"The Beautiful Skeleton Lady"
She'll be your armor, she'll be your shield,
And when she spreads her ink-black wings,
Your sky becomes charred, darkened field.
Below the sane, yet to you far above.
Her touch corrupts, hands with withered rings
Like friendship, pain, lost faith and love.
Bored, shuffling forward with no advance,
Your sorry state, your box, repealed,
When she asks for your hand in dance
Her eyes are lullabies fed by stolen life
But if through light her nature is revealed
you'll see she's nothing more than prolonged strife,
A hopeless defense, paper to stop the knife.
July 13, 2016
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. For a little while, at least. I felt like I needed to do something like that, you know? Something... I don't know. Something."
"So why didn't you?"
"It just didn't really end up like that. My friend, uh, he had addiction issues, and I sort of put off college to help him out. And afterwards I didn't feel a strong urge to get back on that track. I mean, it's shortsighted, and I know that college is the best time of your life and such, but high school was so painful I couldn't really get myself to reapply."
"Yeah, totally. I'm so sorry, by the way. That must have been really hard, looking after your friend."
"Well, I know he would have done the same for me. He's a good guy and he's always been there to help me through my shit, so I kinda owed it to him."
"Wow, that's really brave."
"Yeah, thank you."
They sat in silence for a moment, each waiting for the other to break the spell, to lift the weight of awkwardness off both their shoulders. Austin thought about what to say and how to act to create further interest; he thought about his night and what lay ahead. He almost sighed, but remembered his present company. The building was fairly dark, one in a chain of easy, pseudo-romantic Italian restaurants. The smooth but dim piano music and chatter echoed through his head and pushed back his thoughts.
"So what did you want to be?"
"Well," Catherine began, "I always wanted to be a dancer."
"I was never any good at it, though. And I felt like life's too short to chase silly childhood dreams."
Austin looked into her brown-green eyes, focussing on the reflection of the candle which made her irises glow and pupils shrink, and imagined for a moment. He saw in her expression an understanding which did not exist; he imagined the two of them together, together, laughing and holding each other and she would see in his eyes and his mind the darkness that resided and she would speak and it would be gone. When he saw the ghost, he saw the concept that coerced him to be a willing prisoner of his own loneliness; she was a solid-gold lifeboat, too heavy to float and too shiny to ignore.
"Yeah, I was never great at lying to myself either."
The car quietly came to a stop as Catherine laughed.
"It was seriously that bad?"
"Oh god, yeah, it was terrible. One teacher got so mad at me for zoning out during class that she asked me to switch schools."
"Oh my god," She said. She appeared to think for a moment. "Thank you. I had fun."
"Yeah, me too."
"It's just..." Catherine tapped her fingertips against her legs. "You seem so... and please don't take this the wrong way, but you always seem so reserved, you know? I never really felt like I was getting to know you. You have all these walls up."
"Yeah, I know, I'm sorry. It's not cause I want to shut you out or anything, it's just... Well, I don't know, back when I was in school–"
"You don't have to explain it to me. I just... I don't know. You see why things need to change to move forward, right?"
"Yeah, uh, I'm working on it. I'm trying to make myself better, I really am."
The city's lights flashed on as shadows blanketed every surface. Crowds of people drunkenly swayed and laughed, making sure not to think too hard about anything. There were not many other cars on the road, so Austin enjoyed a distracted drive, staring out the window at the moon and trees and infinitely many different, unhappy characters. "I think too much," he said aloud, and made a decision to change the course of his evening. A homeless man stood by the side of the road at a busy streetlight; Austin pulled over.
"Hey," Austin said, his voice void of most emotion as the window reached its depth. The man hobbled over, his jeans and black hoodie matching Austin's own, creating an uncanny and unnerving reflection. Austin reached his hand out and the man shook it, and though Austin was looking into the vagrant's cold, tired eyes, he saw the light-red bumps and dark tracks that marked his forearm. His nearly black beard caught Austin's attention for a moment as he imagined grabbing it, twisting it and pulling the man's forehead against the hood of his car, slamming it over and over again while the man neither struggled nor protested, and there would be a final crack like thunder, as if God himself was signaling that the job was done; and Austin would see in his eyes the unknowing thanks of a caged bird who is finally given the right to fly.
Instead, Austin reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a yellow pill bottle, about half full.
"Um, I don't know if you want it, but I decided I should get rid of this. It's Codeine; I got it from a friend with a prescription, and I didn't switch the pills or anything, so it's safe. I just don't want it anymore." As he handed it over, he quickly unscrewed the cap and put three into his hand, and then recapped the bottle. The homeless man looked it over for a moment and accepted, placing it in his jacket pocket.
"Thank you, sir."
"Hey, by the way... I mean, feel free not to answer this if you don't want to, but I was wondering... why? Like, why live like this and rely on heroin, of all things. I'm not trying to judge you or anything, I'm just curious."
"I don't know, man," he said, in a worn but not malicious tone. Austin could tell the homeless man was eager to find shelter in which to take the pills (which inspired Austin to wonder exactly which method of ingestion the stranger would use). "I think you have to just live the best you know how, you feel? When I was young, I was lost, and there's nothing worse than being lost in the dark, especially when you don't know where you're going, man. I learned my destination when I found dope; it was the only way I knew to get really, and I'm talking really happy. Now I'm not thinking about the dark anymore"
After Austin considered the man's speech for a moment, he said, "So did it make life easy?"
"I don't know, man. You tell me."
Austin took a deep breath before he twisted the key in the door to his apartment. It was a two-bedroom den which would doubtlessly be considered "dirty" if Austin did not pick up after himself fairly often. Still, drug paraphernalia and alcohol lined the shelves to a far greater extent than books or DVDs. He knew when he opened the door that there was a large chance his roommate would be sprawled on the couch, likely imbibing in something. He was correct; he saw his friend smoking from his beaker bong, which was filthy with brown tobacco stains and dried-up chunks of weed. Jake looked up from the TV, which was showing an episode from season 4 of The Wire. He waved and touched the PS4 remote to pause HBO.
"How was it?"
Austin shrugged. "It was OK. I mean, it was kinda fun but she told me I have to open up more."
"Fuck her, bro."
"No, I have to admit, she's right. I never open up to people."
"Well, do you want to open up to her? I mean, do you like her a lot?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I don't know her that well, but she seems nice. It's just not that easy, you know? It's hard for me to connect."
"Do you know why that could be? It's weird, I don't think I've ever asked you that."
"I don't know, Jake." Austin walked to his room and began setting up his own beaker, filling the water chamber. "I was so alone for a long time, I just sort of shut–"
"You know what I think you should do? I think you should fuck her. You need to have sex with somebody– it's been months since Jillian, you need to get over it soon."
Austin sat in the sofa chair neighboring the couch and packed his bowl with the weed on the table, sitting in a pile in the grinder. He proceeded to smoke. "Yeah, I don't know. Maybe Catherine, maybe someone else."
"You should just turn into me, bro. Just go have a one-night stand with a girl from... you know what, just text Keith or Eamonn or something, we can go out."
"No, I just wanna chill here tonight."
An hour passed; Jake filled two cups with whiskey. They drank; another half hour passed.
"You know what I think the problem is? For me?" Austin asked.
"What? I know that you're going to say that you're cynical, but please tell me anyway."
"I'm too cynical. And it's because I think too much. I spend so much time just thinking about how meaningless and futile everything is, I can't live in the moment."
"Why? I mean, explain your thinking to me, why is nothing worth it?"
"I guess it all just boils down to life in general. I feel like we grew up expecting happiness in a world where survival used to be the only thing you could hope for. Now that survival isn't as big of an issue, people are becoming less distracted and realizing that there is no such thing as true happiness. So why live if there's nothing to look forward to? There was never any meaning; we're just living for the sake of living, and life isn't good enough for that. And I keep hoping that there's more, but I know there isn't. Deep down, I know."
"That's so nihilistic. I accept that life is meaningless, but you can have fun. Isn't that why we skipped college? So we could just work and fuck shit up?"
"I enjoy the parties and drugs and stuff, but it's all temporary. Happiness is so temporary."
They sat there for a while, contemplating the conversation. Austin let his mind wander, and it went, as it often did, to his book.
"I have to start writing more," he said, "at this rate, I'll never finish my novel." His novel, where he was powerful and the world was no longer empty and boring, his own custom injection of adventure and escapism.
When Jake failed to respond, Austin said, "So what are we doing tonight?"
"Oh, right. I have shrooms. You want shrooms?"
"Yeah, I'm down for a trip tonight."
Jake left, and Austin stood up to walk to the bathroom. The room was small and had a barrenness so complete it was often mistaken for cleanliness, with a toilet by a curtained shower and a sink before the mirror. The sink was on a cabinet with nothing in the drawers but a plunger; no extra soap, no books, no cleaning supplies. Austin leaned over the counter and looked into the mirror, staring into his own bloodshot eyes, and wishing the darkened indents in his skin would disappear. His mind both buzzed and swam; his own voice chattered away in his head, and while a fire burned in his chest, he was most present deep in his thoughts.
"I'm so tired," he said aloud, "How can I be so young and so tired?"
His face turned into that of the girl, the ghost, the golden lifeboat. He delighted in her smile, and pretended that he could feel her presence next to him. He could not touch; no, interacting with reality would break the spell that he required far too much. The light glistened off her amber hair (the color meant nothing to him, but he loved the word. Amber). She gave him a pitying look.
"I'm sorry, Austin. All you want is to be the one to push the button that'll destroy the entire world. Who could love somebody like that?"
His eyes narrowed and he began grinding his teeth.
"You keep wanting to sink deeper and deeper, but you're afraid of being alone, so you drag your friends down with you. Jake could've had a future; Jill could've had two years of her life back. You're the worst kind of selfish, because nobody sees the chains on your legs."
Austin dug his nails into his palms.
"I used to believe that you would be out there. I used to keep going because of the thought that I would find you someday," he said.
The ghost reached out her hand. "Maybe I am. Maybe I can set you free and we can fly together."
"Or maybe I'll be lost at sea, drifting alone in my cage."
"Well," she said, "there's no hell like that in your own head. You can conquer every obstacle and better yourself all you want, but you'll still see the same shadow firmly attached to your feet. My advice would be to just ignore it, because it seems like the more you fight it, the larger it gets."
He reached his hand out to touch hers. When she disappeared, Austin put his hands flat on the counter and closed his eyes. He took a breath deep enough to fill his lungs.
Austin sat back down on the chair. He picked up a handful of mushrooms, not wanting to weigh them, and ate about half at first.
"Oh, by the way, I got rid of the codeine, but I grabbed some for you."
"Oh, yeah, thanks."
Austin handed his friend the pills and dropped the remaining Psilocybin in his mouth. They continued to watch The Wire, smoking and drinking all the while. Austin looked at his cell phone; it was 11:45. He was surprised it was not past midnight.
"Hey," he said, "I think I'm probably gonna go out and take a walk. I might go over to Rite Aid. Do you want anything?"
"Yeah, could you just get me a bag of chips or something? I don't really care, honestly."
His six-block walk to the store was fraught with convoluted lines of thought, and took nearly half an hour. As he admired the shadows on the trees, It occurred to him that the streetlights were, in a way, noble, and that their mission to illuminate the dark was a lonely one that few others were able to follow. He wondered how to illuminate his own darkness, and it occurred to him that of all the lives that he had to have lived, this one must have been his least favorite. Who would want to live as a person? A short, free life as a animal serving its biological function sounded far superior; and then, at least, you can laugh at all the bad and stupid people without feeling the shame of being human yourself. Yet is the belief that the vast majority of others are unintelligent and, in their simply being present, wasteful, an overwhelmingly narcissistic one? He acknowledged his internal narcissism and surrendered to it long ago, for he had no idea where he would even begin to fix it; unless of course his narcissism was secretly shared by all other humans, who are, after all, self-centered by nature, in which case there was no fixing narcissism, as all people are born permanently broken in one way or another. Yet if one person could fix the broken, would it not be Austin, whose natural empathy (his own permanent breakage) allowed him to read people with a superior eye? Or was it just more narcissism that encouraged this thought in the first place, as if the Earth revolved around him, as if he was the protagonist of his own novel, because he wasn't special, nobody's special. Either one is normal or one is historically important; in other words, you're either average or dead. So in that case, why try at all? You can be nice and kind to those around you, but they will all be dead in their own time too, or else they will simply turn around and hurt those around them. And the words of a man he met some time ago echoed through his head for the thousandth time: "What happens when you round up all the saints and all the murderers and you burn them together? You get dust and ash."
He thought for a moment that he imagined the voice, but when he looked towards the source he saw Jillian standing before him, wearing a gray hoodie and jeans. He had to stare for a while to convince himself that she was real.
"Hey, um, hey Jill."
"How are you? What are you up to?"
"I'm not bad. Just... you know, the usual."
She peered at his eyes for a moment and laughed. "Oh god, Austin. What are you on right now?"
"Um, weed and alcohol. And, uh, Psilocybin."
"Oh man, Psilocybin. How long has it been? The last time I had that– the first time, too– was with you, in that apartment. Do you remember? Do you still live there?"
"Yeah, I do. With Jake."
"You have to get out of that place, Austin. That apartment is poison."
"Yeah, I know."
There was silence for a while. He avoided eye contact for as long as he could, staring at the cement beneath his feet, until she gently grabbed his chin and turned his face for him.
"How are you, Austin? Really?"
"I'm not doing so well. I folded in on myself again after you left, so it's been hard finding a new relationship."
Jillian sighed. "Another bender? The things you would do when you were caught up in depression... it would kill most everybody else. Yet it didn't kill you. How?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I think I don't deserve to die."
"You don't deserve to die, Austin. When will you realize that? You make it seem like I left you, but you broke up with me. You said it was to protect me, but I think you just weren't equipped to deal with how happy you were. You thought you were bad for me, but you were so nice. You were never angry, ever; you would just hold all your anger in so it could rot you from the inside out. The only person you were ever bad for was yourself, but I never saw anybody who tortured themselves as much as you do."
"But look at Jake... look at you. You came out here to smoke a cigarette, right? Who started you on those?"
As she spoke, a constantly shifting polygon sprung from her eye, reaching towards his own. Bright colors twisted with the lines and boundaries of the shape, creating cubes and prisms of all different shapes and sizes, but it could not quite reach him. He seemed to have a shield, put around him at birth, which stopped her feelings from reaching him.
"I started smoking when we were dating, and Jake skipped college with you, but you didn't make us do any of that. We were susceptible to corruption from the beginning, because of who we are; you can't take credit for that, Austin. We would have fucked up at some point, just from being alive."
"But it was my cigarettes, and my idea. Maybe you would have gotten shot eventually, but I was the one who pulled the trigger."
"Jesus fucking Christ. There's nothing wrong with relying on outside influences for happiness; you don't corrupt people, you help them. Nobody was as comforting as you were, but goddammit, Austin, you can't give yourself a break. You would always expect to be happy and then blame yourself when you weren't, so you would get caught in these violent cycles of self-loathing and self-destruction. You were good, though, Austin; if you weren't so self-absorbed you might actually want to live."
They faced each other for a while. Finally, she stepped forward and embraced him.
"You could always read me so well," Austin said, "How did you manage to get inside my head? Nobody ever managed to get inside my head."
"We're good for each other, Austin. You knew it then, too."
He focussed on absorbing her warmth. Her hair tickled his face, and as his hands grasped her back he felt his soul get the littlest bit lighter. Surely, they could float together.
When she pulled away, she looked him in the eyes once again. "You have a choice here, Austin. You recognize that, right? I'm giving you a choice; you just have to allow yourself to take it. Let yourself go; don't be a prisoner any longer."
His mind was slowly moving in a plane far from reality, but he dragged himself back to the present. He had a choice; he had a choice. He had a choice.
"I'm exhausted, Jill. I'm so tired. But can I call you tomorrow, maybe?"
He could see the disappointment written on her face, and he felt guilt grasp his chest yet again, for the hundredth time that day.
"Yeah," she said, her smile exhibiting gracious defeat. "Tomorrow. I'll wait for you."
"I'm sorry about everything. I'm sorry about me."
"Don't be. It was nice, it really was."
"Yeah, it was. I'm just tired, you know? I'm just so tired."
He should have remembered walking up the stairs. It should have occurred to him to open his door and walk again into his apartment. He should have felt any indication that what he was doing was different, that what he was doing was far greater than any choice he had ever made. Yet it felt small, inconsequential, and all too normal. He was standing at the edge of the roof; he was looking down at his sleeping city with envy. He was tired; he needed sleep since the day he was born.
He did not hate himself then. He did not hate his friends, or the drugs, or the prison he was sure he would never escape. He was just sad, and tired. He saw the world, and felt what he did about it, and decided it was too harsh and empty of a place for him. It was so empty. And surrounded by emptiness, on his lonely concrete island, was no way to live. He took a deep breath. He thought about the possibility that his friends were the real chains, holding him to the ground so he could not experience the nothingness that came after. Or perhaps he was stopping himself from being happy, and if he worked toward finding the right person or the right experience... but that was unlikely. There are no angels on Earth; only people, and they could never enter Heaven because they were born staring through its pearly gates.
So he took a step forward.
"So make me understand," Jake said. "Would you die for her?"
"Yeah, in an instant. I would die before she fell down the stairs. I mean, if she asked me to die right now, right this second, I would do it."
He was not scared, nor did he have the time to rethink his decision. He simply felt and saw.
"I'm just depressed, Jill, that's all. I'm tired; I should be leaving."
"No, don't leave. Stay here with me. You spend so much time in that den, you can afford to sleep here for the night. This wave will pass, and you'll be back to your usual self; it always does, Austin,"
What he felt was the wind, tearing and clawing at his body, trying to slow his descent so it could trap him forever with the world.
"Jesus, Austin, you can't seriously be considering this. This will fuck up your entire future. What, you want to drop out so you can spend all your time smoking and drinking?" His father was furious.
"No, it's just... I don't know. I can't function if I don't feel happy, and this track that everyone follows will destroy me. I know what works. If I can't find meaning on my own, what's the point of living in the first place? At least... at least now I might have a future."
What he saw was the ghost, the girl, the golden lifeboat, a shimmering mirage in the sidewalk's concrete. Her arms were open, and he was falling directly into them. He saw her kiss, and knew what it meant, but he did not care. She had opened his cage, and he was flying. And though he was flying toward a dead end, at least now he could fly.
"Austin!" The familiar voice echoed at the far reaches of his consciousness.
"You know what your problem is, Austin?" Jill looked up to stare into his eyes. His arm was around her as they lay naked beneath the blankets, and he smiled at her.
"What? What's my problem?"
"You think too much. You're never going to be happy if you don't stop thinking so much."