(Full edition available at Amazon.com)
TEN THOUSAND YEARS LATER
“I shouldn’t be here.”
This is what you tell yourself upon waking, as the white light of unconsciousness begins its slow fade out.
The light dissipates, and you find yourself missing it already.
Your face burns, blood pools in the pockets of your mouth, and your jawbone clicks unfavorably. You unpeel yourself from the curbside, momentarily piecing back together your reason for being here in the first place. The neon sign crackling above you reads The Starfish Room; its cartoony seastar flickers, trying to decide whether it wants to shine purple or blue.
Out here on the worst street in Brighton Beach sits this most unpleasant bar. Its origins are murky, but somewhere along the way The Starfish Room went from being a seedy watering hole for Russian alcoholic perverts to a stopover for their Manhattan-bound, club-hopping sons, daughters and grandchildren. Although the establishment’s generous selection of imported vodka is well-known into the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, its seamy nature has always been enough to keep the majority of finer connoisseurs away. It’s also notorious for never checking ID’s, so it continues to find popularity with the underage crowd. Right now, you’re wishing they had checked yours.
You journeyed to The Starfish Room tonight to try something new. When one is lost and confused and likely in desperate need of a change, sometimes the best thing to do is stretch one’s boundaries. Quite often though, that very same decision can be the very worst move to make. Case in point: your blood dripping on the sidewalk. But there was something about the evening’s misty, hot summer rain that made it easier for you to stretch yourself beyond familiar comfort zones. There was a certain feeling in the air; like having a fresh opportunity; a second chance; or being born again.
Tonight’s brilliant rebirth found you kissing a girl you’d only met some ten minutes beforehand. She didn’t ask you what your name was, but to be fair you didn’t think to ask her either. You didn’t even find her all that attractive when you first noticed her inside, slumped disinterestedly in a dark corner – what with the too-skinny face, her lazy eye, and the way she spat a little when she spoke to you – and she was even less appealing outside. Make no mistake though: some girls will come into your life and you’ll know instantly that they’ve come for a reason. Undoubtedly, this girl will not fall into that category. She was only ever at The Starfish Room to be forgotten by you. But you kissed her anyway. The aftertaste of strong vodka on her tongue repulsed you immediately. Her skin felt hard; scratchy in your hands. And then something hard stapled you violently in the neck, then your face, and you hit the ground like fresh dough on a granite countertop.
And now, as you shake the last of the light from the back of your eyes, it dawns on you that the gruff man who hit you is still here.
The muscled, young, bear of a man snarls at you in his broken English. He asks, “You got something dumb?” The
boyfriend, you presume. You’d spotted him sucking on the girl’s neck earlier, but when he soon vanished altogether you must have mistaken his momentary disappearance for something more permanent.
“I’m sorry,” you say for lack of anything more original. “I think this was a mistake.”
He proceeds to kick you firmly in the ribs. He spits on you before blurting something unknown in Russian and then he disappears again, this time with an arm wrapped around his ambivalent companion to somewhere unseen.
Consider this. When your relationships with girls – as few and far between as they’ve become – started to feel increasingly more distant and awkward, you deliberated upon the idea that perhaps you’d been going about it all wrong. “Maybe try worrying less about making mistakes and just let the mistakes happen,” is what Dr. Griffin had suggested last week during your session. “You might soon find those mistakes avoiding you, rather than the other way around.” So bring on the mistakes. Your therapist’s expert advice is what brought you here tonight. It’s what led to your blood on the crumbling sidewalk. Maybe a cracked rib or two as a parting gift. You even had the night off and this is what you chose to do with it. Right now, the puddle from the evening rain feels good on your burning skin, so you remain on the cracked sidewalk, its surface still warm from the long day’s heat.
You work for a laundry and linen supply company; Brooklyn Whites, it’s called. Sounds like a racist sports team but it’s really not. You pick up and deliver tablecloths and napkins and uniforms and floor mats from restaurants all over the city. It’s dull, but you don’t ask for much more. And you just about took that extra shift tonight too. Much better to be cleaning up your face instead of dirty tablecloths, right?
A lot of bad decisions can be made over a ten thousand year span.
For the first time in months, you think of your mother.
Some mothers tell their sons they will be someone special someday. Some tell their sons they are the smartest in their class. The most handsome, maybe. Your mother only told you that you were born ten thousand years too late. She would say it with a crooked smirk on her face, sometimes after a little joke you never understood. Always when your father wasn’t home. “Oh, you wouldn’t get it,” she’d say. “You were born ten thousand years too late to understand.”
You always wondered if there was some great event that occurred ten thousand years ago; something worth your mother’s blasé indifference and flippant explanations, but you have no idea what that might have been. Where might you have fit amongst those Neolithic people of 8000 BC? Who can say? You do know for certain that you’ve never once felt as though you belonged where you actually were. But perhaps you’re no different than most young men.
Ten thousand years ago people were building their world’s first cities. You imagine the number of mistakes they might have made along the way that probably went unnoticed. Nothing like today, where everyone’s watching and waiting for you to screw it all up. But way back then, Earth’s citizens had begun living in mud-brick domiciles. They were just starting to learn how to deal with noisy neighbors and domestic disputes.
You live in Coney Island, a subway ride away from Manhattan. You share a crusty two-bedroom apartment on Mermaid Avenue with your father. It very likely has the approximate dimensions and appeal as those original mud homes. You have neighbors on either side of you, above and below, and you know them as well as most anyone can really know their neighbors. The woman who lives on the top floor of the building runs a tai chi studio in her living room and she claims the amount of psychic energy her students generate is enough to calm all the world’s aching souls. You never once imagined that could possibly be true since the world has as many problems as it does.
You sit up on the sidewalk now, convincing yourself that your head must actually hurt a lot more than it does. You barely feel it due to the handful of Sinequan you swallowed earlier. You keep the 100-count bottle of 25mg doxepin capsules next to the water glass on your bedside table so you remember to take four of them every night. Usually before you sleep, but in tonight’s case it was before you made the decision to head out on this poorly-planned pursuit. In some state of pathetic yearning. Emotional delusion. You took the drugs in addition to the 10mg Vivactil tablet and the 20mg of OxyContin.
There’s an echo of a woman’s voice from somewhere around you. “Are you okay?” she asks from what almost feels like high above. But you know instantly this is not some higher power. No angel would be coming for you tonight, that much is clear. It’s just the ringing in your ears that makes her seem so far away. You hadn’t even heard her footsteps approaching, and you usually notice things like that. She crouches beside you and places a hand on your own, the one clinging to the still-fresh pain in your ribs.
You don’t have the energy to even turn to her. “I’ve seen worse,” you say.
“Me too,” she replies with some aloofness. “Working in a place like this, I feel like I see something worse every night.” You can smell the smoke from her cigarette before she holds it out, offering you a puff.
“No thank you. That stuff will kill you.”
“Oh yes,” she says. “And you’re doing so much better without it.” Without asking, she sits down beside you and crosses her legs in some odd yoga fashion, not caring at all that she’s wearing such a short skirt. Her spiky hair is dyed sea-foam green but her faerie-like face belies any punk rock vibe she gives off. Craning her neck in the direction your assailant ran she asks, “So what was that guy’s problem anyway? Why did he attack you like that?”
“I think I kissed his girlfriend.” You try rubbing the crick out of your neck from where the man’s meaty fist landed. “Though I guess she could have maybe been his sister? I have no idea.”
She straightens her legs out defensively now, like you’re some sexual miscreant. “Sounds to me like you should be a little more certain about these things next time.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So what’s your story then?”
“My therapist told me I should try new things. You know, experiment.”
Again she holds her cigarette out in an attempt to sympathize, but still you refuse. “You sure he meant for you to put the moves on chicks like that in dive bars like this?”
“He wasn’t all that specific in his suggestions.” You wipe some more blood from the corner of your mouth with the sleeve of your hoodie.
Dr. Griffin has also recommended writing down your dreams as personal therapy. Daydreams too. You daydream when you’re working. When you’re not working, you like to lie on your bed and dream. In your dreams, you’re not cleaning up the mess that others have left behind. In your dreams, you knew what to do after high school. Decisions were easier for you to make. In your dreams, you don’t live on Mermaid Avenue; you live in the country. Not like the
Hamptons, but maybe someplace like Bowling Green or Elizabethtown. In your dreams, everything is perfect. You’re just as you want to be. You’re everything you missed along the way to where you are now. It’s only when you wake up that you seem to experience the backwards reality of it all. In your dreams, your mother didn’t leave both your father and you.
“You’re pretty young to be needing a therapist though, yeah?” this girl asks. You don’t imagine she could be much older than you, but you’ve never been that adept at guessing ages.
Still, you can’t seem to find it within you to answer her.
She takes a deep breath in and stares up into space. Her focus is intense, like she’s trying to remember the lyrics from some song not listened to for half a lifetime. “Mmmmmm,” she hums pleasantly to herself.
Your eyes find their way to her legs. She has a tattoo on her calf written in a scribbly font that appears to spell REMEMBER. There’s a long white scar just below her kneecap. She scratches mechanically at the other knee with her free hand; not so much like it is an actual, legitimate itch, but more like an unconscious tic. You want to keep going, to look farther up her leg, to her thighs and higher, but you know it’s only because you’re so alone tonight and you always seem to regret decisions like that coupled with feelings like these.
You ask, “Did you say you work here?”
“I did,” she replies, still looking off somewhere far away. “I do.” Slowly, she raises an arm above her head and holds her hand open as though ready to pick an apple from a tree. Her eyes follow something in the air for a moment longer before snatching it in her fist. She squeezes her closed hand a little tighter, then opens it up for a look. Some sort of insect, you think it’s a mosquito, falls to the sidewalk, as lifeless as you’re feeling right now. “There’s so many of these fucking things in the summer,” she complains. “It’s the heat.” She stamps what’s left of the already dead thing with her foot.
Same as the one you’d just kissed, this girl has not entered your life for any reason but to be soon forgotten. And yet through it all, there remains a pleasant feeling of safety with her. You know for certain that you’ve never met her before now, but it’s not because you can’t place her face. It’s unfamiliar, sure, but that’s not really a surprise for you. You’re used to unfamiliar. It’s the more intricate filigree of detail you always look for when meeting someone unrecognizable: the angle at which her shoulders rest; the one front tooth that’s a little too long; the smell of her chosen brand of cigarette; the slight scratchiness in her voice, playing like an old record player; the tattoo and the scar. These are the things that you would have remembered if you’d met this girl before tonight. They are the details you’ll remember should the two of you ever cross paths again. The details you’ll look for when you surely won’t be able to place her face like anyone else could very easily do.
Your condition is called prosopagnosia – those who prefer to not get tongue-tied might also call it face blindness – a cognitive disorder that makes it nearly impossible for you to recognize and remember faces. Of course, yours is a fairly mild form in that other than forgetting people you’ve met before you can still function on a day-to-day basis. In some cases, a person suffering from a more debilitating form of prosopagnosia will not recognize their own face in a mirror, and they might even forget details such as places, events and inanimate objects. Some might say you’re lucky, but you still have to take mental notes when you’re with people – like the slight way their head might lean or how fast and frequent their eyes blink – to act as memory triggers.
“So what’s your name anyway?” she asks.
Your name is Cepik Small. Seh-Pick, it’s pronounced. You often tell people that it’s like septic without the T. The name is Polish, though you have no idea which of your ancestors was the last to actually set foot in Poland. It’s doubtful you could even point to it on a map. Friends call you Epic for short even if it’s the exact same number of syllables. But you don’t feel like you have so many friends anymore.
“It’s Epic,” you mumble.
Turning to you now, her expression is something as scattered as the fading stars above. “Right,” is all she responds with, like you’re really trying to get at something else.
It’s all part of the same story though: some forgotten friends; a stupid name; a crummy apartment; an uninspired career; a broken heart. Some might assume you’re alone, and it’s true. But you’re not really lonely. At least not all of the time.
There was a girl you used to know. It was three years ago. You were seventeen. Her name was Reya and the situation you met her in was much like this one. Reya had just been mugged exiting a subway station in Manhattan. You can’t recall which station, only that it was somewhere in Midtown. You saw her on the sidewalk wiping blood from an open wound on her shin. She was missing a shoe and her stockings were torn. There were specific things about her that you immediately picked up on, things that you found yourself gravitating toward. Like the curl of her fingertips and the way she squinted, but only a single eye like she had a constant, pounding headache. The first time you heard her voice it was familiar, wasn’t it? The two of you talked for awhile and when you finally worked up the courage to ask her if there was anything more you could do, she said you could go get her something to help ease the pain. She pointed to the Duane Reade directly across the street from where you sat. You wasted no time in agreeing to help her any way you could because Reya was genuinely nice to you, especially considering how she was attacked by strangers only minutes before you happened to come along. Strange, but there was no traffic that night, not even a taxi, and you crossed the street without having to dodge a single car. Once inside the pharmacy, you found the appropriate aisle but were quickly overwhelmed by the selection of over-the-counter medications:
Topical treatments for psoriasis and eczema.
All the little rectangular packages looked exactly the same with their colorful boxes and stupid names in bold white font. You had no idea there could be so much choice, so many decisions to make, for something as mundane as this. Now, of course, you’re doped up on so many meds and psychopharmaceuticals it’s hard to recall a time when you were so unfamiliar. After a moment of deliberation, you selected a bottle of children’s fever relief and a one-page pamphlet of aspirin dosage recommendations. When you returned with your chosen product, Reya looked you up and down with those green eyes of hers; a kind of disseminated expression on her face, obviously wondering what could have possessed someone to make such a curious selection. But you know it was in that moment where she decided you were just weird enough to take a chance on. And it’s the exact same look the girl from The Starfish Room is giving you now on this Brighton Beach sidewalk. It’s a look you log away as another memory trigger for the barmaid, should you cross paths again someday.
You and Reya had something great. She even told you she loved you, didn’t she? You made enough of a connection on that first night that it hurts so much more when you think about it now. In your dreams, you and Reya never made it to the part that hurt, did you? Somewhere, someway, things took a different turn.
And now this girl, the one with the distracting legs, comforts you and your own wounds. She has the perfect eyebrows of a SoHo mannequin and the pouty lips of a photoshopped cosmetics ad. Her lipstick, eyeliner and fingernails are all black, dark enough for you to realize you’d be better off if you just got out of there. One stupid mistake is enough for tonight. You make a note to talk to your therapist about this tomorrow. Dr. Griffin will be happy to know that you tried stepping outside your comfort zones but he will also be proud of you for stopping before things got any worse.
Your body is sore, but you manage to peel yourself off the sidewalk in spite of the pain. An extra OxyContin or two tonight won’t hurt, right? Routinely, you take two 10mg oxycodone hydrochloride tablets every morning when you wake up, usually with a few more throughout the day. No big deal.
“Where are you headed?” she asks, though you’re not sure if she really, truly cares.
“Maybe tonight is not the night for meeting someone new,” you say to her as you walk away, supporting yourself upon the brick storefronts for a couple more blocks.
You’re not sure what it was you were meant for, but you know it’s not what you’ve been given. Your father has told you he wished you might have everything you ever wanted in life, yet his own life has always seemed so barren and meaningless. The two of you barely have enough money to get by. You’ve always felt as though you were a spectator in life, rather than a participant. You’ve felt this way in everything you’ve done and everywhere you’ve been. In your dreams, you are definitely a participant. In your dreams, you weren’t an outcast in high school; you were just normal enough to go unnoticed. In your dreams, you fell in love, didn’t you? In your dreams, you are everything your father really wanted you to be. Everywhere you were meant to be.
When you get back home, the apartment door seems to creak louder than usual. You pull the chain above your head, turning on the only light in the room: a bare 60-watt bulb smack-dab in the middle of the ceiling. There’s no light switch on the wall, just this long, dangling chain that sometimes hits you in the face when you move around in the dark. The light is yellowed like an old newspaper left in the sun. You feel only slightly more relevant.
A sweaty haze from the Coney Island heat fills the room. The hot smell of briny sea water and half-dead fish. The only walls within the ping pong table-sized apartment are for the small bathroom and the second bedroom – your father’s tiny room – and you can walk from the door to the window in seven modest steps. You have the bare bones of a kitchen in one corner, complete with a child-size refrigerator, and a Murphy bed that’s more often than not pulled down leaving a void in the wall that sometimes makes it feel like there’s another room to be had. Aside from a coat rack, a dresser, and a desk and chair, you don’t have much else to call your own. “Imagine no possessions,” John Lennon would have said, though even if he decided to pop by for a visit you’re certain he would have been tempted to add one of those long, hollow rain sticks or a decorative egg timer at the very least. As shitty as this apartment is, you continue to remind yourself that it isn’t as bad as the last one. It’s progress.
You turn on the aging computer before taking a cold shower and when you’re out of the bathroom the CPU is still grinding away. Still, it helps drown out the shouting voices from the all-night fried chicken dive on the street corner below. Searching the refrigerator for some hidden treasure you might have forgotten, you find a bottle of grapefruit juice that you squeezed fresh three days ago. The pulp has sunk to the bottom like flakes in a forgotten snow globe. You pour some into a cracked plastic blue cup – it makes everything you drink look like some strange sort of space juice – and then sit down at the desk, your computer having almost finished deciding whether it wants to continue living or not.
Like a lot of things, your computer puzzles you. If asked to explain how a computer works, even the very basics of it all, you wouldn’t know where to start. If you opened it up you’d be incapable of identifying a single piece inside. In your dreams, simple things don’t confuse you. The computer conundrum helps to alleviate the biting memory of everything that transpired tonight. Why did you make the decisions you made? What came over you? Whenever you’re faced with something like this, with exasperating thoughts that don’t make any sense, you always try to think of everything else in the world that you’ll never know. The secrets of your computer, for example. You consider the number of things in your apartment alone that defy logic: the lock inside the door, the mechanics of the light above you, even the plumbing. And then of course there’s a billion more in the world outside, things that exist only to exist:
Smartphones. Inner tubes. Prisms. Laminating machines. Shower curtains with maps of the world on them.
Thinking about it all helps you focus as the computer finishes powering up. In your inbox there’s the confirmation message to meet with Dr. Griffin tomorrow morning, as well as the usual variety of generous penis enlargement offers and another spam email inviting you to sign up for some new Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming experience. An MMORPG, they’re calling it. All they’re waiting for is your credit card information. There’s an unread email from your father that has been sitting there collecting digital dust for nearly two weeks. He hasn’t been in this apartment for more than a month now.
You keep an ongoing journal in a notepad application saved onto the desktop. You click it open and try to piece together the events from this evening, like the conversation with the girl outside The Starfish Room and, most importantly, the memory of Reya. Your entry from this morning is a smattering of scattered dreams from the night before:
In my dreams, I’m reaching for a jar. I knock it over and it hits the floor but doesn’t break.
In my dreams, I’m riding the bus.
In my dreams, I’m staring up into a tree. It’s tall, maybe a poplar? Beyond its browning leaves and twisting branches there’s nothing but bright blue sky.
In my dreams, I smell a summer storm inching closer. The pond frogs and katydids chirp madly with anticipation.
The mundane nature of your dreams does not elude you, yet there remains something exciting about them that you cannot explain. Your jaw pulsates with pain; that guy who clobbered you has likely already forgotten about what happened tonight but you keep feeling the reminders.
You recall the white light of unconsciousness that permeated your vision. And you remember it in other ways too. It’s peculiar, but that light reminded you of being born. People say it’s impossible for babies to remember the moment of their birth, but you remember the light that day. It wasn’t a brilliant, bursting flash, a soft luminous luster, or anything else that might come to mind when one thinks of light, but you know that’s what it was. You remember it easily because it has haunted your dreams countless times since. Over and over. And when you’re not dreaming, you’re sometimes still reminded of that wonderfully frightening flash when the F-Train bursts out over 4th Place. Or when the sun is caught within the steel web of the iconic Parachute Jump at Luna Park. You can’t help from remembering.
But people will still tell you they don’t remember the day they were born. They can’t comprehend what it must have been like to see that light – the light that bathes them all in their most vulnerable of moments – for the first time. You don’t have the heart to tell them you remember every horrible second of it. And what’s worse, you know that it’s also the very same light they tell you to walk toward when you’re dying.
Although the water from the bathroom tap refuses to get cold, it still feels good to splash your face in the sink. The mirror laughs at you: its crack winding through the center splits your face in half. There does seem to be two sides to you sometimes, doesn’t there? But you can’t put your finger on it. You never have been able to. Looking deeper into the broken glass, you attempt to pull out an answer but there’s nothing forthcoming. Soon, you lose it entirely. You stare long enough into your own reflection and your recognition of yourself will inevitably slip away. It’s the same for everyone. They are all strangers to themselves eventually, no wonder it’s nearly impossible for others to figure you out. Of course, it’s all so much more difficult when living with prosopagnosia.
You’ve asked your landlord a few times to have this mirror replaced but you and your father don’t seem to sit too high upon Stanley’s list of priorities.
The bed springs creak when you sink into them, the bare mattress releasing a dusty wheeze. Letting go of itself a tiny bit more. Your sheets are still in a laundry bag on the floor, as you’d washed them at work the night before. The ceiling seems to be vibrating, as if to the beat of some sinister music. You don’t hear any music though, sinister, angry or otherwise. Mistakes you’ve made flash through your mind once again, the same as every night. Why did you venture out to Brighton Beach tonight on such an irrational quest? You should have known nothing good could possibly come out of it. You’ve been searching for happiness, for some kind of relief from this debilitating malaise for so long now, but you don’t know if it will ever come.
Tomorrow, though, is another day. Maybe tomorrow.
In your dreams, happiness comes every moment of every day.
You look around for the four missing 25mg Sinequan doxepin capsules beside your bed and curse to yourself when you remember you’d already taken them earlier, before having your lights punched out.