What is the question you want to ask? Follow your heart knowing heart is a dead metaphor for what passed a moment ago. Your imagination can hold the ground, sort of, or better frame muddied rooms.
So much of my life wrapped up in these chilly Nevada dawns. Hot in the days, but the mornings come with a fresh, cool, coursing air, a tad damp with the smell of alfalfa, and if you know the area, you imagine the other side, over the mountains, the Pacific stirring under a blanket of fog.
Ah, the banality of life. And the hidden, half-emerging, sun-sharpened, mysterious and ethereal grandeur of every moment. For example, my toilet seat broke this morning, but I’m not afraid. I can still squat and see the waving, speckled branches of my neighbor’s tree outside the window.
Patient is diagnosed bipolar I. He’s also bisexual. He hasn’t reported a severe manic episode since the spring of 2018. His attachment to people and things appears highly disorganized and susceptible to distress. He is stable on current medications, but frankly, he complains too much, is wildly self-absorbed, and I’m sick and tired of hearing about his childhood. However, he did share something perhaps not insignificant in our last session, a story about growing up in the desert and his brother backing down from a fight. “It was the neighborhood bully, and we circled him and my brother on the playground because the bully wanted to fight, but my brother stood there with his head down and didn’t do a damn thing. I kept shouting at him to punch him, but he said he wouldn’t fight. Everyone laughed, and I was sick with shame. That same bully came after me in high school with his friends. I hid in the library. I began ditching class. If called on to speak in front of others, I would shake uncontrollably. I carry that shame to this day. It makes me feel like shit if I think about it. I don’t know, Lydia, it feels like I’m always searching for someone or something to heal that wound, you know?”
I reminded the patient my name is not Lydia. I also told him he must love himself. If we don’t love ourselves, we don’t survive.
In the beginning, it was like a royal court if by “royal” I can mean ensconced in the drama of a public hall—any poverty or abuse at home held at bay—and Sierra, my childhood sweetheart, was there, blonde and bubble-gum pink. I still see her in dreams, on the horizon, saturated in golden sun. It’s a terrible thing, nostalgia, that ache, and I wish it would go away because it doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s beautiful, really, and I don’t want it to go away, but that doesn’t matter because fuck, I don’t have to tell you, you’re hiding under your desk right now with all the kids because POP POP POP the bullets never stop, and if not the real thing, then the endless drills to prepare for the real thing. I’m sorry. There’s no recourse for any of us because my generation started it with Columbine, and no, I never wanted revenge. I wanted to understand the horror, the dumb thud of a body on the floor.
Sierra fell in love with my bully, after all those years growing up together, and I try not to think about it because the guy jumped off a building in his twenties. I didn’t want to feel vindicated when I learned about it, to need that, but he ended it from a building in Reno, and I can’t figure out what went wrong, how our first loves got so bent. I try not to think about it, but I find myself thinking about it and how I’d like to start over with the guy and tell him his violence is a symptom of a much bigger disease we all carry. I want to tell him I forgive him. The thought of some greater magnanimity spreading through the sky eases me, seduces me, as if it were all just a big understanding. But I also carry the disease under my tongue like he did, and I know beneath my now-walking feet is the gaping mouth of the turned-up grass.
I’m planning a road trip with my family to Canada. My wife has family there now, Peruvian immigrants like her. I’ll have to check her car, the tires, the steering, brakes. I was born in Enumclaw, Washington, near the slope of Mt. Rainer. Going up through Seattle will be a homecoming of sorts. I don’t have much to say about my memory of green firs touching each other, hills bursting with ferns, spongy moss. This was before Nevada with its pale sage and sand and sere giant pines. Before California where I met my wife by the frothy surf.
No, this trip will be grand. My children trust me to drive two days straight, from the desert to the rainforest. We all mean well as we close and lock the windows, the doors, as we scrape dust from suitcases long stuffed in garages, and then, with enough cash on hand, pitch our throats to whistling sunlight.
Patient is taking a road trip to the Northwest. In our last session before the trip, he relayed a horrific vision of seeing his daughters perish on the highway: “I’m driving fast and they open the side door and tumble out and I scream and my wife screams and I try to stop but traffic is insane and I can’t find a place to pull over and the light is vicious—hard light—and the sky is full of smoke and all is lost in a heightened way that feels close to weeping but before I cry I pinch the bridge of my nose knowing they’re gone and I’ve failed as a father.”
I instructed the patient not to heed irrational fears, that both mania and depression feed on them. I also prescribed him Ativan for the trip, to take as needed.
When I fell in love with the anarchist in my twenties, he asked me to attack the hamburger man. I didn’t understand, but he said it had to be done.
“We can preempt judgment through the deed, own our aesthetic,” he said, and he touched my lip in a way a man had never touched me.
He was famous already, at least in Reno, and the caress electrified every particle of my being. Light pulsed through me, coming out both aquamarine and yellow. Every step I took back in my hometown of Gardnerville, while he stayed at the university, felt incredible. I couldn’t huff enough air. I got high and mighty from tiny bells in the atmosphere. I recalled my dad talking about ions in the soil, fish feeding near shadowy banks, how the universe was activated all around us if we just had the right touch, though sons who fell in love with men would be harder to figure out.
“It’s a race to set judgment first,” the anarchist told me over my flip phone. “The world is empty, and we can only triumph by drawing blood.”
I’ve often thought in the years since how to describe the anarchist. He was magnetic in a way I had never known. He was brilliant but also irresistibly jagged, severe in the way of a gaunt tree glowing in the wind, or like a skeleton with a cigarette, hungering gloriously. I never fell as deeply in love with anyone else as I did with him.
The hamburger man, on the other hand, was painfully average, a dufus. I didn’t know the identity behind the huge buns-and-meat mask but knew he frequented all the locations of a certain franchise in Reno. He would take photos with children and hand out promotional flyers. Everything wrong with the world was embodied in the hamburger man, the anarchist said. He represented the inane, repressive heart of capitalism itself.
The anarchist called me three times before I set out that night. I didn’t reply because just talking to him sparked my teeth and other body parts. I found the hamburger man on the south end of the city. I followed him for two blocks with a pocketknife in my hand. Pedestrians looked at me like I was a mental patient. I was a mental patient, in love. When I finally closed the distance between us, I saw him lean down and pick up a greasy paper bag from the street, not from his restaurant but from a competitor. When he threw it in the nearest receptacle, I experienced a mix of pique and shame.
“Hey!” I shouted out, opening the blade in my hand.
He looked at me through the eyeholes. Sesame seeds looked like oversized warts on his face.
“You got kids?” I asked, seeing myself as a boy chasing lizards through the sagebrush of my hometown, falling, grating my knees on volcanic rock.
I didn’t know if I could hurt a father.
“I hate kids,” the hamburger man replied, and his voice was an unexpected and gorgeous baritone. “This is just my job.”
Then he said: “The free burgers are okay, I guess.”
He shrugged. And with his shrug came a burble from my lips, where the anarchist had touched. There was a hissing sound. Suddenly everything was not so intense. The twilight lolled on the high peaks above Reno. Love was no longer love. I felt like a taking a piss, so I dropped the knife and walked back to my car.
Leaving a small, cluttered house in a small, cluttered town and hitting the open road ignites a raging freedom. I want to scream. We’re passing Lassen, Shasta, up to Oregon. Goodbye, desert. Hello, green hills. Hello, incomparable, dripping forests.
My children need a bathroom break, so we stop by the Rogue River. I walk my twin daughters and older son to a Sani-Hut on the edge of a manicured lawn because the bathroom building closer to the river is locked. My wife says something in a tone of revulsion, but I can’t make it out. She grew up in Peru and often mutters in Spanish. Sometimes her traumatic responses from her childhood scare me. We’re better parents together, I realize, and I must tell you this: As we get back on the road and drive north, sunlight penetrates the hazy air, and there is enough of it to suffuse Maria’s face pure gold in the passenger seat, and she’s laughing at some joke she found on her phone in the spotty reception, and my love for her knows no bounds.
“The intensity is so strange, truly a curse and a blessing. Truly a blessing because a curse—a sun that exists to outwit a black hole,” Arden texts me on my smartphone.
Arden is my best friend in middle age. We planned on running away together once but decided against it. We both have significant others we care about. Don’t get me wrong, she is beautiful, raw, blunt, exquisite, and unapologetically hungry. She is also bipolar like me.
“My markers: Paranoia on the ups and suicidal ideation on the downs. I still cycle but try to avoid those extremes,” I reply.
We check in on each other. We love each other. We are both bipolar parents.
“I was having the most disturbing images of my daughter dying last night in a fire. Penetrant and excruciating. Our imaginations are so vivid and uncalled for, but that’s just the dark side of what makes them capable of art,” she says.
I copy and paste an old tweet to text back: “Tfw you turn on TV for your daughters who are starting kindergarten only to find live coverage of another mass shooting at an elementary school. A maddening nausea. And the sharper fatal sense nothing will be saved.”
Arden knows I’m on a trip. She knows I pine for a larger world but won’t act on those feelings. I have made a commitment to my family, and so has she.
I call her from the hotel parking lot in Salem, Oregon, while drinking coffee: “Manic depression is being full of visions and feelings, good and bad, and I’m learning how to better detach myself, as though I’m standing back watching the river of my mind.”
She says: “The yearn arrives first thing and attaches itself to coffee, but then maps a junkyard archipelago I keen to know throughout the day.”
I say: “I love you like I love this cup. It’s here, part of me, coffee steaming. And this cigarette, smoke coiling. Why can’t I ode the dumpster over there and make you queen of it? The broken-down boxes and crumpled papers and shitty diapers, hard and soft and dense and falling apart, collecting heat and cooling and glowing? Why can’t we break the air over our knee and scream?”
She says: “I love you, too.”
I say: “I don’t know, I don’t know. Only when Maria and I gave up on our marriage were we free to love each other. It’s lighter than before. The dread is gone.”
Arden says: “Dread? I can tell you about dread. You’re at a party and then afterwards that brief, desolate feeling? That’s as close to suicide as I get. I am lost like that.”
I say: “You are loved. You are found. By me. By others. A deranged grouping half-nailed to the floor, present in the room of the mind.”
Patient called me from Seattle saying he’s been fighting with his wife again. I asked him how his spouse is, presently, and he responded she’s fine now, that she’s trying to be more accepting. I tell him we must love ourselves, and it is not reasonable to have others carry this burden. Then he called me Lydia after I requested several times he use my real name. Changing the subject, I asked him how he was sleeping, reminding him insomnia is a sign of mania. He told me he was too tired to worry about it and hung up.
It is raining outside the ferry terminal in Port Angeles. My son slips in the lobby, and his sisters rush to his aid. He is fine, it is a funny accident, but seeing eyes of strangers on him, I suddenly feel rage—not the rage of freedom, but the rage of bondage. I realize what I would do to help him stand back up, to gather his dignity. Love burns my ears. I wonder if I would kill for my children.
In the bathroom, my hot urine hisses in the urinal, mixing with the damp atmosphere. I zip and head outside in the rain for a cigarette. I can see Canada. A continent of forests. I will spend the next five days there, sightseeing, visiting gardens, running my hands over the immense and gnarled bark of coastal redwoods.
The sky has already changed. In Victoria, I will find it low and balmy, always streaked with gray. Used to hard, brilliant sky, I will miss the desert.
Maria was my wife, then she wasn’t, then she was again.
I’ve trained myself to give up all reassurance from women, men, anyone really. But from her I had expected something more. In our bedroom closet, I had recorded lyrics for a song. The closet was the closest thing to a soundproof studio in our house, and it was cramped and dark and smelled of sour wooden shelves. The lightbulb was broken, flickering. In me was the darkening detritus of bipolar disorder, the half-compacted, smoldering trash of bisexuality, the crush of it.
I sang and sang in a fixed fit, unbelievably intense, hitting every note, and when I came out of the closet, Maria wasn’t there.
Years later, I sat on a stool in the French Bar in downtown Gardnerville. It was spring. Maria and I had separated. The interior of the bar was like a smoky cave, not quite blue or purple but with undertones of both. The door behind the pool table was open. I could see outside, a stand of lilac just flowering. Sunlight broiled the pent, stinging buds. Heat shimmered at the mouth of the door. I could have walked through that door and never returned. All the world lay before me, new jobs, new towns, new loves—an imagined freedom without the blows of actual life. I sat on the stool and sipped my glass of Coors Light. The glass was sweating. I lit a cigarette. Billiard balls cracked. I didn’t miss marriage, but I missed my wife.
After the sun set that day, I walked home. There was a heady smell in the air of almost-flowering, latent the way heat from the day stayed in the sidewalk, radiated out. I could have struck a tuning fork on the heated, cooling objects around me. My vision was clear, uncluttered like the eyes of youth seeing something for the first time. I was forty.
When I got home, I found her. The kids were with my mother. Maria sat at the kitchen table, focused on a pile of mail. Our house is small, and she seemed like a giant in that moment. I knew if I died right there, she would continue to take care of our kids. She is a dogged provider, and I love her for it. When she looked up at me, I didn’t know what she saw in my face, but her lips opened, and she asked one question: “What do you need from me?”
The answer was already in my brain, had been for years, and now it was spilling from my mouth, filling the space between us: “If someone in this town calls me a fag, I need you to stand up for me. I want you to slap their fucking face.”
Patient texted me a poem from Northern California. He said he is almost home, back to the desert and “the blankness.” He said he didn’t take one Ativan while traveling. I scheduled an appointment for him next week in the office. The poem is in Spanish, which I suppose is understandable. He clarified it’s not for me. It’s an unexceptional and trite poem, honestly. Translated in Google, it reads:
Welcome to my heart, love.
You are the bird perched on its rusty nail.
How you can sing the hard light soft. Stay.
Scott Neuffer is a writer who lives in Nevada with his family. He’s also the founding editor of the literary journal trampset.
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