Chapter Four: The Second Nightmare Cluster
In August of 1993, I went to Los Angeles so Carmen and I could have some of that luscious “time off” to “take stock.” She immediately found someone else. When Tim and I picked up my things from the apartment in San Francisco, Carmen had completely changed her appearance. During our five years together, she always wore sweaters, leotards, sneakers, baseball caps, and no makeup. The day I moved out of her life, she cheerily greeted me in a black blouse and miniskirt, high heels, and heavy makeup.
Her new relationship didn’t work out, and in May of 1994, she asked me to come visit her. I thought it was the beginning of reconciliation, but it was actually my execution. She spoke to me as if she hated me so much that she couldn’t bear the thought of me being alive. Just knowing that I still existed somewhere—even completely cut off from her—was so unacceptable that it made her nearly foam at the mouth. I responded in kind and drove back to L.A. in what I’ve since learned was a state of post-traumatic psychosis. The diagnostic entity is “post-traumatic stress disorder with secondary psychotic features” (PTSD-SP). Think of it as an endless anxiety attack peppered with dissociation, paranoia, and brief audio-visual hallucinations.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I depended on Carmen for my very sanity. When I lost her, I lost my sanity for a year or so, even though I carried on as a music journalist. I hid my mental collapse quite well. My interview subjects didn’t know that a full-fledged madman sat across from them. Nobody—not even my family—was aware of how tenuous my grip on reality became. For any psychiatrist reading this, I can tell you that it’s possible to come back from total derangement without medical intervention. I have no clue whatsoever how I did it. Maybe willpower and my inherent desire to improve. Or maybe I had help. The dreams in Chapter Twelve might be relevant; I really don’t know. Despite my recuperation, I can’t recommend the route I took. Watch the movie Jacob’s Ladder. That’s what it was like.
Here’s a thought: Maybe I didn’t recover at all, and I’m just hallucinating my happiness and current literary achievements. I could be the actualization of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Maybe on my trip back to L.A. in May of ’94, I drove off a cliff, and I’m still in the air, about to hit the ground and burst into flames. If that’s the case, why didn’t I use my death’s door imagination to make myself a mentally sound, billionaire playboy with a twenty-nine-inch waist? What the hell was the point of constructing two decades of failure, rage, and weight problems?
I can’t do anything right.
Well, let’s assume for the sake of continuing this book that I’m actually here.
After I returned to L.A., Carmen began writing to me, explaining why she’d driven me away. The letters accused me of things I hadn’t done, such as dominate her, criticize her, and control her. What I’d tried to do in my inept way was explain why her actions were killing me. She also said I felt sorry for myself and believed I was worthless. Guilty on both counts. I can freely admit to those failings, since I was the one who confessed them. Carmen and I often revealed to each other the darkest aspects of our self-conceptions. It was a sign of trust. I never imagined that it would come back to bite me in the can.
Most baffling was a letter in which she said in the same paragraph that I rejected the real her, and she hated me for knowing the real her. In a total break from my usual destructive idiocy, I did the right thing and immediately gave up. I didn’t vent my bloodthirsty anger or yield to my hankering for revenge, and I didn’t try to win her back. For whatever reason I spared us both more pain.
In 2009 I found a poem by Stephen Crane—The Poet Who Saved My Life—that allegorized what I chose to not inflict on Carmen and myself. My good sense was very uncharacteristic. Unique, even. I still don’t know why I immediately accepted that I had to let her go, even though she meant everything to me. In the past I’d always groveled and then bombarded the poor woman with pissy notes, cards, and memoranda.
Anyway, the Crane poem.
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never—”
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
Carmen sent letters regularly. Back then I couldn’t understand her motivation. Each time I saw an envelope in the mailbox with her beautiful, rounded handwriting, it made me relive the day I moved out of our apartment. It called up the agony of our last year together, when I tried so hard to reach her, and all she wanted was for me to be gone. It widened and deepened the hole in my life. It brought back our final confrontation, a Bizarro World version of our lives, in which we were mortal enemies.
My relationships were always horrendously dysfunctional. Carmen fit into my pattern for eighteen months, but then we were able to connect and experience three years of complete mutual happiness that ended because of a single conversation.
In July of 1994, Carmen wrote that she’d met someone. I didn’t reply. She continued mailing me friendly and impersonal missives that I found impossible to believe came from the brilliant, funny, exceptionally talented goofball I’d known over several lifetimes—the other half of me, who I’d found by sheer luck. Occasionally, I’d dash off an insipid commentary on music, dumbfounded that we’d been reduced to this after how much we’d once loved each other, after all the outlandish conversations we’d had in bed, laughing our heads off at how strange and happy we were. In August of 1995, she announced that she and her boyfriend were engaged. I stopped responding to her letters, and soon she stopped sending them.
Since childhood almost everything scared me. And yet the one fear I never had was that I’d lose Carmen. We were destined to be together forever. She was the only element of my life I was absolutely sure I could always count on. After she drove me away, it was three years before I stopped thinking I’d wake up and tell her that I’d just had the nightmare to end all nightmares.
* * *
June 14, 1994
Tim’s old friend “Noreen” reappeared after years in exile. She looked like a different person. Now her hair was blonde—a cheap, honey-colored dye job that made her look like an Istanbul streetwalker. Also, her face had changed to a wincing, haggard fox’s mask, with a long nose resembling a muzzle. She tried to warn Tim and me about something or someone, but she was incoherent and skittish. When we approached she’d dance away.
“You’d better be careful,” she’d mutter.
Since she was a waste of time, I left her and Tim out on the street and started for home, a New York brownstone. I walked up the stairs into the foyer; one of the frosted-glass doors stood open, revealing a group of six or seven young women sitting on the floor or pacing back and forth.
They were in their early twenties and dressed in the latest grunge and alternative fashions, with ripped jeans and either flannel shirts or XXXL T-shirts. Though all were extremely attractive, they gave me a spasm of terror. When they saw me, they smiled broadly and nodded at each other. The seated ones got up, and I knew that they were the lesbian murderers who’d been marauding the area. They walked toward me, smiling and chanting, “Breeder. Breeder. Breeder,” in a soft, jokey tone absolutely full of menace. I sprinted down the stairs.
Out on the street, I discovered that I could run like the wind. The women strolled along behind me, in no hurry. Even so, I couldn’t increase the distance between us. My arms and legs pumped up and down so fast that I couldn’t see them.
Pretty good for a smoker, I thought, but I didn’t make any headway. My pursuers chatted and giggled in self-conscious, hair-tossing breeziness that made me furious and even more terrified. They were going to murder me for no reason except to please ridiculous arbiters of taste. I’d die because they wanted badly to be accepted by abominable fashionistas and status whores.
Suddenly, I was in an airport. Lines of heavily laden passengers snaked everywhere. I’d befriended a Middle Eastern guy who was alternately three years old, then an adult, then retarded, then not, then two feet tall, then of average height. He constantly changed. The airport itself was at times packed full of people all whining about the delays, and at other times it was deserted. My mission was to catch a terrier that had a plastic soldier in its mouth.
I passed a kiosk stocked with books, newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, and candy.
“That’s where I spent my gold sovereigns,” I said. It was a lie.
After I meandered aimlessly for hours, a blonde, buck-toothed airport security officer approached.
“Do you need help, sir?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for my friend.”
“Oh, does he look like this?” She leaned back and shambled grotesquely, kicking her legs out in a sort of low goose step and yelping, “Duh! Duh!”
“Yes, that’s my friend. But I don’t think I can get past all the security gates.”
“No problem,” she said. “Just go on through.”
So I did. I walked right by the miserable, complaining, ugly passengers waiting in lines that stretched for miles down corridors. They had suitcases, birdcages, and rolled tarpaulins balanced on their shoulders. I went through the security checkpoints, carrying the plastic soldier I’d somehow recovered from the terrier. Nobody challenged or even seemed to see me, and I felt superior to them all.
June 19, 1994
From my vantage point in the second-story window of a house, I saw that a storm had just ended. The street and lawn were under about four inches of water. Cloudless and bereft of stars and moon, the night sky was tinged with red at the horizon.
I looked down onto the lawn and watched Carmen talk with her ex-boyfriend “Wayne.” They chatted and laughed, hugging occasionally. Carmen sometimes pirouetted, as if she couldn’t contain her joy.
They had an arrangement whereby Wayne would come see her once a week. The meetings took place on the front lawn, and I was never introduced to him. I’d sit in my window, bubbling over with resentment, but I felt that I didn’t have the right to interfere. Since I’d been away for a long time and this had started in my absence, it was my fault for neglecting Carmen. Still, she’d taken it too far. Her actions negated me, as though I didn’t even exist.
Wayne and Carmen leaned forward to kiss each other on the lips, standing on their tiptoes, their bodies far apart and their arms held out behind them like birds’ wings. I’d seen that pose in old magazine advertisements for toothpaste or chewing gum. After their kiss, they laughed and embraced. They knew I watched; their display was to demonstrate their contempt for me.
That’s the last straw! I thought. Now I gotta do something!
In my head the two lines sounded scripted and fake. I started downstairs and met Tim, who’d shaved off his beard. He looked ridiculous, a Nazi caricature of a Jew. His nose was like a puffin’s beak, and he had no chin.
“Don’t I look better without my beard?” he asked.
“Yeah, much better,” I said and went out onto the wet front lawn.
Carmen and Wayne tickled each other and grinned like flirting teenagers. Wayne was very tall, slim, and blond, a Kevin Bacon lookalike. That was strange because I knew he was Japanese-American. He was superficially affable yet deeply hostile toward me. I opened a pack of cigarettes and put one in my mouth.
“Gimmie that!” he said and snatched it in a playful, mock-aggressive way.
After I lit it for him, he bounded off in triumph, having made me look like an idiot.
“Okay, I’ll get it,” Carmen said to him. She turned to go into the house, and he nodded absently. I tried to catch her attention, but Wayne came over. He felt entitled to engage me because we shared the same woman.
“So whattaya do?” he asked. Then he blew a cloud of smoke in my face.
“I’m a writer,” I said. As Carmen walked away, I called, “Could you come over here, please? I’d really like to talk to you.” I tried to keep my voice pleasant but firm.
She stared at me with dislike. “I have to get something,” she half shouted, flapping her arm and shaking her head.
I was immediately enraged. “Just come over here. I’d like to talk to both of you.”
“Why don’t you just forget about it, huh?” Wayne said. “Just leave well enough alone.”
His phony reasonable tone didn’t mask the unmistakable threat.
“No,” I said. “I need to tell you guys something.”
Carmen returned, and the three of us splashed across the lawn into the flooded street.
“When I sit up in my window and watch you two,” I said, “I think, ‘Wow, I’d like to have a girlfriend like that,’ and then I remember that I do have a girlfriend like that. Carmen is my girlfriend, but the way you two act makes me forget.”
My words made no sense. They were as canned and false as my thoughts of a few minutes earlier, but I spoke earnestly and calmly, trying to reach them.
Carmen unleashed her braying laugh at me: “WAAAAAA-AH-AH-AH-AAAAHHHH.”
Wayne got visibly angry and walked across the street.
“Nothing happened,” he said. “Nothing could happen. It’s all dried up between us.”
I followed, about to contradict him. He abruptly sat on the curb.
“Look,” he snarled, “you shut your fuckin’ mouth before I dump you and her both in the fuckin’ ditch. Shut your mouth or I’ll cancel your fuckin’ publication.”
He opened his eyes very wide as he spoke. I remembered Carmen telling me that he got violent when he drank, so I realized he must be drunk. His boozy machismo and weird, over-amped, Hollywood tough-guy words made me even angrier.
“Ooh, I’m scared!” I jeered. “Look at me tremble! Look at my legs shake!” I flapped my legs like the early Elvis Presley.
“Yeah? Yeah?” he yelled, reaching into the pocket of his sweat pants and pulling out a pistol. “How about this?”
He fired at me, a cottony, popping sound.
Oh shit, I thought. He’s going to shoot me. It’s really going to happen.
I ran. He fired several more shots, and I felt a violent blow on the back of my head. Simultaneously, I saw a flash of light and tasted a gush of warm saltiness in my throat. There was a gigantic stab of pain deep inside my skull. The pain was so great that I knew it was mortal; it faded to numbness immediately.
This is it, I thought as I collapsed. Here I go.
Everything faded to black and all sounds receded, as though I were falling down a deep well. I was dead.