When you're dreaming, you think it's real life.
The room is bare and dark, paint peeling in spots that turn the walls to the pelt of a long dead animal. We sit cross-legged. Our knees touch. She lights a candle set at our ankles between us.
The match burns down to her fingertips before she blows a puff of air that turns the orange light to a thread of luminescence.
I'm supposed to look into the candle flame, so I do.
She tells me knowledge of the world's workings is entirely subjective. The way you interpret a feather falling through space is different depending on your upbringing. Whether the motion is governed by chaos theory or the whims of the gods, the results are the same. Any self-consistent, systematic view of the world is adoptable as a foundation for life. They are equally right. All equally wrong.
My knees hurt. I'm not used to sitting this way. My feet are going numb. I don't know why we bothered sitting on this tatami mat. It offers no comfort beyond sitting on the hard floor.
She knows I'm uncomfortable. That's part of the ritual.
In the dim candlelight her eyes gleam cat-like. Predatory. In the corner something is brighter than the shadow. Is it a bone?
Before I can react to her movement, her fingers are clamped around my wrist. She pulls my hand out and forward. Without speaking I know I need to hold my fingers out, palm down.
She makes me lower my hand onto the flame. Pain is immediate.
She never flinches. Grabs my wrist as I jerk myself away from the flame. Even though I know I'm stronger, I can't stop her from dragging my hand into the fire. I can smell the flesh burning--hear the sizzle along with the bolts of lightning that flash up my arm.
I roll my fingers into a fist and wrench my arm out of her grasp.
Without speaking she tells me it's only hot because I think it is. I am only burned because I know I am. The physics of my world insists on a result I have been programmed to accept. I could believe anything else, and it would be.
While I'm holding my throbbing hand close to my chest I watch her hold her palm over the flame. Eventually the fire comes through the back of her hand as if her body is smoke.
"That's easy for you," I say. "You're a ghost."
"So are you," she says, and I'm out.
I'm in my bedroom, jolting upright in the darkness while my hand throbs. I turn on the light and my bed becomes an oasis of incandescence in the night. The wound is oozing. The bandages I got in the trauma center have fallen off.
Clutching my right hand to my chest, I grab the orange pill bottle on my night table with my left and twist off the cap with my fingers while palming the plastic container. A couple of tablets spill. I don't bother chasing them, but grab one and swallow it dry and bitter.
In the bathroom I coat my palm with antibiotic and rewrap my wounded hand. When I glance in the mirror I think I see a wisp of white smoke rising from my bedroom floor, but it's a cobweb.
Yesterday I dropped my wedding ring into my car's engine compartment while I was changing the oil. I reached for it, forgetting how hot the manifold would be after four hours of driving. My hand got wedged between the hot exhaust pipes and the wall of the engine compartment. Second and some third degree burns. They may do skin grafts.
When I lie down again, I swallow another Vicodin.
I interpret my accident as an accident. I interpret my dreams of my Jennifer as the unconscious processing of deep grief, and the fear of my own imminent death.
This is my world. She will not change it now that she's dead. She will not make me cry.
In aisle eleven words scream at me from the freezer. The wheel on my grocery cart gets jammed on a clump of waste paper. The cart veers and I have to take the paper out to get it to go straight again.
"Jenny Cries." The words are in two-inch type in front of my face as I stand. I reach into the freezer to see it's two bags of Jerry's Crinkle Fries stuck together--'r's looking like 'n's, bags frozen together in a cruel joke to me.
I unstick the bags. I move on.
Loading my groceries into my car I hear a mother scolding a child in the car next to mine.
She tells the child, "It's not what you think. Jenny is home tonight."
The songs on my radio as I drive are by Jennifer Lopez.
In the treatment center they pull the IV out of my arm. I have to settle in for an hour while they wait to see if the chemo makes me die right there. They're concerned about my wound. With my immune system depressed, a burn like this could be fatal.
I'm imagining my burn killing me when I feel sick to my stomach. I get dizzy and my ears begin to ring.
Then I'm waking up without remembering passing out. The IV is in. They're filling me with fluids. Chemicals to counteract the bad effects of the chemotherapy which is supposed to kill the cancer before it kills me. My tongue tastes like I've eaten a roll of quarters. It feels like I've been punched in the stomach.
The woman next to me has no hair. Not even eyebrows.
She says to me, "Your heart chakra opened unexpectedly. That's why you passed out. I can see it in your aura." Then she tells me her name is Gennifer with a 'G', because she knows that's going to be important to me.
I don't want to ask her how she knows. What I want is to survive, though I don't feel I will when Jenny died despite all the effort technology could muster. I met Jenny in the seat where Gennifer is sitting now. I could exert my power and let her know she's in a dead woman's seat, but I don't because Gennifer speaks first.
"I wonder how many dead people have been sitting where we are right now," she says.
I shrug. I say, "A lot, I bet."
Then I add--"And I passed out because I have a reaction to Rituxan. I don't have any chakras."
Genny cries. I don't understand women. They can talk when they're crying.
"Yes you do," she says. "There's a beautiful person in there. He's just very angry right now. You won't get better until you realize that."
I tell her I've had enough. They've run out of things to do to me and I've run out of time. Whether anyone cares or not, this is my last treatment. I'm selling the house, buying a Porsche Turbo Carrera and driving to Las Vegas to get laid and die.
She can't make me cry.
"She had no family. She wanted you to have this."
The lawyer pushes a manila envelope toward me across his wide mahogany desk. Jennifer's last earthly possessions.
There was a time an office this ornate in gold trim and rare gnarled-grain wood would have impressed me. Now it's part of a world that's losing me as a tenant. I care only about the envelope until I open it, and then I don't care about that.
Inside is the book, "An Autobiography of a Yogi", a turquoise necklace, and a tiny leather bag. Inside the bag is the key to a locker.
"SFO international terminal, concourse 'A'," says the lawyer. When I look away from his face I see a newspaper next to the opened envelope. It's The Wall Street Journal. The corner of the envelope ends on the word, Las Vegas.
There's an article: "The Las Vegas Gambit: Dead tactics resurrected."
I slide the necklace over my head. Shove the book in my pocket. Palm the key.
At the airport I open the locker. Inside is a paper envelope with my name on it. When I open it a key falls out. I leave it on the floor while I read the note inside.
"ROSABELLE ANSWER. No accidents. Parking lot level three. Area 'J'. Space 36."
It costs me $500 to get the Porsche out of the lot.
A bottle of Jim Beam and a flask of Smirnoff runs me $36 dollars. I crack open the bourbon, take a swallow, then situate the bottles between my thighs. The convertable roof comes down. There's a hat on the empty passenger's seat. It says, "Just do it, Nike." I slide it over the few strands of my hair, formerly brown--now gray, that dare grow on my scalp.
When I hit the freeway, my cell rings. The nurses want to schedule my next chemo treatment. Two weeks.
I toss the phone toward the car next to me and down some more bourbon I can barely taste. The Porsche accelerates to 90 without difficulty. I set the cruise control. The sun is coming up. It burns my neck and face. The tops of my thighs get warm. My forearms burn.
The wind howls in my ears. I yell back: "What do you want me to do now, sweetie? What do I do with this life between now and the end?"
She brings a billboard to Barstow to answer me. She plants it in the ground forty years ago, paints it over and over, slathers it with advertisement posters. Lets storms howl for decades so poster after poster wears down, tears and blows away in parts. Only pieces are left. Through the collage of old paper and the weathered wood characters are visible from three different ads.
Of the word "useful", only "us" is visible on a red strip of an ad for something obscured. On a white ad for milk a torn woman says, "...for both of...". To the far left is an ad for an automobile painted like a chameleon. Only the last three letters of the word "mimicry" are there.
I pull the Porsche off the road. I get out and stare at the sign, now useless in its purpose as marketing products, now an icon for something so invisible it may never be, or burst into life incarnate.
The bandage slips from my palm. That pain doesn't exist.
The chemo drains from my blood.
The cancer from my bone marrow.
My life from this world.
My heart chakra replaces my religion.
"I don't know where we're going with this," I say, raising the bottle of vodka toward the sign. "Maybe it's gone to my brain, yes? Maybe I'm making mountains out of dust motes. But I guess I have no reason to believe anything anymore. Not even the things that make me want to call you coincidence or chemicals interacting with my neurons. I don't know why you loved me, but I sure loved you. So, I'll try, Jenny. I will. Before it's over. For both of us."
The empty vodka bottle goes into the desert. My ass into the humming Porsche.
I don't know what's going to happen next except that someday soon I'll die.
Then the sun will rise every single day without me, and lost without meaning or further purpose, someone will knock down Jennifer's message to me.
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