Do you know what a two-headed camel fucking a rocking chair looks like? I do. It looks like the shitty abstract painting that hangs over my therapist’s desk. It’s really just a blotch of colors, a glorified Rorschach, but I defy you to see anything else in it. I’d always wanted to tell her what I thought of that painting but found more humor in letting her believe it was a good purchase. If I told her I saw freaky animals and furniture engaged in coital struggles, it would just be overanalyzed and end up in my file. There’s already enough weird shit in my file as it is.
The last time I was there, watching that two-headed camel go to town on that chair, it almost made me horny. But mostly it made me angry. I dunno, I was feeling fed up that day and bad art kills me; and bad art that sells makes me want to cry. I should know. I do it for a living. And that certainly doesn’t help my depression any.
Dr. Marsh leaned forward on her couch. “Your birthday was yesterday?”
She knew full well when my birthday was; she was just trying to open up a new line of questioning. I don’t know what she thought she’d get from talking about my age. Maybe she thought I’d gained some maturity points in the last few days. Maybe she wanted to test my age-to-wisdom ratio. I had no idea how old she was, but I doubted it was more than five years more than me. Whatever, I obliged her. “Yeah. Thirty years old.”
“Feel any different?”
“Feel more adult?”
Depends. Do adults get jealous of things that fuck rocking chairs? I shook my head. She kept staring at me, her eyes almost sad, as if she were looking at a puppy. If I didn’t say something she’d keep pestering. “Not really. When my mom turned thirty, she seemed a lot . . . older. I don’t feel old. Kind of feel like a kid, still. Is that weird?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Times have changed. Thirty is the new twenty. Plus your mom had children so her mindset was different. She was responsible for you and your sister’s lives. That makes people grow up pretty quick.”
The mention of my sister cut through me, made me look at the ground. It was an involuntary response, as if I might be able to remove myself from the room by staring down through the carpet. I didn’t like talking about Jamie and Dr. Marsh knew that. I couldn’t tell if she did it on purpose or if she’d forgotten. Part of me wanted to yell at her, but I wasn’t about to lose my cool here.
“Do you want kids?” she asked.
Oh, for the love of . . . . We’d been over this before. She was like a broken record. “Someday. Maybe. I dunno.”
She scribbled something on her legal pad. She was always taking notes during our conversations. I can’t imagine what they amounted to. Roger Huntington, thirty years old, might want kids, has the personality of a sock, seems way too interested in that painting over my desk . . .
She put the pen in her mouth and sucked on its end for a minute. Freud would have been proud of where my mind went. “What have you been doing with your free time? Any dates recently?” Only with porn sites and an Xbox console.
My life was pretty boring, but Dr. Marsh and I had discussed my tendency to be negative so I decided not to get into it. Maybe that’s weird. I guess you’re supposed to tell your shrink about your pathetic nights alone looking at HotCollegeChicksInHeat.com, but I wasn’t up for the spelunking she’d do inside my brain if I did. “No. Don’t meet many girls.”
“What about that one at the gallery? What was her name?”
I hesitated. “Victoria.”
“Yes . . .Victoria. Do you talk to her?”
I nodded. “She works there. I sell there. See her sometimes.”
“You like her?”
“Roger, you’ll never know if you don’t take a chance. Are you afraid of the rejection?”
I shrugged. Who isn’t afraid of rejection?
“I mean, if that’s what’s holding you back, then you’re going to go through life alone and miserable. You’ve got to stop hiding in this shell you’ve created and start talking to people. That’s when the healing will really start.”
Then what am I paying you for, I thought, to test steno pads? “Doesn’t matter. She has a boyfriend. Gabe something.”
Dr. Marsh set her pad and pen down on the couch cushion next to her. Unlike some shrinks, Dr. Marsh preferred to use two couches—-one for her and one for her patients. I think she felt it leveled the playing field. All it really did was make the whole process look unprofessional. I mean, you go to a shrink, you expect to lie on a couch while some twat in tortoise shell glasses analyzes your dreams from a leather chair. You don’t expect to sit across from each other like it’s a frickin’ tea party. Times have changed. Except for the part about dissecting my dreams. She was always asking about my nightmares. But, you know, since they were a big part of my issues, I guess I couldn’t blame her for practicing some archaic therapy.
“Roger, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but unless a girl is married--and even then sometimes, but that’s not the point--she can be swayed. I think you should give it a shot. Who knows? Maybe she hates the guy but is too codependent to end it.”
She was analyzing people she didn’t even know. Brilliant. She might as well have her own talk show and commune with people’s dead grandparents.
“Do you want her?”
In the worst way. But I didn’t say this; I just nodded. I’d become a professional nodder these last few years. You’d be amazed at how much easier it is than talking, and most people prefer it. Saves them the trouble of having to politely probe for conversation. You nod, they nod back, you each move on.
She picked up her pad again and scribbled something, maybe her grocery list for all I knew. “How have the nightmares been?”
Ah, now we were getting into that twat zone. My dreams. My nightmares. The only thing I could count on these days. Last night’s dream had been bad, waking me up in a sweat, but still not the worst I’ve had. Some nights I wake up screaming. Some nights I find myself in the kitchen, disoriented and shaking. Sometimes I’m holding a knife and crying. My left thumb has a nice scar on it from one of my somnambulistic episodes. I almost severed it off into my fish tank.
If you want to know what my dreams really consist of--the blood, the rituals, the screams and pleas for help--you’ll have to read Dr. Marsh’s notes. I tend to forget them after I relay them to her. Sort of like a purging function. Once they’re out, they’re out. The stronger ones that linger are overwritten by the next terrible nightmare anyway so . . . I almost didn’t want to get into last night’s with her, but I knew she’d keep pushing if I resisted.
“Did you dream last night?” she said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“About the man?”
Yeah, about the man. She didn’t need to say his name, didn’t need to describe him. We both knew who the man was.
“If you don’t tell me we can’t put it behind us,” she said. “Come on, spill it. We need to do this.”
We? Right. She liked to think she and I were some team going through this together. She might have known my past, but she knew absolutely nothing about the reality of that summer ten years ago. She and I were not a team; she was not ever going to empathize with me no matter how hard she tried. If I could take her back to those few days in the mountains and put her in that freak’s cellar, chain her to the wall next to Tooth and me, she wouldn’t be patronizing me now. She’d be drooling in a corner begging for death. And yet, she’d come highly recommended by my old counselor in New Hampshire. She was an expert with trauma victims, or so he’d said. If Tooth was here he’d just say she had nice tits and wasn’t too old for a late night fuck.
I could hear his voice now: Dude, you don’t have to talk to her, just stick it in her mouth, gag her with your sack, and then let’s go grab a brew.
“Yeah,” I replied. “He was sitting in my car with me, the man. We were smoking weed and he asked me to go to a party with him and I said okay.”
“And you feel regret for saying okay?”
“Then what happened?”
I reached up and adjusted the Red Sox cap on my head. My finger brushed the ripped cloth of the brim and I reminded myself I’d have to sew it up soon before it fell to tattered ribbons.
“He lit a cigarette. We just looked out the windshield at this empty street. There was a girl walking across it. Young, in jeans and a tank top. He laughed, got out of the car and started walking toward her and . . .” I hung my head. It was pointless to relive that dream. They were all some iteration of a fucked up bloodbath anyway, so I’m sure Dr. Marsh knew how it would end. They always ended the same way. I looked at the floor again.
“He killed her,” she said.
I continued to study the carpet. Of course he killed her. She knew that.
“Okay. You can stop if you want,” she said. “Do you want to?”
“Okay. Well, our time is almost up anyway. It’s just a dream. It’s your subconscious dealing with stress. You know that. We’ve talked about it. You spend all day every day thinking about this stuff and it builds up in your brain. Try this for the next week. Think about that girl Victoria. I bet you’ll have better dreams.” She smiled in a weird sexually suggestive way. A shudder ran down my back. “And try to let go of your cynicism. I feel you getting a bit more pessimistic these days. You seem more down than the last time we met.”
I’d been tortured, chained up, brutalized, and forced to watch my sister and best friend die under a maniac’s ax blade. How do you get it across to some people that you simply have little belief in the benevolence of humankind? Being angry was all I had these days, because how else could I deal with ten years of regret and nightterrors? It was the only feeling I’d developed in the last decade that felt comfortable.
But I knew she was right, even if I didn’t want to admit it. “I’ll try.”
I got up and put my zippered hoodie on while Dr. Marsh rattled on about needing to meet a half hour later next week. I wanted to tell her that in fact I wouldn’t be back next week, but I didn’t want to get into it in person. I had decided on the drive over this would be my last session. The nightmares would never end, and this was costing too much money as it was. I’d lived with the bad dreams for this long, I could go another twenty years, I guessed. I was content being messed up and cynical.
I stopped as I opened the door to the common room, turned around and looked at her. She was rifling through papers on her desk. “I’m not afraid of him,” I said.
She studied me for a second, then reached for her pad again. But I shouted, “No!”
She tensed up, kind of froze. It was the first time I’d seen Dr. Marsh scared. Scared of me. Mind you, my intent was not to scare her; I just didn’t want to watch her write as I talked. It’s fucking annoying. I wanted to see her eyes. She glanced quickly at the telephone on her desk, maybe gauging how fast she could call security. How’s that for gratitude. She pretends to be my friend for a year, but at the end of the day, I’m just another freak with a potential anger management problem that may or may not do someone real harm one day.
“I’m not afraid of him,” I said more firmly. “I let him kill the girl in my dream, then I killed him. That’s what I hate. That I let him kill the people in my dreams first. I could get him before he does, but I don’t. I wait. I always wait. I don’t know why, because I’m not afraid of him anymore. I stopped being afraid a long time ago I just…wait.”
Dr. Marsh was still on edge. I could tell she wanted me to leave. “We’ll discuss it next week, Roger. I have another patient to deal with.”
I liked the way she let that slip: “deal with.” Just proof that we meant nothing to her, just part of a job that paid her rent. She could deal with my absence from now on.
I pointed to the wall above her desk. “That painting sucks.”
I left, and drove to the Robertos near my apartment to get some lunch, had a carne asada burrito but only ate half of it. The first time I had Mexican food in California was a real surprise to me. I mean an eye-opening experience of cosmic proportions. Back home on the east coast Mexican food consists of Taco Bell and frozen burritos you buy at the supermarket. But that’s not real Mexican food. Real Mexican food is found at places like Robertos, Aibertos, Titos, etcetera. Little stands on Southern California street corners that serve up made-to-order taquitos, rancheros, chimichangas, burritos, all authentic and covered in fresh guacamole. The taste is from another world. Taco Bell is a travesty by comparison.
I took the remainder of my burrito home to my small studio apartment and put it in the fridge. It would provide good company for the half-empty bottle of ketchup and the two cans of beer that made up the rest of my dietary needs.
My cell phone vibrated in my back pocket. I took it out and looked at the number. It was the gallery. I prayed it was Victoria. “Hello?”
“Roger. What the fuck!” It was Barry Goldstein, gallery owner and pain-in-my-ass extraordinaire. “I thought you said you’d have the paintings to me today. We’ve got two days before the show. Where are they?”
In the background I could hear Victoria talking to someone. It sounded like she was on her own cell phone. She was giggling and I had a momentary image of me kissing her someday. Yeah, right, as if that would ever happen. I tried to will Barry to put her on the phone, but apparently I don’t have the Force.
“They’re not done,” I said.
“Are you . . . are you fucking with me? Not done? Roger, they need to be framed and lit and hung up! It takes time. How not done are we talking? Half done? Three quarters? What?”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Then, through forcibly calm breathing, “Roger, if you don’t get me those last two paintings by tomorrow morning this show is off and I’ll make sure all the other galleries in town know how unreliable you are. Got me?”
I took a nickel out of my pocket and dropped it in the coffee can on my counter. The label on it read Barry’s Empty Threats. Trying to scare me was his MO. The guy needed therapy more than I did. He hadn’t fired me yet and he never really would because I sold well.
“Roger,” he continued, “these are important people who buy this stuff. They’re collectors, and they rely on me to get them the product. Some of these people pay very well for what I solicit. And you’re not the only artist in town. Understand?”
“So you can get me more money?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is . . . these people . . . they’ve got the money to pay for whatever they want. They could get it elsewhere but they stay with me because I deliver. That’s what I do. Right now they want your work, so I’m giving you my built-in customer base. But if you waste my time, I can make it so they don’t want your stuff anymore. I can break an artist as easily as I can make him. I will not deal with your lazy attitude anymore.”
“But this is California. Everyone’s lazy.”
“Stuff your New England east coast bullshit up your ass. If you don’t like it here, then go home and piss in the snow. If you’re staying and you want to get paid, deliver me two fucking paintings by tomorrow morning!” He hung up.
I put the phone down and leaned against the counter. The comment I’d made about Californians made me smile. I never used to talk back to people like that. At times it didn’t even feel like me; it felt more like Tooth. Tooth who’d never had a serious thing to say in his life . . . until that stuff in the basement happened.
I knew I’d gone batshit the first time I caught myself having a conversation with Tooth in a bookstore at the mall. He kept telling me books were stupid and I finally told him, “Maybe you should try reading one instead of using them to kill bugs? You might be enlightened, you ignorant jackhole.”
Everyone in the bookstore had stared. Some even moved away from me. Of course they had good reason to, since Tooth was not in the store with me. He’d been dead for years at that point. I just couldn’t get him out of my head. I still can’t.
I feel him sometimes. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like a haze inside my brain, like I’ve swallowed his aura. When I’m alone and I talk to him, his answers don’t feel like they come from me. They’re always unpredictable and snarky, which was Tooth’s natural way of corresponding, unique only to him. Dr. Marsh says it’s a coping system of mine, which makes sense clinically, but sometimes I’m not so sure.
I stared at my living room walls where I’d framed and hanged two paintings I’d done since moving to California last year. One was of a female assassin, Lena 12, fighting a red-fanged alien with a sword. I’d painted her in a thong and metal bikini top, her mouth in a tight sneer. The other one was the inside of some industrial machine shop that was an exercise at playing with shadows. In the foreground loomed a giant lathe with a big green button on it that read press to stop. I often thought about pressing it, just putting my finger through the painting and seeing what would happen. Would the world go black, would it all just end? It’s an enticing thought.
They were good paintings and I was proud of them. Proud that I’d proved my father wrong--I could make money being an artist--and proud because I’d sold the image rights to an independent comic book publisher for enough money to buy a six pack of beer and a beta fish. Independent publishing doesn’t pay, my friends. But then, pride is worth more in the long run so it evens out.
I tell myself that, anyway.
Thing is . . . these types of paintings were not my bread and butter. Californians don’t want dark, sci-fi geekery; they want schlock culled from tropical paradigms, images from films like Endless Summer and Cocktail. So that’s what I paint for money. They call it Plein Air, which stands for open air, meaning you paint outdoors. Really it’s just a fancy way of saying “boring landscapes that get old women’s panties wet.” Long stretches of beach with palm trees blowing in the breeze, waterfalls and rock formations, the occasional woody with a surfboard on top. Collectors hang them up in their game rooms or over their kitchen tables. Hell, you can buy a thousand just like them at Bed Bath & Beyond, but collectors want one-of-a-kind stuff. They want to brag to their guests about how it’s an original from a famous local artist and they got it at a gallery show and blah blah blah look at me I’m so important. Little do they know I live in a crappy box of an apartment because what little money I make off those paintings goes toward my shrink bills and car payments on my vintage ’82 Camaro.Hey, I’m entitled to a little bit of luxury, right?
The other reason these collectors want originals is because they like to go to the exact spot in the painting and take a photograph. Then they hang the photo next to the painting to prove the scene wasn’t just made up. Plein Air collectors are weird, but don’t look at me . . . I have aliens on my wall. A quick look outside the window told me I still had the brunt of the day to get the paintings done. My process is simple: scout a location that hasn’t been painted before (I’m not the only plein air artist in So Cal), set up my easel so I can get it right, and paint until I’m drunk. The natural lighting really does make a big difference when mixing colors for the final product. And the alcohol makes me not care that I’m painting stuff that would make even Bob Ross groan, were he still alive.
I figured I could get one done this afternoon, albeit sloppily, and take a photo for the next one to do at home tonight. Burn the midnight oil and all that. The lighting would be off but Barry probably wouldn’t notice. Only color he really cared about was green, which I don’t say to sound like some anti-Semitic jerk. It’s got nothing to do with him being Jewish, just with him being an asshole.
I grabbed two canvases, my paints, and those two beers from the fridge and made my way down to the parking lot.
It was almost one in the afternoon. The Clash was on the radio belting out “The Magnificent Seven.” I checked my rearview mirror to back out, saw my Red Sox hat looked worse than I’d thought. It was faded and ripped and the red B was starting to unthread. This hat had been through a lot, and it meant a whole bunch to me. Tooth’s father gave it to me a few months after the funeral. If Tooth had ever written a will, I’m sure it would have specified he be buried with it (and maybe a beer and some Traci Lords videos, too). It needed a major overhaul. I took it off, mussed my hair, and put it back on, checked the rearview mirror and froze.
The man from my dreams was looking at me from the backseat, his gaunt, unshaven face stained in blood. He held up a bloody fishing gaff and said, “Bet you didn’t know I raped Jamie with this for a whole hour. She weren’t no virgin when I was done with her. I covered it in Butch’s dog shit first. Oh yeah. And when I yanked it out all sorts of good stuff spit out at me. That fucking bitch came, I swear.” He laughed that high-pitched witch’s cackle, the same laugh that haunted my dreams every night.
I closed my eyes and gripped the steering wheel so hard my knuckles popped. You might be thinking I said something like “I know you’re not real,” like some lame movie cliché, but I didn’t. Because I’m not afraid anymore. I said, “When I open my eyes, if you’re really there, I’m going to rip your fucking head off, reach down your throat and tear your lungs out.”
I opened my eyes. He was gone. Another hallucination. I’d been off my meds for a month now and Dr. Marsh said some old symptoms might reoccur. It’s classic post traumatic stress disorder, or so she said. Same as the war veterans get. It’s no fun, let me assure you. Dr. Marsh advised me not to stop taking the pills, but I wanted to try, just to see if I could move past them. Not to mention they were expensive.
I started the car and left, the two cans of beer tapping together on the passenger seat. One for me, and one for Tooth. Only I’d have to drink Tooth’s for him. I knew he’d want me to.