of bone framing her eyes were made for the world. Hard to fall in love with…but once they set their pegs into me, I couldn’t escape. The sharp, sudden curve of jawline that makes it look like everything she says is an inside joke for someone else in the room. I listened to everything she said. I longed for her secret message. I still waited for it. She was descended from ancient residents of Hamburg who crashed on Texas’ Gulf Coast, who learned English from 200-year-old books they’d found in their grandfathers’ attic. Ones where the language had only recently separated from the womb of Shakespeare. I think of how carefully history formed her genetic code. How she is the deft fruit of hundreds and hundreds of years. How her face leaves no room for imagination because it seems like the factory where it was produced in the first place.
LAX is a petri dish of lights right now. Colors and shapes swarming into and consuming each other. They blink in answer to some question I’m not aware that I’ve asked. Another secret. Some question about Angela. Her face is like a map of the southwest. Every shape and color accounted for. My finger trails its shape into the seat in front of me. I retract my finger and slump, breathing out heavily. Am I throwing myself too quickly into her world? Was this trip a mistake? Why the hell was I at a writing conference? Should I have stayed home and had just one more drink with her? Watched one more movie with her? Something that would reveal a key detail that would ensure that this wasn’t like previous relationships…that I wasn’t going to be hurt…that I wasn’t going to force someone else to hurt me? “It’s not spending time together that’s important,” I write on my palm in pen, “it’s how you spend the time.”
The petri dish of lights blink back. Each one like a small face. Someone to see me off, I think and smile.
Time isn’t a currency. The idea that time is currency is just a membrane that occludes the reality of time itself. The plane moving. The landscape trailing below. Time. Movement is time. I’m moving and Angela –
Stop, I think. Just stop.
I’m working myself up. My brain won’t switch off. Everything is going to be okay. I glance at my ticket. The destination. The estimated time of arrival. It’ll be morning in Philadelphia by the time I get there. I can see the tarmac. The landscape drawn out in the daylight like a perfectly formed sentence. Everything is going to be okay.
I lean back and try to sleep.
The plane takes off and I feel it struggling immediately. I pull up the window shade and leer groggily at the moon. Its light seems dull, sullen. Like it’s chastising me. Like I’ve done something wrong. The wing is undulating up and down, waving goodbye to the horizon. The cabin shudders. Immediately I think “bomb”, but I rub my face rapidly. No, I think, there’s no bombs on this plane. Nobody puts bombs on planes anymore. Why would someone bomb a domestic flight from LA to Philly? Why would someone bomb anything? Still, my stomach drops. Then, rises to my throat. Turbulence, I think, it’s just turbulence. It will subside. The pilot’s voice roars incoherently over the intercom. Everyone obediently curls into brace position as if we were praying to Allah, making ourselves small enough to fit into His mouth. Turbulence, I think. Turbulence. It must subside. It has no choice. The earth rising quickly toward us. Turbulence. It will bow to the will of the ticket and its estimated time of arrival. The floor of the plane surreptitiously creeping toward the ceiling as if no one will notice. I want to call Angela and say something, but there’s no service and I can’t think of anything more important than “I love you” anyway.
I close my eyes. Everyone is a stranger here. Quickly, I want to tell someone the most important thing about myself – but everyone is a stranger here. No one here will remember. No one here will be asked. “Turbulence,” I whisper to myself. “Time…”
Is it how much time you have left, I think, or is it –
there is a crunching sound and the first note of a scream.
III. The Universe Wants My Wallet
This place shouldn’t have been.
Actually, what I mean is that this place shouldn’t have been a place for me. It should’ve been one of thousands of places that existed in the city but would never become a place to me. Nothing more than a logical abstraction. A node in the glowing patchwork of LA sprawl. I’ve still got a folded note in my pocket. Something I heard at the writing conference earlier today that struck me as important. Something life-changing. It’s folded up tightly in my pocket. I can’t remember a word of it right now…
I keep thinking: I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost. My mind can’t recall a single moment from today because it keeps repeating over and over “I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost” as if this would inspire a universal law of reconciliation to set in. A Bettlejuice Amendment to Reality. I’m looking for the way back to Figueroa Street, knowing that I’ll definitely find an outlet from this alleyway and that my friends will walking toward me and asking how I could’ve possibly gotten lost when they’d sent me the exact directions to the restaurant. And I’m already telling them about how my phone had died and how I swore I’m going to get a new one but it’s just a lot of money and my dad’s being an asshole – pushing guilt toward them for not doing something that only I cared about.
I’m nervous. My body is becoming an upright turtle. Arms limp and back and chin in tandem bending closer to the equator of my sternum. I’m trying to portray confidence, but what if I’m accidentally projecting vulnerability? The last thing you should do on the street. Being lost increases gravitational pull. It’s not the fault of darkness, I’m reminding myself. It’s not the fault of the city. The darkness, the city? They obey another command, something outside my single dot of being. It’s not the fault of the city. Being lost isn’t really being lost. It’s just returning to where you started. Just calm down. Stop for a moment and start again. Wherever you are, there you are…here is everywhere, right?
I don’t even think I’m moving sometimes. My legs are just mindlessly swishing back and forth. I’ve wondered into some empty vacuum of Uber-less, Lyft-less space in the city. A part that snuck away from the clock and masturbated out its own temporality. Another Force is in charge. Some other urge of the ruthless and chaotic assemblage of competing universes that rises up unexpectedly at this time of night. I’m trying to calm myself down. I’m trying to breathe deeply, in and out. However, the comportment of How-Things-Will-Be-Moved-From-Here-On: The Universe has Its prophets, too… I’m meeting one right now.
A voice speaking from the urban garden of brick and asphalt barely lit by the piss-stream of light from behind myself. Its voice is sharp and painful. A yell, then an iron forearm around my neck. A hand seductively sliding into my back pocket. My wallet, I think, The Universe wants my wallet. Then, I feel my whole body deepen. Piss? No, I think, deeper…
…multiple layers of being. A center composed of pain. Sharp pains. Something solid digging into my body over and over. Something I heard. Something life-changing. I feel my voice dripping out in carmine paint. My vision grows blurry and I lose control of my legs. I fall down and begin to drift. I feel myself leaving the enclosure of myself. The one that hundreds and hundreds of years has culminated in the formation of. “Is this a kind of sleep?” I think or speak. I’m not sure which. For some reason, I’m reminded of Persephone. How her body re-made time for the earth and everyone on it, but what did that leave for her? What did that leave for the rest of us, stumbling out of her paradigm and into the dark cityscape where even the last streetlamp has burnt out? She had special time. Time always colored by the end. The moment when she would be inevitably dragged back into the underworld. That’s where she met reality. Time there is just a room of junk. No one has collected. No one has given it meaning. Everything simply is. That’s what it’s like at the end. Everywhere is already here.
I think of my folded piece of paper. That’s the last thing I’ll think. My folded piece of paper. If I’m found that will be my Will. The scribbling of a quote by someone else. Something life-changing that I wrote down without thinking of life. Something I heard over the conversations of others. Something I wrote down like an address or an e-mail. A message folded over itself. Hidden from itself in its banality. It’ll only be discovered by someone else. Something life-changing. I close my eyes and think of the paper, of its apocryphal message. This is life-changing. I try to remember the forms of the letters, but I feel myself falling asleep.