Meeting the Marker
Whether or not you follow the directions, whether meticulously or with haphazard abandon, the product will inevitably be of a distinct nature from the ingredients.
Step 1: Prepare
Every scenario springs from the same chasm. She is vacant of intent and impulse. She is armed with apathy and forgiving remorse. She is nineteen years old in one way more than the rest. Her patterns are eclectic, woven sporadically like the dew-laden lace of a black widowed arachnid. Along that same thread of logic, she devours to stall digestion, she poisons her prey out of thirst for her own venom. She studies the primal habits of complex creatures with mammalian grace, fanning the fumes of a linoleum-glazed classroom, in the sedated shroud of a dorm room party. Her arsenal of practical knowledge luminously eclipses the mangled flesh of a soul shorn of feathers and faith. She has found innumerable ways to avoid occupying the spaces around her, to deflect light from the thick smoke within.
The ritual is wrought over time, and begins on a Thursday. She has dimmed the projected beams of her expectations to reach only the immediate horizon. She has cauterized the split ends of her obligations to shed nerve damage. Six classes, four days, and the California sun is a sure-fire sinner for habit. Clearwater College is a deceptively unassuming compound of Roman stucco, burrowed in the burning brush and crouching purple haze of the California foothills. The pamphlets proclaim it as a haven for the Harvard crop: an eclectic, multichromatic tribe of budding journalists, lawyers, college professors, etc etc etc. In effect, it is a stage set ornately for student performers- thick tortoise-shell glasses, shredded skateboard decks and mother’s denim blue jeans, jelly sandals and camelbaks- their costumes begging the aesthetic of brilliant nonchalance.
Because she fits the sartorial standard, one would expect her to simmer with the same low-burn lumen. Yet here, as everywhere else, she swells to meet the raw need of any community for a black-barred bad thing. She gathers her materials and lays them out each day. A dash of unchecked impulses. A cup of half empty, a cup of cheap rye. A tablespoon of bleach, comb it through, swallow slowly. A drizzle of ink splaying morbid shapes across her skin. A measure of acerbic angst. Half a dose of blood and bile. A sprinkling of misdemeanors and low-grade ketamine. Occasionally, the notion strikes her that she is performing a self-sacrifice, that hers is a curriculum of expected miracles and martyrdom. She is a paper shredded for the existential anxieties of those around her. She loathes only those who catch her without her costume.
Then on a Thursday she begins the rounds. She sleeps with a cocaine dealer and a white rabbit. They bring her comfort and convenience. Darby the boy has set a stash out for her to fuel the fodder, the widening weekend begging for more. She sets the standard, he expects nothing and rarely asks.
Bring a duffel and your blankets. The desert gets cold.
They share and shoulder the burden. A cooler choked with clothing and asphyxiated pool floats. A plastic bag stretched with crackers and candy. A milky glass bottle of mescal. His long pale fingers tinker cold canisters of nitrous like church bells.
Aly, we’re driving out to the Mojave. The guys are throwing a Wet Noodle. We’re gonna bring speakers and trash bags to surf down the sand dunes.
Her roommate has a car that she cannot drive. She accompanies them in their forays, though disapproves. She is small and firm and speaks in suburban slings. Aly is Corinna’s slap to the throat and gasp for air; she creates safe spaces across them to fill the noxious air.
Be right back.
She spreads time lapses with her words, stuffs the hours inconsiderately with forgotten last words and minute made diatribes. One for the trail, two for the taking. At the sister school that flanks Clearwater she picks up plastic. Compacts of pills painted mauve and cerulean blue. Taught little bags, glossy and milky white like burnt skin. Pack and powder. She has walked the perimeters of the valley before she can feel the foothill gales beginning to dispel the thick, acrid air of the afternoon.
Step 2: Process
Because of her, she is uncomfortable. There are six of them in the Subaru and she pretends to buckle her seatbelt. The oily sheen of patent leather prints wrinkles on her damp legs. She begins to meditate on fractured words.
Tomorrow and- tomorrow and- feels like ninety in the - wear sunscreen - expected - expected - expect.
She is eager for someone to ask her for something so that she might dismiss the request. When she was little and sick, her mother would have her drink Pepto-bismol, a silky sweet expectorant that invariably drew currents of vomit from the back of her throat. Half an hour in suspense, with the silent expectation of suffering, a concession for the greater good. She’d been curious about the power of refute. What kinds of things can a child say no to?
They reach the wind-battered road-signs pointing towards the Mojave. Boundaries to the brim.
Who wants what from you and will you give it to them? Is it expectation or obligation? To whom do you owe the honor?
It isn’t her car, it isn’t her license, so she cracks her tooth-ground nails against a can of beer and muses against the backdrop of the setting sun. Paper trails setting in the wake of the car, cigarettes cast and crumbled like the shredded remains of balloons fallen from the sky. She will owe nothing to no one and then weep when no one nears.
She hears the rhythm in the rush. The gears of the car burping and bouncing with each sharp turn.
There’s no place to run, there’s no gasoline.
Engine won’t turn and the train won’t leave.
Aly is asleep and Aaron, the boyfriend, is hummingly bitterly, loud, piercing pitch at her ears choked with dreams.
Keep me awake.
She knows that he is expressing a human emotion towards which she has no interest or understanding.
Shit what the fuck was that.
When they pull the car over, Aly jolts and Darby whistles streams of nitrous laughter. A cracked and collapsed Joshua tree.
Looks like a fucking corpse.
She claws at the small paddies of mascara caked in the creases of her eyelids.
The ground is cold, as expected. They burst from the car, its hot stilled breath expanding like the aftermath of cheap fireworks, deadened by the silence and the sound of shifting tectonic plates.
They begin to set up camp, build a fire that dies. Next time. Tomorrow and tomorrow after that- we’ll make a fire.
She draws the pool floats and sleeping bags from the sticky cooler. She can hear the grasses straining, the swelling succulents and ephemerals squeaking against their own membranes. The pool float echoes, synaptic shivers between her temples as she tastes plastic and oxygen deprivation. Anticipating sleep, she begins to shudder. Steam bubbling dark and thick from the hungry places within her.
I’m gonna split a brick, who’s down?
She cuts her teeth on the crumbling white bars, bitter streams of saliva carving furrows in her gums. Her fingers stroke blindly at the buttons of the speaker, the razor strip rim of the beer can next to her. The Velvet Underground. The words drift heavily across her vision.
Everything I’ve had but, couldn’t keep
Everything I’ve had but, couldn’t keep.
Sometimes she feels so thirsty and sometimes she feels so drowned. What do they expect her to do next? What is she supposed to do next?
They can feel the dawn before the sunrise. The autumn feeling of scorched earth seeping trapped heat. Trapped. The cold sweat crystalizes along the folds of her skin. Aly groans, Darby and Sam are dipping their mushrooms in peanut butter.
I’m going to make a sandwich.
Others have arrived. There are caravans flanking their pitiful campground, boys sparring with the brittle bones of a dead animal, the tongues of a pale fire flicking at the dispersing clouds above. They are twelve or so in total, a baker’s dozen with her. Aly is the only girl, and she has a boyfriend. Expectations.
She untangles herself from the soaked blankets, joints popping and creaking with bursts of gaseous tension. Nautical twilight melts into the sharp edges of the dawn. She is hungry.
A boy ambles over, bone in hand, and unspools a long and baleful glance down at her.
The pressure of a building bass shifts her attention away from him. Blake? Brett? She reaches for his extended hand. He lifts a frosted glass to his chapped lips and nods towards the other boys, all of whom she knows. He swallows, a rolling blister of liquid straining against his adam’s apple.
Come here often? Grin. He hands her the drink and a soft, wet Dixie cup with a purple gummy bear lying supine on the paper bottom. Here.
Later she makes a sandwich: frosted oats and peanut butter, a dash of mushroom powdered thin like desert silt. The bent and broken fingers of the joshua trees crook towards her from afar. She is sitting by a fire, her lips damp with the boy’s saliva. Cradled between an impulse and an expectation, her limbs quiver with the ache to run. Her leaded tongue strains from the back of her throat. Words, tumbling crooked from behind her teeth, begin to catch and crumble in her mouth. The alkaline air pulsates above the crust of the earth. The gelatinous liquid behind her eyelids trembles and coats her vision with a sweet, moist quality. The dust has begun to dance about her ankles, sparkling about her skin. She itches to shimmy it off. The wind shifts and the buckled knots in her hair convulse madly like tumbleweeds cracking their whipped branches. The far away nears. She stands and shakes the softness from her brown and battered knees.
I’ll be right back. And she shoulders the dead weight of her words as she walks away from the others. The timer is set to the tune of rushing blood.
Step 3: Enjoy
This, for the time being what it is. And then the rest will follow. She is taking measured steps, marking her cross to bear into the ground- footprints of chalk and ash. Away, here, there is rhythm in the rush once more. She can hear the waxed sheaths of grasses straining upwards. She can feel the gentle murmurs of drought deciduous plants echoing the sound of survival. Her memories fade and fossilize like the sweeping alluvial fans before her. This, the liminal space between contact and chaos is where she lays herself to rest.
She is crawling now, atop the smooth scar of a bone-dry arroyo, between celestial boulders nearly crushing here with their thick silence. The corpses of stream beds sprawl out before her, the tombs of biomes lost to the passage of time. She has been here before, and to ease muscle memory, she chronicles each movement with care and a false set of intentions.
Because the predictable has become the intolerable, because the materialization of fettered dreams and crackpot wishes on dim stars unsettles in her a rage that threatens to collapse the universe. She is prying at the corners of the earth, clawing at the webs of nerves and synapses that threaten to deceive her. To see the world anew. As from one epileptic fit to another. The essential quality of things fundamentally diluted and dissolved. To disappear from the setting itself and re-enter the rush a being born of altered perception and radical experience. She is desperate to defile, lustful for virginal landscapes laid out bare before her. The ache and urgency become a sharp and seething sickness to her.
Is there anything that hasn’t been set in mud and stone?
She haunts herself thin. Courses through the set stages of her life as she knows it now. Scratches at the phantom limbs of places she once had but couldn’t keep. In vain, projects veils of uncertainty atop the unmistakable structures that haunt her with their shapeless forms. There is nowhere to go. Only places to come.
She walks back the way that she came. The topography laden with a luminous afterglow. Across ephemeral watercourses and lakebeds, she tiptoes and prays. To be like the ever-shifting dune seas, to bless all things with that quality of instability that permeates her being. To match the without to the within. Later, she will thirst in her sleep, and awaken with the familiar taste of rust and rain beneath her tongue.