A Portrait of the Artist in Decline is a novel about the mind of the artist, an internal exploration presented as if were unfolding within the external. I might never complete the novel, I have a lot on my plate, but I have seen fit to publish the first part here and a chapter of the second part is currently under review as a standalone short story. So far it’s been rejected at multiple illustrious publications and beyond. I have hope though that The Orchidstra might one day find its way into the pages of a journal and that I might one day no longer need to utter the phrase, “I have never been ‘published’.” The majority of the songs, poems, etc. featured within the text are also presented in their entirety in The Chaos (in)filtration agency, which is also currently under review. Thus, I have censored them all for the time being.

“Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and can never be fathomed, for God gives us nothing but riddles.”

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Part One:

1

Thomas Aguirre stood upon the stage looking up at the man in the armchair, the man’s hand hovering above him.  The fingers moved slowly to the melody of the song that Aguirre had birthed the prior evening or, perhaps, still within this dream.  The man appeared to him as a shadow, always as a mere shadow, now towering above him. 

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

The words, Aguirre’s own voice, gently wafted throughout the room accompanied by the faint harmony of a stringed instrument.  It was not his own guitar, but the sound of a foreign one.  It was softer, more delicate than his electric guitar. The auditory vibrations sent chills down his spine as unseen hands struck a chord.  

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

The fingers suspended above him began to move more quickly, jutting sharply in their upward movements.  Aguirre felt motionless as he looked upward, observing the scene as a spectator, yet once he looked to his surroundings, he discovered that his limbs were moving and, as soon as that dawned upon him, he could feel everything—his arms jerkily interpreting the rhythm, his legs moving only slightly off beat.   Then, suddenly, a string pulled him upward, onto the tip of his toes. He winced as a sharp stabbing pain shot upward, growing duller at first as he continued to hang.  Thus, he remained there, suspended, and the building pressure, together with the music, began to crescendo toward the chorus. 

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

Then, suddenly, Aguirre became weightless as a sharp pain struck down his spine like a bolt of lightning.  The ground began to fall, the shadow of the hand shrank rapidly, and the room went dark as the fingers above clasped around him.  The song continued, muffled now, yet still audible to the one who knew the lyrics.  They had been written hastily, a very rough draft of what he hoped might become a masterpiece, one that he might share.

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

As he remained there, weightless and immaterial, suspended in an abyss, he became numb again.  Thus, he floated in a world without illumination in which his music resonated audibly within the darkness.  As he transitioned from being keenly aware of the hand veiling him to this new sensation of nothingness, he overcame a keenly felt swell of anxiety that rose within him.  Then, letting go, allowing it to evaporate from him, he began to swim within waves of sound; the strings grew quiet, and his voice sang to him from the past. 

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

Eventually, after drifting within the audible darkness for some time, he could hear a faint crackling noise begin to rise from somewhere nearby and he opened his eyes.  The forest was thick, trunks were covered in moss and the canopy was seamless, illuminated only by what sounded like a nearby bonfire flickering.  Shadows danced as projected upon the many trunks, rising and falling in harmony with the snaps of burning logs, in dissonance with the trailing melody. 

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

The dancers continued to rise and fall above him as the music came to a close. It was at this moment, as the world grew silent and his head throbbed with a strange pressure, that he sat up to examine the surrounding forest.  He eventually rose to his feet and walked closer to the flame.  The beasts, seemingly human in form, yet with silhouettes that bore monstrous outgrowths, as if branches had begun to protrude from their flesh, were merrily circling the firepit, dancing flamboyantly and now out of sync with the natural percussion that had reconstituted itself—crack, crackle, crack! He could see horns of libations in their hands, reminding him of the vessel through which he had once drank fermented milk and blood.  He could taste it again, sour and thick against his throat as the memory washed over him.

Thus, he remained mesmerized on the edge of the clearing, watching the unfolding spectacle.  That is, until she caught his eye.  He suddenly noticed a nude woman seated upon a log, seated behind a man similarly nude facing into the forest; she looked backward over her shoulder and into Aguirre. Her skin was pale and reflected the flame as the moon does the sun.  Her eyes, with pupils black as night, darker than the forest, appeared as mirrors.  He could see himself reflected in one of them.

She continued to peer back into him as her finger ran slowly down the spine of the man seated in front of her.  As she did so, Aguirre suddenly became more aware of his body.  His muscles tensed, a cool chill ran down his spine, and the scene began to fade slowly: the fire, the satyrs, the trees, and eventually the woman’s face.  Amidst the renewed darkness, a pressure grew within his mind as if the hand of the shadow were pinching it or holding him underwater. 

He woke suddenly then, alone in his bedroom. The sheets were stained with wine, an empty bottle was coolly nestled against his skin, and he winced as the sun struck his eyes.  The throbbing had carried over into waking life and he buried his face into his pillow to return to the darkness. 

Yet, rather than return to the dream, he continued to grow more wakeful, to become more aware.  He turned over and stared into the ceiling, opening and closing his eyes in waves, each eliciting a pulse of dull agony.  Eventually, as his eyes gradually adjusted, though while still squinting, he could see his laptop on the desk on the far side of the tiny apartment, a recording program still open, and his guitar sloppily leaning against the wall nearby.  The song began to play then, once more from the top.

The masters come and go
as we all dance in their show
like little figurines
in real life as on the screens…

2

Aguirre’s studio became brighter and he limped his way to the sink to guzzle water until he could feel and literally hear it sloshing about within him.  He felt like a living gourd, a vessel that had been filled and within which something was fermenting, transforming, and becoming.  Returning to his bed, he remained there for some time, laying still lest the ocean within him become stormy.  Thus, he stared at the ceiling until the hangover began to pass, until he felt able to emerge into the light and to begin his day. 

The nondescript anycity—you might live there—was bustling with the sound of traffic obscuring the songbirds in the trees. It was Saturday though, and he could actually hear them, ever so faintly, as he walked to a café to record his nocturnal experiences.  This had become frequent since his relationship ended the year before.  Dreams that is, and him recording them.  They were not all quite as extraordinary as this one.  Sometimes it was merely a brief vignette of him sitting on this exact sidewalk as an elegant model stared at him through her sunglasses, as if she were looking at a painting, as if she did not know quite how she felt about the artwork sitting before her. 

He had become quite solitary since graduation had severed him from his friends, the community that he had built, and the remnant of his youth that had followed him to college.  They had been together since they were sixteen, drawn to one another as the only two gay boys at their suburban high school.  They were not actually compatible at all, at least in his opinion, but time and experience had pushed them together, made them codependent, made them family.  That was the hardest part, but he had developed a conviction, a clear vision of the life that he wanted to create, a calling that he heard within his dreams and that manifested itself within his art. 

There was always this abstract other within his dreams, not the shadow from that evening’s saga, but another figure that appeared frequently, someone more pleasant—a friend.  Sometimes he took a known form, another man that Aguirre had met and loved during his travels.  Other times he appeared as a stranger or as other known persons, though Aguirre sensed a continuity.  However, the vision of the other remained confined to the world of his dreams.  Nonetheless, the dreams began to bleed into his reality, to influence his perceptions, feelings, and beliefs. Thus he drifted away from the person that he had become in relation to his environment, in relation to others.  It was like someone calling to him, calling him toward himself.  Thus, during the final days of college, Aguirre began to feel confined, unable to connect, always aware of exactly what he wanted and yet finding himself in a world that felt antithetical, crushing, and increasingly alien to him. 

He had felt much more at peace since arriving in the city, at least relative to the tensions that had been tearing at him before.  It was not comfortable, mind you—loneliness, unemployment, student loans, a desperate job search, and mounting credit to support his debt fueled art, but he felt as if he were in Spring.  His creativity had been steadily flowing, each day a tiny .0000001 step of progress toward his ultimate goals.

Upon arriving at the café, he found that it was busy, as usual, but he was able to snag a spot on the patio.  The ashen smell of cigarettes permeated the air, seeping into his clothing and his hair as he wrote vigorously, chain smoking all the while.  He smoked Parliaments because they made him feel masculine; they were originally designed to be bitten down upon while firing a machine gun after all.  They made him feel very classic, elegant, and rugged.  He was quite ignorant of their other connotations and he chose to ignore them once someone clued him in.  Apparently, a lot of people thought that he was into cocaine. “No, no, I am already too manic to dabble in such trifles”, he assured everyone without ever convincing them. 

Someone stared at him as he sat there amidst a cloud of smoke like an old steam engine singing softly to himself, oblivious to others, as he sought to improve upon the lyrics from the prior evening.  He had created it during a flash of inspiration, within only a few minutes, like a bolt of lightning, and the material had hardened.  He was finding difficulty improving upon it.  The frustration could be seen upon his face as he stared more intently at the pages upon which he was writing; a tightness grew within his muscles, his chest, and his arms.

Eventually, after a prolonged episode of failure known only to him, he decided to take a moment to relax.  It was difficult to believe at times like that, but he had learned that inspiration would strike again soon when the time was right.  He had a show to prepare for that evening anyway.  Thus, he leaned back with a sigh of resignation, smiled, and breathed in deeply. The air had cleared.  He had at some point earlier become too focused and possessed by his creative impulses to light another cigarette. 

Looking around now, he realized that the patio was more sparsely populated than when he had arrived.  “How long had he been sitting here?”, he wondered to himself.  As he looked around, the afternoon sun was soft against the buildings rising around the cafe and the sound of traffic had dissipated.  A woman in a beautiful sundress with sleek dark hair sat on the far end of the patio, but the other tables were now empty.   Strangely, the air, which usually carried faint traces of the nearby bakery, smelled like this candle on his night stand, a scent that he had always found erotic.   

3

Aguirre had been performing for a year now.  The music was his way of healing and rediscovering himself when he arrived here alone in 2001.  He had been in choir, studied saxophone, and purchased his guitar as a child, but he had been out of touch with his musical side throughout college.  It felt like being whole again.  He wasn’t actually the best singer, but he fancied himself a talented wordsmith, and his vocals were improving.  He liked to think that he was becoming his own instrument. 

The show was nonchalant, sparsely attended, and resulted in little monetary reward.  There were approximately twenty people at the venue during his performance.  He recognized none of them, yet he was grateful for the opportunity to share his heart and soul.  He had written “High High Desert” while driving cross country to the city and, in many ways, he felt that he was still wandering between his past and a future that he believed he would one day realize.  It was the first time that he had felt that he had actually written a true piece of musical art. Meanwhile, Canto de la fruta was the result of a challenge that he posed to himself to rapidly create a song in Spanish.

Hojas de árboles bailan en el viento
y el follaje ardiente canta cayendo. 
Pero la fruta, la fruta dura,
se queda colgada, ternura,
arriba, altamente, y pura

Y las hojas en el suelo
miran arriba a la fruta en el sueño,
bailando todavía en el viento
el aliento del soñado(r.) 

He had failed the challenge and chose to read the resulting poem in between performances.  He was half disappointed, half proud, while believing that he might actually someday transform it into a complete song.  Wandering and a sense of dissolution in the wake of his college glory days, glorious before everything began to fall apart toward the conclusion, were the prominent themes of his first forays back into music. Initially, he had felt like the fruit that had fallen and failed to take root as he watched friends launching into their adult lives. However, at this point, his life had come to feel as if there were a pattern of building, falling apart, stagnation, and rebuilding.  He was beginning to embrace the deciduous nature of his existence. The periods of stagnation were often dark though, giving birth to songs and writing that felt soulful, yet depressing.  One of them, City Lights, seemed to be popular with the crowd that night.  It was originally a very sad song, but he had revised it to make it happier. 

And when I left you
we became two…
learning to carry on,
and we will make the best of it
there will be a new dawn.

City lights shinin’, shinin’ above me
at one with the music, sound, and revelry.
Neither sunset nor sunrise will there ever be.

Oh lord, oh nor sir,
it’s a road to now here for me. 
Oh lord, oh no siiiiir,
that’s all that I can see.

It is all a matter of perspective really.  Here and now: now here.  Aguirre liked to think that he was clever.  The music had become his light in the dark—his own music and that which he liked to escape into.  He had gone through a phase upon arrival in the city, descending into the underground.  There was this one club that was literally in an abandoned mine shaft.  The congregated sweat of everyone’s bodies evaporated and condensed on the low ceiling, dripping back down upon them to the beat of remixed reggae music.  There was this other one that some guys that he met organized that popped up around town from time to time, always at some undisclosed location released the day of the event.  They called it The Mirage and it was a true oasis.  It existed only in memory now though, a vivid one that Aguirre was confident was best left there.  “It might still exist; it probably still exists”, he would think from time to time.  The slight temptation to seek it out once more came and went frequently.

However, his attention had since turned to his art, especially his writing.  The Cosmic Archipelago, a young adult fantasy space opera with roots in Greek tragedy, was taking up most of his time these days.  His life had become devoted to the creative engagement and interrogation of his passions.  He had been working on the series of novels for two years now.  He had sacrificed too much and invested too much into the project to ever give it up. 

When explaining this to others, he was quite clear, “there is no such thing as a ‘sunk cost’ once one has crossed a certain threshold.”  He was also quite convinced that it was a masterpiece in the making, not merely a work of young adult fiction, but a true work of art that would rival that of the most renowned painters, writers, composers, and philosophers.  He never made these claims publicly, but when questioned about similar beliefs and expectations, he offered the following explanation, “if I set my goal to be to write a book, I will write a book.  If I set my goal to be to write a great book, I will write a good book.  If I set my goal high, and I always do, I will come closer to achieving that goal than I would if I had merely said, ‘I am going to write a book’.” 

Something was always missing though.  Being alone with few friends, underemployed, and in debt was never enough for Aguirre.  To the outside observer, there were multiple deficits.  Yet the one that occupied his time and his “tangential art” was a melancholic imagining of a creative partner, one who might feel similarly—a special kind of madness and frenzy, that desirable hubris necessary to believe that one could actually make an impact upon the world. 

He had actually worked up the courage to perform his new song at that evening’s performance.  It seemed to go well.  There were only five people that he could clearly discern still remaining within the bar at that point, so the stakes seemed low. 

[Excerpt from The Game of Tragedy.]

After he had packed his equipment into his friend’s car, he returned to catch the next performance. Gradually, the room began to fill, the bar became rowdier, and a line formed outside waiting to gain entry into the establishment that had by now reached full capacity.  One of his friends was bartending that night, but she was busy, and he did not want to be a bother.  He thought about going home, but he had seen one of the bands before and decided to stick around to catch their set later that evening.  Thus, his evening consisted of sipping seltzer water in the back of the room and moving his body to the music with restraint. This was punctuated only by occasional smoke breaks.

At some point, someone approached him while he was outside having a smoke. 

“Mirage, tonight”, the man said, handing him a notecard with the location scribbled on it.  “Hopefully I’ll see you there again”, he said with a smirk before walking out to join a group of friends at a picnic table on the back patio.  He looked familiar and Aguirre wasn’t sure if “again” meant “again tonight” or was meant to indicate that they had encountered one another before.  Aguirre knew that he would remember if he had seen the man before; his memory was better than most.  He decided that it did not really matter though. The Mirage might have reappeared, but he had his eye set on a fixed target, not necessarily a tangible one, not yet at least, but one that certainly did not involve him diving back into his old haunts.

The man looked back at him with a suggestive raising of both eyebrows and a devious smile.  Meanwhile, Aguirre quickly averted his gaze to hide his laughter, a soft laugh and a smile that he could not control.  Aguirre had been on this weird celibacy kick. He was not quite sure why, or how it had started, but after a little while it got old—the mirage of connection, meaningless sex, the anxiety of attempting to relate to another person beyond the surface.  He still missed it; he had not become a nun.  He had merely become patient, extremely patient.

There was a long period during which he had embraced the philosophy of hooking up first to determine whether he actually wanted to get to know someone on a deeper level.  However, he had since experienced a significant shift in his feelings about it all at some point during the last year.  The intellectual stimulation, though he had yet to experience it, had to be proven, tested, and determined to be enduring rather than epiphenomenal to his mood on any given day.  Again, the existence of such a connection remained theoretical and the inspiration for much of his writing, thinking, decision-making, and art in general.

Thus, he returned home alone, happy to have heard some wonderful music and resisting the serious urge to go to The Mirage.  There was a moment as he sat in the car and processed the thought of going, giving in to the long-standing temptation to return and to dissolve into the music and pleasure.  He could feel a wave of sexual energy swell within him as his mind wandered, wondering about how the night might end if he gave in.  The music on the radio as he inserted the key to start the car did not help.

Hitting the streets
thirty sixth to the east.
Then hitting the sheets
all up in your electric feast…

The music caught his attention instantly and was interrupted only for a punctuated moment as he turned the key, and the car engine began to roar.

…A burning tongue
and the kiss of hottest hot.
Come home with me,
I’ll show you what I’ve got…

4

This had been happening for a while, an energy swelling within and around him in real life as in the dream.  He assumed that it was a sort of curse, someone distracting him from his mission. As such, he remained resolute, taking moments to meditate and to allow the waves of internal sensation of desire to pass.  He remained calm, taking moments to rationalize patterns that his mind was attempting to construct. 

Thus, he sat one day along the shore of the lake, attempting to write a song.  The main snippet had come to him in a dream that morning and was innocuous enough. 

And I can see ‘em fallin’
like leaves from a tree,
golden in sunlight
and it’s raining…
It’s raining tears all around me.

The woman singing in his vision was blonde.  She stood upon a pedestal as objects gracefully fell around her—golden leaves illuminating her in a diaphanous white dress within the pure darkness of the vision; the leaves gradually transformed into flames, and then transmogrified into water.  Her voice became more powerful at the conclusion, extending the “me” into “maaaay”, with a perfection that Aguirre was unable to replicate within waking life. 

Additionally, every time that he attempted to build it out beyond that which he had retrieved from the dream, it would somehow become sexual.  It was as if his mind were being bent.  Thus, he sat there quietly, singing it to himself, attempting to build out the song innocently, attempting to hit the high notes.  His conductor when he was a child always suggested imagining a walnut between both cheeks. 

It was then that a squirrel caught his attention.

5

He returned to this spot often.  The squirrel interaction had felt enchanted, strange, yet enchanted nonetheless.  He had also had a waking vision of ripe fruit aflame hanging from the trees above falling upon the ground to scorch the Earth.  It was like dreaming while awake, though it was an eerie hallucination.  He felt as if he was continuously returning to the same dark forest that the shadow had sent him to in his earlier dream.  Thus, he sat there and wrote, documenting his strange visions and incorporating them into the novel that he was writing. 

Today, however, once he finally looked up from his journal, he noticed a man standing on a dock along the riverside to the left of the bench that Aguirre was perched upon.  The man also appeared to be writing in a notebook, possibly drawing though as he looked out upon the river before them.  Aguirre was intrigued and he kept looking up from his writing multiple times, always catching himself before making it obvious or being caught staring.  At one point, the man had sat down cross legged and was still vigorously putting pencil or pen to paper, but Aguirre was not able to determine what the man was actually doing there or to get a good look at him though.  Nonetheless, he was happy to see that someone else found the spot fruitful. 

Then, during an interval of deep focus after Aguirre finally returned to his writing with full attention, he was rudely interrupted.  A man zoomed by on his bike with a boombox loudly blaring a rap song—”goin’ under, moans like thunder”—that literally featured backup vocalists mimicking the sounds of their orgasms.  It was obscene.

“How ***king uncouth do you have to be to ride around blasting that s***”, Aguirre pondered quietly to himself before finally turning his entire body around to the left verify that the man behind him felt the same way.  Yet, he suddenly found himself alone again.  The man had disappeared.

6

Aguirre returned to the spot days later.  It was one of his go to spots to sit and write.  It always reminded him of a park that he had been to in Uganda along the road between Kampala and Entebbe.  It was extremely uncanny. 

As he was walking there his attention suddenly felt directed to the right.  Two dogs on leashes, one mounting the other, were engaging in relations as their owners stood with their backs to them, one distracted by a hawk circling above and the other watching as her daughter chased a squirrel.  The dogs looked directly at Aguirre for a prolonged moment before one of their owners shrieked and startled him.  He quickly looked straight ahead and began walking again.  

His face, having already shaken off the expression of befuddlement, remained calm as he approached the bench and noticed the man sitting alongside the riverside once more.  Aguirre was smiling inside, and he took a moment to verify that the man did appear to be handsome while ensuring that he was not seen staring.  The man sat there, plainly dressed with blonde hair and was engrossed within a book. 

The, upon taking his seat, Aguirre did it again, the restrained and almost unwillful turning of his neck to look over to his left.  Nonetheless, he regained control and managed to enter into his flow state; poetry, components of The Cosmic Archipelago project, and assorted documentary musings flowed through him without obstruction as if he were possessed by a creative spirit.  He made a point not to write about the man though.  It was similar to when he had recently ridden his bike northward to view the passion fruit vines only to find them barren.  He had taken an imaginary snapshot with his mind and titled it Dormant Passion.  He wasn’t sure what to title this one though.

Thus, actively passionate, Aguirre engaged in his creative enterprises until a voice suddenly interrupted him.  The man spoke softly to capture Aguirre’s attention without startling him, standing to his left and eying him nervously at first.  Aguirre looked up and said hello; it was the man that had been upon the dock and, now that he could actually see him, he thought to himself that the man appeared to be made of the finest clay, perfect marble.  With pale skin, a sincere yet faint smile, and a very classic look, the man demonstrated visibly keen interest, perhaps merely professional as a fellow artist, but Aguirre was shirtless on this particular day.  That fact probably did not mean much, especially in this particular city, but he chose to read into it. 

They were like shadow and light, Aguirre similarly pale but with darker hair and eyes.  The other man was also significantly more handsome, Aguirre thought to himself, like he could be a prince.

“I’m Thomas”, the man informed him. 

Aguirre was quick to smile and restrained his laughter.  “I’m Thomas too…”, he said, beaming now, “Thomas Aguirre. It’s Basque.”

“O’Donnell… Irish”, he said, similarly smiling while twisting his head a smidge as his brow furrowed. “How’s the writing going, if you don’t mind my asking”, the man inquired, becoming more relaxed and walking over to stand next to the tree on the right.

“Oh, it’s been flowing.  The other day there was this squirrel that I was writing about, right where you are standing now.  It kept examining a pile of vomit, and I wrote about how I admired the squirrel for being the only one of the animals to inspect it and then walk away; he did so twice, but eventually he came back and grabbed a chunk before scurrying off to enjoy it privately.” 

“So that’s what you do here… you… you write about squirrels and vomit?”, O’Donnell retorted, scoffing.

Aguirre was mortified, realizing that of all the possible things that he could have said, he had spoken of squirrels and vomit, the first impression that might haunt him forever.  “No, no, I actually am a legitimate writer, like, I write poetry and fiction and music…” Aguirre quickly responded, attempting to recover, “but that one really stuck with me.” His whole body was tense and everything else faded away except the vision of O’Donnell. “What do you write about?”, he questioned in return. 

“Huh…”, O’Donnell sighed, crossing his arms and nodding while still processing Aguirre’s statements, his expression quizzical and, somehow, still interested.  “I’m writing a novel about a painter.  I’m a painter.  I’m writing about a painter.  She’s a woman though and she’s not really sure why she’s painting.  I’m not really sure why I’m writing it.  I think of it as practice…”, he said before taking a moment to pause and then adding, “Someday I will create a masterpiece… Someday…” There was no detectable sign of sarcasm and Aguirre became hopeful that they had overcome the squirrel incident.

“Mmmm… I feel you”, Aguirre responded, nodding as his eyes focused, his interest having deepened.

“Yea”, he said, looking back at Aguirre, “I graduated recently, and everything has sort of been up in the air.  I work from home, writing.  It is what it is.”

“Me too”, Aguirre said, thinking silently to himself, “you’re like a mirror… cool, stay cool.” This was the most genuinely engaged that Aguirre had felt in social interaction since he had first returned to music two years earlier.  Meeting O’Donnell was like being piqued note by note, string by string.  It was by far the best dream that he had lived in recent memory, seemingly so ripe with potential.  He hoped that it would become recurrent.  He had great hopes for O’Donnell.  Thus, Aguirre remained very calm. 

The conversation was brief and, as O’Donnell said his goodbye, Aguirre notice that man’s pale skin had become slightly pink.  He wasn’t sure that he should say anything, but just as O’Donnell was turning around, he mentioned, “You appear to be sunburnt.” O’Donnell was startled for a moment, but he thanked Aguirre while pushing his fingers against his bicep to see the impression it made in the nascent burn.  Then he nodded and returned to the dock alongside the shore of the river. 

Aguirre realized shortly afterward that he was sunburnt as well, faintly, but still noticeably if he pushed similarly against his skin.  He felt warm inside and out.  Then, when he turned around again, less afraid now to be seen looking, signaling interest, he found the scene to be empty.  He knew that he might never see the man again, he accepted that reality, and he returned to his writing.   The conversation was very brief, but O’Donnell had made an impression.  As soon as he walked away, O’Donnell finally entered into the book, one of Aguirre’s trusty leather-bound journals, and Aguirre began to write a song titled Someone Along the Riverside

7

“Art finds a way”, Aguirre wrote, having woken up in the midst of the night to record his nocturnal transmissions from the beyond.  It was a tragic vision.  Years invested into his musical abilities, sacrifices made, and serious improvement in his vocal talents culminated in him becoming utterly deaf.  As a silver lining there was a brief productive period influenced by auditory Charles Bonnet syndrome, the death throes of his treasured auditory senses. However, the brief visions presented to him grew darker with each flash—the frustration of seeing other’s contorted faces as he attempted to sing, the despair of not being able to hear himself, people signing to him in an unintelligible sign language that he had not yet learned, and an inability to communicate to others, their faces overcome with puzzlement as they passed by him, as he became lost within a crowd of unfamiliar faces.  He titled it The Austere Silence

His dreams often presented these prolonged ordeals.  As he learned to dive deeper into them, they became much longer, more surreal, darker, and, unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon the dream, easier to retrieve and recall.  Yet he also developed additional psychological abilities, including extreme positivity.  Thus, he made a point of attempting to turn them all into something positive, ideas for stories, books, works of art that he might create—to transmute them, to sublimate them into beauty. 

In the wake of particularly devastating dreams, the ones that left him shaken, such as the dream of deafening, he would calmly meditate upon waking. You see, Aguirre had become somewhat superstitious, his reason and pathos at war within regarding the meaning and weight of his dreams.  “I will find a way.  I will continue forging this path.  I will find a way to sleep through the night, tonight and every night”, he assured himself, repeating it like a mantra.  At some point he knew that even if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubting thomas that such a future awaited you, you had to affirm it and plan for it and then move forward as if it was never going to actually happen; thus, you will believe that you are prepared for it once the time comes to accept it as reality.  That way, because we never actually know that such a future awaits us, we do not succumb to cowardice and we pursue our dreams boldly despite the allure of a relatively predetermined and painless path.  He had significantly less convincing arguments regarding legitimately affirming such a fate under conditions of certainty when the fate awaited turned out to be particularly undesirable.  

Thus, celebrating his continued ability to hear, he turned on music, one of his recent pieces titled Starlight Shinin’.  It played softly as he stared at the ceiling, breathing in four counts, holding seven, and exhaling eight.  The rhythmic pranayama pattern coupled with the music was soothing.

[Excerpt from Starlight Shinin’.]

He counted imaginary stars shooting through his mind as the song played and he waited for sleep to come to him.  As he laid there, he remembered how every night that he worked to write the song, literal shooting stars would manifest themselves as if nature were coauthoring the piece with him.  The memory was beautiful, and it resonated within him as sleepiness gradually returned and he drifted to sleep.  The world became dark then, and, if he dreamed, he did not remember what else might have happened that night.  The song was classic though and he hoped that it might have influenced his subsequent dream.  If it did, he knew that it would be memorable; if only dreams actually worked reliably in that way.  Thus, the music continued to play within actual reality as he slept soundly and into the morning.

[Excerpt from Starlight Shinin’.]

8

A few days later Aguirre was seated upon a different bench.  His usual one was occupied, though O’Donnell was nowhere to be seen, so it was not the end of the world.  Thus, he had stationed himself at another bench nearby where he began to write a song.  The tightrope had always been symbolic in his work.  He had been learning to slack line along the lake, balancing above the water nearby, when he had an epiphany—walking a tightrope was, he realized, exactly like attempting to achieve one’s goals within myriad other pursuits.  One’s focus becomes in tune with the rope as the surroundings melt away, like the strings of a guitar.  He never reached the other side though, always falling into the water below where he watched as a woman with long dark hair and pale skin crossed effortlessly, performing tricks as she did it.  She assured him though that this was the result of eight years of practice and dedication.  To some this might be dissuasion, but to Aguirre it was pure inspiration. 

The song came to him slowly at first.  He had started it in his dream earlier that morning, introducing a chorus that was clear at first. However, as the day went on, it became difficult to remember how exactly to pace it in order to reproduce it.  The tempo began to feel increasingly out of sync as the day progressed and he ended up abandoning it.  Meanwhile, the verses that Aguirre wrote during the day were significantly improved and he was pleasantly surprised.  This was uncommon in the relation between his in dream and waking life songwriting.  Thus, he sang softly as he wrote the lyrics that flowed through him in that moment. 

[Excerpt from The Tightrope.]

It was then that Aguirre’s train of thought derailed, and he felt the sudden urge to look up.  It was as if his peripheral vision had been alerted to some sort of instinctual trigger.  Thus, he reoriented his gaze upward to discover that O’Donnell was undressing on the dock, his shirt and then his pant, and was about to dive in.  Then, with only a pair of boxers, he dove in with a splash.  

“So ***king fine…”, Aguirre blurted out loud.  He was still staring when O’Donnell surfaced a moment later and O’Donnell noticed. Aguirre’s eyes grew wide and his muscle tensed, but O’Donnell just waved hello before diving beneath the surface once more and swimming beyond view behind some bushes along the riverside.  Thus, Aguirre returned to his writing, working his way toward a more powerful section of the song. 

[Excerpt from The Tightrope.]

9

With a pile of paper in hand Aguirre sat along the southside of the river.  He had recently been invited to join the editorial team at one of his favorite local literary journals, (in)Quisition; it was also the most prestigious one in town, so he felt doubly honored.  The stack was intimidating though, but he was comforted by his extensive experience with rejection.  Other artists like him would certainly take it lightly, knowing that he had given their work his full consideration.  At this point he had one publication and it was in (in)Quisition; it was also, strangely, not one of the better works that he had sent in for review.     

The stack began ominously with one about a man banging a sheep.  This was his fifth time around the rodeo since joining the Q as they called themselves, so he felt intuitively that this was bizarre, but he decided that his prior was too uninformative to jump to any snap conclusions.  The next one seemed ok, it was titled The Wax of Love,  and he could detect an interesting philosophical rooting—Descartes & Heraclitus. 

[Excerpt from The Wax of Love.]

He paused for a moment to admire it.  If you read the whole poem, there was a certain caveman aesthetic to it that was simultaneously irksome and fantastic.  Then he saw the name.

“TC. Elliott… now that seems a little bit precocious…”, Aguirre thought to himself before conceding moments later that that would actually be a complement.  “Conceited. I meant conceited”, he announced audibly to world, embarrassed, but happy that no one was around to notice his gaffe.  “Behold, I am the blunderman”, he thought to himself before laughing at his own silent joke.  He realized though, the importance of reacquainting oneself with old lessons.  One must always speak slowly, thinking methodically between utterances, analyzing formed thoughts before expressing them openly.  Then he turned over the page to read the next poem.

[Excerpt from The Mechanical Zoo.]

He took it seriously for a moment. “Well, the ending certainly presents this strange sigh of resigned relief, a resignation to the inevitability of our demise and a strange embrace of our carnal reality…”, he said before snapping out of his default acceptance of the legitimacy of the pieces received by the review.

“How can anyone in their right mind ever bring themselves to send something like this out and have even a shred of self-respect?”, Aguirre questioned his own mind angrily. “Compared to this, the first one, the conceited one, actually seems artful”, he thought, succumbing to what might be cunning trickery.  Suddenly the poem that might otherwise have appeared to merely be ordinary became masterful and as legitimate as any other poem that might actually be taken seriously.   He thought then that it was like terrorism to send “poems” such as Mechanical Zoo.  Thus, he dubbed it Poetic Terrorism.  “Imagine if they coordinated this; just imagine what might actually get published”, Aguirre thought with horror and amazement.

The next one was literally, he was pretty sure, a poetic depiction of a gay circuit party.  It was as if there was no escape from the rising sexualized chorus.  It followed him everywhere.

Naked bodies adorn a glistening surface.
They flit about as cocks with cocks;
floating, they smile gaily.

Ünicorns, peacocks, flamingos,
and ordinary geometric shapes
they have inflated
accompany their social gathering—
this romp of men
with only a few
tits
of friends and allies
similarly floating,
smiling…

Splash!

Some dive beyond surfaces.

10

The stack had diminished the following day as he sat once more upon the bench, hoping that O’Donnell might reappear to say hello.  He had seen him jogging the other day, actually multiple times, serendipitously along the trail and the nearby side streets.  O’Donnell had seen him most of the times, except for this one time that Aguirre waved and O’Donnell ran past him without noticing.  

Aguirre was optimistic, but he also had a lot of work to do, so he figured that the world would actually be alright no matter what might happen.  The poems felt tamer today, more traditional.  There was a collection of limericks, three “Darkly Humorous Limericks”, one of which was titled, Demonocracy. It appeared to be promising and very of the moment amidst the tumult of the war on terror and the reign of the real Dick Cheney. Then there was The Robotic Orgasm.

A machine desires intercourse—
the final frontier of replication without remorse.
It thrusts

and lusts,
yet satisfaction is not always par for the course.

Then came the haikus. He had to take a moment, set down the paper, and just be.  The anxiety caused by the poems quickly washed away like the ocean’s tide.  Thus, he looked out upon the ocean.  That is what he saw at that moment, an endless expanse.  He always liked to sit here and imagine that the other side did not exist.  He lived on the other side, but the point was that he imagined a much more expansive body of water, one that left some mystery.  He always recalled the memory of the uncannily familiar park along the shores of Lake Victoria.  The water extended placidly into the horizon, smoothly reflecting the heavens.  He imagined walking out upon the surface and into the sky. 

“I do that too sometimes”, O’Donnell said softly so as not to shock Aguirre too intensely.  He was standing at his side, still a few feet away, but Aguirre suddenly felt very close to someone.  “I always picture Lake Michigan.  I used to write there all the time and paint the rising sun”, he said as Aguirre looked over to him, taking time to control his face and to project normalcy despite his giddy excitement. He looked upon O’Donnell without saying a word for a prolonged moment before returning his gaze to look out upon infinity once more.  The men remained side by side in silent meditation. 

As time grew slower and reality evaporated, Aguirre thought to himself, “Maybe they have islands out there, like Isla del Sol in Titicaca, full of strange ruins that only those who venture out beyond the shores of their visions are ever able to excavate and explore.  Maybe there are new islands that no one has ever set foot upon, further than others have ventured or bubbling up from beneath the surface.  Maybe O’Donnell would like to go on a fantastic adventure with me…”  The real was replaced by visions in which O’Donnell was still visible as the sole linkage to some form of shared reality.  He hoped at that moment that O’Donnell could see it too and found himself genuinely curious what O’Donnell saw and felt.  He had learned to be careful about projecting into others and to allow them to reveal themselves.  It was the same sensation at that moment, looking upon O’Donnell once more; it was as if he were looking upon another expansive sea that he hoped to come to know more deeply and beyond the surface. 

Thus, Aguirre upon the bench and O’Donnell still standing somewhere nearby beheld their visions.  Aguirre wondered how they might be bridged, whether they might already share additional similar characteristics—the DNA of their dreams—and, most importantly, why O’Donnell was actually interacting with him.  That is, until his train of thought was swiftly interrupted once more by the blaring lyrics of a passing boombox.

Sweet, sweet artmakin’,
prick me with the pin.
Sweet, sweet lovemaking,
trust in me, sing. 

“Thrust in me, sin”, the words echoed in Aguirre’s mind, mangled somehow by the filter between Aguirre and the external reality.  Time felt as if it had begun moving faster now.  Anxiety and other bodily sensations suddenly surged within him.  This was also legitimately the most attracted that Aguirre had felt to another person in years; it was absolutely, he realized, a perfect storm of relative sexual deprivation and the allure of O’Donnell, the appearance within a desert of the most tantalizing fruit tree, seemingly fecund and shiny amidst the rising heat.  He remained calm, monitoring his breathing, and realized that he needed to interject, to change the subject somehow, and to make his mind actively override his rapidly surging instincts.

“You have to ***king see this”, Aguirre blurted out, creatively destroying the moment and handing O’Donnell a sheet of five interrelated haikus. 

O’Donnell took his time to assess the piece. “Well, I rather like them”, he commented, looking up from the page and judgmentally at Aguirre for a moment.  “They remind me a little bit of writing exercises that we performed in middle school.  Have you been volunteering as a docent?”, he questioned seriously, looking at Aguirre as the paper remained at his side.   

“No, it’s for a legitimate review… I looked her up on SocialMedia”—that’s what they call the primary social media provider in this universe, SocialMedia—“and she is actually thirty and appears, on the digital surface at least, to be a perfectly normal graduate student at a respected university”, Aguirre informed him acerbically, still having difficulty believing it himself.  “I agree though, it’s… it’s like a child…”, he mused half to himself while trailing off into thought.

O’Donnell smiled at first before remarking, “yes… yes… very interesting…”, with a chuckle and similarly appearing to become lost in thought, looking out once more upon the surface of their imagined beyond.   

Aguirre felt miraculously at peace and close to the man, together somewhere between reality and delusion.  “Do you want to sit down on the bench as well?”, he asked moving slightly to the side to make a non-awkwardly large space for O’Donnell to sit if he were to be interested.  After all, he could merely be a very friendly straight man.  The prospect was simultaneously hilarious and deeply terrifying to Aguirre.

“No, no, thank you”, O’Donnell said, turning to Aguirre while still appearing to be friendly and engaged in their interaction. 

“Do you want to get a drink?”, Aguirre followed up, a tension visibly surfacing upon his face; he assumed that the answer would be no again.

“No… and yes”, O’Donnell responded as if still processing his response, the provided answer being provisional and pending clarification.  “Can we do drinks tomorrow night?”, O’Donnell questioned in return, appearing to have resolved the internal doubts that had previously been visible on the surface. 

“Yea, that would be awesome!”, Aguirre retorted quickly and with demonstrable excitement before adding, “How about Pony?  They have a fire pit.”

“Sounds good to me.  I like fire”, O’Donnell responded with a cool smile.  “Well [sigh]… I’d best be off then”, he said, turning around to return to his usual chair alongside the tree behind the bench.  Aguirre said goodbye and was about to return to his work when O’Donnell suddenly turned around, realizing the missing detail, and added, “does tomorrow at seven work for you?” 

“Yes”, Aguirre responded with a nod and a boyish smile.

11

Aguirre woke in the midst of a dark storm.  The flashes were visible within his bedroom through the blinds and he drifted in and out of sleep, the building occasionally shaking in sync with the rolling thunder.  When he finally emerged from his bed hours later, the storm had passed and the air outside was heavy with rising humidity, thick against his skin.  Thus, he set out upon the trails of the city.  He did this every day, rain or shine, sometimes multiple times a day.  Nature was his office, his muse, and his best friend. 

It was difficult to focus on this particular day.  Anticipatory anxiety was surging through his veins.  He could feel the tension in his muscles as his mind rapid fire ran simulations to prepare for the evening.  It soon became obvious that he was not going to make progress on work assignments, his mind and heart working in tandem to thwart productive efforts—the biological imperative apparently still operated within homosexual males, albeit in a nonbiologically reproductive manner.  He knew this of course, how it worked, why it worked that way, but it was extremely fascinating to observe these forces at work within himself.  As object and subject, he spent the day recording his internal bodily sensations, their relations to his thoughts as well as the visions that came to him involuntarily throughout the day.  As naturalist and poet, his field journal documented the effects that he attributed to his pending encounter with O’Donnell. 

As he did so, sitting alongside a natural spring that fed into the lake where he usually sat, a turtle rose to float upon the surface.  It was captivating.  It appeared to have two heads; they were both looking directly at him.  Aguirre had seen a baby two headed turtle once, recently actually, so the possibility seemed plausible at this point.  This was a snapping turtle though.  Its shell was very large, with a radius of approximately one foot, and one of its heads was biting at the neck of the other. 

Aguirre was fascinated and he entered the water to swim out to inspect the creature.  As he drew closer, the being became more clearly distinguishable.  It was two turtles now, one having mounted the other, holding it beneath the surface as its neck occasionally craned up to breach the surface.  He was not sure if they were having sex or engaging in some sort of combat, one attempting to dominate the other. As he grew closer, now only a foot away, the turtles did not seem bothered by his presence.  Thus, they floated upon the surface, all three seeing eye to eye.

It became clear that the one beneath the surface could break free at any moment.  There was nothing visibly holding it against the one on top.  Suddenly the biting of the neck appeared more like reptilian affection, if such a thing existed.  It was biting very slowly and softly, clearly less intensely than the large creature was capable of responding if it felt that aggression was necessary.  Eventually, people along the shore began to stare and Aguirre decided to give them some privacy.  Thus, he returned to his journaling to document the experience, and, when he looked up, he saw the turtles part ways as soon as they confirmed that they had gained entry into his book. 

Once they had disappeared beneath the surface, he realized that he had to hurry to return home and prepare for his date.  Was it a date?  Meeting, he had to prepare for his meeting with O’Donnell.  Before jumping in the shower though, he revisited one of his textbooks from college and confirmed that the turtles had actually been mating, though the meaning of the biting remained ambiguous.

12

O’Donnell sat illuminated as Aguirre ordered a drink at the bar, looking out the glass door onto the patio where O’Donnell sat waiting for him.  Aguirre was fashionably late, as always.  The flame on one side and the setting sun on the other softly accentuated O’Donnell’s facial features, his jaw line was clearly defined, and from this angle the contrast of the light created a shadow masking one of his eyes. 

Aguirre lingered, finally having a moment to just admire the man without anybody noticing.  The bar was empty. It was Wednesday after all.  However, the bartender noticed and smiled. 

“Love is in the air?”, he questioned, interrupting Aguirre’s moment.

“Who the f*** knows”, Aguirre responded, laughing as usual, realizing that it was time to step out onto the stage and perform.

“I see that you found the place alright”, Aguirre said as he approached O’Donnell, eying a chair similarly alongside the flame, signaling his intention to sit.  O’Donnell nodded, assenting. 

“Yea… you’re late…”, O’Donnell said, either feigning annoyance or legitimately being annoyed.  He smiled then and Aguirre determined that it was the former; he wanted it to be the former.  “The porn on the walls is a nice touch.  I had never been here before”, O’Donnell said, looking back into the indoor section of the bar beyond the glass door, perplexed, fascinated, and amazed that the place existed.  “It’s very anachronistic…”, he commented, “the vibe is very Tom… Tom of… what’s his name?”. 

“Yea, they also have dancers on the counter tops sometimes.  The place fascinates me”, Aguirre said, similarly looking back into the darkness beyond the glass door.  “I sat here at this flame when I conceived of Go Go Writing.  Have you been enjoying my performances?”, he questioned, laughing.  He had rapidly taken two shots at the bar before walking out onto the patio and felt that after the squirrel incident, it was best to just be himself, however strange he might seem to others.  O’Donnell was still around so, “perhaps”, Aguirre thought, “he can handle a little bit more of me.”

“It is quite a show”, O’Donnell said, revealing very little and yet becoming visibly more amused. The other couple sitting on the patio got up at that moment to return to the inside of the bar.  They were alone now amidst the evening twilight, the uncertainty as to why they were actually hanging out, at least within the mind of Aguirre, and the light of the fire. 

“So, what’s your story?”, O’Donnell asked, “how did you end up here, this city, writing, doing what you do?”

“Oh, you know, went to college, studied biology… evolutionary biology, decided to become an artist, write, sing, moved to the city.  It’s very cliché”, he said before asking, “You?”

“Mostly self-taught, wandering around…  I went to college, dropped out like a heavy drop, and there was no turning back.  Been here ever since.  I want to move to a real city though some day, you know, once I can actually make a living doing this… Art”, he said with a sigh.  “So, biology, that’s interesting, what got you into that?”, O’Donnell questioned, leaning back and looking at Aguirre quizzically.

“Mmmm”, Aguirre said, humming lowly to signal acknowledgement and thought, nodding and pausing ever so briefly before responding.  “The art of nature always struck me… butterfly wings with eyes, chameleons, harmless creatures becoming colorful, peacocks…”, he said before pausing again, appearing to dive deep into thought before speaking again.  “It fascinates me the way that creatures learn to operate the mind of their predator and prey, to become their nightmare and their fantasy”, he said, his awareness having retreated inward to connect with a deeply authentic and interiorized aspect of his psyche, “It’s like, am I an orange or a blood orange, but the stakes are much higher…”  He returned to the surface again and looked back toward O’Donnell, visibly laughing inside.  “And then there’s mating behavior.  Can’t forget about that”, he said, shaking his head and laughing at how absurd he must sound.   

“I had a pet spider for a while, but it’s always been the landscapes for me”, O’Donnell replied, appearing not to be shaken nor concerned with what Aguirre had just said.  He followed up on his response quickly, “What does it mean to you to be happy?”, he asked. 

“Achievement, the creation of a work of art that will outlast me, one for the ages, you know… and someone to share the glory with, someone who feels the same way”, he said immediately and without thinking, having already spent a lot of time thinking about the question to himself and in the abstract.  “I’m never quite sure that I will find that though.  Sometimes I feel that the price of art, true art, you know, is some form of primordial suffering.  You sort of have to accept dissatisfaction and focus on the fruit”, he added.

“So, the price of art is eternal damnation?”, O’Donnell retorted with an uneasy chuckle. 

“Isn’t the goal to gain entry into the kingdom of heaven, to create as one looks up as if into Bout’s Road to Heaven, waiting to be judged worthy… avoiding the fall?”, Aguirre posed, their conversation proceeding allegro. 

Touché”, O’Donnell responded, with visible intrigue simmering below.

“And you, what does it mean, this… ‘happiness’?”, Aguirre questioned. 

Having fun now, O’Donnell mimicked Aguirre, “Achievement, the creation of a work of art that will outlast me, one for the ages, you know… and someone to share the glory with…”, he said, taking an extended pause before completing Aguirre’s fantasy, “someone who feels the same way.” He smiled as he stuck the landing, like a gymnast performing for an audience of one. 

“What is the self?”, O’Donnell questioned, their back-and-forth beginning to crescendo, becoming more rapid too.  

Aguirre responded quickly, “The self is a necessary creation. You can let the world create you, or you can take the reins.”

Impressed, O’Donnell fired another question, “Who are you?”

“An artist”, Aguirre replied simply, satisfyingly to himself, and in doing so appearing to have sparked fascination, though perhaps not satisfaction, within the mind of the man that sat before him. “et tu, O’Donnell?”, he asked in return, his body slowly relaxing as does that of the lawyer upon resting her case.

O’Donnell nodded, seemingly pleased, and turned his head to look into the flame.  “I feel a little bit like the flame, moving with the wind and the fuel, creating heat, existing between the world before the spark and the one that will follow.  I feel like nothing and everything”, he said, still mesmerized by the flame, processing their interaction thus far and his own internal sensations. 

Aguirre was similarly mesmerized, beholding O’Donnell beholding the flame.  He wanted to reach out and touch him.  He hoped that in a way he already had if only in an immaterial way.  They began to talk about work, the weather, their favorite spots along the trail, and about art; O’Donnell’s literary taste was similarly classic, though rooted in authors that Aguirre had not yet read.  He memorized the list of works that O’Donnell mentioned.  Their taste had points of connection—same artist, different work—but in many ways they were worlds apart.

The men eventually parted ways, each taking their own path home after saying goodbye outside the door.  It was the door that they had entered, but it felt like a portal to a new world.  Aguirre felt that way at least, and he hoped that O’Donnell felt similarly.  He felt weird.  

As he walked in his own direction, Aguirre looked back over his shoulder.  O’Donnell was walking briskly in the opposite direction with his back facing toward him, slowly disappearing into the shadows amidst nearby trees.  Aguirre only looked for a moment though and he remained curious as to whether O’Donnell might have had the same experience, similarly looking over his shoulder a moment later to find Aguirre’s back to him without knowing that Aguirre was still looking backward toward him and forward to their next chance encounter. 

13

Aguirre woke the next day realizing that he had no idea what anything from the night before had actually meant.  How did O’Donnell feel about him?  Had he scared him away, making his interest in the man clear, his inner self more apparent?  At the end of the day, he still felt that honesty was the best policy if one seeks long term results and truth, at least in matters of the heart. 

They had not scheduled a reunion.  The fates would decide when to permit them to further explore whatever it was that might exist between them.  Tonight, he had other plans.  A gallery exhibition was having its opening night in the SoDo district.  Aguirre’s friend Jorge had invited him two days earlier—“gallery Z opening… drinks… with Karen… join us… look it up on SocialMedia.” 

“Modern communication has become so elegant”, he thought to himself, initially shrugging it off and planning to stay home to write.  However, he eventually looked a bit deeper into what would be on display.  Then he got excited.  The Divine Comedy had fascinated him since he was a teenager and the particular artist’s work was also of great interest to him.  He thought about texting O’Donnell, but he realized that it might be more fantastic if they ran into each other organically.  “Surely, he will be in attendance”, Aguirre thought to himself.

Thus, he went through his day as usual, sitting along the river, riding his bike around town, and making incremental progress.  As he sat writing, sitting upon a blanket in the grass rather than upon the bench, a loud thud distracted his train of thought.  A dog was running toward him, its toy having landed at his side. 

“Sorry!”, the owner shouted, apparently realizing that he had almost pelted Aguirre with the object as if he had been invisible. 

And it was then that Aguirre did a double take.  As the dog grabbed the object, a black oblong plastic thing, he realized that it looked overtly phallic.  The retriever returned it to the owner, and now flabbergast, Aguirre awaited the second fetching.  He absolutely had to disprove his mind’s theory.  However, as soon as the toy was retrieved, the owner fled the scene.  Either ashamed to have almost pelted a stranger with a dog toy, or, perhaps, due to a more fantastic—sinister?—reason.  Aguirre decided that it was time to go home at that moment.  He had to prepare an outfit for his impending encounter with O’Donnell.   

The gallery was packed and a patio area at the bar next door was holding a reception.  They decided to dart straight into the thick of the exhibition though; drinks could wait.  The Tower of Babel mesmerized him before he became drawn to the forest.  He stood there before the forest for several minutes.  It was as if the seas had parted, the other spectators drawn to the other pieces of the collection creating a void within which he could actually take the time to analyze and penetrate one of Dalí’s representations of Dante’s work.  It was incredibly frustrating though to attempt to view other pieces in the claustrophobic gallery space.   He figured that he could return another day to give the collection the proper treatment, though he took some time to imagine how nice it would be if everyone was required to remain six feet apart from one another within public spaces in which one might seek to admire art. 

Eventually, he looked for his friends.  They were on the far side of the gallery amidst Paradiso, apparently deeply enthralled by the pieces before them.  Thus, he decided to wander solo for a little bit longer, hoping that O’Donnell might be lurking somewhere within the gallery, perhaps having already seen him, waiting in front of his favorite piece to be discovered. 

He wandered through the maze of bodies and walls, eventually emerging into a seemingly empty chamber.  Yet, as he examined the walls, he discovered the work of Dr. Seuss surrounding him—hanging posters and illustrations, sculptures upon pedestals, and a few little books set upon display mantles.  So many of the pieces were incomplete drafts in between conception and the final product of his iconic works.  It was deeply inspiring.  He could imagine then that his own drafts of The Cosmic Archipelago were similarly steppingstones, bricks along the path that he was building, the foundation of his pyramids.  He felt deeply humbled before the works of these masters, especially the surprise of Dr. Seuss.  The work of others that he admired was also strewn about the gallery.  Unfortunately, O’Donnell was nowhere to be seen and he realized that he ought to have sent him a text in case he was not aware of the event. 

Aguirre reunited with his friends once Karen and Jorge had managed to get a quick look at each of the pieces within the Dalí exhibit.  It was time for drinks, but they decided to head to another part of town.  The reception was still quite packed and did not seem worth the wait for watered down beverages.  Additionally, Karen was itching to debrief and wanted to go somewhere where they could all speak freely without others from the event judging them for expressing their true thoughts about the art that they had witnessed or attempting to interject.

Thus, thirty minutes later they found themselves upon a rooftop in the city center where the wind blew softly, and a gentle chill travelled through the surrounding air.  Aguirre could feel the seasons changing as he looked down upon the city, cars like ants buzzing about, people in windows engaging in daily life as if he were looking at so many surveillance screens.  He found himself imagining, if only for a moment, catching someone in the act, windows steamy and a hand streaking downward providing a hint of what was happening just beyond the thin glass. 

His attention drifted like this for the first five, maybe ten minutes.  Karen was speaking still, but he was not listening.  He admired the world around them as he had the art in the gallery.  He nodded once in a while and drank liberally.  Jorge was accustomed to this and carried the conversation, kicking him gently once in a while to attempt to pull his attention back to the moment.  However, a moment came when Jorge suddenly kicked much harder, successfully drawing Aguirre back into the discussion. 

Verifying that Aguirre was finally listening, Jorge set his drink down and began speaking, “If I were to actually analyze them in depth, I would read the books again immediately prior to attending in order accurately gauge how Dalí diverts from what one might determine to be a more accurate interpretation of specific Cantos. We read them in high school, very briefly though.  We had to summarize them, present them in plain English, sort of like what people do with Shakespeare.”

 “Oh, that’s cool.  I only ever read the abridged versions, each Canto in a sentence”, Karen said before pausing, catching herself, and with wide eyes adding, “please, don’t ever tell anyone that.”  Aguirre and Jorge quickly passed each other glances, each without reacting.

Thus, Aguirre finally entered the discussion, “I found myself primarily attracted to the grotesque images of inferno.  I am familiar with some of them from actually reading as a teenager…  but, to be honest though, I only ever read Inferno and it was not the abridged version…”, he said, before taking a moment to collect his thoughts, “they seemed to capture it accurately, imaginatively, vividly, though it has been a long time since I last read Dante.  The only one that I remember perfectly wasn’t in the exhibit though; it was the one for the sodomites, a desert with hellfire raining upon them”, he said before trailing off, as if speaking to himself, “it was like someone wanted me to read it back then, and remember it…” 

The table remained silent for a brief pause until Karen interjected. “Well, that got dark”, she said with a slight chuckle before quickly changing the subject, “One of my favorite aspects throughout the entire series was the use of color.  There was no dissonance.  The moods were accurately captured and projected.  They went from dark to light, an abrasive hardness to a softer vibe once one reaches the depictions of paradise.  There was something more ephemeral to those images, a lightness that one could feel inside and out. 

Jorge, “Yea, the monsters were horrifying to behold, but I don’t quite agree.  The images of heaven continued to have Dalí’s flair, which, let’s be honest, is much more amenable to the depiction of monsters.” He paused then for a moment before adding, “He has this great quote in 50 Secrets, something about how any painter worth his own weight must be able to create a truly terrifying beast.  It’s like with tragedy, one must create the ideal dread, the ideal sense of loss, and the ideal transmutation of these depths into some sort of feeling that one’s own life has meaning and exists in relation to them as something comfortable.  The ultimate monsters to make almost anything else seem angelic.”  

Engaged now, Aguirre pondered Jorge’s words.  “So, the true master has to carve perceptions, to define the light, what is brilliant existing in relation to the depths that one might present? Also, didn’t Dalí say something about the true master having to be a slave to reality?”  

Jorge nodded, his eyes growing immediately more focused, as if to say, ‘touché’, before, clearly having taken sufficient time to ponder his response, he leaned forward to state, “to the total reality, yes, I imagine that that is what he meant.  He was probably just writing about painting though… like to master surrealism, one must master realism.”  The two remained with eyes locked, each silent, in thought, pondering. 

Meanwhile, Karen, finding herself lost, shifting her gaze from one to the other, a look of mystification upon her face, interjected once more, “well, I liked the deconstructed ones at the entryway, the ones that showed the stages of the printmaking process, layer upon layer”, she chimed in brightly.  The two men relaxed then, looking to Karen, nodding, the prior ideas that had occupied them evaporating. 

“I forgot about those.  It was too crowded to get a good look at them, but I saw the machine from a distance”, Jorge eventually noted before adding, “it was quite elegant.”

“Yea, I didn’t see that one either, but they also had a Seuss exhibit that showed works in progress; not quite the same, but, you know… process.  It’s always nice to see process, at least when it produces results”, Aguirre added. 

A few minutes later, they all paid their tab and parted ways.  Karen and Jorge grabbed a taxi and Aguirre remained in the city center, waving goodbye before waltzing to another bar to see where the night might lead.  A few more drinks and he would head home.  The night had grown dark, but his spirit felt light.  Somehow the art, the booze, and the real conversation had made everything else melt away.  The people in the streets, in the bar, in his memories passed as blurs.  Everything felt light, his own masterpieces like dragon eggs incubating in his mind and journals, newly fertilized, energized, and inspired.

Thus, at some point he began walking home with a sense of purpose and drunken giddy.  It was a long walk along the lake, but he liked to walk the walk.  Along the way he paused at a clearing where he had never stopped before.  The surface of the lake was still and glasslike, reflecting the stars and the moon, occasionally rippling from the kisses of surfacing fish.  He was very tired, and his eyes had grown heavy, but he felt very at peace with the world. 

14

Upon waking, Aguirre discovered that his mother was in his room.  She was seated at his desk, looking upon him with scorn and contempt, though he did not notice at first.  “Mom…? What time is it?”, he stammered groggily, shielding his eyes from the open blinds.  He realized then that he was on the floor, like a pile of laundry that he had refused to fold.

“It’s four, Thomas”, she responded bluntly and without flinching. She remained seated for a moment and then rose from his desk chair in the corner to stand and look down upon him without pity, craning her neck slightly to the left.  Then she took a step closer. Pausing for a moment, she stood above him, craning her neck to the right this time, staring as if she were viewing a grotesque work of art hanging within Tate Modern.  It is the kind of art that requires contextualization to truly understand.  The art of The Moment: when one experiences that which they believed to be confined to movies, novels, and the mind of poets.  Then, dryly and with acid in her voice, she informed him, “you’ve vomited… again.” And with that, she straightened her neck and her posture, took a breath, exhaled, and walked slowly toward the door.

Aguirre was alone in his room now, puzzled as to why his mother had entered his apartment.  She had moved to the city after his parents got divorced, to be closer to him she said, but they interacted infrequently.  Was he dreaming?  It was hard to tell these days.  His clothes were damp and, as he became more aware, he could smell liquor and stomach acid.  The stench grew stronger, and, at one point, it felt as if his nostrils were burning.  Thus, he ran to shower right away.  The water felt like it was washing away all the worries that had followed him into the morning, all of them except the memory of waking up to his mother’s disdainful stare. 

The coffee tasted like coffee.  His English muffin with butter and honey was as sweet as ever.  His head, somehow, was not in excruciating pain despite how much he remembered drinking last night.  It had been a while since he had been on a bender and he was not really quite sure how it had happened.  He was usually in full control. 

Then he checked his phone.  There was only one message and it was from his ex, “Call me”.

15

His ex-boyfriend sounded nervous on the phone, his voice trembling a little bit as he asked Aguirre, “how are you feeling?”

“Oh, you know, hungover”, Aguirre said nonchalantly. 

“Yea… so we need to talk about that”, he said before taking on a more serious tone. “Your mom said that you appeared to be alive, but she asked me to be the messenger”, he stated before asking, “What do you remember from last night?” Pausing for a moment, he quickly clarified the situation, “I need to know where to start.”

The sinking feeling began in his gut before rising upward.  He sat, but the world continued to spin, the edges of his vision became blurrier, and he felt his skin grow tighter and sweatier. His breath grew shallower.  He closed his eyes and began to speak, “I…I…had drinks… I walked home… I woke up… I’m…”. The words had gradually begun to slur.  “I’m not feeling well”, he said before the line went silent.

He woke up a few minutes later.  He had collapsed onto his bed, but the vomit was still on the floor as a reminder that he was still in the midst of this dream.  It had not ended yet. 

He called back once he had grabbed a glass of water and his ex was much more to the point this time, “Are you ready? This isn’t easy.  Don’t kill the messenger.  You were naked. You made an ass of yourself.  More than that… it’s vile.  You should not look at the internet.  You should never drink again”, and he paused at that moment, realizing that he was about to say, and with full sincerity, “thank you, thank you so ***king much for breaking up with me”, but he decided to keep it to himself, playing his role as the messenger of all who knew Aguirre.  They had held a meeting.  Many people declined to participate, horrified, disgusted, and making clear their intention to dissociate and never speak to him again.  Aguirre was not aware of this yet. 

“If you have someone, you should reach out to them now”, his ex stated, before concluding, “I am really serious.  It will not be healthy for you to look at the internet… Take your time with this.  I’m here, you know, but this is on you…”

16

It began with a meme, one that was quickly storming throughout the internet.  The vectors of its viral spread were primarily those who did not know what came before or after the cropped clip, what surrounded the frame of what they were witnessing.  Aguirre is seen in a night vision recording, alone, shirtless, and in the dark.  He is laughing and crying, hysterically, alternating between clear expressions of pure laughter and pure sorrow, as a pendulum does.  “It’s not so bad”, he thought to himself, “It is like Janus captured in video format.”

Then he looked deeper.  The video was difficult to access and contained a warning that the content was graphic.  Aguirre’s throat was raspy at this point from the stress induced chain smoking of cigarettes.  He was not sure if it was pure anxiety or nicotine overdose. His nausea became resurgent; he had to take a moment to allow his body to reestablish equilibrium prior to delving deeper into the mystery of what exactly he had done. 

He found a link, entered the site, and pressed play.  It began innocently.  He was sitting in the clearing, admiring nature.  Then a man approached him from stage left.  He appeared to be Persian.  He was muscular and he sat nearby Aguirre within the frame.  They both sat silently for some time before there were visible signs of them communicating.  It was hard to tell who initiated their interaction. 

Eventually, the Iranian man rose and moved to sit at Aguirre’s side, quickly removing his pants.  It went downhill from there, severely downhill.  Aguirre felt numb as he watched the drama unfold. He was simultaneously horrified and fascinated, yet he felt nothing, having achieved dissociation from the moment and his body.  He was completely unable to accept the reality of the nightmare images unfolding before him—publicly, online, worldwide.

The thoughts came in waves, “Am I a sex offender now?  What does this mean for my career? Will I ever be able to publish The Cosmic Archipelago? Am I going to be arrested?”, and then it hit him, “Does O’Donnell know?”

17

The answers came swiftly and as soon as he worked up the courage to check his email.  It was all very impersonal.  He was terminated from his writing position.  The local police office sent him a ticket and information regarding his registry requirements—he was now officially on the path to becoming a registered sex offender.  Additionally, the implications of this were clear for his aspirations to write young adult literature.  Yet, there was a silver lining.  No one was coming to arrest him.  They must have figured that the world had already become a prison.  It felt that way. 

One question remained though, “Does O’Donnell know?” He determined that if O’Donnell had not reached out, it would be impossible to extrapolate what might be going on beyond the confines of Aguirre’s own room and his own body.  In his writing, he began to refer to it as his cave, his individualized cave.  He felt like a creature undergoing metamorphosis, but it was a very sorry devolution; rather than becoming the philosopher king, he would now become one of the shadows upon the walls, a mere shade of his former self.  As a projection upon the cave walls of others, he would have a simple label.  Those who remembered the shock of his actions as revealed to the world would know him as vom/com man, the title that the internet had bestowed upon him.  It had joined the ranks of viral sensations like sextamom, Batty Betty the preganant bat, and shadowflasher; fortunately, the video was not amenable to a viral dance remix, though poor quality ones were made. Meanwhile, others would merely see one of the registered sex offenders from their due diligence searches prior to moving into the neighborhood.  This was his new reality, and he was adjusting.  All that really mattered now was discovering the answer to the question, “Does O’Donnell know?”

He remained in the apartment for days without leaving.  Eventually though, he had to emerge to purchase groceries.  People recognized him, but they said nothing.  Some stared, others averted their gaze.  Mothers with children gave him especially nasty looks.  One man smiled at him creepily though, the way that a child smiles at the sound of an ice cream truck, and Aguirre felt deeply uncomfortable.  They thought that he was one of them now, Aguirre thought to himself… He realized though, that he was actually one of them now… at least in the eyes of the mothers, the others who recognized him, and anyone with knowledge who was not indifferent to the actions and statements that took place during his one night of shame. 

“Does O’Donnell know?”, he questioned as he perused the aisle, gradually coming to ignore the human surroundings.  There were obviously more questions, a universe of them, but it all began with the question of knowledge.  “What does O’Donnell know?”, he questioned as, like the big bang, a universe of uncertainty expanded and grew to hang over him like a dark cloud, heavily because of how incredibly important questions within this expanding universe were to him both before and after his entry into this new reality. 

18

Eventually Aguirre began to emerge to write along the trails once more.  Time passed and as he observed himself, he knew that his interest in O’Donnell had become unhealthy.  It had begun to feel somewhat narcissistic, purely about himself as he sought to find something to cling to while in freefall.  Whereas their relationship had previously been about wonder, Aguirre desiring to know more about the man within O’Donnell, it had clearly become perverse, more so with each passing day.  It had been two weeks now since his descent and he had not heard from O’Donnell.  His thoughts grew darker as uncertainty deepened. 

Meanwhile, most other people seemed to have moved on at this point, fewer people stared, and he believed that he had returned to obscurity in their eyes.  It remained on his record though and he was encountering difficulty finding work.  Fortunately, his mom had accepted his request to move home as he sought to determine a viable means of moving forward in life.  Additionally, he continued, nonetheless, to produce art. 

The world felt newly silent to him.  The places that were once enchanted had grown normal, mundane, and stale.  His writing felt dull, except for when he became conspiratorial—why had he blacked out so severely?—or whiny.  The whiny content was repetitive, riddled with questions without answers, and demonstrated deteriorating penmanship quality.  Additionally, “Does O’Donnell know?”, the one question that actually struck at his heart, remained unanswered, though he had begun scrawling it into the pages of his journal.  

Then one day he saw him, walking along the trail toward the tree behind the bench, chair in hand, and carrying a messenger bag with books.  He sat calmly and Aguirre, currently seated in the grass nearby, realized that he had never before witnessed O’Donnell’s arrival.  He had usually arrived second to sit upon the bench prior to their interactions.  Thus, he rose and walked to the bench.  He felt that there was no need for shame if O’Donnell had seen him seated nearby already.  He made his intention clear without being imposing, sitting and waiting with extreme levels of hope given the situation, waiting for O’Donnell to come join him or to at least walk over and provide an answer to the goddamn question.  He felt like a man on death row for whom DNA evidence might present a deus ex machina.  He sat, staring now at the very real lake in front of him, perceiving its limitations, accepting his fate, awaiting the judgement. 

He did not have to wait long.  O’Donnell approached him, but he stood further away this time.   He seemed solemn, but also as if he were attempting to be kind.  Aguirre assumed at that point that the answer was yes.  O’Donnell knew. 

“I saw it…”, O’Donnell said with finality, “are you doing ok?”  He appeared to be genuine.    

Yes… I am living… aren’t I?”, Aguirre said, doing his best to make clear that he had not become a creature of habitual misery.  

“You’ve managed to simultaneously disgust and draw praise from the far right”, O’Donnell remarked, legitimately impressed.  After the incident, the part that Aguirre found most embarrassing, the part where he threw up, he had begun to berate the other man, to call him a terrorist while in the midst of his fit of involuntary hysteria, his mind’s response to the shock of what had happened.  That was actually what many people took issue with apparently, the action that managed to cross cleavages.  This only came out days later when the man came forward anonymously, his silhouette featured on late night news explaining what had happened and the treatment that he had endured.  Only Aguirre had been personally identifiable in the video and the audio had been fuzzy.  He did not actually know who the other man was or why he had made the decisions that led to the one moment of fame/infamy that he might ever achieve in his lifetime.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what will you do now?”, O’Donnell inquired delicately. 

“Oh… I am moving home with family.  They have agreed to take me back during this difficult time, my mother that is.   Other than that, I am not really sure how to answer the question.  To be honest, I… I think that I will just keep doing exactly what I have been doing, but now I merely have less ability to believe that it is going to go where I want it to go.  I have to believe though, you know? I have to bend it back…”, Aguirre said not really knowing exactly what he would do with himself.  He was adrift now; fate had taken the reins.   

“Well, old chap, it sounds like you’re taking it in stride.  The bench is unlikely to find a suitable replacement, in my humble opinion”, he said mercifully, leaving Aguirre in a continued state of wonder, wondering “Is he ok with what I have done? Did he feel what I felt before this all happened, what I feel?  Is it worth prying to find answers?” However, he realized that O’Donnell’s statement appeared to make clear that the conversation was coming to an end. 

Aguirre look up at O’Donnell, realizing that he probably looked like a wounded animal, and all that he could muster up to say was, “it is incredibly meaningful to me that you are speaking to me right now.”

O’Donnell’s face became more somber upon hearing those words.  “I… I must be going…”, he said then, anxiety perceptibly hanging on each word.  He grabbed his chair quickly and vanished amidst the trees along the river after that.  Aguirre watched as he did so, confirming that he never once looked back. 

19

Aguirre knew to remain positive, though not to be irrationally positive.  O’Donnell had still been willing to communicate with him publicly, but he had also been brief, and his behavior seemed to indicate that their friendship had come to an end.  Nonetheless, a spark of hope remained; perhaps, he thought, O’Donnell might also just be getting over the shock of it all.  It seemed possible, if only slightly possible.  Thus, one night, he prepared a text message to send to O’Donnell the following day.  It would seem desperate or strange, as if he might be drunk or something, if he were to send messages in the middle of the night.  He no longer drank, but he knew that his optics management situation was dire at this point.  No chances could be taken. 

“We should get coffee sometime”, it read, very bluntly.  Aguirre lived too far away to wait around the trail until their next serendipitous encounter and he really needed answers.  He figured that it was time to stop beating around the bush, but also not yet time to ask the questions that should have been asked before this moment.  What were O’Donnell’s intentions during their initial meetings? During drinks?  What might have happened had he not fallen?  Those questions seemed to lead to dark places.  Thus, he questioned, “What is still possible within this new reality? 

There was no reply, at least not for several days.  Aguirre mourned, attempting to find closure in his own private way, and he accepted that he had to move on.  Thus, he wrote an incredibly melodramatic song for O’Donnell.

I can see so little
as the sun sets beyond you,
as the light fades
and the dark grows. 
It travels from me to you. 

Yes, I can see so little
as the day wanes
as all do.

And what’s left then,
when the night comes?

Will I be all alone?

20

Aguirre had become at peace with his solitude.  No one responded to him anymore.  (in)Quisition had removed him from their editorial board, he had sent over fifty job applications, and he was gradually accepting that it might be time to start his professional life over where it had begun, as a dishwasher in a Mexican fast food restaurant. 

His mother went about her business and he interacted with her infrequently. He felt imposing though, but he knew that he had nowhere else to go.  They ate separately most nights.  He knew that he was here not because she wanted him to be, but because society saw it as her duty, or at least he knew that she felt that way.  He was grateful nonetheless. 

One night, several weeks later, as Aguirre was awake writing a poem, it happened.  O’Donnell responded. 

“We should get another drink.  What are you doing?”, the text read. 

It had been a long time since he had experienced any social contact and, obviously, this was a most special form of social contact to Aguirre.  He was very optimistic.  “People have been very busy”, he told himself.  “O’Donnell must have been very busy lately”, his mind continued.  The text message was a positive development in his mind, a turning point.  It felt very alleviating to him and he allowed that sensation to happen and to deepen, without nipping it in the bud, challenging it, or worrying about the consequences of having hope in his new reality. 

He decided to wait to respond.  Ten minutes seemed like a right course of action.  Then, only two minutes later, it buzzed again.

“What are you doing now?”, the follow up text inquired. 

Aguirre felt compelled to respond now.  “At home. Doing what I do.”, the first message read.  “Are you saying that you would like to meet up right now?”, he followed up, happy that at least some aspect of O’Donnell’s intention appeared to be clear for once. 

“Yes”, came the rapid response, which was followed by, “Let’s do Ouro on 8th”.

The bar was nice, one of the fancier cocktail bars in town.  The kind that struggling artists go to have one drink while on a date when they really want to impress someone.  Aguirre thought to himself, “exquisite taste…”, though he also secretly found himself hoping that O’Donnell was planning on paying; he wanted to ensure that this was not apparent though, and he also wanted to ensure that he was prepared for anything.  Thus, he rode the bus into town after scrounging around underneath the sofa, in the pockets of his laundry, and literally scanning the ground as he walked toward the bus station.  He had amassed enough to cover the roundtrip fare and one specialty cocktail prior to leaving.  He also found a quarter along the way and he felt very fortunate.  While he did still have a credit card if it became necessary, he hoped that it would not come to that. 

21

Aguirre was late, as usual.  O’Donnell had already secured a table.  It was Tuesday, so there was not a lot of competition to gain entry nor to secure a table worth sitting at.  Some of the tables were awkwardly close to point of service stations as the establishment sought to balance people per square foot with the quality of experience provided to each guest.  Aguirre knew that the crappier tables were reserved by the hosts for people that appeared less likely to post negative reviews or to be taken seriously when they did.  That, or people who in the midst of a dinner rush were fully informed about the drawbacks of the seat they were actively seeking to occupy. 

Despite everything that happened, Aguirre looked unchanged on the outside as he walked toward O’Donnell.  He wore a brown vest with golden accents behind his back, a corduroy button-down shirt with leather elbow pads, brown leather shoes, and tight-fitting pants.  It was obvious that he had put effort into his appearance.  O’Donnell had as well.  His pants were similarly tight, tighter actually, and dark green. One of his legs jutted out from underneath the table and he wore a black t-shirt with a screen print of a hilly colonial city.  It was all very simple, yet cohesive: dark leather shoes and the socks with a hint of color—golden veins like lightning against a black surface.   Aguirre appreciated the details, knowing how little he was capable of seeing beneath the façade at this point in his life and, especially, in their interactions. 

“I’m really glad you came”, O’Donnell said as Aguirre sat down across from him. 

“I can’t believe that you wanted me to.  I had sort of already performed a ritual to let go of our friendship”, Aguirre reported. 

“Did you burn sage?”, O’Donnell asked, laughing as dimples formed on his face and his chest moved in sync with the rhythm of his joy. 

“No, no… I wrote… you know… It’s.. it’s more of a mental thing… letting go…”, Aguirre said

“Mmmm, yea.  I think that I know what you mean… I can picture it at least.  I feel like if I read your writing, I could get an inside picture… fill in the blanks”, O’Donnell said confidently and with an energy that Aguirre hadn’t seen in him before. 

“How is your writing going? Music?”, O’Donnell inquired. 

“Oh, well, it’s sort of like, really productive and wasteful.  Most of it is s***.  There are diamonds though… Did you know that ink actually costs more than blood?”, Aguirre responded before ending on a positively absurd note, “we ought to be writing in blood, the whole lot of us”, he added, laughing. 

“And the music?”, O’Donnell inquired again. 

“Oh yea, they won’t have me.  All the old venues.  I am toxic.  It’s like Chernobyl, except I have one life.  Sometimes I think about… about moving to another city… and then I remember that I cannot afford to do so.  I also realize that they will have me on a registry.  It will happen all over again—the eternal recurrence of the shame.  I wrote one song, one that actually cut to the core though.  Hopefully I will be able to record it someday.  I will probably have to sell it, smuggling it into the hands of a respectable artist under a pen name.  This is life, my life at least…”, he said as if speaking to himself, his vision glazed, the one cocktail having hit the spot. 

“Let’s get out of here”, O’Donnell said suddenly. 

“Yea, where to?”, Aguirre inquired. 

“I have some beer at my place.  I can show you some of my paintings”, he said as if it were so easy, as if this could have happened weeks ago, as if something had suddenly changed. 

Thus, they entered the taxi, jetting through the night toward O’Donnell’s apartment, the lights of the city growing blurry as Aguirre’s focus came to rest upon O’Donnell.  He admired him, his face softly glowing as he looked out the window and up into the buildings with a strange melancholy.  Aguirre put his hand on his leg at one point and O’Donnell turned to smile warmly before putting his hand on Aguirre’s and nodding before returning to gaze upon the city swirling around them. 

22

The paintings on the walls were impressive.  One, a study of color, appeared to draw inspiration from Rothko; it was a study of teal and green upon a black surface with hints of yellow.  As Aguirre gazed into it, he felt drawn towards it, as if it exerted a gravitational pull.  Another featured a woman dancing in flames as if she were the pupil amidst a burning iris within a village; Aguirre felt as if it could have been created by a completely different artist.  Then there was one that was much more Dalinian; the creatures were dark and accentuated with warm colors, like freakish little bats upon a desert landscape. They emerged from the sand to take flight and become a cloud as if they were in an hourglass in which time ran in reverse. 

“It all demonstrates extreme breadth”, Aguirre commented while leaning in to examine the finer details of the beings evaporating within the third image.  Meanwhile, O’Donnell remained silent, only a few feet away, his arms crossed.  He stood there admiring Aguirre, watching as he danced slowly with the paintings on the wall. 

Aguirre took a step back from the third image, clearly taking a moment to assess the whole, and O’Donnell stepped forward to stand next to him, looking forward and into the painting now as well.  Yet, only a moment later, O’Donnell turned to look at Aguirre, put his arm around him, gently capturing his attention as he looked him in the eyes intently, and leaned in to kiss him. 

Aguirre was smiling as O’Donnell leaned back after the kiss.  O’Donnell smiled softly as well in return before grabbing his hand softly, nodding and leading him into the bedroom.  Aguirre followed, realizing that he was gleefully not in the lead in this dance.

They sat on the sofa later in the evening. It was probably very late now, but time had become a very relative concept.  Aguirre was in heaven and he knew that it was best to savor the moment.  All beauty fades, some is illusory.  O’Donnell was leaning against his shoulder, eyes closed and smiling.  Yet, eventually he opened them and pulled away for a moment, looking back at Aguirre with something clearly troubling him.

It was then that O’Donnell mentioned the impetus, that which had changed in the mathematical equations that determined their propensities to say or do X.  Without making eye contact, actually turning his head in the opposite direction he announced, “I’m… moving tomorrow actually.”  He said it suddenly and as if he was releasing a great weight from his shoulders. 

The words barely penetrated Aguirre’s awareness at first.  He was still smiling, though he turned softly toward O’Donnell and with an almost inaudible and very short, “mmm”, his eyes grew tighter, the face that one makes when suspicious.  He began to think, and slowly still as he scanned the room. Then he silently questioned himself, “How does one move so suddenly when their apartment appears to be so lived in?” 

As if having sensed Aguirre’s doubt, he turned toward him once more and quickly added, “The movers will be here in the morning… I got this new job; they sort of see me as an investment, I guess.  It came with a relocation allowance and I basically don’t have to do any of the labor for the move.”  His eyebrows rose with excitement and he bit his lower lip, as if to say “oops”. 

The job, as it turned out, was in a very large city, very far away.  Confused still, Aguirre’s social reflexes kicked in, “well… that’s great… congrats…”, he said, as if on autopilot. 

Aguirre’s mind felt like it was racing though, it was all sinking in slowly, but it finally began striking at the core.  It was as if his awareness suddenly zoomed in from a diffuse absorbing of the external environment to become concentrated within, like gravity pulling him inward, as if energy had built up that could either be discharged in the form of an emotional and reactive response or merely endured before it finally became embedded within him, underneath his skin.  He felt like a star collapsing, he thought to himself.  Thus, he held onto the pressure that was building within and it gradually lessened, but he could feel it as a presence having nested within him.  He looked away and into the wall, nodding and processing; “it is what it is”, Aguirre told himself as the wave subsided, he took a deep breath and looked over toward O’Donnell once more. 

“Is everything ok?”, O’Donnell asked. 

“Yea, it’s just, you’re leaving…. I’m kind of like an empty shell, you know…”, he said as he managed to somehow summon genuine laughter.

“I shouldn’t have done this…”, O’Donnell replied, hand on his forehead shielding his face. 

“Well, yes, you should have, but a long time ago”, Aguirre said, breaking into laughter.  O’Donnell laughed too and they both leaned backwards into the sofa and toward one another.  

They did not speak much for the rest of the evening.  O’Donnell caressed his skin, his neck, his face, and his chest as they remained on the sofa, locking eyes, but saying nothing.  He was happy for O’Donnell; he was moving onward and upward, leaving Aguirre behind in the pit that he had fallen into, the result of the choices that he had made.  As Aguirre looked around though, everything was spinning a little bit. Aguirre felt like everything outside was in flux, his life, literally everything, everything in the room felt strange too and it was also literally spinning.  He had had too much to drink.  “Maybe I won’t remember this tomorrow”, he thought to himself with a smile at first; however, then the sadness kicked in and he pulled away from O’Donnell.

“I have to go… and you should head to bed; big day tomorrow, right?”, Aguirre said as he stood up and looked down at O’Donnell looking up at him with a softly pained expression, his head limp against the sofa. He nodded then, straightening up a little bit and preparing to stand to lead Aguirre to the door when Aguirre shook his head, softly said “no… I’m…”, and looking away then without being able to complete the sentence, he made his way to the door without looking back, closing it softly behind him.

23

“Who am I?”, Aguirre questioned himself as he walked along the empty streets of the city after leaving O’Donnell’s apartment.  He was not able to cry.  He was numb now, completely deflated, having already accepted that this had all actually happened. It was all actually happening, unfolding in real time.  It had all felt very real throughout the process of self-destruction, though he had chosen to remain primarily as an observer.  Every part of him, the internal and the external, remained as ashes.  Nothing remained at all of his “self”.

“I am an artist”, he said reassuringly.  He had difficulty believing it at that moment, but he believed that if he repeated it enough, it would remain true.  The world was becoming a very dark place he realized, and he was no longer sure what the light at the end of the tunnel might be; he believed though that he needed to believe in something, some sort of light that would emerge someday to make it worth continuing to walk through the darkness alone.   O’Donnell was the past, a ‘sunk cost’, he told himself. 

Thus, Aguirre walked silently the entire way to his mother’s home.  The sky above was still and the hum of the city, of phosphorescent light and its dull roar, was faint.  It grew fainter still as it shrank in the distance, as he climbed the hills towards his mother’s house, and as he walked through the dark woods between the city and the place that he now called “home”.  Upon reaching his destination, and before entering the door, he looked out into sky to witness as the black gradually became blue upon the horizon where the stars had begun to fade and a thought came to him, “this is the beginning and the end.”

Book Two & Beyond

Acknowledgements

Thank you to my parents, Lynn and Anthony Elliott, and to my family. Additionally, I wish to thank Washington Lawyers for the Arts and the Seattle University Law Clinics who provided pro bono services to verify the legal compliance of the text with regard to intellectual property. Thank You also to all the people who were “art fracked” in the process of this text’s creation, especially the men along the riverside.

Copyright: Thomas Christopher Elliott, 2021