by Liam Lowth
Last night I dreamt I died. There was this two-lane highway, and a car was coming right at me. It was nobody’s fault. We were driving down this road pushing one fifty, speeding straight along precise white lines. I could’ve strayed from true north and let the car pass, but there was a sort of inevitability to whole thing. The car ahead had to move because whatever asphalt rabbit-hole I was chuting down wasn’t changing for the world. Then it all went south. High beams spilled over my dash like milk. A second before impact, light swarmed over everything and I was wrapped in a florescent cocoon; car crash, quick.
I’ll cut to the chase.
My dead granddad gave me a nod and ushered a path through a small door into a giant room, and in this room stood everyone I’d ever known. No flash cut montage, this was your life; no movie style resolution, roll credits; just someone I bumped into on the street yesterday, my Mum, and everyone in-between marshaled together. Thousands of cumulative hello/goodbyes standing in a room. A microcosmic mass of multitude, a single throbbing throng of human nada-ness, all just standing there. All for me.
Me; I’m standing here dead center of downtown. The night air pangs with a temperate zest and over my head the million eyes dotting the domed sky shine bright. Maybe that’s why I remembered the dream, I wonder if there were a million people in that room? Down the street a mob of young faces scream into the night sky. A girl in the center of the pack cries when one of her male counterparts takes the ‘HAPPY 21st PRINCESS’ crown off her head and throws it into the air. As I’m looking at it soar into the void above all I can think about is how it looks like a small planet; a precise white crescent of a planet, just for her.
My phone vibrates in my hand and reads, ‘5 mins away b there soon! x.’ I dust off my dirt brown coat and take a seat. I open a few apps and plant some seeds for my next date. I say ‘next’ because I’m on one tonight, or rather, about to be. Copy/Paste – ‘Hey you’re cute, hookups?’ – Send to – Recipients: 4. Multitasking is so much easier with OS 9. Here’s to the future. ‘Just you tonight then?’ a waitress asks, handing me a cocktail menu. I wave her off. Strategically, I’ve gotten here first so there’s not that awkward fifty meter walk. That’s the worst part about dates for me, the steady shuffle where two people, strangers to one another, are pulled into an alien orbit. Their character is revealed in a matter of steps. Do they look at their phone midway? Do they smile, wave? Do they check to see the coast is clear? That moment of incomprehensible fear, ‘What will they think of me?’ Nobody wants that. I like to avoid what slows things down, disrupts the flow of the evening. And you get a feel for it after a while, the way things should be. I think this is my third this week? Depends what you count as a valid date. Coffee? Does that count? Or coitus? I lean to the latter.
I know it’s conceited, but I can’t stop. I try to think of it all positively though, it’s a humbling experience too. You lay with someone you’ve never known prior. An honest expression of human connectedness that starts with just appearance and a few generic answers they’ve given you; just a short period of time to make hasty decisions and derisive judgment. And judgment is oh so easy when all you’re dealing with is the external; when all you’ve got in front of you is a blond caked in foundation called Chantelle. But something happens when it comes time to go. These judgements, these scathing critiques evaporate with our breath as it rolls up against the cold. Every cynical thought is extinguished through this blunt release of emotion at the end. At the moment of release, away from yourself and everything you want, you start to consider the person in front of you, and every fucked up thing about them becomes just a pock on their inherently important existence. But then you roll over and it’s over, and she’s just a Chantelle, a Brittany, a Candace. Over and over, I become the most tolerant man in the universe for two seconds then come crashing down back to my world, once again, liberal in judgment. Hell, soon it’ll be the week’s fourth coming of that old forgiving messiah. I’m on fire.
I look up and she’s here already. “Jarred?” she says, phone in hand, blue screen illuminating under her gaunt cheekbones; a bedtime skeleton with her smartphone scythe. We hug and go upstairs to the bar. She’s about 5’6 with pastel pink hair; wearing tight blue overalls, white shirt underneath and a visible leopard print bra. As we talk I get to know her generics. She’s a naïve arty girl who’s been told a few too many times by her parents she has talent. She’s a reconstituted John Hugh’s character; the kind of girl who only enjoys a date if it’s off the wall – fast food in the gutter, falling asleep on the beach, yelling penis as loud as we can while we laugh and cover each other’s mouths in faux embarrassment – those kind of dates. “Dinner and a movie is just like hell for me, kind of like bourgeoisie hell if you ask me. You know?”
I sigh. No, I didn’t ask. I hope this charade ends soon or I’ll end up jumping out the window. I’m sure that’d be ‘off the wall’ enough for her to relay through mixed media art shows and to tell her children when they ask ‘how did you meet Dad?’ She taps the drink straw between her fingers, back, forth, tick, tick, and I’m trawling through thick moments of time. The minutes stretch on and on, and I’m thinking about my dream again. How Mum was at one side of the crowd and Dad on the other. After their divorce Mum spoke about how easy it was. A signature on a couple of papers and she was absolved of all that was my father. How easy it would have been, to tap NO on my phone and have avoided this evening all together.
There’s a phone in my face with a video of Chris Pratt on some late night show. She’s holding it up to me with the volume blaring, inconsiderate of anyone around us trying to have some semblance of a quiet evening. I interrupt her mid-sentence talking about how her dream man did some funny thing in this video and ask her if she wants to get out of here. “Sure,” she says. So we leave, descending the stairs of the bar back down to earth. Off into the night we roll, where our cold breath steams up and travels in different trajectories to the velvet sky. She brushes by my side, so I tuck both hands into my pockets.
She lives on the North Side, amongst six-figure-salary singles and their giant white mansions. I’m frustrated because I know it’s going to be at least 40 bucks for a cab ride home to the South. The house we walk up to is an old double story shack on stilts that’s ‘trendy’ in her very adamant words. I don’t see the charm in the place. Amongst the other million dollar homes it sticks out, like leopard print under white. I have no doubt it’ll be bulldozed soon for another white box palace; the last piece of this Lego block neighborhood.
It’s not a trendy house. It’s not a renovator’s delight. It’s a memory of a home needing replacement, not work. If I had to describe it with some inkling of merit, ‘shithole’ is still the nicest word I could bring to mind. Self-imposed squalor loses its romanticism when you’re forced into a one-bedroom termite nest as an eight year old. A home falling apart, like this one, because your Mum can’t afford anywhere else. We make our way up cedar stairs to a decaying door arch. “Bohemian right?” She smiles. And it’s strange, because for a second I don’t feel as irked by her, but it comes and goes in my mind like my memories earlier.
“My roommates live across the hall so we’ve got to be quiet,” she says as we ascend another set of stairs.
When we get to her door I can hear them arguing across the landing. It’s interminable babble floating through the cracks of the wood beamed walls. “No you listen!” closely followed by incrementally louder interjections, over, and over and over. No you, no you, me, I, shut up.
She rattles the key about in her door for what seems like an eternity.
“Old locks sorry, always takes ages, pretty vintage actually.”
I’m glad she doesn’t see my eyes roll into the back of my head when we finally get through the ramshackle door. Her room’s an explosion of Hello Kitty paraphilia, Penguin Classics and fairy lights. We sit, rather, sink into her bed and she rummages through her bag.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” I nod and she pulls out a spoon and a bag of coke. “Oh don’t freak out, it’s freebasing,” she calmly says. She’s indifferent to my judgment and her statement just seems like she’s talking to herself. “Just the pure stuff,” she quietly murmurs as she lights the bottom of the spoon and swirls soupy mix-up. I wonder if I should tell her that these puritan ways of life are killing her faster than she thinks. She’s as conceited as they come so I don’t even bother.
I’m about to get up and leave the most fucked-up date I’ve ever been on but she grabs my arm. The pink duvet is thrown back and she pulls it over the top of us. I settle down as it’s draped over our heads, she angles an airway for her smoke out the window. “I think one of them studies law or something, just to be careful,” she says as she gestures to the couple next door having the yelling match. With more interest than I’ve seen her harbor all night, she transfers her coke and begins to smoke, exhaling down the plaid tunnel where steam rolls up under the stars. Under this blanket the light’s changed. She looks softer, her cheeks rounder, her smile more radiant. Our knees touch and I can hear my heartbeat in my ears; slowly. It’s warm under here. It’s comfortable; otherworldly. In our little world, the two of us, face to face, the yells from next door fade and the traffic from the highway below lightly brushes our words.
I can see a single star through the blanket tunnel. Mum used to teach things about the cosmos. 2pm of a Wednesday before Dad picked me up I’d sit in on her class. In the pink igloo I occupy memories keep dotting my mind. She draws in and exhales out, and thoughts fade and dissolve into consciousness. The star shining on our little world glows. I remember. I remember that what I can see of that star is behind in time. The speed of light isn’t that quick when you’re dealing with light from years away. Mum’s voice resonates through my head. That picture of the sky you see, could be years old, it’s just getting to the earth now through the light. The past is right above us, night after night. A star nearby could explode, the earth would meet its doom, and by the time we’d see anything it’d already be too late. The human collective’s only reward would be just a few seconds standing around together trying to figure out, ‘what now, what should we have done for each other?’ That star above, down the plaid tunnel, could have already exploded. I turn to her, see her smile, and everything becomes secondary.
She takes another drag and it gradually gets warmer. “FUCK!” she screams and waves her hands above her head. The duvet suddenly catches alight. The orange flicks quickly against starchy fabric. I’m trapped in a cocoon of heat as light swarms over us both. She throws the blanket to the ground and it lands on an open copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We watch the fire spread along the world’s most inconceivable fuse: book to magazine to record player to rustic furniture to dream catcher to wardrobe. Mesmerized, we wait too long to run. She fiddles for the key and begins to rattle the vintage door to no avail. After two minutes she begins to weep and I wonder if this date is off the wall enough for her. The fire keeps spreading like a rash until it climbs over the doorframe and burns her hand. We step back to the center of the room engorged in a hell pit. Someone told me that the average home burns in seven minutes but it feels like an eternity as we stand there, dumbfounded as to what we should do. Behind me I remember the window, and then begin to weep myself as I remember it’s three storeys up, and down below is a highway. One way or another is happening. We are doomed to die. I see myself in her eyes, the two of us there weeping, illuminated through orange hues and tears. I brush her side as I turn heading for the window and dive through a fiery hole out into the cold.
Here I come, the million eyes of the domed sky stare down at me and my granddad reaches for my hand. I think about her up there, as I fall, and wish I stayed. I wish I stayed in that warm world where it was just us. Where every fucked up thing about her became secondary and her smile absolved her of everything but us, just the two of us. For two seconds I’m the most tolerant man on earth. But it’s too late as I crash down to the highway, headfirst into a car. I can see flames blooming from the window above and I know I’m already dead. What now? I should have stayed and taken her hand. My dead granddad reaches for mine. I’m walking through the door sobbing and everyone I’ve ever known is there. I wish I stayed. I wish I was more than just a man in her room. I take my grandfather’s hand.
Liam Lowth is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His work has been previously published in Tincture Journal, Veronica Mag, and Viewfinder. He is part of the fiction collective for the Canadian journal, Filling Station, and is the editor of a young writer’s platform titled, Lower View Literature.