AN ATTEMPT AT A PROLOGUE
Cigarettes are still being lit and all the girls take turns to spin like junkie ballerinas—enchantresses in short shorts and mini-skirts. Meanwhile the boys say little, watch rapt. Everyone—as ever—is fucked out of their couture insanity; chasing candy to delay the inevitable crash-like aggression released from the passive or something already broken breaking again. So more substances are acquired, if only to postpone the implications of what they knew they must face.
Lena tried to read the sky like a map, while Nara—faithful to her violence—kicked at cans which she pretended were new stars she was embroidering into the cosmos. Carmine fluttered, aviarian, in paper wings, whispering to the winter wind, as Mal watched her, rapt. Yen obsessively tried writing a life story or a story of life or a life which is a story or a story where there is life on the back of a soggy brown carton sitting beside a small but smelly trash can, from which Kenzi extracted scraps to create offerings for whichever deity occupied the moonlit sky. Basil hummed a Thalassic melody, why Aly sketched a woman he knew was identical to Magda. All of them rode their surreal carriages through the throat of the milky way. They have forgotten the Future, forgotten the inevitable fall and the crash, the crush, the burn.
I never discovered the reason Yen picked her, nor do I know whether she was chosen randomly or after careful consideration. I can’t even tell you whether she was the first. I don’t know. Who knows how Yen’s mind works anyway. Who cares how the mysterious wreckage of depressed minds operates? What I know is this: one random night Yen walked into—ha ha—a bar. One of the countless barely surviving bars, indistinguishable bars you can find anywhere in Massa: the capital. He asked one of the bartenders for a drink and asked the other whether she would work for him.
“Doing what,” Nara asked, disinterested, lighting a cigarette even though she wasn’t supposed to.
“I want you to make sure I don’t kill myself,” Yen said flatly, amicably.
I imagine she cackled in that jagged, hag-like way of hers as she rolled her eyes and walked to the other end of the bar, hissing a variation of I don't get paid enough to deal with this shit.
I imagine Nara that first night: emaciated, medium height, mid-twenties, black hair like barbed wire snaking midway down her back, brown eyes shrouded by way too much cheap and badly applied make up. She smoked as she mixed drinks that overcompensated for their blandness through too much liquor. She fiddled too often with her black crop top, Yen absently noted this, how she pulled it over her chest—which seemed to imply (or at least try to, badly) her breasts were bigger than one expected.
For his part, Yen sipped one glass of whiskey on the rocks after another, now and then cocking his head to the left side as though trying to discern a whisper only he could hear through the deluge of classic rock.
Three drinks later, Nara was back at his side of the bar, taking the orders of three boys seemingly in their late teens without bothering to ask for any identification. Yen inspected Nara’s face with intensity, noting the complete lack of affect as she engaged in corny, flirtatious banter with her three customers before he uttered,
“Huh?” Nara threw, distracted because she was describing her signature drink to the young men. The drink sounded criminally bad to Yen—what with the sprinkling of crushed cardamom and mixing of espresso and tequila.
“Will you work for me?” he persisted.
Nara rolled her eyes. “So funny,” she humored him. Cad, her manager, had lectured and yelled and cursed “the customer is always right” way too many times at Nara for her to let her cruel cynicism take charge of her retorts. Just a miserable drunk loser, she told herself, smile and politely decline.
Yen looked at her with his trademark earnest expression. “I’m not joking.”
Nara told the three young men their drinks will be right up before moving to stand right in front of Yen, meeting his heavy-lidded eyes squarely.
“Look, it’s been a long night and I’m really not in the mood. Are you going to order another drink?” Nara fiddled with the split ends of her hair, a sure sign she was losing whatever minuscule amount of patience she had.
“Sure. But I’d still like you to consider working for me. I’ll offer you as much money as you want,” Yen smiled in a way Nara would later describe as utterly devoid of spirit and emotion. Made my skin crawl, she’d say.
“Suicide watch?” Nara scoffed, “that’s what they have nut houses for. Or call a hotline or something. Are you sure this isn’t a joke? Did Cad put you up to this?” She was quiet for a moment, as though giving Yen the chance to fess up before finishing with, “now please excuse me,” and marching off.
“Wait. I really don’t want to do either of those things. I’m not a very big fan of the psychiatric profession and people involved in it. It won’t be a hard job, really. It would just be time-consuming. As I said, I’ll offer you as much money as you want. Just think about it,” Yen pitched, pushed gently.
Nara was getting seriously annoyed now, you could tell by the way she narrowed her eyes.
“Look dude, if this is your way of like hitting on me, it’s not working. I don’t screw for money. I don’t know what sort of crap you’re trying to pull.”
“I’m not insinuating or asking for anything of a sexual nature. All I want from you is to make sure I stay alive,” Yen said, as though what he was asking were perfectly normal and rational.
Nara looked him over for the first time. Noticed the handsome, sculpted features, the plain but obviously expensive clothes, the golden watch wrapped around his wrist. There really was no reason she could think of for some random rich, good-looking guy to make such an odd request. She tried to decide whether he looked deranged or desperately sad, but his expression revealed nothing.
Yen wrote of all he couldn't feel. He could feel nothing. Emotions stuffed as blocked nostrils. He tried and he failed and he tried again, already foreseeing that he would fail, so again, he failed and tried again. His whole existence seemed locked in the repetition of one action never completed—the torture of almost but not quite. Like climbing stairs but a step away from the landing, he constantly found himself back at the starting point. He was aware of what tastes his absurd curse should incite, the way one looks at a dish one never tried and sees its constituents: potato thyme mushrooms (and so knows he should taste: potato thyme mushrooms).
Yen knew what he should be: disgruntled, frustrated, exasperated, mad—all those foreign islands, like a secret everyone is in on, except Yen: the black sheep. Even boredom was beyond his reach. He played the same scene over because, otherwise, there was nothing to do. And he wrote one story after the other then another and more others—inscribing characters with habits and flaws and patterns and voices; moving them with the skill and precision of a chess waltz. He wrote and was published and wrote more and was published more.
And tried, oh how he tried, to feel rather than understand—to participate rather than watch and hunger, but nothing came. He was brilliant and wholly devoid of all. Even sadness at his condition was beyond him. So he went on producing, well-oiled machine as he was, and waited for the day when he should feel; believing such a day would come because without such belief, he would be left with nothing, and time was so very long without something to look forward to. Such a person, all seasoned intellect, odd to not know—not realize—that wanting itself was feeling: a branch of desire. It always seems the more intelligent + self-aware an individual is, the more said individual's intelligence and awareness fails him in regard to himself. Is it any wonder he wanted to die?
“You expect me to believe you walked in here and just decided to ask a random bartender to keep you from offing yourself for a big salary?” Nara was struck by this sudden sense of being watched—as though a camera had just been flipped on and she were somehow the opening scene.
“Yes,” Yen smiled.
“Okay. I’m thinking about it. Hmmm, NO. Don’t make me call one of the boys to kick your ass out of here,” Nara said, cocking her head toward the fat security guy by the door in what she hoped was a menacing fashion.
Yen said nothing. Just smiled.
An hour later, Nara—who’d just finished her shift—stepped out through the bar’s back entrance, lit a cigarette as she walked toward her car, and she found Yen, standing there, smiling in the same creepy way.
“What the hell? How did you even know which car was mine?” She discarded her cigarette and plunged her hand into her purse quite quickly. “If you try anything, I swear, I will Taser you faster than you can blink,” Nara hissed, inching back.
“Oh, I have no intention of hurting you. I apologize if I scared you. I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to again ask you to consider my request.” As he stood there—face suddenly drawn and unbearably haggard as he gazed at her—Nara knew whoever Yen was, he wasn’t interested in attacking her.
Nara never knew what possessed her at that moment. Maybe she was just bored with her life or maybe it was another one of her potentially disastrous impulses. All she knew was that she couldn’t bear to see somebody look so helplessly lonely—he reminded her of some made-for-TV movie she watched as an adolescent while her mother slumbered, drunk, which ended with a space-suited astronaut alive and stranded in space with no hope of any rescue, just floating in the terrible cold darkness waiting for a slow, terrible death. It had given her violent nightmares for months, something in Nara she never knew existed and she simply couldn’t look away.
“So all I’d have to do is hang around and make sure you stay alive?”
“Pretty much,” Yen replied, beaming at her, hazel pupils lit.
“How many hours a day are we talking?” Nara didn’t know why she was participating in encouraging this farce.
“Depends on the day. Some days it might be one hour. Another it might be twenty. That’s the unpleasant side of the job.”
“How much money are we talking about?” Her eyes, I’m sure, gleamed with greed.
Nara was trash, and almost proud of it. Body ironed, folded, tucked. Body regaining consciousness like electroshocks, no anesthesia. Body: that damnable carousel that doesn't stop. Heart so adamant, hiccup hic-cupping along. Lungs carved with prayers for rain, drops to fill them like barrels, gratefully receive smoke like an antidote then make a game of bursting alveoli: warm wishes, fan letters to black hole death.
Except when the hours turn to drugs: her religion. Drugs coursing like thunder claps, like a billion little bombs, like meteors plunging through the membranes of planets, like warmth. Nara almost felt it each time trickling through, pollinating blood cells with pleasure orgasm—trumping, sating the miserable hunger always defining existence.
That clawing, clutching need, that fucking need as persistent as autoimmune illness or the nagging of worried parents or toothaches. That need which is a furnace, all volcanic, angry, rasping why this, why this trite mantra as taking knives to skin is trite, as yearning to crawl back into the uterus which spat her out so she could wrap its umbilical cord around a newly sprouted neck: terminate before the prologue is trite, as winter suicides are trite, as self-destruction is trite, as sex with faceless bodies is trite, all trite fucking trite. It turns the violent cacophony of her mind/heart/bones/self into temporal harmony, ecstatic symphonies, galactic coherence all lovely, lovely world, lovely every person, lovely her. Black magic, wild magic, merciful poison she prays would take her, just claim her into coma dreaming and endless hush. And like fuck, she loved it more than any world/thing/body. People will tell you drugs will kill you, but as far as Nara is concerned, drugs fucking save her.
“As I said, whatever you ask for,” Yen restated, a faint smirk coloring his expression because he knew bargaining was a sign of acquiescence.
“I want this in writing. Like I want to see a contract before I quit my job to babysit you.” Nara felt weariness claim her even as she uttered the words. Inherent distrust. It didn’t occur to her that she might not be fit to take care of a suicidal individual. Or if it had, she didn’t care. The scope through which Nara saw life was selfishness/self-preservation. She wanted the money, that’s all she knew.
“Oh, you’ll do it then? Excellent. I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow to finalize our arrangement. May I have your number?” Yen’s features lost their vestige of desolation, manner turning all business.
...an hour later, in her cubbyhole of an apartment, Nara paced back and forth in her room, appalled at what she’d just agreed to but also, she couldn’t deny, excited.
The letters began to arrive in the spring. The day Yen received the first one was absolutely ordinary. He had woken up and—as often of late—immediately called Nara over for suicide watch. She spent the morning in a rocking chair reading awfully trite magazine headlines: "20 Little Ways to Drop the Pounds and Keep Them Off" and "8 Ways to Spice Up Oral Sex" stamped on the cover. He was plunked next to her on the porch, wearing a pair of very dark sunglasses, smoking, and studying the monochromatic expression on Nara’s face as she flipped from one article to the next.
Another click of the lighter—percussion for the avian clucking orchestra fox-trotting across an all picturesque sky: blue with fluffy white clouds. A movie-set sky, a cartoon sky. He could smell the hundreds of newly born dahlias and daisies, taste the tang of approaching heat waves in the air. Could hear the surrounding sycamores as they chattered excitedly, showing off their recently acquired locust-green foliage. It made him nauseous.
“You know,” Yen began, “I think the world will end only when every person realizes the best thing our human race can do for the universe and itself is global mass suicide. Not even in a morbid sense, but in the inevitable discovery that no amount of scientific progress, evolution or art can change the inherent urge/desire to compete. To be better-than. To stop exploiting one another for advantages, as though life is one massive eternal gaming platform and we're always keeping score. What for? We are all going to die—that's something all humans share, so why not make it easy for one another? No, the end of our race will present itself in a single, empyrean moment of understanding.”
Nara looked away from her magazine, fixing him for a moment with an unperturbed, indulgent look he associated with the worst of psychiatrists—that, “tell me more” look while they scribbled and their eyebrows wiggled and furrowed.
“So, you hired me to keep you alive while you wait for it, that moment?” Nara asked, vulpine features mimicking amusement. Yen knew very well she was anything but amused.
“I don’t expect it to happen for centuries yet,” Yen confessed, trying not to betray disappointment because he felt acutely in that instance that he was pretty much incredibly pathetic.
“Oh, grow up,” Nara very decisively rasped in his general direction. “It’s a beautiful day. Stop brooding and enjoy it,” she sniffed the air and affected a vernorexic smile. And that was the end of it.
Yen had warned Nara on her first day—after she’d arrived at his house in an oversized jumper and ripped jeans both in bad need of washing, muttering fancy as she scanned his foyer—that in his dark moments, he might take too much of something or mix the wrong substances together.
“You have to be watchful at all times. You can get high with me if you want, but not to a point which would hinder your task. Just make sure I stay alive,” he’d said in the blandest monotone. She’d just nodded.
And she had turned out to be surprisingly pretty efficient at her job. Nara made sure he never shaved without her keeping watch, that no sharp objects were lying around on his worst days, that he was fed on the days he couldn’t manage to get out of bed, that he didn’t drink too much when he did cocaine. She monitored and researched whatever he got high on at all times.
It continued to surprise Yen that Nara had never asked him why. Why was he so keen on staying alive if he was so miserable? He would’ve lied, of course, but she had expressed less curiosity since he’d met her than anybody else he’d ever met.
Therefore, the months since Yen had hired Nara had been unremarkable. Then again, everything about life had always been unremarkable to Yen. Flat and hollow. Days blurred into shapeless parodies of living, their repetition always harrowing. It was all the same. Every day, the sun rose, then set, and the night maintained its darkness and the earth continued orbiting.
But on that particular day of the letter…
By the late hours of afternoon, Yen dwaled back and forth, feeling an aggravated sort of restlessness which was typically a side effect of some seriously potent mood stabilizers, but in his case was simply an aimless fed-up-ness. Then—on a whim—Yen decided to check his mailbox. Usually, he never checked his mailbox. That was Nara’s forte. Yen always wanted to expend a minimal amount of effort on chores.
The mailbox squeaked as he opened it. There was all sorts of junk of course—flyers, advertisements and a “SUPER special: limited time only” from some takeout dump. There was a bank statement and a gas bill. There was a plain off-white envelope. It seemed to call to him, that envelope—in spite of the benign minimalism of its guise. To taunt him, somehow. Its barrenness and absence of any name or return address irritated Yen. It made him quite uncomfortable—all that lack.
He took the envelope and showed it to Nara, who rolled her eyes dramatically, “maybe it’s carrying anthrax,” she huffed and tossed her uncombed tresses over one shoulder before she returned to a different—though just as inane-looking—magazine.
Whatever Yen had expected to discover in there, it certainly wasn’t what he found.
I wake up to the stench of my loneliness; residue of intoxication parked in my mouth. I wake up and wince at the day which offers no hints, not ever, as to what to do with it. What's useful? What's good? But in the end I undertake just what appeases me; frequently indirectly proportional to what is useful and good.
And I wash consciousness into my face. Peel my hair off the hills of sleep. Inspect my reflection. I do not know what I expect to find in mirrors. A voice? Directions? Treasure? All I ever do find is the outline of a face. I fill it in like blanks. Skip breakfast. Smoke cigarettes and blow my feelings into them; my carcinogen of a confessional. What nourishes me destroys me and all that…
I remember, my love, a line from a poem you read to me eons ago which said something akin to: whichever hand I bite becomes the hand that feeds me. In that line I see your face. In that line I see mine.
I wish to desiccate my history, push it under a stern microscopic eye, sharpie the flaws like a plastic surgeon tracing skin, wash vigorously, tumble, dry, fade it, dilute it, then paint it with hand, turn it into something pretty – as compact as a book, an antonym of life. But also I wish to be with you, to choose that which I know will haunt me.
I have told you before I am a strange type of thief, knowing I'll get arrested, committing the felony anyway. I know I am seeking some sort of revelatory mythical transcendence, wild-goose chase. I am chronically existential.
My therapist tells me I am a very odd combination of narcissism and self-loathing. She asks me why I hate myself so much. I don't hate this self, you know, I just cannot deal with it.
Fractured. I crumple up, fold as grandma's wheelchair, compact in the back seat after we smuggled it an hour following her funeral. I am devoured by a nostalgia as general as anesthetic. Oh, remember remember how we took turns riding and pushing that creaky chair. Remember twelve am, twelve beers later, how I spun you so fast one of the wheels flew off, freed and we observed the ephemeral even in mementos.
I wish to free myself like that. How typical, this desire, how trite I can make myself feel. But what is it which I long to free myself of? Feelings? Life? You? Always, I find myself consumed by a nagging need to hurt myself; as though to ascertain my apathy. But I cannot.
Remember how you once said the most curious aspect of my rebellion is its silence?
Will you not reply? How I miss you. Oh, I miss you. Every second, I miss you. Even as I am fading out, I miss you. And I wish, I wish you into being. I conjure simulacra of every you. Beg animation to take hold. Nothing. Failed defibrillations.
Sometimes, it feels as though my entire life is a story about you.
Drugged, I would retreat to the compartments of my life; browse through it as a flip-book, gorge on the crumbs of expired happiness. My therapist also says I'm an escapist and I wonder why she relays it with a connotation as negative as a eulogy. I digress. I’ve quit seeing her two weeks ago and vowed, as I always do, to not stay alive long enough to decide to seek help again…
But I know I'll probably return, just as I know you won't.
Yen must have read the letter five times before he noticed he was breathing in short, fast spurts. And he thought of somebody once—some professor or classmate—explaining to him, Yen, what gymnophoria meant: the sensation that someone is mentally undressing you. Yen had assumed it was a pleasurable feeling…but no, perhaps what he felt wasn’t so much as though someone mentally undressed him as much as robbed him of his mental clothing.
This letter. What the hell was this letter and what was he to make of it.
And was he that far off about his mental health that not only was he having blackouts but also, simultaneously, recalling taking actions which—it now appeared—he’d never undertaken?
Because Yen could remember writing this exact letter, by hand, years ago and could remember, just as clearly, burning it fifteen minutes afterwards. Nobody had been around to witness him writing or burning the letter, which meant he couldn’t appease himself with the possibility of a culprit.
How long has his mind been so far gone? And even—somehow—if he hadn’t burned this letter which he was sure he burned, why would he mail it to himself anonymously years later? Was part of his brain trying to communicate something message to another part?
No. Yen was certain that the universe wasn’t merciful enough to so graciously set Yen free from his sanity. And he could recall no missing chunks of time ever. No waking mysteriously in places he couldn’t remember going to or anything he couldn’t account for.
Except this letter. This W.
Yen was a rational man and there had to, just had to, be an answer.
Yen read the letter again, wanting to rage or anger or even fear but all he could find within himself was this incipient, abderian penumbra of optimism maybe. A thrill like he was finally being handed a challenge which didn’t bore him and it was because it was written by him, in a way. Was he really that self-involved. Yen couldn’t explain it, but he was most definitely rejuvenated. He was going to research. He was going to wait for another letter. He would get to the bottom of this…
All of a sudden, Yen’s cheek stung really bad.
“DUDE, ARE YOU IN THERE?” Nara had his face between both her hands and was like shaking it back and forth. How long had she been addressing him? How long since he opened the envelope?
“Stop,” Yen wanted to grab Nara’s wrists but he just detested touching. “Stop, you’re hurting my neck.”
“Oh, so you ARE in there? Do you think that was funny? Is this a cry for attention?” Nara tapped her right foot as she stood over Yen’s seated body. She seemed to be gazing at the horizon again, as she did more often than Yen thought she realized, brown eyes glimmering amber as they faced the setting sun. Yen wondered what Nara saw, thought of looking at the monolithic mountains rimming Massa’s south, their peeks also fog-clad. Always, to those mountains. Sometimes, Yen thought he could see her lips moving silently as she looked at those mountains—like she was muttering a prayer, or secret or private song. There was something achingly lovely about it to Yen, though others who’ve seen Nara muttering while looking at landscape rather thought she seemed possessed or just talking to the voices in her head.
And though he hadn’t planned or meant to, Yen just handed her the letter.
Despite Nara’s criticism, skepticism, and all-around negative attitude, Yen remained intrigued by that first letter. He reread it, analyzing every line of it. Tried to decipher the gaps he saw between the letter’s lines. Part of Yen really did see the letter as some sign. Not divine, but maybe a gift card from Cosmic Balance or whatever spiritual crap atheist, suicidal writers believe in. Another part of him, though, knew he was vastly exaggerating the significance of some random letter—reaching out with the tendrils of his imagination to construct a lifeline out of shapeless hemp. He punched the latter part to sleep, just to stretch the transient hope the letter sparked in him a little longer.
It was like a disembodied warmth in the glacial ranges of his unbreachable solitude…a thing that—to Yen’s utter shock—didn’t feel like a recent development but rather something that had been sitting right there in plain sight the entire time. Nothing so grand as to make him question his long-held dislike of the prospect of life. Instead, a comfort he’d so needed before. Still needed, maybe. Belonging? Nothing so pedestrian, but akin, almost. Almost intimate.
As for Nara, while she found his entire behavior ridiculous, Yen seemed to her more animated than she’d ever seen him. So if this whiny, depressive letter kept him from offing himself on her watch, she was more inclined to feel begrudgingly grateful…with reservations.
Spring days continued to advance in their parade, each dawn awakening new flowers with it and boasting clearer skies, all of which Yen was blessedly oblivious to.
For a little while, a routine was established around the letter. Each day, Yen would sit behind the massive black mahogany desk that occupied the center of his office, poring over the arrangements of syllables and speculating over every remotely possible reference embedded in it while Nara curled up on one of the two pillow-cluttered sofas, watching a movie or reading a magazine. But as days passed with no other letters arriving, Yen slowly grew disinterested, regressed, morphed catatonic.
Two weeks after receiving that first damnable letter, he was worse than he’d been before it had appeared. Nara’s mind grew dyspeptic with expectations of failure; every phone vibration laden with menace, so much so she began spending nights at Yen’s, monitoring him. Sometimes, she’d catch herself praying, like to an actual deity, for another letter just so the fool could have a few more days of whatever amounted to peace in his head.
Nara couldn’t understand Yen. In fact, resented his misery. He had the financial means to numb whatever demons possessed him. She felt like the poor of the world—the fundless and tumor-filled—held the rights to true unhappiness and suicidal ideation. Her philosophy was if one could pay for sedation, then depression was just bad manners. The fact that drugs and medication both poisoned the body and the mind seemed irrelevant to her. Given the choice, Nara would’ve fought all her sadnesses with the best designer drugs money could buy, and when the drugs finally took their toll into the terminal and incurable, gladly indulged in one last fabulous and final hurrah.
And yet she never told this to Yen.
She told herself—as she counted kitchen knives and sleeping pills and shoelaces—she’d ask for compensation once he was better again. Just trying to make more money, she inscribed the conviction unto her mind.
By the third week, she felt like an ICU nurse. Every day was a whirlwind of ordering expensive meals, blending organic mood-boosting shakes, scoring the right drugs and drawing warm baths, all to prod some sense of liveliness back into an unresponsive Yen. Most days it just felt to Nara like she was arranging a gigantic puppet into various postures simulating life. It made her feel like a creep. Some nights, Nara even took to researching phrases from the letter herself, hoping to find the smallest bit of information around which she could stage a correlation, stage a revelation to prod the spoiled, stubborn suicide-child into motion.
“I remember, my love, a line from a poem you read to me eons ago which said something akin to: whichever hand I bite becomes the hand that feeds me. In that line I see your face. In that line I see mine.”
Nara was attempting to locate the poem the mysterious W was referring to—assuming it existed at all—when Yen returned from his daily mailbox pilgrimage clutching a bare white envelope identical to the one in which the first letter arrived. Nara’s stomach thundered, her intestines squirmed. She didn’t know whether to be thankful for it or resentful of what would happen if no other letters followed it. What became of Yen then and where would it leave her?
It’s just a fucking crybaby letter.
Suspicion also clawed at her. To Nara, everything had a purpose, and—as with a doctor who cannot reach a diagnosis as a patient’s symptoms worsen—an unidentifiable motive was a whole lot more sinister than an obvious one.
“Now I know it wasn’t delivered to the wrong address the first time,” Yen looked at her, all boyish excitable hazel pupils, practically vibrating on his heels as though his motor were finally revving.
“Still doesn’t seem any less fishy,”she mumbled, twirling a loose thread hanging from her black shorts around her index finger. Her gaze roamed over the rows of gleaming shelves that encircled Yen’s antique desk, the custom-designed furniture, the plush, hand-embroidered rugs. What outrageous luxury! And to have all of that crap and the bank accounts and instead be obsessed with death and some silly excerpts of a sulky 13-year-old’s diary! She should hate Yen, she thought.
She wanted to tell him to rip the motherfucking letter to pieces and just stop, desperately wished she had some epiphany she could endow upon him to make him appreciate the ordinary, the world as is, or just at least ferret out some permanent, minimally destructive coping mechanism to deal with it. She looked inward. Said nothing. Slunk to the marble-countered kitchen for some gourmet, overpriced instant coffee.
Yen pretended to or perhaps truly didn’t notice Nara’s disappearance. All his attention was aimed at the words waiting to be unwrapped. When he was done—after perhaps reading the letter over three times—he walked into the kitchen, turned the lights off and handing Nara a flashlight to read by, as per usual. Yen hated with an astonishing fervor any type of illumination.
Last week, roaming sleepless at one am, I went to a psychic. I was consumed by the idea she might see you in me. The shop was an entirely cliche affair; bead curtains and incense and dim lighting. The psychic was much younger than I expected, all boundless blonde hair, a toothy grin and far too many bracelets. As she looked at me though, some part of her demeanor changed and I contemplated whether it was something she sensed.
First she traced the lines of my palms, then let them fall. Then spread her tarot cards. Suddenly I was crippled by a flashback of you, in that atrocious blue shirt, as you refused to pick a card out of a deck of tarot I found at a thrift shop. Eyes narrowed, you told me that the freedom to make a choice is still asking you to make a decision. Serious, you told me that you chose not to choose. As I sat there pangs shot through my stomach. I craved tears, but they wouldn’t oblige. Meanwhile, the psychic dissected me with her eyes like a butcher separating cuts of meat. Are you alright, she asked. Yes.
When all my cards had been revealed, she absently said: don’t try to shoot a bird that’s too big to bury. Don’t do that to yourself, she smiled, all wry. I didn’t tell her I couldn’t stop. I didn’t tell her I wouldn’t. I didn’t tell her I didn’t care. All I felt was disorientation. I paid her and as I was leaving, she said, mind the tricks of your mind. I asked if she was going to offer me a remedy for a reasonable price. Her eyebrows seemed comically uneven as I left.
Yen was once more revived, freed from the saturnine. Pyretic frenzy rampaged his senses. An urgency prompting him forward toward…what? The fact was this stranger knew him, Yen. Not just in the sense of camaraderie sometimes present between depressive minds but actually. Actually, it was Yen who once went to a psychic in the throes of insomnia and out of euphoric intoxication, loneliness and nothing better to do. In fact, the description given of the psychic’s shop in the letter was almost exact. But, Yen thought, that could be simple coincidence, considering how cringingly unoriginal the space was. Still. Still. She had been a blonde also, the psychic and there couldn’t be very many psychics’ shops operational well after midnight in the city. That is, assuming the events depicted in the letter took place here in Massa.
What would inspire a stranger to undergo the same actions as Yen had a year ago then send a letter to Yen about them? Since Yen had no recollection of ever even sharing his visit to a psychic with anybody, ever, the whole existence of the letter was infuriatingly mendacious and vague. Like, what the fuck was even going on? Who was sending these letters and why and how did they seem to know seemingly random information about Yen with which they teased him for no good reason? He needed to breathe . . .
Yet, Yen wasn’t angry. Not at all. Which is probably what absently annoyed him. He was, if he had to describe it himself…enthralled and the disturbing part was Yen believed the mysterious letter-writer knew that was the effect their letters would have on him.The tendrils of a siren’s song fastened a leash around Yen’s neck. That’s the thing about those of Yen’s disposition—they had a remarkable propensity for outrageous obsession.
Nara saw the effect of the letters on Yen. It made her angry. She herself was unimpressed with the letters. Just some poor, depressed loser Yen must have crossed paths with at some point, she thought, who was now fixated on Yen. Or aware of Yen’s nature and using the letters to screw with him. Someone trying to sew their puppeteer’s strings around Yen’s fragile, neurotic mind. Found herself oddly protective of Yen while simultaneously wanting to slap him for being such an easily manipulated fool. Yen’s ambiguous comments regarding how the writer knew things they shouldn’t sounded like arrant bullshit and clearly the handiwork of a con man. Yen dismissed all her warnings though, and even had the gall once to tell Nara to stick to doing what he hired her to do. This prompted Nara to vanish for seventy-two hours, but upon showing up, Yen was still researching every fucking consonant of the letter and seemed to have been utterly unaware of her three-day sulk.
Three months and four letters later, Yen’s every moment was consumed by this mysterious W’s words. Spell-bound, the more of the loquacious letters Yen received, the more his hunger grew. Nara could have sworn Yen was in love.
Yen had tracked down first the psychic’s shop he’d once visited, only to find the place had been replaced by a tanning salon and the psychic unknown to any of the salon’s employees. He then visited all four psychic shops open after nine p.m. in Massa. None of the psychics were willing to disclose any information about clients. Even after they were goaded with money, none of the psychics could recall ever having undergone the dialogue mentioned in the letters with a client or any approximation of it whatsoever. One particular psychic—a middle-aged woman who reeked of an unfortunate mixture of essential oils—seemed to feel particularly sorry she couldn’t be of any real help to Yen. Seemed to feel sorry for him in general, offered him a cup of tea and a free reading, both of which Yen declined. She reminded him of his mother and he couldn’t exit her shop fast enough. Empathy had that effect on him.
In the third letter, though W left no clues, he quoted the exact lyrical portions of two songs—Regina Spektor’s “Consequence of Sounds” and CocoRosie’s “Werewolf,” specifically “no one’s the killer and no one’s the martyr” and “loveless bedrooms filled with doom, bring silent heartache July to June”—that Yen himself had quoted in two different published essays during a productive stint years ago. The magazines the essays were published in, however, were esoteric at best. The idea that someone could possibly be so interested in Yen’s life—a life he’d call crepuscular if he were being very generous—bewildered him, left him flummoxed as though he were being spoken to in tongues. The why of it drove him over the edge. He felt if W was looking to create some sort of masterpiece of observation, then W’s foray was doomed by picking him, Yen, as the object/subject. Object. Or it could be personal, as Nara kept repeating, but Yen didn’t think he’d ever left much of an impression on anybody—negative or positive—to warrant whatever these letters were an exercise in…
In the fourth, W pretty much described Yen’s first semi-serious suicide attempt word-for-word, including Linkin Park’s “Numb” playing in the background and lavender incense burning to ease the soul’s exodus. Except—in the letter—W mentions being found and saved by the mysterious “you” his letters are supposedly addressed to before any serious damage took place. Yen, on the other hand, recalled waking up just as dawn was breaking—following his first attempt—with a massive headache and having to clean the drying pools of blood on his room’s floor and very quietly launder his blood-stained sheets before either one of his parents came in to rouse him. It was a memory Yen didn’t care to relive, and one he’d only ever shared with a couple of psychiatrists—neither of whom Yen believed could be W. He was more than ever at a loss and more than ever transfixed. And he was certain—Yen was—that he didn’t want to die before unraveling the mystery of W.
In spite of this, Yen continued employing Nara and even told her she could go ahead and make one of the guest rooms her own for as long as their arrangement lasted, since she spent every day and most nights with him anyway. Nara, of course, was only too happy to oblige. She didn’t think Yen could even imagine the cockroach-infested cubbyhole of a studio apartment she’d lived in for the past two years. She didn’t ask him why he kept her around and continued paying her a fairly sizable salary in addition to covering all her expenses whenever they were hanging out (which was all the time) if he no longer thought he was going to hurt himself. She wanted to ask, but whenever she was about to, she’d always hear her mother’s voice talking about looking horses with gifts in the mouth or another equally hackneyed saying and Nara would say nothing. She knew there was much that Yen wasn’t telling her, about himself and his motives and about why he regarded the anonymous letters with an almost religious devotion. She didn’t see the point of asking. Yen—and his money—was the best thing that ever happened to her, as far as she was concerned, and she wasn’t going to fuck it up.
Shit, however, happens. It just does.
One night, Yen was gone for a couple of hours and when he returned, he shook a little baggie at Nara, which held like five different types of pills—two of each—that came in odd shapes and peculiarly bright colors. Usually, Nara tried to never get too intoxicated around Yen for obvious reasons, but he seemed to be doing better than ever lately, what with the W letter becoming more frequent and all. Yen himself didn’t seem to be worried about his well-being lately, nor did he go on wildly nihilistic monologues anymore the way he did when Nara had started to work for him.
So Nara, the idiot, let her guard down that night—gulping down one pill after another with Yen—not sure what exactly any of the pills were, but feeling more and more fucking glorious with each addition and the overall resultant synergy. This ended with Nara passed out on the floor and Yen—still mightily intoxicated but starting to come down—awake, alone, forlorn.
Yen did try to wake Nara up at first, to no avail. Then he sat on his porch and smoked a couple of cigarettes, trying to push the urge down. Back inside, Yen gently shook Nara a few times, called her name. Nothing. Which he decided was a form of divine approval of his decision, the universe giving him the green light. Cool, he thought, and shoved an assortment of over and under-the-counter painkillers into his mouth, washing them down with orange soda. A sense of peace descended. Yen even thought he almost felt happy. Before he passed out, that is.
The next thing he remembered was Nara slap-punching him awake with one hand and shoving the fingers of the other down his throat, screaming “asshole” over and over. The acute acridity of the pills coming up, mixed with bile and artificial orange flavoring and the nacreous colors which erupted out of Yen and onto the cold, blue bathroom tiles is all Yen could later recall about the process by which Nara essentially saved his life.
They said nothing about the incident afterwards, but Nara grew more sedulous than ever in her surveillance of Yen, who increased her salary. If there was one lesson Yen could say he learned from the accidental suicide attempt, it was to never underestimate his subconscious yearning to die, which ran deeper than even he consciously suspected.
It wasn’t until the seventh letter that Nara ultimately cultivated an interest in the letters. No wonder, though, since the next letter had her name on it, not Yen’s. She’d laughed at first, when Yen had emerged from his office—where he usually vanished for a few hours whenever he walked in clutching a telltale off-white envelope—after only a few minutes and said it was for her. His tone—Yen’s—had been accusatory, which had made Nara deeply uncomfortable. But, how the fuck did W know Nara lived with Yen and what made the damnable pest decide to embroil Nara in this unamusing affair? And what exactly did W have to say to her?
“What the fuck!” Nara mumbled uncertainly when she was finished reading, shaken to the core.
“What?” Yen pulsated with this rabid hunger, which Nara found a little scary. The whole thing felt a little scary. One should keep in mind that, thus far, Yen hadn’t confided in Nara that W seemed to often be narrating to Yen his (Yen’s) own life. Yen had thought about telling Nara before. In truth, he’d wanted to tell her badly, especially when she’d ask again and again why he was so fixated with mawkish drivel. He’d wanted to tell absolutely anyone, actually, just the release which came from confiding this whole crazy scenario.
Which was precisely the rub. It was crazy. Like if someone told Yen this was happening to him/her, Yen would never ever have believed it. And with his psychiatric record, there was no chance of his claim not appearing bad; at best a cry for attention, at worst full-blown paranoid delusions of grandeur. So, naturally, understandably, he’d said nothing. But, here was the moment. The unexpected: a letter from the same source to a different recipient. Yen needed to see Nara’s reaction, needed to know he was losing his sanity.
“What?” he repeated, guessing his intensity was freaking Nara out, but feeling unable to help himself.
“Is this a joke? Is this like your thing? You hire somebody, some nobody, tempt them with a fat salary and then systematically fuck with them, psychologically?” Nara knew she was lashing out, creating conspiracy to make sense of an occurrence her mind couldn’t wrap itself around. She kept feeling like maybe there were hidden cameras, like she was an oblivious participant in some experiment or experimental reality T.V. show or some other convoluted, conspicuous operation.
Yen was unfazed, somehow felt that Nara was performing hysteria rather than actually undergoing it. Surely, some part of her already realized that whatever was in the letter, Yen couldn’t possibly already know. So he waited.
Almost twenty minutes passed before Nara spoke again. During that time, Nara had just watched a video on her phone which began with a female voice saying, “Welcome back to wake and bake,” and sounded—as far as Yen could tell—like it involved a girl getting stoned on camera while yammering about some band called Enslavement of Beauty, then going on about another band called Sad Legend while baking savory cheesy spinach muffins. Yen was at a loss as to why any girl would decide to broadcast herself smoking weed then preparing food while essentially talking to herself and even more flabbergasted by why anybody would choose to watch her. Most of all, he couldn’t translate why Nara would use this video to unwind or reflect or whatever on the letter she just received. He tried to distract himself with a Sudoku puzzle until she was ready to speak, but was unable to fill a single square.
“This W person seems to know a few things about me that I’m pretty fucking sure I’ve never told anyone. Like not only something that happened, but exactly how it made me feel. I can’t seem to think of how W could have come to know this,” Nara paused a lot in forming her sentences, as though she was trying to find within her limited vocabulary just the right words to voice what she meant to communicate. She fiddled with a coaster as she spoke and also blushed furiously at one point, for no reason Yen could detect.
Noha Elbadry is an Egyptian writer who moved to the US in 2014 to pursue an MFA in creative writing at UNLV. For the past three years, she has been working on a manuscript for her first novel, Cacophany, which is largely inspired by people she met in both Egypt and Las Vegas and merges them into one hybrid city.