Wake Up and Smell the Dopamine
“Georgie,” a soft voice calls. His eyes flutter open. The angel stands over him. She breathes gently in his face. She is white, brilliant white, and she overcomes him.
“I’m dead,” Georgie realizes. I’m dead and this is heaven.
“Why did you do it, Georgie?” the angel asks softly.
“I didn’t mean to,” Georgie replies groggily.
(What did I do?
You know what you did.
No. No, I don’t.
If you don’t know what you did, how do you know you didn’t mean to?
Because I never mean anything.
No. You meant to. You know you did.
But, I didn’t. You’ve got to believe me. I didn’t mean to.
It was intentional, Georgie. You did it. You meant it.
I thought I wanted it, but I was wrong. Can’t a guy be wrong?)
“Claudia,” he gasps.
The angel soothes his forehead. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to see her right now,” Margaret says.
Margaret shakes her head in sympathy. “Don’t you remember, Georgie?”
Georgie remembers the fire, their loving orgy. The fire--
“You cut off Claudia’s hair,” Margaret whispers. “She’s furious.”
“Is that all?” he says.
Margaret looks at him sternly.
“A woman’s hair is nothing to mess with,” she says. “And, what did Claudia do to you, anyway?”
Margaret comes to a realization, and she bites her lip slightly. Georgie laughs again.
“You have no idea,” he says. His voice is empty—terrifyingly empty. “I don’t even know the worst of it—not yet, anyway.”
Georgie, Claudia, Margaret, and Carl slowly climb into the limousine later that day. Georgie has a massive hangover from the drugs Claudia slipped him. Claudia, Margaret, and Carl have hangovers from their own night of revelry. Claudia needs to see a hairstylist to do something about the wreck Georgie left, and, for now, she’s not speaking to him, which makes the atmosphere in the limo strained and uncomfortable. The one time he manages to get her alone she hisses at him, like a snake and, when that doesn’t work, doesn’t make him go away, she slaps his face.
“This, this is not what we agreed on,” she snarls, gesturing to her butchered hair.
Later, Ben suppresses a smile as the group silently exits the limo. You could say he’s not surprised by how things turned out. You could say that.
Georgie and Claudia drift into their separate worlds over the next few weeks. Georgie returns to his old fetishes, his sicko-twisted paid-for fantasy world. Claudia returns to Greg and Sara. Now that she has a new job, it doesn’t matter if she fucks her old boss (and his wife). Actually, if she stops fucking her new boss, she might lose her job. Or get double pay. It is a toss-up, that one--
Georgie returns to the stone cottage on the mountaintop, but there is no one there. He lies on the bearskin rug, his dick limp and useless. Like a boy’s. He breathes in the smell of the rug and waits for the disgust to come. He is empty. There is nothing in him anymore—no chords to strike. No emotions to feed off. His life is as boring as he always feared (knew) it would be.
Georgie returns from his empty trip to the cottage, decides he needs groceries then wanders aimlessly up and down the aisles. He’s like a ghost waiting for someone to haunt. Someone to scare, to touch. Waiting for something. Anything. Nothing could be worse than this. He scans the sterile shelves crowded with prepackaged food, watches the mouth-breathers who stalk their prey—the Oreo cookies, the Ding Dongs and Twinkies—and who graze on potato chips or Fritos. Sugar or salt. Salt or sugar. The basket shudders uneasily in his hand. It is empty.
From behind he feels movement, then Margaret’s voice: “Hey, Georgie.” She must have snuck up on him, proving once again that Georgie’s no predator; he’s prey just like the Ding Dongs and Twinkies.
“Margaret.” Relief quiets his poor, angry, tormented brain for one sweet second.
She stares at the floor for a moment, clutching a package of bargain bulk cereal to her chest. Georgie knows that she is thinking of the cabin, of how she saw him: the town fool, an utter idiot. Georgie knows, she’s been playing it over in her mind, trying to make sense of, wondering if she saw what she knows she saw. (Everything.)
“I know that you didn’t find your nanny,” she says finally. She looks up at him, eyes glistening. “I know that you didn’t because you’re not any better. If anything, you’re worse.”
Georgie nods. There’s no use disagreeing with her.
“So,” she says, “I did some research. And the thing is, Georgie, I found her. I found her for you.”
She drops her head and rummages through her purse, eventually pulling out a piece of paper. Georgie thinks about her skin as she presses the paper into his hand.
Margaret steps closer to him. She is in the small cloud of heat his body emits. Her hair smells like flowers. She looks up into his face, begging.
“Go see her, Georgie,” she says. “Please. If not for me, then for yourself.”
He rubs the scrap of paper between two fingers. He stares doubtfully at Margaret. She notices.
“You have to see her,” Margaret says. “It’s the only way.”
“The only way what?” Georgie says.
Margaret looks at him reluctantly. “The only way for you to get better.”
Georgie looks down at the paper. If he rubs the ink away, it will be impossible for him to find her. It will be like she never existed, like before.
He squints at Margaret. Accusing her.
“Why do you care? Whether I’m better or not, it’s none of your concern.”
“I’m your friend, Georgie.”
He snorts at her. “You and your one-hit wonders.” He glowers, face distorted. “You think a trip to the Dalai Lama, a visit to my old nanny, and a self-help book are gonna make all my problems disappear?”
Georgie holds the note up to her face. “What’s next, Margaret? A magician? More doctors?” He grips the paper in both hands, threatening to tear it. “Ever think that maybe I don’t want to get better, don’t want to believe in all the bullshite people tell themselves to pretend they’re happy? Huh, Margaret? Ever think of that?”
(Is that it, Ben? Is it that you don’t even want to heal?
Is that what you call it? Healing? Hell, doc, I don’t know . . .
Because if you don’t, if you really don’t want to get better, then why do you keep coming to see me, Ben?
I don’t know, Dr C. You’re the doctor. Why don’t you tell me?)
Margaret’s eyes are full of tears, and yet . . . Behind those tears is a fierceness Georgie’s never seen. “I care about you,” she finally says. “Even if you don’t.”
Georgie looks at the slip of paper in his hands.
“More bullshite,” he mutters. “Love, healing. It’s all bullshite.”
“Then it’s bullshite, Georgie.” Margaret turns, walks away from him, leaving him to wonder if she’s leaving for good, if she’ll stop being his friend if he doesn’t get better, if he doesn’t want to get better.
“It’s too hard,” he wants to scream.
In general, to the best that I am able, I need to get over it, no matter what the “it” might be.
Then, Unto Them
Claudia drags herself out of her old beater of a station wagon and leans against it, staring at the dull, gray building before her. The parking lot seems to stretch in front of her like something only Escher could have imagined. Her tender breasts scream at her as they push against her bra, against the fabric of her shirt. She reaches inside the car and bends—carefully and slowly—to pick up her purse from the passenger’s seat and is overcome with another wave of nausea. She retches silently, grateful nothing comes out, and then with a dogged determination staggers up the walk to the clinic. Whatever Georgie planted inside her is pure evil, as it’s eating her alive, and it’s got to be removed.
She has missed Georgie in some sick and twisted way. She contemplates the cottage, and also missing Greg and Sara so at least for now, she’s back at the home she thinks she should call home, puttering around Georgie’s house, again. A mug of warm water and lemon in her hands, she sips at it slowly, squeezing her eyes shut. She tries to pretend that it is coffee.
It is not. It never was. It never could be.
(Why doesn’t she just make some coffee?
Shh, doc. Give the girl a minute, would you? She’s back. I’ve brought her back, doc. See? I’m just not there. I am the observer now.)
And so, with Georgie away, seeing his psychiatrist, Claudia stands in front of the living room window and stares out at the view—at the narrow strip of grass between Georgie’s house and the sidewalk, the carefully trimmed ficus trees, the hydrangea, and across the street is her still, burned-down house. It’s an eyesore. But eventually, she knows, the insurance will come through, and she’ll move back, move on, and move out. How long does she stand there, staring at the unchanging view? Finally, she gives up, moves to the kitchen, the window above the sink. A different view. One of the side street but still the same carefully trimmed ficus trees, the overgrown hydrangea. Window to window, Claudia moves, hoping for/expecting a different view, unique somehow, and when she doesn’t find it, she collapses on the sofa in the living room, cradling her stomach.
She doesn’t feel well and, for today, she has given up food. What’s the point, after all? Claudia thinks about the how, the why, and she doesn’t worry about Georgie. She worries about herself; she presses gently on her belly, trying to keep it all in. Trying to prevent anything from getting back out.
(Wait. Is she?)
She brings her hand to her mouth, belching. Oh, this isn’t good. This isn’t good, at all. No. She can feel the bile rising, jumps from the sofa, and runs to the bathroom. Not again. Claudia collapses against the toilet, retching again and again. There is nothing left, nothing but a little bit of lemon water. She brings that up as well. To the uninformed observer, it looks like little more than vomiting, but for those who know, who understand, it’s clear that Claudia is ridding herself of every rotten thing she has ever done to Georgie—the times she humiliated him, hurt him, the time she twisted his pinky until the knuckle broke, the time she buried him . . . . What was she thinking?
Claudia sobs and hiccoughs; she belches, vomits again. She always knew it would come back to haunt her, didn’t she? It was only a matter of time.
When Georgie comes home, she is standing in the hall waiting for him. The corners of her mouth are crusted with vomit; her eyes look haunted and tired. To Georgie, she looks like some ghoulish version of her older self. He stares at her, walks toward her to engulf her in his arms—she looks like she could use a hug—and steps in a splash of vomit. He is completely repulsed, can think only of getting the puke off his shoes. He steps back away from her, and again slides. Jesus. He can feel his stomach begin to heave.
(Parenthetical Pet Peeve) Shoes with 6-foot long laces that constantly keep untying themselves.
“Georgie,” Claudia cries, “Are you okay? Don’t fall.”
She reaches for him, but Georgie withdraws. He’s never been good with sick people.
“Georgie,” she sobs, “Georgie, I’m pregnant.”
She falls dramatically at his feet, her shoulders shaking with silent tears. Years from now, Georgie will wonder if he did the wrong thing, if there was anything he could have done to make it right, but for now all he can think is to get away from this woman—this woman who reeks of vomit and self-loathing.
He stares at her, huddled on the floor, her arm snaking towards his feet. “Get up,” he tells her.
She remains motionless, glued to the spot. Georgie glances at her, then lifts one foot, staring at the sole of his shoe, streaked with the remnants of Claudia, her vomit, and her disgrace. Her shame. He can’t figure out the best way to erase that shame, without touching the vomit. He’s perplexed. Maybe he’ll have to wear these shoes forever.
Claudia moves, slithers toward him, tugging at his pants.
“Georgie,” she whispers. “What are we going to do?”
“Is it mine?” he asks.
Claudia hangs her head.
“It isn’t, is it?” he says.
She says nothing for such a long time that Georgie loses track of what he’s asked, his mind drifting back to the shoe issue. These are his Hugo Boss loafers, the ones he likes to wear without socks, the ones he’s had for years. The Hugo Bosses are his favorite loafers. His favorite shoes of all the shoes he’s ever had in his entire life, and now they’re dirty. Smeared with vomit. Ruined. Because of Claudia, who still lies unmoving at his feet.
She stares up at him, pleading. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “I don’t know whose it is.”
But Georgie, by now, has completely dismissed her and her “problem”; it’s none of his concern. She’s the one pregnant, not him. He’s got more important problems—his shoes—and now, at last, his mind is beginning to work, beginning to solve the problem. He remembers the hose curled in the front yard, tucked neatly beneath the hydrangea. Claudia now forgotten, Georgie races back out of the house and down the stairs, pulls out the hose, then balancing perfectly on one leg and looking a bit like a flamingo, Georgie begins hosing off his shoes.
He is meticulous, methodical. He stands first on his right leg, lifts his left foot, and hoses down the sole; then he stands on his left leg and repeats the process. He is pleased that he has figured out the problem, come up with the solution. Except . . .
Except now . . . Except now that he thinks about it, how can he be sure that the vomit is only on the soles? How can he know for certain that nothing splashed on the top of his Hugo Bosses? Truth is, he can’t. So he hoses off the tops then starts wondering whether anything splashed on his jeans, hoses them off as well and his shirt, while he’s at it. And then, to be doubly safe, he hoses down his hair, his face, every last part of himself, until he is standing in the middle of the front yard, dripping wet.
And still . . . it’s not enough. There could be vomit on the porch, on the windows, anywhere, and then, feeling like a fireman, he turns the hose on the house, washing away the stench of vomit, the chunks he knows that Claudia’s left behind.
Finished washing his own house clean, he turns his attention to the burned-out lot where Claudia’s house once stood. He aims his hose at the lot, flooding the ash, scattering it to reveal even more ash.
He thinks about Claudia’s house, what it must have been like to live there, how it must have felt like for Claudia walking room to room, what it feels like now knowing she’ll never have another chance to walk room to room. Not in the same house. And then he starts wondering if she’s still stretched out on his hall floor. She shouldn’t be. He wants her gone. She should know that, and he wonders if she does know that he wants her gone. Then he wonders—worries—that maybe she’s still puking, getting his floor greasy with vomit, and he wonders if the hose will reach inside, let him clean the hall floor, the whole fucking house. Washing it clean of Claudia.
Or maybe he’ll just wash her down with the hose. Hose off all those freckles, hose down all those curls. The spray would be so fast, so hard it would knock her senseless, push her back against the wall. He sees it—her body being blown apart, pieces flying—one arm in the kitchen, the other draped over the lamp in the living room; a leg in the hall, a foot on the porch. And her head . . . Her head in the attic where all heads belong. There is a precision to it.
No, Georgie thinks, that’s not how it would work. She’d stay intact. There’d be no body parts flying, but the water—so hard, so fast—would dig into her, cut a hole through her belly until he could see right through. Or maybe no hole in her belly. Maybe the water would just wash away her color, her skin until she was completely translucent. A holy creature. He snickers: Claudia, holy? Claudia, clean?
The water in the hose begins to sputter and with one final spurt has run out completely. No more water. None at all. The hose is flat. Georgie turns around. Claudia is waiting for him, her hand on the spigot.
“Well?” she asks. He walks close to her. Her eyes are still haunted, stained with tears. Her face is old and wrinkled; her chin sags, and her hair still has flecks of vomit in it. In all seriousness, who could love this woman?
“What are we going to do, Georgie?” she asks.
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know!
“Do whatever you want,” he tells her. “I don’t care.”
She looks at him. Slowly, oh slowly, her eyes begin to narrow. Like mountains forming, her face becomes an angry, bitter mask.
“Fuck you, Georgie,” she spits. “Fuck you hard. Right up the ass.”
Her eyes glow red.
(How does she make them do that?)
“Just go fuck yourself,” she says, raising her chin, daring him to hit it. “I don’t need this shite.”
I wish I could have the courage to abandon myself from all of my obsessions.
Claudia Moves Out
Georgie shuffles through the house, hating every wall, every window, every tile, every everything. He hates it. Everywhere he turns he sees Claudia. Here she strung him up; there she burned him with cigarette butts. Over in the chair she cut him. In the bathroom she drowned him. On the porch, she humiliated him, time and again.
Numb now, Georgie wonders how he ever thought he was bored with Claudia. With her, life was a torturous show, a jagged-toothed adventure. Without her, he is back to making thermoses of 10-shot espresso. It does nothing for him—doesn’t give him jitters or clear his head, doesn’t jumpstart him in any way. It’s Claudia fault. Without her, nothing jumpstarts him anymore. He wants her back.
His days are endless, ceaseless. If he had the nerve, he’d end it all. Instead, he pounds coffee, smokes, does his laundry now and then, and goes shopping.
(Parenthetical Pet Peeve) Public laundromats that leave your clothes still wet after two hours of drying time.
Georgie roams the aisles of the grocery store, searching for Margaret or the perfect snack food or a two-for-one sale on cigarettes. Nothing comes of his endless searching, but Georgie—the eternal optimist—thinks maybe tomorrow or the day after, he’ll walk these aisles and there in Aisle 7 will be Margaret buying the perfect snack, and she’ll smile at him and tell him the store is having that two-for-one sale on cigarettes, and he better hurry before someone else buys out the entire supply.
It could happen. Georgie knows what people say—that truth is stranger than fiction, so he wanders the aisles, waiting for tomorrow to come, for Margaret to show, for his cigarettes to go on sale. He wanders for so long—nearly 31/2 hours—that the clerks and cashiers begin to notice him, and begin following close behind him.
Maybe I should have changed, Georgie thinks. Maybe wearing my robe to the store wasn’t such a great idea. It makes him noticeable, and Georgie doesn’t want to be noticeable.
“Can I help you?”
Georgie looks around, alarmed to discover that a tall, stooped man, in a crisp white shirt, red vest, and gabardine pants, was talking to him. He looks like a store manager, Georgie thinks, wondering if a store manager has any kind of legal authority.
“Excuse me,” the man says again, “but are you looking for something in particular?”
The man knows Georgie’s not looking for anything in particular, and Georgie knows the man—the manager—knows that Georgie knows. And still the man persists in asking. People are a mystery to Georgie. He stares into the man’s face, and for the briefest of seconds, the man’s face seems to melt, to morph into Claudia’s, and Georgie begins to panic; he can feel the breath catch in his throat, the sweat drip down his face.
“Sir,” the man asks, “Are you all right? Do you need help?”
What is it with strangers always asking if he needs help and Claudia—that bitch, that whore—never once asking? What is love if not offering help? Claudia never loved him.
“Sir,” the man repeats.
Georgie blinks, deciding he’s had an epiphany although he’s not absolutely sure what an epiphany is.
“No,” he tells the man in the vest. “I don’t need help. Just tell me, is it true your cigarettes are on sale this lovely day?”
Five short minutes later, a stocky, young woman wearing a blood-spattered apron holds Georgie by one arm and the man in the vest holds the other, as together they usher him out the door. The door whooshes shut behind him, catching Georgie by the tail end of his robe, making him think—for a second—that the store wanted him back, that it truly did value its customers.
But no, not even the store wants him, and Georgie trudges home, empty-handed, where he finds the message light on blinking, winking. A mile a minute. A mile a minute, it’s blinking. He presses the message button, recoils in horror at the sound of Claudia’s voice echoing in the empty house.
“Hey Georgie Porgie,” she purrs. “I was just thinking about you. I was at this lecture? And it was sooo boring, all I could think of was getting back home, back to my snookums. My Georgie Porgie Pumpkin Eater.”
Georgie wants her voice out of his head. He blinks, wondering if the torture was all in his mind and if really Claudia is still his—all his—and she really hadn’t moved out and they really hadn’t broken up and that she really is just at some sort of conference, and everything is as it was, as it should have been all along. Maybe.
(The man can dream, can’t he?)
Georgie doesn’t want to dream. He shakes his head, clearing his thoughts, realizing the message is old, from way back when. The real message plays:
“Hi Georgie,” Claudia once again purrs. “Just wanted to check in. See what’s going on. See how you’ve been doing. What you’ve got planned for the holidays.”
Claudia’s voice rises at the end of every sentence, or rather at the end of every word. Why has he never noticed before? Where has he been? And still Claudia’s voice echoes in his head.
“I know how absent I’ve been,” she says, “and how rough it’s been, but Georgie, look at it from my perspective. It’s just I needed to put 100% into my own family. You understand, don’t you, Georgie? Don’t you?”
Georgie reels. Who is this Claudia? This self-assured family woman, this woman Georgie’s never met. Then . . . Then he remembers: Claudia was pregnant. She had the baby and raised it with her lesbian lover.
His baby. His sperm-child.
But then, yet another real message plays, and Georgie realizes that . . .
(Don’t think about that.)
That Georgie, the one with the baby, must have been a different Georgie, that Claudia a different Claudia. As far as this Georgie is concerned—the real Georgie—none of that ever happened.
And so Georgie—the real Georgie—listens to the real message from Margaret, the real Margaret. The only Margaret.
“Hey, Georgie, it’s me,” she says quietly, sounding a little scared. “I just wanted to check in with you, see if you got in touch with your nanny yet. I think it’s really important. I care about you a lot, you know . . . It’s just . . . Well, anyway. Just go see her. That’s all.”
A pause for a moment. Nothing but silence. Dead silence. Then a fast goodbye and a click.
Georgie has not heard at all from Claudia. Only Margaret. Margaret, who says she cares for him. Margaret, who wants him to get better. Claudia never wanted him to get better. Claudia just wanted to hurt him . . . make him worse. She was happy to take his money and warp him into a twisted fuck. Georgie forgets that he’s the one who asked her to, that he wanted to be sick, that healthy was just too hard, too dull. He forgets all that. He just thinks, with relief, of the possibility of that happy dream couple they could have been, if only he had applied himself.
Georgie digs frantically through his closet until he finds the jeans with that slip of paper in them with the nanny’s address on it. He unfolds the paper, stares at the address in amazement. The house is close. Practically in his neighborhood.
What kind of sick fuck moves into the same neighborhood where his old nanny used to torture him? Then again, his parents bought him the house. Georgie looks out the door at the front lawn for a long moment then jogs sluggishly down the steps and across the grass.
Georgie climbs out of the town car; Ben shuts the door gently behind him as he takes his first steps. The house is a two-story, gray frame house with faded blue shutters that hang crookedly aside windows that are nearly opaque from years of accumulated grime and urban air. The small, front yard is practically a jungle, overgrown and out of control, salt grass brushes Georgie’s knees and the hydrangea and pyracantha tower over his head. Dead ivy hangs limp and withered from the porch railing, and climbing honeysuckle peaks from the gutter. The sound of bees buzzing and leaves decomposing fill Georgie’s ears, as he walks the overgrown path to the front porch.
He sees her, furiously rocking in a bentwood rocker and glaring at him.
“So you found me, finally?” she asks. Her voice is coarse as if she’s spent her life smoking unfiltered Camels, and wisps of her cottony white hair blow around her face.
“Wha-what?” Georgie stammers, wondering how she knew, how she could have recognized him after these years.
“Through all that mess in my front yard,” she says, pointing a skinny arm at the front lawn, and Georgie realizes he was wrong. She doesn’t recognize him. She couldn’t.
Still, he finds himself asking, “Do you remember me?”
He peers at her through the dark shadows of honeysuckle trees and dead vines. How could his nanny, that woman who had such power over him as a child, had made him tremble with terror, had pinched him, tormented him, swung him from his dick, how could she have become this scrawny, pathetic old woman? Was it the ultimate justice that she, who had once towered over him, now struggles to get to her feet out of that old, creaking chair, or just a cruel twist of fate?
Georgie briefly wonders what fate has in store for him, after all that he has done.
“Remember you?” the woman cackles again, harsh ancient air escaping from her lungs. “Who in this God damn world would bother to remember a pudgy little vermin like you?”
Georgie trembles, his foot pausing in mid-air on the first step.
“Aw, ‘course I remember you, Georgie Gust,” the woman cackles again. “I never forget a pretty face.”
Georgie shudders, as he tries to remember what he’s doing here. Is he supposed to confront this old woman? Beat her? Torment her—now that she’s the weak one? Or beg her . . . for what? Forgiveness?
He looks at her again, as malevolent as Claudia but in a rocking chair. Maybe she’s not so weak, after all. Age isn’t everything.
“Yeah, well, I was uh . . .” Georgie clears his throat. “It’s just that I wanted to see how you’ve been.”
“Fine and dandy,” she says, gesturing at the decay that surrounds her. “Livin’ the dream.”
Georgie walks up the steps, sits down uneasily on the empty rocker next to her. She grins at him, showing a mouth missing a myriad of teeth.
“Yeah,” Georgie says, falling easily into the casual drawl of her speech. “Just thinkin’ about the old days, you know. Used to have a lot of fun back then.”
His throat threatens to constrict and choke him on the word “fun,” but he gets it out anyway.
She smiles at him, a slight question in her eyes.
“Yeah, you used to spend hours and hours here,” she says finally. “Sometimes it was hard to get you to go home.”
“Yeah?” Georgie feels something twist in the pit of his stomach, like he is going to blow chunks. “Yeah?” he says again.
She nods sagely then stares at him from the corner of one eye as she chomps slowly on her gums.
“That’s not what I remember,” he spits out finally.
A wary look crosses her face.
Georgie continues, “What I remember is that you used to torture me.”
She shakes her head vehemently back and forth, but he knows that she is lying.
“What I remember,” he says, “is hating every minute here. I was miserable because of you.”
The skinny old woman is still shaking her head—no no no.
Georgie is relentless. “You ruined everything for me,” he screams at her. “Ev-everything. Every re-relationship I’ve ever had is ruined because of the w-way you . . .”
Then Georgie does something he rarely does, something he has not done since boarding school.
He bursts into tears.
In that vast nothingness, that horrible numbness deep inside me, there is a churning and gnashing, ripping out my insides, crushing my bones. My rib cage.
Everything shatters and falls apart. Everything gurgles up the back of my throat, drips from my mouth. Everything.
(Ben, is that you?)
Silence. Absolute dead silence.
As Georgie grows quiet, he feels a hard, bony hand resting on his knee. He remembers that hand, how it pinched and twisted at his balls, performed unspeakable acts on him.
The woman speaks—her voice seems young, now, almost human: “I’m sorry,” she says.
“It was horrible,” she says.
“Unspeakable,” she whispers.
(But there are things that must be spoken . . . isn’t that right, Ben?
“But it wasn’t all like that, you know,” the woman says. Her eyes plead with him, like Claudia’s. “What about your friend Marie? You two . . . You were like boyfriend and girlfriend when you were kids. So sweet to each other.”
The woman’s face breaks into a smile. Georgie can see that she’s remembering better days. Sunny afternoons. Two kids in crisp, clean clothing running circles on the lawn, chasing after one another.
Georgie shakes his head, clearing his mind of the memory. “I don’t remember that,” he whispers. “Until last year, I didn’t even remember you.”
She grins wide. “Well, that’s a blessing, isn’t it?”
Georgie steps inside her rickety front door, feeling immediately ill at ease. The doorframe is crooked from years of warping from a sinking foundation; the floor rolls away beneath his feet, slightly downhill. It is dark and cool inside. Georgie waits a moment for his eyes to adjust.
“You see ‘em?” the nanny’s voice calls from the front porch. “They’re right in there on the wall.”
Georgie blinks and swivels around. An old sofa and sagging armchair rise out of the darkness, draped with gravity-warped afghan blankets and doilies, whose holes stretch like grinning mouths, their bottom lips drawn ever-closer to the floor.
Then he sees them. The pictures.
They line the wall beside the front door. Black-and-white, sepia toned—almost all of Georgie—so many of him that it goes beyond the nostalgic and slightly creepy to almost gruesome and nearly unbelievable.
(Do you believe it, Ben?
It’s like Georgie was the only kid she ever babysat, or that he was the only one worth remembering.
And then there is the girl she mentioned—Marie. The wall is filled with pictures of her and Georgie posing in the bright sunlight, playing childish games. In one, he is lacing up her shoelaces. In another, she is riding him like a pony. The pictures flash in front of him, alternating between photo and memory . . . memory and photo.
He remembers her—the first Claudia. She stood before him in Keds and frilly pink dresses, stamping imperiously and ordering him about. Her moods were like storms across the ocean—quickly flashing in moments of terrifying manipulation, subsiding quickly once her wishes had been appeased.
He had been her slave—the first Georgie. Georgie Porgie, she’d called him. Before her, his name had been . . .
(Don’t think about that, Georgie.
Looking at the pictures, Georgie realizes that this girl, this demanding, tiny, terrible woman, had taught him everything he knows. She was his first girlfriend, his model woman. She taught him how to love—the ups and downs of it, the grim, terrified clutching and the panicked, unreasonable, pushing away. She had taught him that love was pain and suffering . . . that it was better to hate the one you love, better to blame them for all the wretchedness they caused you.
I can do better than that, Georgie realizes suddenly. The fights, the torture—they do not have to happen. They don’t have to be a part of me.
Georgie races from the house, his mind filled with the image of the happy American Dream lover he can be. He and Claudia and his son in his sunny and charming California bungalow, playing happy.
No. Being happy.
“Where you going so fast, puddin’ pie?” the old woman drawls at his retreating back.
“Home,” Georgie hollers, over his shoulder. “Home.”
The woman cackles again, her mouth stretching into that impossible jack-o-lantern grin.
“Wouldn’t be in such a hurry if I was you,” she mutters. Her cackle follows Georgie all the way to the shining black limousine.
He climbs into the waiting limo and tells Ben, “Home, please.”
Georgie is filled with an impossible delirium (just short of insanity). He knows he can be happy and perfect, if he just tries hard enough. He can make his own destiny. His mind rejoices. He can remake his own damn self any damn way he wants.
(Just like those new age books claim, eh Georgie-boy?)
Ben pulls up in front of Georgie’s house, tires screeching to a stop. Georgie leaps out of the car without waiting for Ben to open the door. He has no way of knowing, no reason to hope, but he knows that all his happiness is waiting for him inside. His happy dream future is only just steps away.
When Georgie flings open the door to his American Dream home, he runs headlong into a pitch-black room; thick smoke fills his nostrils, and something rough and scratchy encircles his neck. He is disoriented. Frightened. His fingers clutch at his neck, where he finds a rope—a noose actually, which is tightening around his throat. Georgie’s fear escalates.
“Georgie,” says her voice softly out of the darkness.
It is Claudia, his dream lover, his perfect woman. She will be nice to him if he tells her to be. She said she was tired of torturing him. She said so. He will pay her to be nice if that’s what it takes. Georgie thinks dreamily of his future life as the noose tightens.
“Claudia?” he says.
Can’t she see in his face that he doesn’t want to play this game anymore? The rope is choking off his air supply. Georgie kicks and claws at his neck with his hands. He gurgles, trying to open his larynx to the air. He draws in a hissing stream of oxygen. Not enough. Then Georgie’s mind overcomes his body’s panic. She is not really killing him, after all. It is just one of those games that they are playing. She doesn’t yet know that he is done with the torture game and wants to move on to something more blissful.
Ah, what the hell, Georgie thinks. One more time wouldn’t hurt. For old time’s sake. His gasping, bulbous, red-turned face grimaces that resembles a smile.
“What do you have to smile about?” Claudia demands from the darkness.
There is some movement on the rope as she ties it off. Then she steps into the small pool of light before him.
“What the fuck have you ever had to smile about, you freak?” she says.
Georgie finds his good humor starting to fade, as his face turns purple
“Do you see this?” She gestures to the circles beneath her eyes, her orange freckles.
“You,” she says, “you did this to me. I never used to be this bad.”
A sick, rattling moan escapes Georgie’s lips. Spots dance before his eyes. He has heard all this before. When is she going to untie the rope? Is she going to bury him again, afterward? She stares at him in silence. For a moment, Georgie feels a stab of real fear run through him. Her eyes are haunted. Hollow. He can’t see anything of the Claudia he remembers. Not in her eyes. Not in her face. The Claudia he remembers is gone.
Slowly, she smiles. Her curving lips fill his vision.
“I killed your son,” Claudia whispers.
The words echo in Georgie’s ears as if coming from a great distance.
“You didn’t want him. You didn’t care about him or about me. So I killed him.”
She walks slowly to Georgie. He pulls desperately at the thick rope that rings his neck. He can’t see past the fireworks exploding at the back of his eyes, but he can feel her. She touches his leg with her hand.
“I killed both of us,” she whispers.
She yanks at the rope, cutting it deeper into his neck. She laughs.
“And now,” she says, “I’m killing you.”
Another tremendous pull and Georgie’s world goes black. He can’t hear her breathing. He can’t feel her arms wrapped around him, or the rope around his neck.
He is nothing.
Finally. After all this time, he is nothing.
The best I can, to not create a catastrophe over anything.
Waking Up With Mr Clean
He wakes up in a world of white—a soft white glow. He tries to roll over but can’t move his arms. For a moment he panics, jerking his arms frantically at his side. He can’t breathe. A small cry escapes him. Then . . .
Then he understands the white room, and what it is that binds him, prevents his arms from moving.
It is a cell.
It is a straightjacket.
A man about Georgie’s age taps on the small window in the door. Georgie looks up. The man smiles and opens the door.
“I see that you’re up,” the man says. He lifts a clipboard and props it on his forearm. “How are you doing today?”
“Wh-what?” Georgie says.
The man squints at him.
“Do you know where you are?” he asks.
Georgie shakes his head.
The man inhales deeply. “Mercyhurst Hospital?” he says. “Remember now?”
Georgie shakes his head ‘no.’
“You remember me?”
Again, Georgie shakes his head.
“Dr Weinstein?” the man says. “Your psychiatrist?”
Georgie tries to shake the cobwebs from his head. “So I’m uh . . . I’m uh . . . I’m not dead?”
Dr Weinstein looks at him with a slight smile. “Alive as ever,” he says. Georgie detects a slightly ironic tone, but doesn’t understand it. He decides that it’s nothing.
“Where’s Claudia?” Georgie demands.
“Claudia. My girlfriend.”
Dr Weinstein frowns slightly, notes something on his iPad then glances at Georgie.
“Who’s Claudia?” he says.
“I told you, my girlfriend.”
“You have no girlfriend.”
“Red hair. Freckles,” Georgie says.
“There’s no one like that. Not here. And there’s no Claudia.”
Georgie stares at his doctor and then, as a smile spreads across Georgie’s face, his arms, his neck, his entire body relaxes. No Claudia. She never existed, never hurt him. Never killed him. He breathes a sigh of relief.
And yet, at the same time . . . If she didn’t exist, then . . . Then the pain of her nonexistence is almost stronger than the pain of her actual existence. If she wasn’t real, then what else wasn’t--isn’t—real? No, he decides, somewhere Claudia does exist, somewhere the doctor can’t find, but no—Claudia was too real not to have existed at all.
The doctor is wrong.
And then, as if the doctor can read Georgie’s mind, he asks, “Do you know how long you’ve been here? At Mercyhurst?”
Georgie shakes his head. He doesn’t want to know.
“Fifteen years,” the doctor says. “Nearly half your life.”
Georgie reels back, struggling to free his arms. The doctor notices.
“The trick to getting out of those,” he says, motioning to the restraints, “is to stop fighting them. Stop fighting us.”
Georgie’s mind is blank. He can’t remember fighting anyone. Ever. He is complacent, isn’t he? Acquiescent. He doesn’t fight.
“Do you remember what you’re doing here?”
Again, Georgie’s mind is blank.
“I don’t mean at Mercyhurst. I mean here . . . .” This time, the doctor gestures around the room, at the cushioned walls, the small barred window. “Do you remember what you did to end up in seclusion? To end up in restraints?”
Georgie’s eyes widen; he shakes his head frantically back and forth. All he can remember is Claudia. Margaret. The house in the woods. The pain. That’s what he remembers.
“Well,” the doctor says, turning to leave. “Why don’t we give you some time to think? I’m sure once your mind clears, you’ll remember.”
And then the doctor, pulling a jangling ring of keys from his pocket, unlocks the door and walks out, leaving Georgie completely alone, restrained, and still unable to remember a thing.
The doctor sticks his head in the door: “It’s not that bad. Really. Mercyhurst is state of the art.”
State of the art, but it’s still fifteen years. Fifteen years of a life only imagined. He stumbles, falls to his knees. Claudia. Margaret. A dream. A dream. A dream . . . Something wets his cheeks, rolls to his chin.
Tears. Georgie is crying.
He sobs, feeling the loss and the terror rise up in him. Then it subsides. Leaving him empty. Clean. Some time passes as Georgie tries desperately to comprehend a situation that seems impossible.
Georgie gasps, pulling at his restraints, staring at the ceiling above. His personal hell. This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. It comes to him, then. It isn’t real. This—Mercyhurst, the restraints—this is the dream. The hallucination.
He screams into the silent room: “Somebody help me. Somebody. Claudia?”
He knows she won’t come.
He tries again: “I demand that all my angels, spirit guides, all of you who know me, who want to help. I demand: Touch my head so I know you’re here. Wake me up from this nightmare.”
Nothing happens, and once again Georgie sobs. But then . . .
He feels a hand on his head. He moves his head, trying to look, trying to see. And then Ben’s face comes into view, smiling at him. Smiling at Georgie.
Ben nods slowly.
“I can see you,” Georgie says.
“Yes,” Ben says.
Or is it the voice—the voice in Georgie’s head—the voice that’s been there always, ever since. (’Don’t think about that.)
He stares closely into Ben’s face, taking in the nose, the mouth, the cheeks. “You’re not bad-looking,” Georgie says. “You have the face I should have had. The face I always wanted.”
Ben smiles as if Georgie’s said something funny. Something clever.
And then Georgie looks deeply into Ben’s eyes, a mirror of the soul. His soul.
(It’s impossible to say. Neither of us turned out quite the way we thought we would.)
“Why can I see you now?”
(Couldn’t you see me before?)
“I don’t know.”
(You don’t have to talk, you know. You can just think.)
“You’re always listening, aren’t you?”
Georgie relaxes, staring at the blank, acoustic ceiling, thinking nothing, wanting nothing. Somewhere, even if he can’t see him, somewhere Ben waits. Ben is there. Ben has always been there, always will be.
“Are we dead?” Georgie asks.
Ben gives a mental shrug. (How should I know?)
“You’re not good for much, are you?”
Georgie longs to pick at his fingernails, but his arms are still tightly restrained. He can’t even scratch himself. He can do nothing but stare at the ceiling, turn his head and stare at a wall.
“Who are you?” Georgie finally asks. Ahhh. The million-dollar question.
(You, Georgie. I’m you. Just as you, in all your delusions, your hallucinations are me. We are one.)
Georgie wants to jump free, slam himself into the wall, but, even if could, what would be the point? What would he gain? Instead . . .
“Why is my driver named Ben?” he asks.
(Why is your driver named Ben? Or why I am your driver?)
Ben seems to be laughing. (You never listen, do you? Dr C explained it to you hundreds of times. I drive. You ride. Simple as that. Or some such bullshite.)
“I don’t get it.”
(Bullshite. I drive, but you tell me where, when. You’re more than the rider, the passenger. Aren’t you?)
Georgie wants to rub his eyes, clear his head. “Huh?”
(I’m not your alter ego, Georgie; you’re mine.)
Georgie’s mind whirls. He doesn’t understand.
(You’re not real. You’ve never been real.)
Georgie nods. Of course. That’s it. He’s not real. He’s not the driver, not the rider. Not the passenger. He’s never really been here. Not in Mercyhurst. Not with Claudia. It is a blessing. A relief.
Georgie closes his eyes, sinks slowly away. Now. Now he gets it. Farther and farther he sinks. The room fades. Ben fades. Life fades. Somewhere—far, far off in the distance—Georgie hears Ben’s voice screaming:
“I want a cigarette, goddamnit. Somebody in this fucking shitehole bring me a goddamn cigarette. Did you hear me? I’m Ben Schreiber, and I want a goddamn fucking cigarette. And I want it now.”
Georgie hears the voice. He smiles.
The best I can, to not overreact, no matter what. Yikes.
If you think about it, the whole world, at least my miniature world, is encompassed within the universe, this universe that we can only imagine as seemingly having no end. So with the death of Claudia, going back in time to the beginning, you can even trace the speed of light, it’s an incredible phenomenon. People wondered how the damn thing was created in the first place. Back in the year 1000, men never lived long enough nor did Claudia, and they didn’t travel far enough to get really beyond the town where they lived, so they could only imagine what existed beyond the hills and it’s ironic because the things that existed right in front of them, they knew extremely well, every tree, every villa, every knoll of land. But they could only image what existed beyond that, and one doesn’t know, we fear, ultimately. So beyond the hills, and beyond that dense primeval forest, existed fairies and sometimes demons that would rush out and destroy them, or fierce indescribable animals that would tear them apart if they ever wandered beyond their clod fields. Reality is strange. And so, I allowed Claudia to decide my imagination . . . my reality. It all began on the road.
© Jonathan Harnisch 2014