He’d been staring at the wall—at a poster of a nude woman contorted in knots, bathed in turquoise light—for ten minutes. His hands grasped the edge of the bed, his feed pushing against the matted brown capret fibers. Ready. Waiting. The poster, it didn’t register in his mind. It existed in his consciousness no more than the fleeting seconds turning into minutes before him. His mind, instead, stared forward, through the poster, through the wall behind the poster, through all of the surrounding, swirling soup of the cosmos, into the infinite plane in which his memories took shape. Only when he became aware of the poster and the rest of the world rushing up behind it to fill in the concrete details of reality did he notice he existed in the same time, place, and plane as it, that he and the poster existed at all. He turned his attention to the clock.
He lost ten minutes.
Highway hypnosis is the common name for the phenomenon of losing time while driving. The frequent, repetitive white dashes skipping past at sixty or seventy miles per hour, the familiar signs and sights streaking by, the glowing orbs ahead of you, growing larger or smaller as you close or open the distance between you and another car. One minute you’re an hour away from home, the next minute you’re turning off the ignition as you put your car in park. Panic sets in. You wonder if you missed any stop signs, ran any red lights, hit any pedestrians like the girl in that urban legend that turned out to be based on a true story. Your brain scans the strands of dendrites, the synaptic clefts, searching for any scrape of memory or else except the stark reality that you can’t remember the last hour of your own life story.
Some people go into shock, and this is where those bizarre stories come from of alien abduction, missing time – your brain is filling in the details rather than accept the truth that you’ve been a veritable zombie in the real world. One minute it’s a quarter till, the next it’s a quarter past, and you don’t know where you’ve been or what you’ve done. Truth is, you’ve been sitting still for so long, doing something so routine, so familiar, your brain shut off, went on autopilot, no longer registering visual or auditory information unless it is novel. Your brain is on screensaver, and all you need to do is press any key.
In highway hypnosis, the any key tends to be arrival at a destination, or an accident that usually proves deadly for whomever you collide with, as your body is as relaxed as the brain controlling it. It’s only the poor sucker who sees you bearing down upon him that tenses up and ends up with a broken neck.
Same principle applies.
For months, he’d been dead, his spirit vacated so quickly that it neglected to tell the body of its departure or even leave a note. He was numb, mute, unable to effectively exorcise the demon so thoroughly mastering him Every night’s sleep was silent and black, no longer rife with ideas and symbolism ripe for harvest. His eyes simply closed, he surrendered his subconscious to the darkness behind his eyelids only to open them a moment later to the incessant high-pitched beep of his alarm and the bright sunlight streaming through the window. He knew he slept, but as the nights became weeks, and the weeks stretched into months, the days found him a little less refreshed with every dawn, his brain a little more atrophied from lack of use.
He blinked, and the hand on the clock jumped ten minutes. He fumbled with the beer cans on his dresser, feeling for one still moist with sweat, the one slightly chilled among its more temperate compatriots. He gulped it down, warm and stale from several hours before, his tongue fondling the sharp, wide mouth for any last lingering drops of bitter, fizzy piss water.
He tossed the empty in a great, sweeping arch across the room, into the mountainous pile in front of his closet door, where it landed with a hollow, metallic clink.
He was still in his boxers, barefoot, in the kitchen. Another five minutes gone, lost to history. He came out here for something, but what he could not remember. Most likely another beer. His eyes scanned the freezer door ahead of him, registering the orange peel texture, the way the dirt in the grooves made the white seem gray, the sticker of a naked woman in bondage gear with a gimp mask over her face on all fours while another woman in a leather leotard held the dog chain with one hand and whipped her with the other. A forgotten memento from a previous tenant or roommate. He wasn’t quite sure.
He pushed the thin, stringy, unwashed brown hair from his eyes, slowly focusing on the paper dangling from the Budwiser-branded magnetic bottle opener on his freezer door.
Write something TODAY.
Familiar handwriting, scratched on the back of a receipt in her fine-tip red Sharpie. With two fingers, he turned the receipt over, investigating slip’s ownership via its contents. Hummus, Tofurkey, pinot noir—that definitely made it Gia’s.
He stumbled out of the kitchen, past the living room where painful, sunlight illuminated the dust choking the air in bright beams of white light. More empties on the sofa. Down the hall, pushing against the bare, yellowed walls, past the bedroom, and into the bathroom.
Warm water streamed down his face as steam filled the bathroom, invaded his smoke-dried lungs, thousands of little raindrops stinging his flesh as he stood facing the showerhead, eyes closed, mouth open, the water dissolving the white coating on his tongue. The bathroom filled with steam , his skin turning red as hot water rushed over him. He opened his eyes, watching shampoo slowly trickle down between them. His eyes squeezed shut, blinded with burning pain, and his hand reached forward, searching for the soap.
He stopped as she took his hand in hers; her voice so low that she neither laughed nor giggled but vocally expressed pure joy. Slowly, she pulled him closer to her. He could feel her breath on him, the warmth of her body beside him. He stepped toward her, her hand upon his, guiding his hand to her face. Another step forward, his fingers running up and down her skin, searching eyes and nose, lips and cheeks. They traveled familiar paths, her skin soft and damp. Another step into him; his fingers threaded through her hair. Again, her voice in his ear, an auditory smile. He turned to the spray, his face scalded by the streaming jet of water. He turned back toward her, smiling, and opened his eyes.
There was no one there; he was alone, arm outstretched, fingers caressing empty air. He breathed deeply, hoping to catch a whiff of her perfume, of pineapples and vanilla, to know that she had been there, that his senses so deprived of life had not once again betrayed him.
From the other side of the mildew-crusted shower curtain, he could smell the pungent odor of seat and decaying flesh emanating from the boxers he’d haphazardly tossed on the floor.
When was the last time I showered, he thought.
He couldn’t answer his own question.
Ever since Lee, he didn’t bother with towels. Sopping wet, he walked into his bedroom, the recirculated cold air stinging his bare flesh, still raw from the scalding shower. The boxers stuck to the beads of water on his legs as he pulled them on, after giving them a once over to assure himself he was puling them from the clean clothes pile. He surveyed the piles for clean clothes, throwing on a ragged pair of khaki carpenter pants and a faded, button-down shirt. He didn’t bother untying his All Stars any more, the knotted laces long since frayed beyond use. Slip in, slip out. After enough wear and tear, anything is comfortable, anything fits. Even numb apathy.
It even becomes easy.
He learned long ago how to slip it on. As comfortable as cotton, as tough as armor, he could wear it with little difficulty, feed the void he’d created to swallow the pain and fear and longing, the nagging self-doubt and raging guilt. Once crafted, it became a black hole, so strong no emotion could escape its pull once it had been absorbed. Even his speech became concise and clipped, shorn of its emotion and previous proclivities toward verbosity. There was no need for words when there was nothing they needed to express.
He stood in front of the steam-covered mirror, Gia’s handwriting now visible streaks on the glass, the oil from her fingers repelling the airborne moisture.
“Write something today!”
He wiped his palm against the glass, erasing her phantom message.
He stared into the mirror, into the knots and snarls of a ponytail he hadn’t combed in weeks, into the bags that reduced his eyes to slits, into pockets of fat filling his cheeks, into the skin beginning its southern migration down his face.
“You need to write,” Gia’s disembodied voice said over the phone yesterday. Or maybe last week. Or the week before. It was definitely within the last month, of that much he was almost sure. Almost positive. “I don’t care what you write, just write something.”
“I have nothing else to say.”
“Well, that’s not an answer my boss is going to accept, Shane, nor is ‘His on-again, off-again relationship just went off again.’ You need to pull yourself together. There isn’t a vagina in the world worth losing your career over.”
“Look, Shane, I know things have been rough. Really, I do” she continued, her voice softening. Change of tactics, new approach. “It’s just I have a job to do too, and my job is to bring in books—your books. We have a three book deal with you, and to date you’ve delivered one. The clock is ticking, Shane, and I don’t care what you write at this point—a novel, a memoir, a fucking cookbook. A two line poem on a cocktail napkin. It doesn’t matter what it is, just give me some evidence that you’re doing anything other than pickling your liver every day, and I can work with you. But this is a two-way street, and I can’t keep these checks coming in if you’re not going to fulfill the contract. Your advance was for three books, not one.”
“Just write. You’re a writer. It’s what you get the paychecks for.”
“Those pay checks are my royalties, for what I’ve already done.”
“Just write something, Shane. There isn’t a girl in the world worth doing this to yourself.”
“You haven’t met Lee.”
“You’re right, I haven’t. And I probably won’t ever meet her, because she’s not my client. You are. Now put the phone down, pick up a pen and a piece of paper, and write. Two words, just two words.”
Shane hung up the phone. At his laptop, he opened up a new email and typed in Gia’s address, the subject “Two Words” and the body “Fuck you.”
If he checked the computer, he’d find the time stamp was two months prior. Yet, the checks had not stopped.
He sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the poster again, the woman twisted unnaturally in the surreal light, black hair radiating around her head like a thick, fluid Mohawk. Lee’s first modeling job. In a past a million years gone, he sat in a studio, scribbling notes furiously into a yellow pad as Lee tossed and twisted about, writhing naked on the floor, her little pink nipples hard from the chill of the studio.
The photographer, he was dating her at the time, though she called Shane’s bed home every night when she crawled in after a shoot, smelling of smoke and sex, her breath sour with the scent of light beer. He’d tried to speak out against sleeping with the photographer, against seeing other people, but it was never actually argued. He threw feelings out at Lee, and they were whisked away on zephyrs of dismissive ego.
“I told you when we got back together that this needs to be an open relationship.”
“I know, but I don’t feel there’s much ‘relationship’ to what we have.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” she said, stripping down to her panties and an old tee-shirt before crawling under the thick flannel sheets, leaving Shane to stand at the foot of the bed alone. “We have sex, don’t we?”
“Relationships aren’t about sex; they’re about commitment.”
“I always come home. Isn’t that commitment?”
There were always excuses for Lee’s affairs. When she slept with her roommate, it was because she was bisexual and Shane couldn’t fulfill every need. When she slept with other men, it was because she was polyamorus, and sex outside a relationship meaningless and existing merely to fulfill her needs when Shane could not. Once, she called to break up with him, only to take him back the next day—the termination of the relationship merely a technicality to allow her guilt-free sex with a boss who’d bought her a drink after a particularly long but increasingly friendly job interview.
Another ten minutes, gone.
Shane stood, surveying the scene of that last discussion, that last goodbye, before she left for unknown yet decidedly greener pastures. For ten years, he’d dated no one else, loved no one else, and given everything to one person, and then, one morning, she was gone. How long had he lost in time with her to reading tours, book signings, writing and revising? Had he even noticed her cooling and drifting in the last months of touring, interviewing, and being interviewed? After the book deal, she’d clipped every mention in a paper or magazine, every interview and review, everything she could get her hands on that even mentioned his name. And then, one night he came to an empty bed. When he awoke in the morning, he noticed her belongings were gone.
That was three months ago.