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Prologue: Late April
Miss Misery was online again. It was becoming more and more difficult to ignore her, waiting, crouched almost, feline or was it supine? in my buddy list. I knew where she was online but I still didn't know where she was. Other than in my head, of course, which was where she seemed to reside more and more often.
It was late April, and I was sitting at my desk, gray shirt, blue boxers. My laptop clock said it was 1:08 A.M., but it was running about ten minutes fast. On my headphones, a mix I had made for Amy's birthday skipped tracks; in the silence, I thought I heard her shift in her sleep. Or almost sleep. Another song started then, one by Rilo Kiley: "The Good That Won't Come Out." A jaunty number about creative constipation. Not bad, I thought. Appropriate, even. I wondered if the crescendo would be audible to Amy even through the headphones.
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window, framed in the halo of light from my computer screen. Familiar face, familiar situation. I looked tired, but that was the way I felt all the time these days. I was tired, but I didn't ever feel like sleeping.
Just then, Miss Misery switched on her away message. It was the usual one, a verse from the Cure's "To Wish Impossible Things." What was she doing at one in the morning? Who was she away with? Who was she away from?
Maybe it was all just a tease. A way of letting me and all of her other virtual admirers know that she was around just not around for us. The lady in her chambers. The lady will see you now.
Except she won't. Behind me Amy coughed. I signed off, hushed the music. It was time for bed. Again.
Time: 2:36 A.M.
Music: Wheat, "Hope and Adams"
I'm smoking while I type this tonight - getting ash in between the pristine white keys, probably, and I don't care. Benson & Hedges 100s, apparently. I think it's what Mom used to smoke. Cody gave me three tonight before he dropped me off. I'm on number two now and won't go to sleep until all three are gone.
When I went to the doctor back in January she asked me (like she does every year) if I smoked and blah blah blah and this year I just felt like fuck it basically and told her yes. She seemed kind of surprised at first, but then mostly just tired. She rattled off this long list of reasons why I shouldn't smoke, but I could see it in her eyes that she had already given up on convincing me to quit. One of them was "your teeth will turn yellow" and I thought that (a) obviously this is the dumbest thing of all time to be worried about but also (b) I DON'T CARE. I mean, I LIKE the idea of old me with my yellow mouth - of my stupid too small teeth slowly picking up bits of tar and nicotine and whatever and changing color like leaves do in autumn. I'm looking at all this smoke that I'm taking into my body and then pushing out the open window here next to my desk and thinking - DON'T GO. I want to have evidence that I did it. Otherwise what's the point? I want it to change me. I want it to color me. Otherwise I wouldn't do it.
Where were girls in my freshman year unit who were already obsessed with getting older. These girls were like 18 and they weren't afraid of leaving home and they weren't afraid of falling into wells - they were afraid of wrinkles. I think their priorities were entirely wrong, but none of them ever asked me. Sometimes when I walk around through the city in the early early morning (which is rare, I admit it - it's more likely to be the very very late night and I haven't gone to sleep yet) I think of myself being older and being actually old and I wish it could happen sooner. There are times when I don't like how unmarked and smooth my skin is, how utterly snappable my bones feel. I want density and debris; I want to live my life on the outside of my body for a change, not the inside. I want my life to be a suit I never have to take off. If I was old I wouldn't have to wonder all the time and I wouldn't have to blush. I could do things and people would trust me.
Right now (note: cigarette number three!) I feel pent up caught up choked up. I see middle-aged women with their pear bodies and raisin heads and I think - that's not what I'm going to become - that's what I already AM. That person IS me - it's not where I'm going, it's what's waiting inside to come out. This stupid skinny frame with the knotty elbows and knees is wound too tightly - I wish it would just give up, exhale, spread out. I wish - sometimes I wish it would just relax.
My father is still awake. He's playing more of that crazy Viennese modernist crickets dancing on vacuum cleaners in hell music. It's loud and there's no rhythm and I know he's in there, twirling his pen, keeping time to some beat only he can hear. He's such a sweetheart. I hope he can't smell this cigarette smoke tomorrow. I can't believe it's almost May.
ps I'm not drunk right now honest I'm not.
[from http://users.livejournal.com/~thewronggirl87] Time: 3:01 A.M. Mood: Dreaming Music: The Weakerthans, "A New Name for Everything"
I should be asleep now because I have a trig exam tomorrow and I'm supposed to do super well on it but I can't sleep. I can't lie still. I'm still thinking about the concert. How amazing it was. How it made me feel. ::smiles:: My skin feels electric.
Maybe it's because I'm not allowed to go see many shows but I think it was more than that. This was special.
Krystal and I got there early (it was at the SaltAir - crappy, I know, but both bands are so BIG now). We got about halfway through the crowd and had a pretty good view of the stage when Krys gave me this LOOK and I knew what it meant - we just started laughing and DIVING through the crowd, like pinballs through a machine, bouncing off huge guys and their bitchy girlfriends. We got almost to the very front when this one gigantic guy in a Jazz jersey yells out, "Watch out for these two - they're SNEAKY." And for some reason this just made us crack up - like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. That's us. We're SNEAKY. ;-)
But when Brand New came on I stopped worrying about what anyone else was thinking and just felt the music. It started in my ears but, like, MELTED into my sternum, into my waist, until I could feel every chorus in the bottom of my feet. Jesse Lacey has this way of singing onstage where you just KNOW he's feeling every single word like it's for the first time - the anger, the dreams, the tears, even the laughter - and it makes everyone in the audience feel the same way. I've listened to their albums approximately 1000 times in the last few months alone, but I felt like I was hearing every lyric, every note like it was - oh god bad pun - brand new. ::smiles::
And then Dashboard. Even from where we were standing Chris looked like a little boy - like a bird boy - but that VOICE. I wanted to punch all the teenyboppers around me who started screaming "chris yr so hottt" when he came onstage. He WAS hot but it was wilder than that. It felt like when I went to temple with my parents when I was too little to start hating it and I believed that whatever I heard there came directly from a higher power. That's what Chris singing those songs was like. I didn't even hesitate - I just started singing along with him at the top of my voice and Krys did the same and I didn't even mind it when the dudes who called us sneaky started singing along too. I felt connected to everyone then - the teenyboppers, the jocks, the punks, the boys, the girls. All the crappy people of crappy Utah and they felt like family. When he sang "Swiss Army Romance" and the part about "searching just like everyone," I had tears in my eyes because I believed it. I felt for a second like I was bigger than my body and bigger than the entire arena. That I wasn't trapped. That I could escape.
I know it sounds stupid but I felt like these Russian wooden dolls that I've had on my desk since I was like 8 years old - you know they're different sizes but they each fit inside the bigger one? I felt like I've always been the smallest, most hidden doll, but the music and the crowd and the singing and the MOMENT made me feel like a hundred different dolls just ready to bust out.
I hope this is the greatest summer ever. And then next year at school goes in a heartbeat and then it'll all be over. It'll finally be time to escape.
Good night. I hope I get some sleep!
[DAVIDGOULD101's journal has been deleted. If you are DAVIDGOULD101 you have 30 days to reregister your journal.]
Text copyright © 2006 by Andy Greenwald
Chapter One: Cities That Begin With "The"
The day Amy left was the first nice day of the year - at least in terms of weather. She had told me not to bother going with her to the airport, so I didn't. When I woke up that morning, all the windows were open and she was gone.
It was early, still well, early for me: ten A.M. I briefly considered spending the rest of the day in bed. It certainly was comfortable enough, and with Amy absent I could stretch out diagonally if I wanted. Her side was still warm; it smelled of herbal shampoo, and I burrowed into it. My mind began to dance at the possibilities of hibernation: I could spend the entire summer underneath the covers, master the art of controlled dreaming, and finally strip the excess layers of fat from my 135-pound frame. This was going to work; this was going to be an excellent solution. I turned onto my back and stretched, letting my eyes fall lazily toward the open window, where a small, mustachioed Mexican man was sitting dangling, really with a giant spackling tool in his left hand and a friendly wave in his right.
"Hola!" he said cheerily. "I paint the house today!"
"Hola," I said. And quickly scurried from the bed toward the bathroom.
The home that I had shared with my girlfriend up until that morning was somewhere between a railroad apartment and an incredible bargain. It was big enough to be a two-bedroom, but unless you enjoyed high-fiving your roommate on the way to the bathroom, it was ideally suited for a couple. It was a third-floor walk-up in a three-story brownstone in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood with faux-French bistros and glowingly pregnant junior book editors in equal proportion. I liked living there because it was comfortable and not too hip I liked the bars and I liked the trees and I liked not having electroclash bands vomiting PBR outside my window at three in the morning. Amy liked living there because I did.
The building was owned by Mrs. Armando, a tough-talking, Italian-born widow who still lived on the first floor. She kept her door open all day, occasionally made me soup, and seemed to have no idea what exactly I did for a living. I was fine with all three of these realities.
The apartment itself was a clash of Amy's sensibilities with my lack thereof. In the living room, she had contributed the coffee table (which she'd painted herself), the large Mucha print, and the stuffed bumblebee hanging from the closet door. My offerings included the futon-as-couch, the potato-chip crumbs currently nestled into the futon-as-couch, the pile of newspapers on the floor, and the Xbox. A fair trade-off, no doubt.
The strangest thing about the apartment aside from it now being eerily empty and quiet save for the lusty Mexican painting songs emanating from the general direction of my bedroom was that the bathroom was right off the kitchen. I'd spent hours thinking of it as a major health risk, but then again I didn't cook all that much, so why complain?
Just past the doorway to the bathroom, to the left of the kitchen sink, was a tall window blocked from the inside by a sliding security gate. Outside the window was a small fire escape upon which I'd set up a starter-kit herb garden that my friend Carrie had sent me for my birthday. The directions seemed simple enough: Fill with soil, sprinkle with seeds, set outside, water, repeat. Soon, Carrie promised, I'd be drowning in fresh basil, thyme, chives, and chervil. Innocent and excited, I'd asked, "Won't the pigeons eat all of the herbs?" She'd laughed at me, said of course not. Pigeons don't eat herbs. Carrie, it should be noted, lived in San Francisco. She didn't even know what a pigeon was.
I slid back the metal grating and stared at the mordantly obese, slate-gray pigeon that had taken up residence in the soil of my herb garden.
"Hey," I said.
The pigeon looked at me, no fear showing on its beaky visage.
"Get out of there," I said weakly, waving my arms. "Shoo."
The pigeon's beady eyes registered something between pity and disgust. A few days after the first green sprouts had appeared in the dirt, the neighborhood birds had ganged up and made their move. Carrie was right about one thing: Pigeons don't eat herbs. Pigeons do, however, rip baby herbs out of the dirt with their mouths, spit them onto the ground, and use the now empty planters as La-Z-Boys.
"She left today," I said. "She's gone for at least six months. To The Hague."
The pigeon rearranged its feathers to be more comfortable.
"What kind of city begins with 'the,' anyway?" I said. "It doesn't even make any sense."
The pigeon looked away.
"OK," I said, closing the gate. "Enjoy the chervil."
I went into the bathroom and took a shower.
Amy and I had been together for five years and living together for three of them. We had met senior year of college during a picture-perfect New England fall we were introduced at a Concerned Democrats of America meeting and first made out at an Arab Strap show (though it could have been the other way around). She was the older of two girls, from St. Louis, tall and thin with hair that couldn't decide if it wanted to be brown or red. I was an only child from Providence, Rhode Island, not that tall and very thin. She was serious about lots of things: human-rights abuses, voter fraud, history as a construct, Albert Finney movies. I was serious about nothing, apart from my CD collection and her. It was a pretty good match.
The first few years in New York were pleasant ones: She was in law school, and I was always more than happy to adapt my freelance-writing schedule to her days and nights filled with homework and stress. In between the various exams, we had inside jokes and vacations with her family. We had rituals. We had matching sheets. I liked going to the movies and out to brunch and going to bed together by midnight. I liked not going anywhere in particular.
Except that then I started the project and she finished school, and it turned out she'd been going somewhere all along. I just wasn't necessarily along for the ride.
Usually I can spend all kinds of time in the shower zoning out under the hot water, thinking about sports, thinking about nothing. But my shower had a big, barely curtained window that faced the backyard. I decided to wash quickly before the painter turned loofah-ing into a spectator sport.
When I emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a towel dripping, red-faced, and nominally clean my answering machine was blinking. My heart did a half skip because I thought that it had to be Amy calling from the airport: Her flight was canceled; her job was canceled; she had mistakenly booked her tickets to A Hague instead of The Hague. Anything that would get her back to me safely by lunchtime. But I pressed play and found out otherwise.
<YOU HAVE ONE NEW MESSAGE>
David? David, buddy! It's Thom calling. We haven't spoken in a while and you know I love to check in with my struggling authors! Not that you're struggling! Or not that I'd know! Ha, ha! Listen, David call me! The manuscript is due in a month, and I'm very curious to hear the latest. You know my number. We should get drinks. Call me. Call me!
<MONDAY, 10:31 A.M.>
<END OF MESSAGES>
Thom Watkins, my editor at Pendant Publishing: the only man I knew who laughed like he was spelling the letters out, with exclamation points attached. Not that I really knew him; the only day Watkins and I had ever met face-to-face was back in March, when he took me to lunch, put a contract in front of me, and said, "You sure you don't want to get dessert? It's not like you're getting another one of these free meals! Ha, ha!" That was nearly three months ago. In the contract I was given four months to write a book. The funny bit really "ha, ha!" funny was that I still hadn't started the thing. Which is why I had yet to return any of Watkins's increasingly shrill phone messages.
Oh, did I somehow neglect to mention that part? That I was writing a book? And that I'd never written one before? That I was unable to get past the first paragraph, which led my girlfriend to leave both me and the country because I was paralyzed with indecision and she had a career to think about? Funny, that was usually the first thing I thought about in the morning.
Just then, a voice came from the living-room window.
"Señor, sorry to disturb, but you're dripping water on the wood floor!"
I turned to the painter, who was dangling in a different spot now but still smiling. "Gracias," I said, and walked back to the bedroom to get dressed.
The book was about diaries. Not itself a diary who would want to read about a self-obsessed twentysomething with writer's block? but a history of the medium written for a new, confessional generation: a handy, user-friendly tome that would trace the heretofore unseen connections between Samuel Pepys and the personal Web site of Emolover48. The whole thing had started innocently enough: I was writing freelance stories about rock and roll, etc., for glossy magazines, making enough money to go out to dinner but not enough to take cooking lessons, when I received an assignment that interested me far more than the usual hand-jobby band profiles and navel-gazing record reviews. It was to be a quick, "newsy" piece on the explosion of teen-oriented online diary sites: the phenomenon that keeping a public, daily journal of life's mundanities was suddenly required behavior for the black-clad, occasionally pierced, under-eighteen set. Coming as it was after a run of five straight reviews of records that I'd only managed to listen to once, the assignment seemed promising. Plus, I had run out of adjectives.
So back in March I had logged on to LiveJournal.com and its bubbling competitors Diaryland, DeadJournal, iNotebook, and DailyCry. I "met" sad-eyed surfer girls in Orange County and furious hardcore boys in the Florida panhandle. I met Jaymie who cut herself and Margo who had a friend who did. I met crazy Theresa, drinking and fucking her way through freshman year at Ball State, and quiet, comic book-obsessed Edward, who listened to Cursive and Billie Holiday alone in his bedroom at night. I met Mike C., wry and funny, who was desperately in love with anyone in the tenth grade who would kiss him back if he made the first move during the third act of Amelie. And all four feet eleven inches of red-haired Emily, who took too many pills on Christmas Eve two years ago and will always regret it, even now as she applies to Yale.
I followed Lizzie through three boyfriends, two career goals, one major surgery, and more than 200 horrible, recklessly indulgent poems. I followed Gus on his first ever rock and roll tour with his deathcore quintet Funereal Winch which took him and his $150 bass (paid for by a miserable summer working at Quiznos) through suburban Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania, and I followed him through all the exploded friendships and busted feelings that resulted from it. I followed Ronald and Chelsea from first date to first kiss, from awkward courtship to miserable, shrieking breakup, all without leaving my apartment.
Once I met these people and their friends I couldn't look away. I knew them, intimately ridiculously intimately but we'd never been in the same room. I knew their hopes, dreams, fears, crushes, likes, dislikes, and permanent scars, but I didn't know their last names. I started early on a Tuesday morning, tripping from one noisy shout of a life to another, and didn't stop until late the next day.
Because the thing was, it was possible to lose yourself in other people's online lives. Completely. Spend hours and days and weeks in other people's contexts, fill up your browser's bookmarks with pages like xBlueStarsx and WHITNEY'S JOURNAL, stop taking phone calls from your real friends, and forget what was new in your own existence. I certainly did.
It was all the voyeuristic thrills of eavesdropping, of reality TV, played out in front of me in real time, in real lives. It was messy, it was constant, it was happening. And more than anything else it gave me a feeling a catch in the throat, a fuzziness in the stomach that lay somewhere between nostalgia and hunger. It was the same feeling I got when I flipped through my high-school yearbook and read the strangely familiar things written in blue ink by people whose names I didn't remember; the same feeling I got when I Googled nursery-school playmates and summer-camp crushes. It was missed opportunity and lost youth and a fleeting memory of a time slightly before regret. Once I started, I couldn't stop. It felt like falling down the stairs.
And that was how I'd met her. Miss Misery, my online muse or obsession. I hadn't actually met her, of course. That would be so twentieth century! Besides, she lived in Toronto, was five years younger than me, and had the sort of life that I'd never quite managed for myself, one that seemed fueled entirely by cigarettes, cheap vodka, and pasty-faced bands that aped the pasty-faced British bands of the eighties. Once I'd stumbled onto her diary, spied her oh-so-arty, oh-so-angled photo (hair: black, tousled; lips: pouting or bruised; background: rain-spattered car window; cumulative effect: heart-melting), I was in love or in lust, or in some as yet undetermined four-letter word beginning with L that referred to an intimate reaction only possible with a keyboard in front of you. She lived with her father and waited tables at a French-Asian-fusion bistro. She was allergic to peanuts and dogs, played softball and gin rummy, and reread Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood every year on her birthday. She drank and flirted like a professional. She was on a "leave of absence" from art school and didn't seem to have any intention of ever returning. She didn't know where she was going, but she went out every night anyway. Her name was Cath Kennedy and I thought about her constantly.
But I didn't e-mail her and I certainly didn't interview her for the story (which ran at 450 overly edited words in the February issue of Transmission magazine). No. Rather, I added her to my buddy list, watched her flickering presence sign on and off, and hit refresh on her diary at least five times a day.
And I didn't tell Amy about her. There was no good reason to. She knew about my adventures in Diaryland, of course knew all too well after Thom Watkins called and offered me $7,500 to write a quickie paperback about the phenomenon for Pendant Publishing but I think she thought it was cute or quirky, like my lifelong allegiance to certain pro sports teams or the assorted canned cookery of Chef Boyardee. I was already retreating by then and she knew it; if talk turned to her new job, I would change the subject or make passive-aggressive jokes about it. "You're a writer," she would say. "You can write anywhere." Which was technically true. But another truth was that I wasn't actually getting any writing done, and the sort of stalkerish online loafing I was engaging in was only possible in the too-comfortable environs of our apartment. I didn't want to lose her, of course. But I felt lost myself. And so I ignored nearly everything until it was all too late.
When I signed the book contract (under the working title True Fiction cute, eh?) I had tried to start my own diary, but it ended up being completely self-indulgent and useless, filled with lines like: "The day Amy left was the first nice day of the year at least in terms of weather. She had told me not to bother going with her to the airport, so I didn't. When I woke up that morning, all the windows were open and she was gone." So I quickly deep-sixed the thing and got back to my real daily routine: hitting refresh on sports Web sites, eating two or three lunches, and, when I wasn't catching up with Gus or Lizzie or Jaymie, staring at the white wall in front of me.
I had never kept a diary, though my childhood bedroom was still filled with halfhearted attempts: spiral-bound notebooks and expensive leather journals and sketchbooks filled with two consecutive days' worth of dime-store-psychological scribbling about then girlfriends and other typical high-school woe-is-me-isms and the remainder of the pages left blank. I've never been particularly self-reflective; I have a bad habit of not noticing things until they've already happened. This can lead to good things, like getting paid to write a book at the age of twenty-seven, or bad things, like losing your girlfriend to the International Criminal Court. But at least I had those empty notebooks to prove I'd always been that way. Secret thoughts aren't only kept secret; in my muddy brain, they're positively buried. Other than: "My name is David Gould. Things seem to be going all right. I wake up in the morning and I go to bed at night." How much more does anyone need to know?
The kids I met online, though, seemed to be wired differently. When things happened to them, they felt compelled to unearth them, to share them, to dissect them in a virtual lecture hall in front of their friends, peers, and assorted sketchy cyberstalkers. Diaries didn't come with locks on them anymore they came with stadium seating.
And the personalities displayed for the anonymous crowds were gargantuan much larger than life. Operas could have been composed with the raw emotional ore that was mined from the lives of these kids before lunchtime. Breakups weren't mundane; they were earth-shattering. A fight with Mom registered on the Richter scale. The enthusiasm generated by a good rock and roll show could provide the U.S.A. with the alternative energy source it's long needed. And kisses closed-mouth kisses could change the orbit of the Earth around the sun.
So that's where the "fiction" part of the book title came from. These people weren't real to me; how could they be? And none of these feelings or events could truly be that huge that life-changing. But the diaries their adventures, their rogues' galleries, their quirks and habits kept me company and kept me interested. They kept me from dealing with the lack of adventure, excitement, and romance in my own life. They kept me from dealing.
On my way out of the house, I ran into Mrs. Armando.
"David, where's Amy?" she said in her thick, still-not-adjusted-to-the-New-World accent.
"She left today, Mrs. Armando. Remember?"
"That's right, that's right."
I made a move for the door.
"You better not cat around on her! She's a good girl!"
"I know it, Mrs. Armando. I know it."
I reached for the doorknob. "You know me! I would never."
"You a good boy, David I know that. Oh!"
"They paint the house today. I forget to tell you."
"I figured it out," I said. "Nice guy. Good singing voice."
Mrs. Armando chuckled to herself, and I made my hasty exit.
The day that greeted me just past the heavy wooden door was breathtakingly bright and blue. No clouds; the slightest whisper of wind. May had been unseasonably unsettled, with near constant rain. That day, the beginning of June, was finally the first without jackets. And girlfriends.
I wanted to call somebody then, anybody who would take me away from this house, this reality. Someone who would share the day with me, pull me deeper into it, mark it. Make it worth remembering instead of avoiding. But I couldn't call Amy airplane phones were expensive and didn't have publicly listed numbers. I couldn't call my best friend, Bryce Jubilee, because he'd moved to Los Angeles in search of something or other two months before. The distance was too great. He was unpredictable at best since he'd moved, we'd barely spoken. Rather, he'd taken to peppering my cell phone with text messages that were either world-weary and observant or maniacally childish; either "The sunlight is the same here everyday I feel like I'm beginning to forget how to measure time" or "TITTIES!" He was that sort of friend. I thought about calling the pigeon and asking it to coffee, but I was still sore over what it had done to my poor defenseless basil.
So instead I trudged around the corner to the café, smiled extra at the woman who called me Small Skim, and then walked back home, back up the stairs, and back to the computer screen that had become my life.
Out my tiny office window, I could see a deep turquoise sky, perfect for losing a balloon in, for becoming untethered, for becoming lost and liking it. But when I had walked to coffee, past the dog-walking neighbors whose names I didn't know, past the Korean dry cleaner, the Chinese takeaway, and the Dominican supermarket with the animatronic dinosaur out front that played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" when children dropped in twenty-five cents for their thirty-second ride, I hadn't felt free. I had felt hunted. Trapped. Alone.
So I turned my eyes away from the window. I had work to do, though I was sure I wasn't going to finish much of it today. Amy was gone. This was just how it was now. It was time to get used to it.
I drank my coffee and watched the cursor blink.
Text copyright © 2006 by Andy Greenwald