I sat staring at my computer screen, my fingers tapping idly on the keys.
I couldn’t see the way ahead on this story. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and written myself into the vacuums of space, where nothing would ever happen. Something was wrong with the book, but I wasn’t quite sure what.
My husband Eric’s voice cracked the shell of my concentration. “Are you ever going to stop writing and pay attention to your family?”
I glanced up. He and my daughter Juniper were sitting on the couch, giving me twin looks of indignity, while Family Guy blared on the television.
“What?” I said. “I have to stare at the same screen as you in order for it to be quality time?”
Eric rolled his eyes and looked away, tugging at his hair. Juniper huffed.
“You’re on your computer all the time, mommy! You love your stupid stories more than you love us!”
“That’s not true,” I said.
Eric shot me a hard look. He’d been complaining about my writing for months, hinting I should give it up and move on to something more productive. He seemed to think it was a phase, something I’d grow out of.
But it wasn’t a phase. I couldn’t quit writing. It was a compulsion, the way some people can’t stop picking their scabs or chewing their fingernails. But it was also one of the few things that had ever made me happy. I’d finally found the thing I was put on this earth to do.
I swallowed the bitter lump in my throat. “Well,” I said, “do you guys want to go to the beach, then?”
Juniper snorted. “I’m tired of the beach.”
I unclenched my teeth. “How about a walk?”
“No, I’m tired,” Eric said. “Can’t you just watch TV with us?”
I stared at the cartoon images capering around the screen making fart noises and racist jokes.
“I don’t want to watch TV,” I said.
“Liz,” Eric said, “you have to spend time with us sometime.”
I sighed heavily, clutching my fingers in my hair. “I do spend time with you.”
“Ha,” Juniper said. “You never spend time with us.”
I sat with my eyes squeezed shut, waiting for my kick-punch-bite rage to subside. But it didn’t. “Fuck this,” I said, snapping my laptop closed. “I’m going on a walk.”
I flung myself out the door, slamming it shut behind me.
I stomped down the street, not caring where I went.
Not that there was anywhere to go in this tiny town. We’d been forced to move to this dusty cluster of hovels because my husband had accepted the one job I’d begged him not to apply for, at a university in a coastal California town with the worst real estate price to salary ratio in the known universe.
This desert ghetto was the only place in the area we could afford to live, because no one in their right mind would move here. It was chock full of meth tweakers and the type of bible thumpers that didn’t believe in evolution or homosexuality.
But I’d adapted. I’d made friends, and occupied myself with my writing, and with being a good housewife. I’d put down roots, and tried to build a life here. That wasn’t good enough for Eric, though.
I blinked back tears. Maybe he was right. Maybe I should try to give up writing. It did take up a lot of my time, and it’s not like it was going very well for me. I’d written nine and a half books in the past seventeen months, but wasn’t even close to getting one published. That was probably because they sucked every bit as bad as Eric insinuated they did, even though he’d only read a couple of them, under duress.
And my current series was driving me crazy. It was about a schizophrenic kid named Justin, who was trying to make it as a painter in defiance of his own mother, who wanted him institutionalized. I was more obsessed with getting these books right than I had been the others. The effort was definitely making me moody, I had to admit.
Though I didn’t usually base my characters on real people, Justin was loosely based on a guy I’d met at the park the previous summer, when I’d volunteered giving out sack lunches to kids. One day, as I sat in the shade writing on my laptop and waiting for the kids to come get their food, I’d noticed him over by the flagpole. He stared at me fixedly at me for a full thirty seconds before he seemed to come unstuck, striding towards me determinedly on his long legs.
He stopped about six feet away, regarding me with a shy smile, tugging on the earflaps of his fuzzy white tiger hat. He was in his late teens or early twenties, handsome, and he gave off an aura of strangeness, like a rare orchid that glowed an unearthly green while its normal companions lay hidden in darkness.
“I like your shoes,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “I just got them at Target.”
“They’re red white and blue, like my house. I live over there.” He gestured towards the east side of the park. “It’s the America house, like Captain America. He’s my favorite superhero. Or maybe Superman is, actually. Which one do you like better? Captain America or Superman?”
“Um,” I said, “I guess they’re both good, in their own way, you know? They each do their part to further the cause of goodness in the universe.”
He watched me with an odd smile a moment longer, then flopped down in the grass and asked me for a lunch. I’d given him one, even though he was over eighteen, so it was against the rules. But I figured this kid deserved a free lunch, even if he did only eat the celery and give away the rest.
We’d only talked for half an hour, and hadn’t spoken since. I didn’t even know his name. But he’d lodged firmly in my head, the little I knew of him blooming into a full and well-rounded character. And so I’d written a book about that character. And then most of the sequel.
But now I was stuck. The books weren’t right. And it suddenly occurred to me why: it was because I needed to talk to the schizo kid again. I needed to know more about him, to know how his mind worked, in order to make my books better.
The idea captivated me at once, and my steps turned towards the park. Maybe if I could figure out these books, then I’d be at peace with writing less for a while. My family would be happy, I’d be happy, all would be well again in my household.
It was sort of a strange reason to seek someone out, I knew; the word stalker floated through my head.
But I pushed those doubts away. I wouldn’t be using the kid. I genuinely liked talking to him, and found him interesting. So what if I tried to turn my everyday experiences and conversations into art? Everyone did that.
And besides, I knew there was no stopping myself now. I could feel it, the beginnings of a new obsession. I needed to talk to him. It was the thing that had to happen. It was the thing that was supposed to happen. It was my world coming together and finally making sense for me, after all these years of chaos and unhappiness. Writing was what I was meant to do, and so the universe would help me on my way.
I scanned the park as I walked through the gate. There were the usual assortment of drunks and aimless kids at the tables, a few toddlers on the toys, but I didn’t see the schizo kid. I looked everywhere, probing the shadows under the trees and over by the horseshoe pit, but he wasn’t there.
My heart sank. I’d been deluding myself. You can daydream all you want about there being a pattern in the universe’s chaos; you can try to convince yourself that some higher purpose has called you to the park to talk to someone, but that doesn’t make it true.
I headed to the quietest part of the park to stew in my existential angst.
I was passing by the basketball court when I heard footsteps.
“Hey, it’s you,” someone said.
I looked up and stopped dead. It was him. He was grinning, holding a basketball.
“Hey,” I said breathlessly.
“SometimesIwanttotalktopeople,” he said. He watched me closely, rolling the ball between his hands.
“Huh?” I said, my heart racing. “Sometimes you want to talk to people, or don’t want to?”
“Wantto. Like, with you, right now.”
I sat down in the grass, almost collapsing. He sat down in front of me.
I smiled nervously. “What’s your name, anyway?” I asked.
“Phoenix,” he said.
I swallowed. In my mind’s eye, I saw a phrase I’d written, at the end of the first chapter of the first book about Justin. I’d removed it, because a critiquer had said it was cliché, and she’d been right. But it had said, “…and I rose up like a phoenix out of the Other Place.”
It’s just a coincidence, I told myself. It doesn’t pay to read too much into these things.
“I’m Liz,” I said, clutching the grass.
“Liz. Liz,” he said.
I smiled. “I like your clothes.”
He fondled the collar of his pea-green army jacket. He had matching army pants, and a Sublime shirt that was exactly the same color of green.
“I found them in my sister’s trailer,” he said. “It was like synchronicity. Sometimes it sort of freaks me out, when things work out that way. Like right now. Do you like Sublime?”
“No,” I said, my mouth dry. What had he just said about synchronicity?
He watched me, his eyes dark brown, intelligent, amused. “The park is the only place I feel human,” he said. “My mom….” He looked away, suddenly pained, and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
“Huh?” I said, but he was silent for several moments, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“I smoke cigarettes,” he said suddenly. “She gives me cigarettes, my mom. But it’s bad. Some people chew.” He looked back at me, the corners of his lips curling up. “Some people call it chaw, ‘bacci, wad, cud, wuzzle, juice ball, grunt, suckajoo….”
He kept on like that, his grin slowly growing, until I finally collapsed in a heap of giggles on the grass. Then he stopped and stretched out on the ground next to me, his intense eyes inches from mine.
“Do you know about yin and yang?”
“Yes,” I said, stifling my laughter.
“What is it?”
“It’s the theory that there’s a little bit of good in everything bad, and a little bit of bad in everything good, and it’s all in balance.”
He listened seriously, his long fingers making sinuous motions in the air. “And what are the colors?”
“White and black, usually.”
“What are they? The colors?”
I blinked. “Some people say that the black is the feminine energy, the dreaming energy, and the white is the male energy, which is about action, doing things, I guess.”
“They told me to study philosophy, to find my balance, because how, you know, I’m schizophrenic, how they diagnosed me with schizophrenia.” He gazed at me, pulling at the grass. “The listening,” he muttered. “The listening energy. The darkness is an energy that listens.”
The back of my neck prickled; he could have pulled that phrase from my book, though this was like nothing he’d said in our previous conversation.
“When people interrupt, it’s because they’re abrupt,” he said.
We stared at each other. Then he sat up, and so did I, brushing the grass clippings from my clothes.
“You go to the church here, right?” he said.
“I’m going to go this Sunday. I’m going to get up, and I’m going to have to decide what to make, because they have the food afterwards, and I’m going to do laundry and go to church.”
I smiled. “Cool.”
He looked down at his hands, picking at the scabs on his knuckles, and he seemed suddenly upset.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, just grimaced slightly, as if I’d annoyed him. I looked down at my own hands, and started fidgeting with my bracelet, counting the wooden beads.
“Is that your devotion?” he asked, glancing over at me.
“Naw, I got this from a Buddhist monk in San Francisco. He said he was going to pray for my inner peace.” I gazed at him a moment, then pulled the bracelet off. “Here,” I said. I slipped it over his big hand, onto his bony wrist.
He went very still, staring at it fixedly. “What’s this, what’s this for?”
“Now you can reap the benefits.”
“The benefits, what are the benefits?”
I sighed. “I just…I’m giving it because I like you, and I’m your friend.”
He touched the bracelet gently, sliding the beads along their string, not looking at me. “Thank you,” he said, his voice hoarse. “That means a lot.”
That Sunday in church I sat in front as always, and I glanced over my shoulder every time the door opened. The pews slowly filled up, but he wasn’t among the parishioners. When Pastor finally stood up and the service began, my heart sank.
I had a hard time concentrating on the sermon. I couldn’t get Phoenix out of my head. I was writing a lot less now, and instead spent my mornings reading in the park, hoping to see him.
It occurred to me that I might be just as mentally ill as Phoenix was. As Pastor read the scripture, I sat silently praying for God to clear the junk and clutter from my head, to set me straight.
Just as the sermon ended, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up to see Phoenix sitting down across the aisle from me. He was clean-shaven, his hair combed back, wearing an immaculate baby-blue suit. He stared at me intently with his dark eyes.
I stared back. He was a very handsome, 22-year-old man. I knew what all those people in the pews behind us must be thinking. It was a very, very small town.
“Please open your hymnals to page seven,” Pastor said, and there was a rustling in the congregation as they all got out their books.
Phoenix pulled a hymnal from the seat back in front of him, flipping through the thin pages. “What’s on page seven?” he said. “Some sort of song? A ritual?”
“A ritual,” I said. “We’re doing communion.” I could feel Pastor looking at me.
“That’s cool,” Phoenix said. He put his hymnal away and folded his hands in his lap, facing front with an air of politeness.
After the service, we all went into the social hall and had cake. I sat next to Phoenix, avoiding everyone’s stares. He talked to the woman next to him, something about a tortoise. After a while, I plucked at his sleeve.
“Come to the park with me.”
He blinked. “Okay.”
We strutted out into the sunshine, and I heaved a sigh of relief to be away from the wondering glances of the others. They were making this into something it wasn’t. They didn’t understand.
I didn’t really understand, either, but oh well.
As we crossed over to the park, my husband whizzed by on his bike, and we waved at each other. Phoenix watched after him. “That’s your husband?”
“Why is he, why is he going on a bike ride without you?” He picked at his knuckles. “You should be with him. It’s my fault. It’s my fault you’re with me, and not him.”
“No, Phoenix. He would have left without me, anyway. It’s not your fault.”
He just stood there, shaking his head. “It’s my fault.”
I couldn’t convince him otherwise. We sat in the park for a while, but he was nervous and morose. “You should be at home. You shouldn’t be with me,” he said.
“Okay,” I finally said, getting up. “But will you walk me to my house?”
“You want me to walk you?”
He tugged at the bracelet. It made me happy that he was still wearing it. It was a piece of evidence, albeit a small one, that maybe I was important to him, too. That maybe this obsession of mine had some sort of cosmic significance, that it was whole and perfect. That I didn’t have to mistrust my own motives, and start believing myself a creepy stalker, like everyone else probably thought I was.
That there was order and beauty in the universe. That the books I was writing had truth in them. That, in some dimension, my imagination was intertwining with reality.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll walk you home.”
We walked up the dirt path towards my neighborhood. “You live in The Heights,” he said. “I don’t like The Heights.”
“The Heights. The Heights. It’s like, these pants I had, and my mom, she put them in the dryer. And they shrank up around my ankles, highwater pants, like the water’s high, the pants. The Heights.”
I stopped walking and turned to face him. “Phoenix, I don’t want to upset you.”
He blinked at me, wringing his hands. “I’m not upset.”
“I’m really sorry. Please. You don’t have to walk me home.”
“Are you, what, you’re going to get all emotional on me?” His fidgeting hands went still. “With you, it’s so open.”
We gazed at each other a moment. “Come on,” he said, starting back up the hill towards my house. “The Heights.”
He muttered to himself the rest of the way, and I felt more and more terrible with each step. When I told him we were at my house, he stopped abruptly, jumping back.
“This is your house?” He peered at it from around a tree, as if hiding from its staring windows. I could see the neighbors shooting us surreptitious glances from their yard.
“Yeah,” I said.
He shifted on his feet. “I have to run. I think I want to go running.”
He turned on the heels of his patent leather shoes and took off jogging, in his suit, in the hot sun. I watched after him, tears springing to my eyes. I was being selfish. I was making life worse for him. It wasn’t as simple as I wanted it to be.