Thursday, November 30, 2006

While The Gods Dream, Apollo Waits For Morning

I think I am dreaming.

I think I fell asleep at my desk while studying for the last final before Christmas break and I am now dreaming that my flight is touching down in Athens, Greece. I don’t like to fly, and my ex-girlfriend Becca is with me at the terminal.

Which is why I think I am dreaming.

The first thing we smelled when we got off the plane in Athens was cigarette smoke. I was expecting something different. Though I was new to foreign travel, I’d heard stories about how other countries had interesting smells as compared to the States—like the seemingly ubiquitous smell of dogshit in South Korea—so I was waiting to be greeted by a completely unexpected aroma, waiting for a surprise like some out-of-place waft of hummus drifting by the plane as we would step outside.

A throng of people swarm around the baggage carousel while Becca stands off to the side, waiting someone in front of her to make room, and after a while her mother gently tells her that she would need to squeeze in there herself if she wanted her bag soon; anyone who looks Greek doesn’t seem to have any patience for waiting in line. Becca looks over at me and sees me watching her, and she smiles. She gets her camera out of her purse and takes a photo of me as I stand next to her grandfather.

In the photo album, the old man will be blinking while tucking in his polo shirt and the tall Native American kid doesn’t smile.

Ω

The dream continues.

I dream we’re at the Parthenon, the throne to which Athens bows her head, regal Acropolis that keeps watch over the Aegean Sea. The Parthenon is a corpse of a building who’s left her skeleton strewn out in the open air to be kicked at by the masses of tourists who shuffle by. I saw the recreated Parthenon in Nashville, a fantasy of what once had been.

I wish there were less people, Becca says.

We’re kind of part of the problem, I reply.

We’re not in a guided tour, though.

I suppose that did make us special.

Scaffolding lines the remaining upright structure as part of a restoration project underway to help sort out some of the damage from a 17th century battle, in which an Ottoman stockpile of gunpowder in the Parthenon was detonated when struck by a Venetian mortar.

Can you imagine? Becca says. Just look at it. It must have been the most incredible thing in its day.

I had heard the biggest threat to the Parthenon was acid rain from the pollution of Athens below. I try to imagine its columns melting to the ground in a few decades.

No, I say. I think it’s tragic.

Oh, come on, Becca says. Just use your imagination. She points to the structure like she were a tour guide. Imagine it’s the greatest building the world has seen. Imagine it’s the center of the cultural universe, and everyone is in awe of the society that can create such things.

It’s falling apart, I say.

You’re such a grouch. Becca crosses her arms.

I turn to look back towards the city, a thick haze of smog covering the claustrophobic city sprawl beneath the Acropolis—or maybe that’s dream smog—and I bet Becca probably thought I was like that Indian they used to put in the ads who would cry at the people who littered and trashed up nature, though I’d never touched a ceremonial feather in my life.

No. She probably doesn’t really think that. She knows me too well.

I see her camera flash out of the corner of my eye.

Did you just take another picture of me? I ask.

Yes, she says, gravely, checking the LCD display of the photo on the back of the camera.

Give me that, I say. Her brown hair shines under the sun, like something out of a television advertisement, long and luscious, twisting in the light breeze over the Acropolis, and I snap her photo as she looks towards the Parthenon while two young boys wrestle on a rock behind her as their parents disinterestedly looked on.

In the photo album, the girl will stare off in the distance while a tow-headed boy behind her tries to remove an extraneous arm from the inside of his shirt. The girl’s large sunglasses cover too much of her face and it is hard to read her expression. She is young and slim and pretty.

She gives me a gentle punch in the shoulder, making the dream feel real.

Ω

The reverie carries us to the site of the ancient Olympics.

On a bus.

It is an overnight ride, because the drive from Athens to Olympia in Elis takes five hours. The plastic seats are the same as the ones I used to ride on during bus rides in grade school. I am a child again. Except now my legs are longer and I have to put my knees up against the back of the seat in front of me to fit, making my hamstrings tingle as they fall asleep.

Becca’s mother and grandfather sit in front of us, and I am next to Becca. Under the dim glow of a portable reading light she is paging through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I don’t have the heart to tell her that Ovid was a Roman. I hoped she would notice that all of the gods’ names were different, but then again, I suppose that if this is my dream, then I get to make all of the rules.

Becca has given me her diary to read. The current page:

“I don't want people to feel sorry for me, I don't want people to feel awkward and not know what to say, I mean even after losing Dad I'm still at a loss of what to say to someone who has lost a loved one, crazy huh. I dread the ‘parents’ question above all others—I HATE leaving Dad out but I dread the looks on people's faces when I tell them that he died. Because I hate the image that gives them of him, because he was so alive, so handsome and the image you get when someone tells you of the dead is not vibrant or happy...it's sad and dark. And Dad wasn't either of those things. Anyways…”

A bump makes me look up from the red leather-bound journal. Through the windows, the black silhouettes of Greece stream by, and I swear I am seeing shadows of columns and statues and temples—maybe they are just phantasms—flicker past Becca’s head, which rests against the window. Her eyes droop to a close.

I like watching her sleep, but I get jealous. I do not sleep well.

I close the diary. Becca’s father died two years ago while running a charity five-kilometer race. He was an avid runner. He collapsed in the middle stretch, about kilometer three, out in front of the old county courthouse. His heart simply stopped beating. The paramedics managed to restart it, but his brain had gone over ten minutes without oxygen.

They took him off of life support a few days later.

Somewhere in ancient Greek legend, a man named Pheidippides lies dying in an Athenian’s arms, having run twenty-six miles to tell his countrymen that the Greeks defeated the Persians at the fields outside Marathon.

Ω

Are you Indian? the woman in the visor asks me.

Honey! Her husband interrupts. He may be Pakistani. Them two don’t like to be mixed up.

I tell them that I am Cherokee.

Cherokee? The husband runs his fingers over his bald head. You’re a long way from home.

We are standing before the Ancient Olympic Stadium and I do not remember how I got here. My head is killing me. Small groups of tourists stand on the grassy embankments around the track, which looks like an elongated dirt soccer field bookended by two stone lines—the start line and the finish line—and the space between, a sprinter’s graveyard, a tomb of thousands of footraces buried in the memory of the ancient dust. I turn around. I do not see Becca or her mother or her grandfather.

The two Americans stand next to me and talk to me about home in Virginia. I ignore them. They are ignorant. I try to dream them away, but their cheap smiles stay with me, and the dirt track, in its huge historical significance, seems like a bit of a letdown when compared to the spectacle of the modern Games.

I went to public school outside of Atlanta. It wasn’t very big. There was one other Native American kid in my grade, Tommy, a Navajo whose father owned a fairly successful computer tech-support business. “Race me,” he said, standing next to me out on the playground, stretching up tall, “race me and we’ll see who’s the real injun.” I didn’t say anything, and then he shoved me, and I said I was more man than he’d ever be, and then we went out to the soccer field to race. The sky was blue, just like this one, the wind was blowing the same way as it is gusting over this track, and when Tommy said ‘ready set go’ he tore off, galloping hard, a foreshadowing of his days as a starting tailback on the varsity squad, and by the time he quit running he was fifty yards away and I hadn’t moved a muscle.

Michael!

Becca stands by the stone judges’ stand at the midfield as her grandfather scuttles along behind her. I don’t know why I didn’t see them until now. The Americans wander away from me, and I realize I hadn’t heard a word they had said. Someone’s hand comes down on my shoulder. I turn around and see Becca’s mother smiling at me, the Great Negotiator while Becca and I were breaking up, a stoic woman of thirty-eight or thirty-nine. I wonder if she still aches over the loss of Mark like her daughter does, the daughter who belongs in an Attic tragedy, whose diary entries grow longer and longer as if the pain were reborn and unspoken right up until the words spilled out of her pen each night, like she were Sisyphus pushing the stone up the mountain for all eternity.

But surely it can’t last for an eternity. Dreams can last forever—spinning and repeating in their own little universes—but memories do not.

Becca’s camera flashes from across the way. In the photo album, two flecks will stand near the barren Grecian track, hovering above the gray mass of Grandpa Kelly’s shoulder wandering in front of the lens.

Ω

When you dream of Athens, you don’t typically dream of the Plaka; you’ll dream of columns and statues and Socrates in his underwear before the tourist trap of the Plaka neighborhood conjures itself in your head.

The Acropolis holds its chin up over the Kydatheneon and Adrianou causeways, the two main arteries that bleed tourists into various shops, jewelry stores, cafes and restaurants lining the streets of the Plaka. Two Japanese men slowly stroll in front of me as I walk next to Becca’s grandpa, whose stooped head never once turns left or right to inspect the stores that we pass.

You know, he says, I never liked you much.

The Japanese men stop walking, and I have to sidestep around them to avoid a collision. Turning to see if Grandpa Kelly was still with me, I see Becca’s mother at my side. I turn around. Grandpa Kelly walks arm-in-arm with Becca thirty paces back. I wonder if I just imagined him beside me, if I was going crazy; but then I remember that this is probably a dream, so such transgressions can be allowed.

This is a dream, I say. Right?

What? Becca’s mother asks.

Nothing, I say.

It wasn’t long after Becca’s father died that Becca and I became steady. I suppose I could be thought of as the ‘rebound’—the ‘next guy,’ in a way—but I wasn’t that good with girls and Becca was a catch. She was a catch to me, at least; I thought that the crying was normal.

Becca’s mother stops at a rack of postcards at the corner of Voulis and Apollonos. After Mark’s death, she wasn’t as emotional as Becca was—not nearly as manic—but she didn’t speak at all. I had been dating Becca for two months before she said anything more than “hello” to me.

She flips through the rows of postcards, and shakes her head. There is a lot of Becca in her face, especially in the eyes.

None of these are in English, she says as she holds up a glossy reproduction of the Aegean.

Can I ask you a question? I say.

Shoot, kid. Becca’s mother looks at me, with the Becca eyes, with the same sympathetic tone she had when she was telling me that Becca wanted to break it off.

Do you miss Mark? I ask.

It seems like a simple question—while dark—but it really runs much deeper, because those four words were a cover-up for the million-dollar ones, “is it normal that your daughter writes about her dead father every night?” I didn’t want to be the dumb Indian ex-boyfriend who thinks he’s a part of a family and suggests Becca needs counseling again—but maybe what was left was not much of a family at all, so maybe I had more of a say than I thought.

Grandpa Kelly putters by. A local on a Vespa nearly clips him while steering through the Plaka shoppers.

Becca’s mother keeps flipping through postcards, as though she didn’t hear me. I don’t repeat the question.

Thanks so much for bringing me with you on this trip, I say.

You’re welcome, darling.

She finds one she likes and tries to beckon the vendor, who ignores her as he chases a small dog down the street.

You know, she says, I would take all that stuff about Becca wanting to ‘play the field’ at face value.

I’m surprised that she brings this up with me here, but I’m also glad.

Maybe she’s just afraid of commitment, I say.

A couple comes up to the postcard stand, speaking German. I was fortunate to even be invited to go to Greece with the Tracy family, and I wonder whether I had Becca or her mother more to thank for that.

But suddenly I feel lightheaded, and I put my hand on the postcard rack to try to steady myself, spilling a few of the cards onto the ground. When the fog clears out of my eyes, I stand face to face with Becca. Her mother is nowhere to be seen.

What is your new girlfriend like? Becca asks.

For the first time I contemplate waking up if I am able.

I said, what is your girlfriend like? she repeats. I wonder if I had been even really talking to her mother.

She’s very nice, I say. Very shy. She likes to cook.

Wake up.

Is she pretty? Becca asks.

Wake up.

Yes, I say.

Ω

I have problems with insomnia. Maybe I am not really dreaming. I don’t think it matters.

Becca’s fingers are on my back.

I’m a little bit drunk.

We made friends with a couple young Athenian cosmopolites while we were out and they bought us ouzo. Too much ouzo. The Athenian from the Plaka, Nikos, waves to me from the bar and asks me if I want another. I can’t hear him over the Greek hip-hop, thump-thump, but I know the word in his lips is ouzo.

The new girlfriend isn’t really anything special. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Jeannie just kind of is, always consistent, always the same. She’s also Navajo. I really want to believe that that’s a coincidence, that I like her for her character, but to everyone else—especially Becca’s grandpa—that will be a hard sell. I will remind them that I am Cherokee, not Navajo.

Becca’s fingers are on my back, and I am not brushing them away. Couples bounce off of us, an elbow here, a hip there, and then before I really think about it, the question comes out, the one that had been on my mind all night:

Are you coming to Emory next year?

I have to yell it, but Becca hears me. She mouths we’ll see, mouths it like she means it, but the instant her lips start to move I know it’s a lie, that she’s going to school somewhere far away. And then I think she’s a silly little senior in high school who’s never been without either me or her father in her life, the girl who won’t be able to pick a major, who won’t have anyone to read her diary when she has a bad day—

Ouzo.

Lots more ouzo.

After all, who needs to dream when you can drink yourself into levitation, make the bodies on the dance floor hover off the ground and tangle in celebration of the god Dionysius, where any one of them could spill their wine to the ground in libation and make the honorable dead walk the Earth; we could dream and pay tribute and drink until Becca’s father was alive again, make it like he were walking among us—but, as with drinking too much, a dream like that would be torture when you woke.

Becca presses her face up against mine.

I think I still love her, and that too will hurt when I wake.

Her camera flashes. I feel faint.

The photograph will not go in the “Greece Trip” album; it ends up in a desk drawer, buried beneath personal letters and other photographs of forgotten friends. The boy and the girl’s faces will dominate the frame, their skin overexposed from the close-range flash, their heads juxtaposed over the hazy black background. In some years, one of my daughters will find the print buried in a memory box next to a pair of stuffed animals, call my name from across the house, and the moment I walk in the room they will put the photograph in my fingers and ask me who the girl is.

Ω

Relax, Becca says.

I am relaxed, I say.

You seem nervous, she says. And you look exhausted.

The plane sits on the runway, our red-eye flight put in delay due to thunderstorms and forty mile-per-hour winds. I seem nervous because I am nervous; I hate flying and I hate having to wait in the plane. Becca writes in her journal, and I know she’ll have me read it when she’s done. I wonder why she doesn’t just talk to me about it. In my head, I formulate the likely entry:

“Greece was amazing, truly a great experience… one of the best times of my life, easily… but I can’t help but think about how it would have been with Dad at our side, joking about the locals, the crazy shops—I just wish he could have seen this. I can only imagine what his stories would have been like later, telling them to the cousins, and maybe someday to my kids…

“And I want Michael to be happy, really happy, and I want things to be like they used to be. I want us to be close again. And I want to be with him at Emory”—

I take a deep breath; it’s nice to fantasize.

Becca, I say, as a flight attendant moves by with the trolley. Are you coming to Emory next year?

She stops writing and closes the cover of her journal.

I’m going to Georgetown.

If I’m dreaming, this could mean that it’s not true; but my stomach sinks, as I just don’t want to face the likelihood that I am awake.

I won’t get to see you much, I say.

I know, she says. If this were a nightmare, the plane would crash as soon as we took off.

I reach over to her lap, to her diary, but she stops my hand.

What do you want? she asks. She adjusts her reading glasses and brushes back her hair.

Your camera, I say. I want to see your pictures.

She hands it to me. I have not slept since we touched down in Athens; the colors on the camera’s back display run together, and I try to blink the blurriness out of my eyes. I flip forward through the images anyway. I know they’re there.

Are you sick? Becca asks.

No, I say, I’m fine.

Grandpa Kelly says he never saw you sleep when you were rooming together. She touches my elbow. The dizziness returns. And he doesn’t sleep very much in the first place.

As if he’s a reliable source of information.

Michael! Don’t be rude!

What? I say, putting down the camera. Did I just say that?

Becca looks at me, like I’m crazy, like the way grandma looked at me when I told her I wasn’t going to take the scholarships from the Cherokee Nation because I didn’t need them—I wasn’t oppressed—and the old woman swore at the ceiling and at my mother and yelled “why doesn’t the boy take the money?”

You should see a doctor when you get back, Becca says, stopping short of ‘so you don’t end up like my father.’

Maybe it’s for the best.

My cell phone vibrates in my pocket, and I check the caller ID. Jeannie. I had promised I would call her while I was in Greece. I didn’t.

The phone keeps vibrating. I don’t pick up.

Becca’s mother looks over her shoulder at me from three rows up across the aisle. I catch her eye, and she doesn’t say anything; and then, like a prairie dog, Grandpa Kelly peeks his head up over the seat next to her, and they both stare at me, silent, motionless, like statues.

Becca pulls Ovid’s Metamorphoses out of her carry-on bag as she puts her journal away. I wonder what it was like for the Romans, pretending they were the Greeks—the Trojans, rather, according to Virgil—stealing the Greek gods for their own, stealing their architecture, their art—

They are still staring at me.

I turn to say something to Becca, but her eyes are closed, she is already falling asleep, the Metamorphoses spread across her baby blue ‘I ♥ Ελλάς’ souvenir t-shirt. It’s not fair. She’s the one that should have restless nights, not me. I have nothing to worry about, other than watching her as she rests, hearing her inhale and exhale, seeing her turn on a side.

Her body slackens as she drifts towards sleep. She’s so still.

Michael? She breathes.

Yeah?

Why don’t you kiss me anymore?

Her speech slurs, her mind somewhere in that space between living and dreaming.

Because, I say, we’re not together anymore.

She murmurs, and then she is gone.

I imagine that I tell her I love her, and I imagine that she doesn’t reply. I pick up the camera and try to take her picture, but the battery is dead. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter that she goes to Georgetown, either, because she will always be running away every single night—like she does tonight, abandoning just another dumb Indian on some runway, leaving him to close his eyes and try to dream of falling asleep as he listens to the sound of the wind and the rain against the windows of the last flight out of Athens.

excerpt from "Spy Vs. Spy": a non-fiction

*[this story published in "Epic", Spring 2007]

You and your childhood friend could not have any less in common; Asa, the conservative, volunteered for the infantry in the summer following his graduation from Midway High School, and constantly pressures you to drink. Your friendship, you reason, was borne out of a lack of friends to be had in sleepy Cleveland, Missouri, population five-hundred-something, and maintained by a mutual affection for videogames and complaining about there being no girls where you live.

You didn’t speak much after he left for basic training, and you were okay with that.

But Asa has been leaving a lot of voicemails recently, wondering when your spring break is. You don’t call back. Then your plans for a trip to California fall through. You will be home for spring break. Asa comes home to Cleveland one day and sees your car in the driveway across the street from his parents’ house. He calls you on the house phone. It doesn’t have caller ID. You pick up. He makes you promise, promise you will hang out with him while you’re home. He tells you he knows you’ve been avoiding him. You promise. You tell him Thursday.

Thursday evening comes and you drive to Asa’s apartment back in Warrensburg. The sky is overcast. Asa told you he had a new videogame that you have to try. He was going to make you try it. You park your car next to his Corvette, which is sitting alone in its corner of the small apartment parking lot. You walk up to the door. It’s locked. You knock.

Asa answers; he looks terrible. He tells you he’s sick. He invites you in. All of the lights are off in the living room and it’s near dark outside. No one else is home. He locks the front door as you flip the light switches. Traditionally college apartments have whitewashed walls and used (abused) furniture, the decorations consisting of empty alcohol bottles in rows and Jessica Simpson posters heroically trying to fill the empty wall space; but in this apartment, the Jessica Simpson is replaced by an Army ROTC poster, and the alcohol bottles are on the table, only recently empty, standing like tombstones among a smattering of nine-millimeter bullets. The room is filthy. Clothes lay on a mound in the corner. Guns are all around you, rifles and shotguns sitting on chairs. A hunting bow is leaned up in the corner.

Asa tells you he’s taken a lot of Nyquil. He pours himself a tall glass of a bright yellow alcohol from a still-full bottle on the table with a snake on it. You sit down on the couch facing the TV and he turns it on, along with the Playstation. He turns off the lights. He plays a role playing game for a short while, a sequel to a favorite you both had back in grade school. You watch his cartoony doppelganger smash monsters with a mallet. He reaches a jumping puzzle that he can’t beat. You watch him struggle with the puzzle for ten minutes before he gives up. He turns off the Playstation and goes to the kitchen. You get up and turn on the lights.

He comes back with a bowl of noodles from a stew he made yesterday. You sit back down on the couch. He tells you to pick up the shotgun that’s laying on the coffee table. You pick it up. It’s heavy. It’s a twelve-gauge. He eats a forkful of day-old noodles. He tells you to charge it. He mimics a pumping motion with his fork and his bowl. You are not sure if it is loaded. Shells are on the table. You slowly cock it. The noise is intimidating. Just like in the movies. He tells you how this shotgun is modified, how it can hold more shells. You think that’s illegal.

You set it down on the table, laying the barrel down between empty bottles of the snake-labeled alcohol. Asa gets up and walks around the couch to pick up the rifle that’s leaned against the chair next to you. You don’t have to have shot a gun to know what an AK-47 is. He tells you it’s Egyptian-made; something to do with the altered stock. He hands it to you; also heavy. You are holding the most popular assault rifle in the world. You quickly set it back against the chair.

You notice he has almost finished his glass of alcohol already. You didn’t even notice him drinking it. He puts his bowl of noodles down. You see his face darken before your eyes, eyelids droop, lips purse. He says that Sheila isn’t going out with him anymore. He says she’s going back to an ex-boyfriend. From the little you had talked to Asa over the winter, you know that he had been trying to do the most romantic things possible with her; taking her to nice restaurants, going on carriage rides, sweet-talking her. Asa says he will miss her little kid from her old relationship with the ex-boyfriend, whom Asa thinks is worthless. He utters a threat to fuck the ex up, something he has threatened to do to many since junior high. His voice cracks as he talks about how special Sheila is. He pauses. His eyebrows relax. He says whatever. He wants to show you the game he’s been talking about.

It’s a music game where the main character aspires to be a rock star. The controller looks like a guitar, only with buttons; you’re supposed to play the guitar-controller along with the music. Asa thinks you will be good at it because you play guitar. You remember how Asa has never liked the kind of music you play. You are good at the game, but not because you play guitar; you are good at it because you spent your childhood playing videogames instead of sports. Asa begins talking about Sheila again and how much he’ll miss her. He’s getting emotional. You are playing the game as he watches. He says he just wants her to be happy. His speech begins slowing down, like it does when he is getting dramatic. He pours himself another glass from the snake bottle. You beat the level and excuse yourself to the bathroom.

You walk up the stairs and into the bathroom. You shut the door and lock it. You do not wonder about the last time it has been cleaned or even think of the last time you were in it and Asa was so drunk he was catatonic. You sit on top of the toilet seat and pull out your cell phone. You text message a friend, a girl:

please. need u to call and pretend u want 2 go on a date 2nite. emergency!

You see your cell phone confirm the message being sent. You take a deep breath. You are getting nervous. Your anxiety is flaring up.

You give a fake flush of the toilet and go back downstairs. Asa has turned off the lights again. You notice. He is struggling with the game. It relies on the player to be in rhythm with the music, and Asa is sluggish from drinking. You watch him play for a while, and he begins to start failing levels. He hits pause.

Everything is quiet. You want to get up and turn on the lights, but Asa has turned towards you. He’s preparing to speak.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” he says. You look down.

“Don’t patronize me,” he continues. “I just want to… I just want to…

“I just want her to be happy. But… I’ve seen so much death in the world. Matt… I’ve seen death.”

Time begins to slow down, it seems. You’ve heard this conversation before.

“You’re so gentle, Matt. But you need to get ready. The world is not meant for us. You don’t know what I’ve seen. Do you know the truth of this world? Do you know the truth?

You know now, that, given your luck, your phone will not be ringing to save you.

“What are you so afraid of? Tell me,” he says. “Tell me. What are you afraid of?”

He was always strange as a kid, always wearing black sweats, always energetic. Always dark. But he’s been so much darker since he killed the man that shot him in the groin over in South Korea. Your mind assesses the situation. Though you both sit on the same couch you are barely in the same room as him. You tell him you are scared of death. He gives a strongly disapproving look.

“Do you know what happens… when you die?”

You shake your head.

“What do you think happens when you die?”

You don’t tell him about the philosophy you’ve read. You don’t give him a guess about God. You say you don’t know.

“Do not be afraid, Matt.”

He grabs your hand. It’s a deliberate gesture. You never touch each other.

“But I’m scared, Matt. You don’t know the things I’ve seen.

“Once,” he says, and his grip on your hand tightens, “I saw the truth. I saw millions of people dying. Do you know what that’s like?”

You shake your head. Right now, every single one of your reactions is measured. Asa grabs your other hand. He grabs your left hand with his left, and your right with his right: he has your arms crossed. You’re vulnerable. He’s gotten considerably more muscular since leaving Cleveland for basic training. Your pulse quickens.

“It’s like this,” he says.

He tears your hands apart from each other and begins pulling strongly away from himself. Your muscles fire, and resist. Your arms are crossed in front of your chest. He is still pulling. You are keeping him from yanking your arms from their sockets.

“The truth,” he says, and pulls harder, “I saw a demon. And it was flying over the people.

“It had six arms. Six arms. It was swallowing everyone.” His arms begin shaking. Yours, too. Your hands are sweaty.

“And I saw its face,” he says. And then his voice drops lower than you’ve ever remembered hearing.

“Its face was mine.”

No time to go into panic: in a matter of moments everything is sized up. You know you’re all alone, so you don’t count on help. Asa is sitting between you and the front door, which is locked; you don’t consider going for a back door that may be through the kitchen, because you haven’t seen it. He knows at minimum eleven ways to kill with his bare hands. You specifically prepare yourself for an attempt to break your nose at an upward angle, which would lodge it into your brain and result in instant death. You know that you can’t get into hand-to-hand combat with him. At six-feet-one and a hundred and ninety pounds, you would think you could handle yourself, but Asa is no longer the fragile asthmatic you grew up with; you may only have twenty pounds on him, comparable in strength, and he is simply too experienced. Then if you get through the locked door, Asa’s car is sitting next to yours. If you get in a chase, you know that his Corvette easily outmuscles your coupe, and though you are a competent behind the wheel, he is a much more practiced aggressive driver. He used to give you rides to school before you got your license.

You mentally survey the guns in an instant. The Gewehr 43 sits across the room on top of a chair, the Nazi rifle he’s showed you time and again. You doubt the likelihood of it being loaded, since it’s an antique. The AK-47 is leaned against the armchair next to you, which is now at your back. You thank playing first-person shooters for showing you how they work. You remember the banana clip being in it, but you don’t know if it contained live rounds—and even if you got to it, you’re not sure if you could load it before Asa got to you. That left the twelve-gauge on the table. You could operate it, but you didn’t know if it had a safety that was switched on. And you would have to load it, since when you charged it you saw that it was empty. You discount the handguns you know are upstairs, and give a hopeful estimation that there are no pistols or knives in the living room that are out of view.

But you know that you can’t touch one of those weapons. Asa is drunk, and perhaps something worse; if you escalate the situation by grabbing the shotgun, Asa will automatically reciprocate by getting another gun, one that he really knows how to use. You know him. And then you can’t count on his rational decision-making to keep him from killing you. You begin to prepare yourself for being shot to death. You try to grasp the immediacy of being murdered. These might be your last moments and you want to be ready.

Asa’s grip loosens, and you feel his muscles relax. He drops his head.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says, voice breaking. “You need to help me.”

You ask him what he needs. He doesn’t respond. He then looks up. In the dark light of the room, his expression is murderous.

You think you can help him?” Asa’s voice drops to an extreme low.

You don’t understand the question.

You know you understand us. You can’t help Asa.”

Your heartbeat accelerates. You are just short of full panic.

We are death.”

His grip tightens again. He begins to mildly thrash. You worry now that he will get a hand free. You manage to keep steady as you grapple, both still sitting on the couch facing each other. You are instantly gracious Asa introduced you to lifting weights years ago, something you’ve been doing at college.

Asa’s grip relaxes, his head drops again. You understand what is happening now. You let his hands free. You need to find a way to the door. You need to talk your way out.

Asa is crying. His voice gains a childlike inflection.

“I need you to help me—why aren’t you helping me?”

He puts a hand on your shoulder. It still seems forced. He is such an actor. You tell him you don’t know what to do. You tell him you are here for him. You are pretending to be sincere, looking him in the eyes as you visualize the door. His face tightens, voice drops.

“Bullshit!”

You feel his hand start to tighten on your shoulder again. You grab his wrist. He elevates his other hand. You think he is going for your neck. You catch him by other wrist before you find out for sure.

You are reminded of doing the same thing years ago, grappling with your hands on the bus as the two of you rode to grade school. Except that was play. And as you sit face-to-face, you feel like you are missing something. Like you are not really in the moment. And then you realize it. You are not prepared to die. You do not truly believe that he is going to kill you. You wrestle, and you try to imagine him with the AK-47, forcing you on yours knees, putting the muzzle to the back of your head as you wait for the trigger pull, bang!-black. But you still feel like you are missing the immediacy. You can only imagine yourself as a newspaper headline, as someone else being dead. You are not ready to die. You wish you believed in God, because you are scared to death at the knowledge of the loneliness of being totally in control.

You tell him to stop. You lock eyes with him. He growls. You sense that he wants to dominate you. You’ve seen the same look from big wild dogs. You are willing to tuck your tail in exchange for an exit from this dark room. You tell him that he is hurting you. He thrashes again. You loosen your grip a little. And then he slumps.

“Matt,” he says, child-like, “why won’t you help me?”

Both of you drop your hands. He puts his head down again, and starts crying again. You tell him, come on, if he wants you to help him, the both of you need to get out of this room. You’re not sure how your voice is so calm as you feel like you are exploding from the inside. He puts his head on your shoulder, and anger seeps into your fear. You see his melodramatics. You see his little play. His sympathies remain someone else’s, and his split personality, his demon, all a cliché. Your insecurity about impending death is clouded by a doubt of real, actual danger. And it makes you even more uncomfortable. You feel unable to really defend yourself because you feel like he is not taking ending your life seriously enough.

You tell him to put his shoes on, that you should go for a walk. A moment passes. He nods, says okay. As you rise from the couch, you see your odds of escaping safely multiply, and it feels as though the weight of the world falls off your shoulders; and then you realize that the world is exactly the weight falling off of your shoulders when you remember you had spent the last half twenty minutes preparing yourself to no longer be a part of it.

You walk over to the switch by the door, and turn the lights on. You see Asa squirming into his shoes, and from his body language you see that his is acting himself. You don’t understand what is wrong with him, but are now concerning yourself with unlocking the front door. You fumble with the lock. You can’t get the handle to turn. You become nervous, thinking of what could have happened if you would have gotten into trouble and counted on being able to make it out the door quickly. Asa tells you the lock is sticky. He tells you how to work it. You need to get outside before he swings again. The lock turns, and you get the door open. He gets up. You now think that a walk would do you good. But deep down, you also know that if you walk, you are in a populated area and you could attract help if you got into trouble. You still focus on getting to your car without him following.

You step outside. The temperature has dropped considerably as the clouds have thickened and darkness approaches. You see your car. It is thirty yards away, not enough to make a break for it and make it. You see a light on inside the apartment next to Asa’s.

“Stop,” Asa says, and you turn around. He leans forward with the return of his other personality. You are standing about eight feet apart. He takes a step and you lower yourself instinctively. Things have escalated. Body language and situation is nature’s unmistakable form of communication, transcending words and ideas; the eight feet between you, filled with fear and antagonism, precipitates violent confrontation. He raises his arms up parallel to his shoulders, his fists balled. He looks ridiculous; it can’t be a military-trained fighting stance. He begins to advance on you. You are stuck in a no-man’s-land of fist-fighting for your life or standing down because he is not a true threat. You are an English major and you are critiquing him like he’s a plot to a pulp fiction; you wish you had been a football player instead. You have to make a choice now.

You cut out of the way of his advance and run over to the lit window of the neighboring apartment. You pound on the glass. You look at Asa. The demon in his eyes stares you down but is confused at what you are doing. You are still pounding. You turn and see someone moving around inside, a man. He comes to the door and opens it.

“Can I help you?” he asks. He is muscular and has a flat-top. One of Asa’s ROTC brethren.

“Um, yeah,” you say. “I’m a friend of Asa’s.” You turn around. Asa is gone. The door to his apartment is open. You see him staring at you from the dark inside, sitting in the living room armchair.

“Okay?” the man says. “Can I help you?”

“I’m just seeing what’s up,” you say.

“What’s up,” you hear Asa give a friendly call from inside of his apartment. The ROTC guy steps outside of his apartment and looks through Asa’s door.

“How’s it going, Asa,” he waves. He looks back at you. “What do you need, again?”

You begin to get frustrated as he does not pick up on the look of severe distress on your face.

“Nothing,” you say, still within earshot of Asa. “Just seeing what’s up.” You regret that you have nothing useful to say in this situation. The ROTC guy has no idea what is going on. Then you notice you are now out of Asa’s sight and you begin walking to your car, nodding at the neighbor to follow you.

“I think he’s going crazy,” you whisper, getting your keys out. “I think he is schizophrenic or something.”

“What do you mean?” the cadet asks, walking beside you.

“He’s losing his mind.”

“Has he been drinking?”

“Yeah,” you say.

“He gets crazy when he drinks.”

You stop at your car door and look at him; if he knows, why doesn’t someone do something about it? These are the people that live with him, work with him.

“It’s not just the drinking,” you say. “You need to get him help.”

You don’t stop to think about what it was you could have done six months ago—you get into your car, overjoyed, exhilarated by the tangibility of escape, unaware of the looming guilt that will tell you that you didn’t know how much danger you were really in, that you weren’t much of a man, that you couldn’t have broken his neck as he reached for yours.