excerpt from Steady Diet of Nothing
Five days lost.
Black ribbons in my hair from I don’t know what.
In the dream, I am my brother, again. In a blackened room with moving bodies. I know there’s a door somewhere. I am trying to find my way to it, but I can’t move. My body, slowly filling with poison. In the distance, a thrumming from another kingdom. And the harder I try to wake, the further I slide back into oblivion.
When I come to, I am driving—both my hands on the steering wheel—racing down the highway, the desert rushing past me like accelerated scenes from a black and white movie.
I dropped Darby off in Sparks. She said she wanted to try to find her mom and her sisters. But we both knew that wasn’t true: her mom and her sisters left a long time ago.
I stayed with her a few days in a cheap motel on the main strip. She said she was going to call her mom, or at least try calling someone who might know where her mom was. But instead, she sat on the balcony smoking, drinking peach Schnapps, and not calling anyone. Finally, she told me I should leave, that she needed to be alone. When I asked, she said she had to stay to take care of some things. She asked if I would return the car, bring it back to the guy she’d borrowed it from. He was in Oakland now, she said, not Los Angeles. I didn't ask why. I just said yes.
I left her in the dark motel room with all the curtains shut, drunk, rocking back and forth on the filthy gold shag. I asked her to come with me, I told her I didn't think it was a good idea for her to stay alone in her hometown. Not in the state she was in. But she insisted. I was hoping I could get her to leave with me. But she wasn’t listening. She was someplace else. Like the Darby I knew a few days ago was gone, replaced by this semblance of Darby.
The car had no AC, so I rolled all the windows down, the hot wind blowing through the car. Like a ceremonial ritual: these tiny black molecules of dirt and dust on my face, on my arms, on my hands and in my mouth. Me, lost in this endless desert, swallowing clay mouthfuls of the past.
I was surviving on a diet of Dolly Madison mini lemon pies I bought five for a dollar at the Bakery Thrift back in Sparks. That, and warm diet Colas and beer. I figured, if I could burn off just a little more of my body, I might be able to singe off some small parts, at least, of my past. The algorithm in my mind said: one lemon pie a day, plus diet Colas and as many beers as I want. The plan wasn’t really a plan, though, because there was no end game, no goal in mind. I guess some part of me thought it would all take care of its self—the unraveling I’d been instigating would undo something that had been locked. That by unloosening the fastens, I could somehow set myself free.
When I left Darby in Sparks, instead of driving west toward Sacramento, I took highway 95 south toward Las Vegas, out further into the desert. It wasn't a decision, not really. It was instinctual, an animal-like sense that told me I should drive out into the desert, that if I did that, somehow something life changing would transpire.
The car, racing down the highway as if I’m not piloting it anymore. I was starting to feel a tiny bit beautiful, partially human. The burning drive inside me, all the rage and grief and sorrow that had been accumulating my entire life up until now, accelerating out of me. I set my favorite Jeff Buckley song on repeat, listened to it over and over, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and I let the waves of repetition do their thing. Freedom as darkness. Repetition as incremental emancipation. And I just kept driving.
I drove for hours, listening to the same song, lighting one cigarette after another, until, due to exhaustion or the oppressive heat of the desert, the movie stills of memory started finally to unravel. Everything I’d compressed inside, everything I’d pushed down into oblivion, began appearing in my mind like a dream.
I spent three months inside the hospital. I had reached the point of breakdown: my mind wouldn't work anymore. All I could think of was food and not eating.
When I showed up, they didn't hesitate. They took me in. It was just like juvenile hall: I couldn't leave the building, every movement I made was tracked, every minute and hour; strangers following me with clipboards, taking notes. Hours were broken down to increments. We spent our days sitting at round tables, listening to “experts” tell us what we did wrong, what we needed to do in order to succeed. On weekends, when the doctors were away, we’d glue and paste shells and beads onto small wooden boxes or make collages with the torn pages of fashion magazines.
In one group we were told to construct “dream boards” upon which images of who and what we’d like to be were to be pasted. If we followed the unit’s rules, we were awarded with points and if we accumulated enough, we were allowed to go out on a “day pass.” We’d work hard to get our day passes, eat the right amount of food, behave appropriately, answer the doctors' insane questions politely. Smile, keep quiet.
We’d leave the locked hospital ward and once out, we’d engage in every activity we’d been forbidden. And sometimes, because the experience of being locked up was so oppressive, the simulacrum of the institution so entirely like the world outside, we’d engage in acts we had never before imagined. Catch the subway down into the heart of the city: have sex with a stranger, get drunk and shop lift. One night, at the end of my excursion, in a mad frenzy, I went into Bergdorfs and spent everything I had left in my bank account. I left with bags of beautiful dresses and stockings, a new pair of black leather boots and a satchel of make up, my heart brimming with ecstasy and terror. Like a binge, but with worse repercussions. I'd used up all the money. There was nothing left. Where would I live? How would I pay for food or for the hospital bills?
Before returning to the unit, I went into a large, bright-lit candy store near the Swiss toy-shop at the Plaza and stole handfuls of sour balls and orange slices, chocolate covered marshmallows and Laffy Taffy, and then ate all of it on the half hour train back up.
Eventually, I reached the doctor’s “ideal” weight for me, a number from a medical textbook they referred to, and they sent me right back out into the world, the world that made me sick to begin with. Still with no idea what put me in the hospital in the first place.
Inside the hospital ward, time stopped. And the meaninglessness of everything became more apparent: the research they did on us, the fact that no one knew what made us sick to begin with. And we all knew we’d end up right back in the hospital again, or else dead.
Within weeks of our release, Anne hung herself in a Manhattan boarding house, and they found Sarah’s body on the side of a highway outside Dallas.
I am the aberration. I am the only one still living.
Sometime in the late afternoon, I pulled over at a Conoco to use the toilet.
The image of the singer Jeff Buckley, floating in the lake in Memphis was stuck in my mind along with the words he’d said in an interview once, “I want things to get freer, I want things to get darker.”
In the bathroom, I stared at my face in the mirror. But no matter how long I stood there, and I stood there a long time, I couldn’t see myself. It was like I had a mask on, something affixed to my countenance I could not remove. My face, warped under years of duress, poverty, and despair. My face, a death mask. I couldn’t see anything—just dead zone: death and illness lurking around every corner.
After a while, I gave up. I put another coat of sunblock on, combed out the bleached wig of my hair with my fingers, put my giant plastic sunglasses back on, and walked out into the parking lot. On my way to the car, I went into the little neon store and bought a 2-liter bottle of Diet Cola, another carton of cigarettes.
Then, I went back into the car. I listened to the same song I’d been listening to for days. It had changed, warped from having heard it so many times. The music was beginning to fold into itself, producing new iterations, offering hitherto not yet heard, secret, meanings. Liner notes for an enigmatic future.
I sat in the car for a while, losing track, until the heat from the midday sun, beating up against the window, woke me.
I tried hard to focus. And though I tried, I couldn’t come up with an answer, so I finally gave up. I put the keys in the ignition, started up the engine, got back on the highway, and I just kept driving.