LAST CITY

Three years ago, I met Karen at a party.
I was out on that back porch because I couldn’t listen to the dolphin shrieking inside anymore.
It looked like the pod had gotten to her, too.
“Can you believe these people?” I asked.
“I know. It’s strange, right?”
“I don’t think I can handle another conversation about pastries. I refuse.”
“It does seem ridiculous,” she said. “I also have no interest in discussing how much it costs to live here, or the fog, or whatever tech company one of these assholes has equity in,” she said.
Some blue joules dislodged somewhere inside me. “It gets to be exhausting pretending all the time.”
She paused, glanced at me, went back to her examination of all that lay before us.
“You have to consider all of this. The city, the view, you know, everything,” she said.
“Everything? That’s a lot to consider.”
“But you have to. Consider. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it. It’s all or nothing,” she said, “it’s either examined in the way it deserves to be, a careful consideration, everything, all pieces, whatever it turns out to be, whatever the answer is no matter if it turns out to be something you didn’t want, or not at all. We owe it to ourselves.”
We could see most of the city from up here, all the way out to the ocean, the white caps dotted across the bay. We were leaning against the railing on the balcony, high enough above it all that the sounds on the street are reduced to something approaching melody, the sounds inside muted by the closed door to negate their debates about the best place to find ramen, the upcoming midterm elections. We were faced only with the wide angle of what is, the black outlines of buildings set against the cerulean, pink splayed across the bellies of the clouds.
I considered carefully before I answered her. “Spectacular.”
<<>>
We hesitated at the top of the escalator.
Below us stretched one hundred thousand square feet of shouting blinkering capitalism. Vendors, wares, disruption, buzzwords and t-shirts and pens with logos. They all gathered here in one place, distracted by the teeming horde of swag-seekers and hand-shakers. It is the perfect location for our second date, an immediate confirmation that she is also an agent of subversion.
“They certainly have considerable resources at their disposal,” she said.
“Indeed. But they’ve grown indolent.”
“Last days of the Roman Empire,” she added solemnly.
“And we are the Barbarians,” I said.
“Visigoths,” she clarified.
“We will be invincible,” she said.
“I agree, nothing will catch us, ever, we’ll be too fast,” I said.
“Make sure your shoelaces are tied,” she said.
The alarm bell rings, the lights flash, and we take off running.
<<>>
We found an alcove in the park, surrounded by jasmine bushes, an eight foot by eight food redoubt. Everything was green, white, red, blue, pink, pulsing. In this one illuminated sliver of the city and the world, the flowers won out, stronger than everything else.
We breathe deeply, theatrically, for nearly a minute.
“This is it,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She pulled off her underwear more quickly than I would have ever thought possible and I was inside her.
The moon extruded through the leaves of the nearby trees and slurried our bodies and it looked like a school of fish was swimming across her back.
Something about the way we merged as if we knew that at any moment an asteroid might careen through the ionosphere and nullify all our efforts.
Something akin to hunger, thirst, an elemental thrust to these early efforts of ours, and the certainty that eventually we will win out.
<<>>
We spent hours like this, frantic, she a heathen god waving arms and breathing creation in a single afternoon spent sweaty on the couch with miles of skin for fingertips, teeth, tongue.
“You can only recognize the apogee after the fact,” she said.
We were really getting somewhere. We have gone months without repeating a single conversation.
“Meaning that the true shape of things is impossible to take in while you’re actually experiencing it?” I said.
We chased swans in the park. We ducked out of engagement dinners with barely plausible excuses. We were together, on the ascendant, I was certain.
“Something like that,” she said.
<<>>
You can only recognize the apogee after the fact.
We are indigo-scaled marine iguanas, languid tail swirl, Galapagos dreaming. A can of beer floats in the bathtub with us.
Karen drifts in and out of sleep, bubbles of words sputtering from her mouth.
It should be an answer. I feel like after this, after the effort we’ve put in tonight, this city should have yielded something up to us. We should know so much more.
They raise their glasses, I watch a single bead of whiskey sweat on the side of the glass in my hand. Tequila, rum, everything ever distilled, we will make an honest effort.
“Happy birthday!”
We raise our glasses. Noise and friends, packed tightly into the apartment, surround us.
And, we are emptied once more, just the two of us, in the bathtub.
The beer can lazily knocks against her shoulder.
I bring the whiskey to my lips and I feel just like they do. They smile and I feel just like they do.
“Happy birthday, Karen!” I shout over the crowd and she is in constant motion, then, never stopping until every person has left and the bathwater is filling the tub.
I consider whether what we thought we could achieve is possible.
“Happy birthday Karen,” I say and even though she is asleep, she smiles at this and I think through the logistics of getting her out of the tub.
They smile. I smile. I think they are the same thing.
We raise our glasses.
A tentacle lurks.
<<>>
In the morning Karen makes it work albeit an hour late and I am left to clean, and it is a significant undertaking.
Underneath the water, I am the empty cup, the ringing bell. I exist only in five-meter increments, my lungs burning, breathing every three strokes, turn of the head, gulp. I make it to the state championship for the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-meter breaststroke in high school.
I don’t believe there have ever been this many empty bottles in one apartment. I consider calling Guinness.
I emerge from the pool and they predict a series of unending victories, Olympic medals, a Senate seat, or at the very least a nice apartment somewhere. There are high fives and a call from grandma.
I move into the city and ride around in one of those open-topped buses, snapping pictures for my mom’s archives. I go to the gym four days a week. I drink mostly water. I get to work early.
All of the bottles into the recycling bin.
Slowly, surely, the mess is reduced.
I emerge from the pool to a wall of sound. I will sign the papers where I am supposed to sign.
The dirt falls onto the shoebox that contains the recently deceased dwarf hamster Charles. I bury him in the narrow space between my house and the neighbor’s fence.
When I am done burying Charles I go for a bike ride towards the half-built house at the end of the street and take a few moments throwing rocks at the last remaining window.
I clean the apartment and it takes all day.
We will simply need to accelerate the pace if we are going to have any chance.
<<>>
I consider the white lines neatly arrayed on the counter.
Karen and I are alternating currents. Everything we touch is amplified. This nightclub, this bathroom, the countertop, and strangers we dance with.
These lines, the other lines, the lines of streets, of refugees awaiting entrance to camps, the world’s mess to be contained with geometric precision. I inhale it all and we are dancing and sweating and alive in a way that has to be unique to only us.
We have mastered the manipulation of time. When the appropriate opportunity presents itself, which is often, we have a multitude of accelerants at our disposal, and thus we are able to complete so much in half the time, far exceeding the meager output of the sluggards in our midst.
Something about the ragged way it all heaves beneath us like a just-darted rhinoceros, the great groaning mass of Janes and Johnnies living and dying precisely one point zero times, while we skip from needle tip to needle tip.
Our control is nearly absolute, with only the occasional slip-up.
I inhale.
Our control is nearly absolute.
<<>>
I consider the crushed up hydrocodone.
We must achieve balance, so sometimes we are forced to draw down from orbit, to release a gel over the cityscape that slows the streetcars, traps the tourists where they stand, something to blunt the diamonds that escape into our capillaries, to enrobe the synapses so that their charge is less.
<<>>
It is the time in the city when it rains.
<<>>
There is a mystery jutting from the sea of vomit, a yellow archipelago emerging from a clotted slurry of disgusting whatever the fuck and bile. I shift, knowing immediately that we are both covered, that we are still wearing what we were wearing yesterday, that this is who we are.
I am struck by a massive instantaneous squirming in my internal apparatus.
“We are both covered in bruises,” she said.
I look down at my arms and see that up and down the full length, purple and blue ink blots. Karen the same. I stand up, and I am nearly struck down again the concrete mix in my cerebrum is so thick.
Jesus, we were through.
“What happened to us?” I asked.
“Not exactly sure,” she said.
I take off the disgusting clothing.
I am standing in front of the mirror examining a body covered in bruises.
The things in there are multiplying, slithering, writhing.
I hear laughter from the other room.
Karen is holding something up.
“I found it,” she says. “Our totem.”
A french fry. A complete, undigested French Fry.
<<>>
This is not a city that does well in the rain. Too much is loosed.
<<>>
“I don’t think I can make you happy,” I said, after much consideration.
She was walking in front of the window, but I’m not sure she saw what I saw. I thought I saw a flicker of movement in the window, of the sidewalk turning to grey flytraps, but I wasn’t sure. Things were happening like that all the time. Conversations were drill bits cracking open my rib cage. Inside where my guts should be there were only disgruntled weevils. Sidewalks were flytraps and I would walk onto them thinking I was going to get a bottle of Gatorade and a bag of Doritos and look up at the grey slick of the sky and then I wasn’t getting a bottle of Gatorade and a bag of Doritos I was still on the couch. I would stare at them from my window and think about going somewhere and then think about their stickiness and think better of it. Sidewalks were walkways between fast food restaurants and dry cleaners and meetings and birthday parties and it was different mostly but I was always the same which was really the problem because I would look at these people and I thought I was doing what they were doing but it seemed like no matter what inputs (and I tried many) my outputs weren’t their outputs and this struck me as grossly unfair.
“Of course you can,” she said.
“So you’re happy here, all this? The city? Us? The ashtray over there?”
“The ashtray?” she asked. Maybe I hadn’t explained the ashtray to her. I had to take another tack. I had to find some mechanism to at the very least reconfigure some of the frays.
“Did you ever think that you weren’t equipped for it all?”
“I always thought we were going to win, actually,” she said.
“And now?” I asked.
<<>>
She is pacing it is Wednesday it is March and the blinds are drawn closed and the couch and the locked door and it is Thursday it is September and the blinds are open but outside there is only a carapace of fog and it is more difficult than ever to see what hides in the folds.
I consider the crushed up hydrocodone.
I do not consider the pizza boxes, the ashtray, the newspapers, the phone calls from her boss my boss her parents.
They will send emails and carrier pigeons and they will say they are coming to visit and we will plan to move some things off the table and couch and floor but we will forget and they will wait a long time before they say anything.
Karen paces in earnest and in profile she is like a predatory bird.
<<>>
We are drilling down as deep as we can go, to see if there’s some hairy beast down at the center operating the switches with something like a plan, or just an I.O.U. note in bad handwriting.
We will keep drilling until we either pierce through the mantle or the bit is ground to nothing.
<<>>
Occasionally we slip up.
<<>>
I have turned Karen to her side and her breathing is irregular. I lift her eyelids. Her breath is ragged, her color is off.
<<>>
Occasionally we slip up.
<<>>
“How did we get here?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
I am scratching the band around my wrist. Grey rain dancing lazily on the window as she rummages through the glove box for the scissors. This is the second or third time we’ve tried this. Once together, once for me, once for her. They are successes and failures simultaneously. They are expensive.
Twice for me actually.
How long?
Six weeks.
That seems like a long time.
It’s not a long time, they say.
It seems like a long time.
It’s a small price to pay, they say.
It doesn’t seem like a small price to pay. It seems exorbitant.
This will be better, they say.
Better than what.
Than the other options, they say.
Inside these white walls, I am faced with a hollowness so complete that it is nearly unfathomable.
What kind of story do you want to tell?
Where does it start? Who is the villain? What were your parents like? How old were you the first time you drank alcohol?
I think more than anything they ask the wrong questions.
“One of us will have to be the one. And I don’t know if it can be me. I don’t know if I have it in me, not anymore.”
“What do you mean?” she says.
<<>>
“You can only recognize the apogee after the fact,” she says.
“Does it really matter then?” I ask.
<<>>
“It’s like a nuclear football. We both have to turn the key at the same time,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, barely audible, so quiet it’s possible she didn’t say anything at all.
She looks so tired.
We are all so tired, every single inhabitant.
“I don’t know if I can do that,” she says, more loudly.
Everyone is tired.
I see it in their faces, in the morning, when the sidewalks are wet.
I am not sure about this place, about any of it, about the hot dog smells, the piss slurries on Market Street, the massive homeless encampments with blue tarps flapping in surrender.
“How did we get here?” she asks.
I consider the question.
“How did we get here?”
“Do you think we still have a chance?” she asks.
My hand seeks out the window control of its own accord, clicking the button one two three. The flit of the city outside the window and the low drone of the engine as we drive towards the parking garage, drive towards an engagement dinner, towards the redwoods where we find banana slugs under leaves, towards an apartment with an overflowing ashtray.
“How did we get here?” she asks and the question implies a series of fixed points arranged sequentially and I am not so sure.
We will drive home and I will get out of the car.
“How did we get here?” every time she asks and snip snip snip the bracelet comes off, we are staggering on the shit caked sidewalks or standing on a balcony above it all and we are free to find our place in it, never quite sure exactly where we stand in the trajectory, but hopeful that the horizon can extend as far as we need it to.