“Now,” says Lev, the only red-headed Jew I have ever met, blood in his eyes, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
I wake up at noon at my mother’s on 23rd Street.
Lockett, the only portal to the dream world, works at a fabric store in Chelsea, a place with many rooms. I follow him down the narrow hall and he indicates with one hand the rolls of black Jersey. “Been a little while,” I say.
“Sure,” says Lockett. “A couple days.” This means nothing to me. “You must not remember.”
Lockett always looks fucked out, like someone has slowly unraveled all of him in the back room, but he’s the handsomest kid I know and functionally asexual. I don’t hang out with him much anymore. None of us do, because Lockett’ll mess with your head.
I ask for two yards of the blackest black Jersey.
In the subway I remember the last time I saw Lockett, which was in a dream, a shadowy room with high ceilings. I don’t know what that place was or why I was there but I felt I had been there before, a thousand times. I was always there. Lockett smiled at me and all his teeth fell out. I woke up.
Lev is still wearing the suit from his brother’s Bar Mitzvah. When I sit down he is folding his black yarmulke. “For the nth time,” he says, “I raised my fist to the heavens, and cursed God.” Lev is twenty, thin and pale and strange, moreso since his nervous breakdown. I did not see him in the hospital.
“You cursed him for what?”
Lev loosens his tie. “Fucking with my brain. For life.” He is talking about his partial aphasia. He points with one nail-bitten finger at the paper bag at my feet. “Did you see Lockett?”
“I just saw him last night.” I wonder where because Lev doesn’t go out anymore on account of his seizures and even if he did none of us really see Lockett, and then I know. “You don’t have to see Lockett to see Lockett,” he says, which is a nice way of putting it. “We were in the hospital, reading the Auchinleck manuscript. And I could read it.” I don’t know what that is. “It’s Middle English,” Lev says. “It made perfect sense to me.”
I run into Cooper on the street. We drink more coffee and I tell him I am really sick, dying, even, very slowly, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He is very pale, mouth slack, and when he starts crying I can’t look at him. What beautiful destruction. I tell him parts of my brain are turning off, one by one. “The compassion part,” I say, “was the first to go. I probably would have loved you if I was physically capable.”
“Don’t speak about yourself in the past tense,” Cooper whispers, his voice cracking. “Please don’t talk about yourself like you’re already – I can’t deal with that.”
“You’re gonna have to.”
“Don’t,” says Cooper. He palms tears off his face. “Jesus Christ, Rhea.”
“It explains a lot about how fucked up I am,” I tell him. “It explains a lot about why I treated you like shit.”
“I don’t care about that now.”
“You’re damaged goods. You don’t care that you’re damaged goods?”
Cooper doesn’t answer. Cooper cares that he’s damaged goods. He cares very deeply. Some people like to reassemble those who have been ruined, some good people, but Cooper doesn’t want those people. He wants bad people, people who can see bruises. “I suppose if I ask you if you need anything you’ll say no.”
“I don’t need anything, no.”
We sit for a while in silence. Cooper is shaking. He says “I feel awful leaving you.”
“That’s the one thing you can do for me.”
Lev calls. “You’re not really dying, are you.”
“What did Cooper say?”
“I am not telling you anything except my honest opinion, which is that this has gone too far.”
“Not you too, Lev.”
“You can’t do this to people.”
“What am I doing to him.”
“Driving him crazy. Let me tell you that you don’t know what that feels like and I do, and it feels awful.”
“What’s with you? You could probably fuck him if you wanted, if that’s it.”
“I’m not emotionally prepared for a mess like Cooper right now or ever,” says Lev. “I can barely deal with myself.”
Lev’s text messages to me still read like Coffee hi? Broom broadway! Apparently it was spectacular when he lost it, three semesters into a Neuroscience and Behavior major at Columbia, in the middle of his Comparative Biomechanics midterm – it was cinematic, shocking in its swiftness, its suddenness, its convergence from clear skies with no warning. I heard what happened through several tightly woven grapevines, so you never really know. The general consensus is that Lev had carefully placed the instruction sheet inside the blue essay booklet, grasped the Formica table with both trembling hands, and smashed his head against it, once, hard. “You’re too good for him anyway.”
“Good,” laughs Lev, “me?”
Lockett is not in the dream, but Lev is, chewing the sleeves of his sweater. “All of us is one of us,” says Lev, not looking at me. “There is one of us, one thread.” It is a high-ceilinged room, shadowy, and the bars in windows cast lines like the stripes of animals on the wood floor. I have been there before. I am always there. And then there is blood in Lev’s eyes, and shards of glass at his bare feet, jagged shapes in a bloody circle. “I did it do you know why?” says Lev.
“You don’t have to tell me.” But of course I want to know. Lev palms the blood from his face, traces a line from the wound on his forehead down over his long nose, the indentation in his top lip, the round bone of his chin, over his throat and into the hollow. Against the white-washed wall his whole face is ice.
“I unwound all the way. It took, it pulled every day and there was none of me left. And what do you do then, I don’t know. It wasn’t me anymore. It was just blood.”
And then it is someone’s funeral. It is Cooper’s funeral and he lies, amid flowers and starched fabric folds and his little sister’s doodles, as though sleeping. It is the same room, the only room. And Lockett is there, but it’s Lev, but it’s Lockett, who is beside me, shoulder pressed against mine, holding Cooper’s bloodless left hand in both of his, tightly, tears welling in his pale eyes. I cannot look at Cooper. What beautiful destruction.
“What happened?” I say. I am drumming on the coffin with my index fingers, rolling like waves on that smooth wood. “Lockett, what happened?” He doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t shaved in a few days and the sparse blonde curls along the sharp line of his jaw catch the light behind his head. His fingers knot with Cooper’s and I cannot tell whose are whose. I try to untangle them because they are not the same. But they are. They will not unravel.
Cooper’s mother comes past and she smiles at me and clutches my hands. She kisses my cheek. She smells like lavender. “Oh, honey,” she says. “Honey. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
And the sharp cliffs. They go down to the sea. When I was drunk I wanted to kiss everyone. I wanted to know what they felt like. The cliffs went down to the sea. I stood for a long time at the edge of them. None of us ever wanted to die on purpose, only accidentally. Lev is beside me. In the wind his bloody hair leaves tracks on his face, Octavian’s curls like a set of claws. “Now,” he says, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
i am aware that this story is really nuts and like twenty stories at one time. i wrote it for a lot of reasons. i suppose THIS is the biggest direct inspiration for it. i had a hard time with this story because that idea of being a portal to the dream world is so compelling but i couldn’t really figure out exactly what it meant and didn’t want it to be too much like “inception.” lockett is named after deerhunter's guitarist / songwriter / fuzz genius of the same name.
anyway i thought i would post this because though it makes little sense i think there are some cool ideas in it which have worked their way into other stories of mine, one of which is called “colloquial eras,” which i sent to a bunch of magazines the other day, along with a story called “things that weigh nothing” and a story called “wolves” which was 26 pages when i double spaced it, which led to me almost starting to cry in my roman art class.
i hope you like this! if you go to mount holyoke or one of the five colleges please come to RADIO WEEK this friday and saturday. my ask box is open if you ever have any questions about anything.