Willem Myra’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in 101 Words, Litro, The Offing, and elsewhere. He lives in a modest Italian city where he shares his love for literature with two cats and a stubborn case of rhinitis. More about him at willemmyra.wordpress.com and he can be found @WillemMyra on Twitter.
A man lies belly down on a flat rock in the middle of a freezing-cold stream. He woke up one morning and found himself here. Doesn’t know how, doesn’t know why. All he knows is that he needs to survive. Unapologetically bad at swimming and an optimist by upbringing, his only option is to reach into the waters hoping for a wounded or inexperienced fish to come his way. But there are no such fish around, or they’re already dead, so ninety-nine times out of a hundred he finds himself empty handed. That hundredth time, however, something does get stuck in the web formed by his branchy fingers. Not a river inhabitant, mind you, but rather — a bottle of sunscreen; a new pair of cargo shorts; a washed-out book; a toy soldier; car keys; a defective wheel for working his abs; a Polaroid picture of a deliciously looking ice cream. I am not real, the man realizes as he’s starving to death, lips parted, gaze skyward. I was birthed by someone’s mind. And, just before letting out his last breath, he whispers, “How cruel to be but a vehicle, a means to portray a metaphor about the universe’s caprice to hand people a solution to riddles they weren’t even aware they were trying to solve.”
This is the scenario playing in Aleks’s mind. He’s stuck in a hotel room, sitting in a corner. Craig and Sonja are here, too. Aleks feels like he’s part of that Quasimodo poem — pierced by a ray of sunlight. It’s not an eureka moment he’s having; that would imply him understanding something no other man has ever thought of before, something humanity as a whole could benefit from. Instead, what he’s having is a– What’s it called? There’s a mechanism inside Aleks’s brain that records every word he hears, every word he reads. Aleks ignores the vastitude of vocabularies buried deep down into his subconscious, but whenever he needs a term, especially when songwriting, out of nowhere this voice would suggest him a few. Say he’s thinking, What’s it called when you press your teeth together and make a sound like grgrgrgr? The voice in his head would whisper, Grind. Would whisper, Gnash. Would whisper, Grit. To which Aleks would go on the Merriam-Webster website and check the entries for each word and realize that, hell, this brain chunk of his with an aptitude for linguistics was correct. And right now, what the brain chunk is saying is, Epiphany. So that’s what Aleks is having, an epiphany. He’s realized something that’s obvious to most people, if not everybody, something he himself already knew, but had forgotten about, taking it for granted, something that’s always been there, and thus making it unimportant to his eyes.
Aleks’s epiphany is — as technically all epiphanies are — about life. Life is a cobweb. The intersections between the strings represent the events befalling you, while the strings themselves are made of anything filler that happens in the meanwhile. It’s no ordinary cobweb, though. A few years back Aleks saw online the results of this science experiment in which they gave different drugs to spiders — How? He pictures lab personnel in white coats using miniscule spoons to force feed arachnids with their infinitesimal, toothless mouths agape — and had them craft webs to study the effects on the brain of said drugs. Following his epiphany, Aleks now envisions life as woven by a spider who’s had too much chloralhydrat, so its web comes out all shabby and asymmetrical and in some parts disconnected. Like the cracks in an armored glass after you’ve hit it with a steel bat. And that’s the way life looks if you take a step back and analyze it in 2D. A maze with many exists and one entry, with broken walls, with paths leading nowhere, with paths leading to precipices or PTSD-inducing black holes.
He can see now, Aleks can, that there are two types of lines connecting the events: causality and synchronicity.
Causality is: Event A leading to Event B which leads to Event C. Clean, linear, idiot-proof. In graphic form: A → B → C.
Synchronicity is also A → B, because that’s how the entire universe works, let’s face it, but in this case the person B occurs to willingly ignores A, believing that the catalyst for B was really, I don’t know, some fucker on the other side of the planet doing K instead of Z? It’s all “an elephant farts in India and an earthquake happens in Japan” kind of funky logic involved with synchronicities, so do yourself a favor and don’t get into it.
Applying this newfound knowledge to the situation unfolding presently, Aleks sees that:
Craig is in a coughing fit because Sonja is smoking indoors.
Sonja is smoking indoors because they were advised not to open the window.
They were advised not to open the window because there are at least a dozen people protesting in front of the hotel.
The dozen people are protesting because Aleks was not arrested (yet? at all?) after he punched that old man downtown.
Insert here a new variable: Alison. The question being: Is what took Aleks from Alison to the old man an honest to God example of synchronicity? You have thirty minutes to solve the problem. Time starting — Three, two, one… — now! Good luck.
“Shouldn’t he tweet something at least?” says Craig, hand over his mouth, nostrils pinched closed between index and thumb.
As Sonja puts out her cigarette, Craig’s facial muscles relax and his cheeks get pushed upward into a genuine smile. But this post-coital resembling relief of his is short lived, for Sonja lights up another cigarette before talking.
“No. He better keep his damn phone off. You have no idea how popular that hashtag has become.”
Craig nods his head a couple of times, then retreats by the closed window. He’s too polite to tell Sonja to fucking stop smoking indoors, while Sonja is the type of person who disregards others and only cares about her own needs, so even if she noticed Craig’s discomfort — which she doesn’t because she pays no attention to the rest of the world — she’d never renounce her smoke just for him. Usually it’d be Aleks to slap the cigarette out of his sister’s hand, shouting at her to learn how to properly behave in the company of other people, except right now he doesn’t want to stand up or talk or exist, really. He’s not thinking about the man lying in the middle of the stream anymore, nor about cobwebs. Instead, Aleks wonders how long it’s going to take before scientists invent a time-out gadget. Something akin to a small box with a big, flashy red button. A cartoonish remote, if you will. And the way this gadget is going to work is, you press the button and a mysterious force puts you out of time, like it literary grabs you and places you in an alternative prison-cell-big dimension where time doesn’t exist and where you can wear down or outsleep your unwillingness to live. How better would humanity improve if whenever you’re angry or depressed you could just up and go elsewhere where you need not worry about eating or going to work or bathing yourself, where you can think as much as you like, or idle around for entire eras and come back to the real world refreshed and smiling and ready to help and be helped? Yeah, someone should totally invent a remote like that. If Aleks could come up with a way to turn this process into really, now that would be a textbook example of eureka.
“And besides,” continues Sonja, blowing smoke toward Craig, “there’s nothing Aleks could tweet that wouldn’t appear like a justification for his actions. His next public announcement should be short and humble. It should acknowledge that what happened was a mistake.” She raises a bony index to the ceiling. “A one-timer. Not a habit. We need to punch the fact, no pun intended, that Aleks did not fail to manage his anger, but rather that something about the man… Hm… I don’t know how to put it. We should brainstorm a little. You get what I mean, though, right? The message should read like it’s Aleks’s fault but between the lines it should be clear we know the old man started it and we’re mature enough to take the fall for him.”
Craig is taking mental notes, still moving his chin up and down like when he’s backstage on tour.
Sonja turns to face Aleks, who notices her out of the corner of his eye and turns the other way, looking at the wall. There is no justification is the phrase on repeat broadcasted by the speaker in his brain.
Then someone knocks at the door.
Sonja rockets to her feet, pale-faced. “Angry mob coming for our heads?” she whispers trying to joke about it, nervousness betrayed by her shaking voice.
Craig side-steps to the door and slowly accosts his eye to the peephole, like a circus performer who’s supposed to insert his head in the lion’s mouth and now, with all the lights pointing at him and the audience taking suspenseful gasps, is having second thoughts.
“It’s Double T,” Craig announces with a smile and opens the door.
In comes Tim Tsu, Aleks’s agent, fancy suit and hair gelled back. A man whose smile could win him a million fans in the entertainment world were he not so keen on working away from the cameras.
“Tell us you have good news,” Sonja begs while fiddling with the lighter.
“I’ve got good news.”
“Now try and say it like you mean it.”
Tim Tsu laughs. “Relax, people, I’m on it, I told you.”
“Yeah?” asks Sonja. “And what did you do so far?”
Tim Tsu ignores her and instead points his iPhone toward Aleks.
“I just got off a call with the label. Their legal team is in full damage control mode, which means you’re in the cool. For what I’ve been told, in a few hours they’ll instruct us where to go.”
“What do you mean, where to go?” Sonja interjects. “Like, running away? In Mexico or something?”
“Nothing like that. I’ve been working with corporations for almost ten years now and while I’m not sure one hundred percent that this is the route we’re going down, chances are I’m pretty close to reality. So, like I said, the label will call back instructing us to go to a certain place.” Tim Tsu explains all this staring at Aleks, not once turning to include Sonja or Craig in the conversation. “A judge in incognito will meet us there and we will discuss what’s the easiest way to shake this whole mess off without you having to see even an inch of metal bar. A misdemeanor at best.”
Sonja is bewildered by what her ears are communicating to her brain. “You’re going to bribe a judge!”
“There are deals already in place between members of the justice system and, among others, recording labels. We will not pay the judge. Our legal team is right now getting in touch with the old man, convincing him to drop any possible charges. That’s who we’re going to pay, if anything. The judge? He’s just going to make sure no police will be involved in this.”
“Sounds like a shitstorm would be unleashed on us were public opinion to know what we’re about to do,” says Sonja.
But Aleks doesn’t care enough to hear her comment. He gets up, motions to Tim Tsu to follow him. They leave the hotel room, just the two of them, with Sonja shouting questions first and curses then and with Craig staring at them mutely. The back exit leads to an alley where Tim Tsu’s Audi is parked. They get inside and Tim Tsu drives away.
“Wherever. I just need to clear my thoughts.”
The mob with their signs and angry faces shrink up in the rearview mirror. It’s a sunny day, mid-July, and Aleks hates not being in a movie, for then he’d have cloudy sky and possibly rain, with a dark-blue photography and some “all hope is lost” type of background music. He could pull off a “tough but melancholic” lead character face.
They drive for ten, fifteen minutes, complete silence reigning inside the car. Tim Tsu paying attention to the traffic; Aleks staring at the dashboard, thoughts bouncing around in his mind.
“You never asked me why.”
“What’s that?” Tim Tsu asks.
“The first thing everybody told me was, ‘Why?’. You? You asked me if I was alright.”
Tim Tsu nods, waiting for more. He’s a good agent, could be an even better psychiatrist.
“Thank you for that.”
“No need to.”
Should Aleks say this? He needs someone to talk to, and Tim Tsu is the one who more than anybody else could understand him.
“I met someone the other day.”
“Someone like a fan or– ?”
“It wasn’t actually the other day but the event stuck with me so much it feels like it’s perpetually happening. Over and over again.”
“I was invited to that podcast a couple months ago, remember? The one in Santa Monica. That’s when I saw her. Alison.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I went to high school with her.”
“That explains it.”
“This Alison, she used to be a rage-fueled hurricane, you know? Always looking to start a fight with anybody — guys, girls, adults — over the most futile motives. The rebellious girl who would go on a date with a guy just because her parents said she shouldn’t, that was Alison. She would show everybody the middle finger and curse twenty-four out of seven even worse than we guys did. I mean, we all flipped the bird but never in front of the teachers. But Alison: her attitude spared nobody. ‘I don’t care,’ she’d say presenting the teacher her skull fingernail. ‘Send me home if you’re tired of me. Else shush it and go back to whatever bullshit you were explaining.’ Thinking about it now I find it sort of funny, though back then she was obnoxious. Always hearing her say fuck this, fuck that, while I was trying to learn that much needed not to fail the class.
“I remember this one time she got into a verbal fight with a dude, and of course being he a teenager, he ended up calling her a cunt. Wouldn’t you know it, she literally threw a desk at him. Pure raw strength, that girl was. The dude managed to jump out of the desk’s way at the last second, but Alison was furious. It took three sixteen-year-olds to keep her in place. Impressive and scary at the same time. Pretty sure most of us popped a boner there and then.
“Anyway, a couple months ago I saw her again after all these years and I was dumbfounded by how little she looks like her old self. Why is that, I wonder. All the guys I went to high school with are the same only chubbier, while the girls, the girls have all changed.”
“I believe it’s something to do with the difference in sexual desire. Wasn’t it that men peak around eighteen, while women later in their thirties or something? It explains the whole cougar-slash-MILF thing going on, but don’t quote me on that one.”
“I suppose. I should Google that, one day.” Aleks claps his hands together, just once. “Back to Alison. What was I saying? Oh, yeah. I saw her again a couple months ago. She had a calm, recollected gaze; and she smiled too. Hair well combed. Eyeglasses. A dress instead of sweat pants, which improves her as a whole immensely. She even had one of those handbags business women carry around on their bent elbow. She’s completely changed. Like, fuckin’ a, dude. She did a one-eighty. Such a hormonal stampede she was, and only a kind breeze is left. I feel melancholy taking over thinking about it.”
“Did you talk to her?”
Aleks shakes his head. “Was too caught up in my own thoughts to approach her. I must have stared at her for fuck knows how long that day. Like, if some passerby came and called me a creep, I’d have totally agreed with them.”
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Back into the traffic.
“And I realized something looking at Alison. Which is, I went through the exact opposite process, didn’t I? Back in high school I used to be a rock. Any problem, any offense, would leave me untouched. Like water off a duck’s back. I had learned from Dad that a man had be aloof, a Clint Eastwood-type of silent everything-solving cliché. And I tried my best to incarnate that ideal for oh so long. While now — now you can see anger lingering on my face, anger burning in my eyes, hell even my lyrics are sharp and mean and blown out of proportion. Which is why I punched the old man. It was after the signing. We were headed to lunch and then this herd of crazy tween girls came to us begging for a selfie. You can’t say no to that. But because of these girls there was no more room on the sidewalk, so the old man had no way to pass around us without stepping off the curb and into incoming traffic.
“Mind you, he didn’t say a thing. No, ‘The new generation is fucked’. No cursing. No spitting on the ground. It was just his gaze. We take our selfie and then head to the car and I tell the old man, like, ‘Sorry for that, it won’t happen again.” And the old man simply stands there, staring at me. Wordlessly. Ruthlessly. I saw it in his eyes. That he thought he was better than me. That I was garbage. Just garbage. I snapped. Next thing I know, Sonja is pulling me away, while the old man is lying on the ground, blood coming out of his nose. And the girls. Screaming like I’ve just killed their papa.”
“It’s alright, Alex, we’re going to get you out of this.”
“No. It’s not alright. I’m scared, Tim. How the fuck did I go from monk-like to teenage-Alison-clone? Was it a gradual process I didn’t notice; or was it more like somebody snapped their fingers and there I was, switching from blue to red? I can’t say. Can you? Do you know what made you into what you are today? What moments or people shaped your then self into the present you? ‘Cause I look in the mirror every night before bed and I see I’m twenty-eight and my soul is a burning Amazonia and most times I just ask my reflection where did the other me go and how come among all the many selves William James talks about only this one was washed ashore and still stands no matter what?”
There is silence now weighing down on the Audi. Tim Tsu is most certainly trying to come up with a response that’s both wise and pragmatic, and Aleks, breath coming short and his heart beating, beating, beating, like he’s back in college and an exam is imminent, Aleks is tapping a finger on the dashboard, waiting for his agent to say the first words of his little speech so he can interrupt him and say, finally say, No. Forget all that. I need them eggheads to move their asses. I need a time out somewhere where I can feel safe from myself. You know what? Just take me there. To the police station. Please, Tim, take me to a police station before I can’t recognize myself anymore.