She said, yeah, he’s right. You kinda do look like Jim Jarmusch. I watched Stranger than Paradise every night and on the weekends with an ex boyfriend. He was a film major. If you’ve ever wondered what that’s like, don’t. Those guys are boring. Film is art for people who can’t paint.
“To be honest, it was a dumb movie,” she continued. “Why would anyone set out for Cleveland of all places?”
“I know my mom hitched to Cleveland once because she was following this band, and she always talked about how she fucked more dudes in those days than there were stars in the sky. Bitch claims to be the inspiration for like, every fuck song ever.”
“I never saw the movie,” Brandon said.
“Then you are the veener.”
He couldn’t pretend to care about the conversation on a personal level. It meant nothing to him. But he was fascinated at how much people would tell you about themselves if you just let them. When he realized that asking questions gave his interlocutors a framework for prevarication of narrative or personal detail through embellishment or omission, he stopped.
This girl, he reasoned, was not lying to him—she had a tie-dyed backpack, signifying something surrealistically and enigmatically spiritual, slung over her shoulder like a curious baby reaching out for a desired shiny. All he did was open with an unbidden observation about himself his friend Chael made frequently. It was an esoteric thing for probably most outsiders but inoffensive. He was pleasantly surprised she caught the reference.
“What was your name again?”
They shook hands.
“What do you do?”
“I’m an artist.”
“Really? Crazy. Me too.”
Chael was pretending to meditate with a full figured woman by the fire. Brandon could hear her guiding him on his breathing. From the look of his gut, he was doing it wrong, but it didn’t matter because her eyes were closed, and anyway, he intended to deny he knew him if questioned. Djuna was still talking as they strolled away from the gathering.
“I don’t even think he read the copy of the Gita I gifted him.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He referred to Krishna as the smurf guy.”
He almost laughed.
“That’s another thing about those film guys. By and large they’re all philistines who insist they have a story to tell. But there’s nothing inside them to reach into and connect with, so their entire bank of knowledge and experience is drawn from movies made by other guys who were doing the same thing.”
“Sure,” he said. “Sure. I can see…”
“I think it’s just Anglo or just Western brain thinking.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Even their spirituality feels material. Hollow but material. Like a toilet paper roll.”
The most prevalent lament of the misogynist is that women never shut up, but Brandon saw this particular quality in Djuna as a plus. He knew that his ability to listen to and absorb—to be subject to—her constant barrage of unsolicited critique, a pained experiential indictment of the mediocrities of men, would allow him to consider carefully if and to what extent he would reveal himself to her, thereby perhaps decreasing the possibility of being a subject of any future such revelations.
On the surface, his method hallmarked a full-on fancy for self-serving and manipulative behavior, but he argued allowing her to vent and bloviate at length about topics and things she was moved by in any capacity was a way to get to know her without intrusive inquisition.
“I’m 26 and I’ve lived more lives than guys like him.”
“Maturity is only an impediment if you lack it.”
“No. I mean, he’s a newbie. Trying to teach me about art. Fuck him. I forgot more shit than he knows. In 1793, I was a 10 year old boy during the French Revolution. I became deathly ill not long after.”
“Interesting,” he said, realizing just how out there this woman half his age was. Looking around for Chael, he decided it was safe to move farther away from the group with her. She went on like one of those toy chattering teeth things that’d been wound up so tight by a child, they broke the winding key.
“My second life was just after the Civil War and I was the daughter of a freedman sharecropper. So even before I was me, in this glorious, beautiful form, I was living. Men. ‘I study film, I know everything there is to know about the human condition,’” she mocked. “They just study their own disturbed psyches and project them onto others. Ghouls.”
They turned into a less lit hollow alongside the path.
“Perfect,” she said, and rolled out a mat she had in her bag.
“Want me to blow you?”
Good thing I paint, he thought, as she slurped in his lap with obstreperous alacrity. Unlike his prior selves of varying age, he worried not about their distance or lack thereof from the rest of the party because the nature of the then company was infinitely more worldly and accepting than that of those prior. Yet no matter how enlightened he knew they believed they were, he would never assume they were bereft of the capacity for judgment. His grandmother, bless her soul, was generally a sweet old lady, but he never forgot the time she walked in on teenage him while he had a single mother ten years his senior bent over the kitchen table and she reacted with a verbal-teetering-on-but-not-quite-reaching-physical-violence he never expected a pentecostal crossword puzzle obsessed septuagenarian could muster.
Djuna came up, gasping and blowing mucus and saliva everywhere in strings. She glistened like a makeup smeared goddess, and he knew it was the perfect time for yonic worship.
“You are not ready for that,” she said.
“No. To worship that which you make no effort to understand is the epitome of Western thinking.”
“I’m not sure I follow, but I’ll assume it’s a longform way of saying no.”
“The disappointment in your voice! I haven’t even finished my dessert yet.”
He drove Chael home. Thankful for the silence, he was able to focus on sitting a certain way so as to best get whiffs of the saliva that still had not quite dried in his crotch. The scent was superior to any incense he could recall; Nag Champa for the perverted middle aged artist’s soul. A chuckle tickled at his throat, but he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Chael didn’t need much of a prompt to start going on and on and on about whatever auto-titillating-pseudo-intellectualism he could coax out of anything uttered within earshot.
The glow of the big city intensified upon their approach and the temporary tattooing of the reflections of neon signs against his face in the windshield became clearer and clearer and Chael was still out of character. Honestly, the quiet introspection was beginning to unsettle him. The air in the cabin of his AMC Hornet was like a slick hole desperate for sonic filling—phalangic or phallic—it mattered not. At the light, Brandon grabbed his phone and found Tyler the Creator’s latest album.
“This is good,” Chael said.
“To the ears, it’s god.”
Like Djuna, Brandon believed the concept of an anhedonic, vengeful deity sitting on high was just part of the Western authoritarian/anti-authoritarian dichotomy. A true god anyone would want to personally emulate and venerate would be a god of joy and pleasure. And music—the best of it anyway—embodies these qualities, sexing the listener’s ears, ensconcing their bored or wounded spirits in various desired as well as unexpectedly needed moods.
“You probably just wanted to vibe,” Brandon said.
“Sad boi shit is a vibe. Maybe not the one I was looking for but it was the one I needed.”
He hoped this would be the last of Chael’s conciliatory opining. There was a slight feeling of shame he experienced in adopting the patois of a generation that made little distinction between himself and their racist uncles and grandpas, ruining holiday dinners and Facebook comment sections since either of those things became common enough cultural phenomena. But he wasn’t code switching for the sake of self-preservation or attainment of “the cool” or any of that shit. It was about communication and understanding, and it was abundantly clear those two things were less tangible than the former reasonings, and so he’d never be able to explain them without getting shrugs and “so whats” and having to recite goddamn essays on the matter in order to get a “That’s sufficient, ‘cause no one really gives a shit” nod.
“I don’t even like using the word vibe,” Chael began. “I’m too old for it.”
“I didn’t think age precluded you from word usage, but it’s good to know.”
“It doesn’t. I was trying to be funny.”
Try harder, Brandon thought.
The candles were lit, the joints were rolled and ready, and the tub was prepped; bubbled and steamy, awaiting the dip of his ass and testicles teabag-like, followed by sloshy squeaky settling in. Indubitably, it was the relaxation of a man who’d already flirted with more traditional forms of meditation only to discover they required more thinking and ceremony than he believed reasonable for something supposed to chip away at his cluttered awareness, to sculpt him into a more well-adjusted person. But he’d expected too much, he knew, clicking on Richard Hell and The Voidoids and letting the skronky bounce of Blank Generation wash over him.
It wasn’t the point to expect anything of meditation. Because meditation was not a passive, actorless endeavor. That was obvious. The problem was he felt like a failure at it; unable to give himself to concepts of wholeness or oneness with things over which he lacked agency.Sounds really fucked up, he thought; like he’d learned nothing from a failed marriage, a failed long-term partnership, and four children split between both—half of whom were grown enough to process and act upon the existential dread he likely passed on to them.
No matter how exhausting and irritating Chael could sometimes be, he did provide cheap access to sleep-inducing kush. Brandon was no connoisseur but was already feeling it. He stared ahead sleepy eyed at a badly laminated copy of Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia balanced on an easel. It wasn’t the Baroque master’s most visually stunning work, but its strength rested in its adherence to a treacly and broad but almost universally relatable concept—love. Shit, the rough translation of its title is “love conquers all.”
Not unlike in the mythology of antiquity (relative even to Caravaggio), Cupid was a fictive representation of an abstraction lording over history. But Amor, in this particular instance, neither glowed nor menaced; he was a milk skinned boy, naked and perhaps unclean but not dirty (could be the picturesque chiaroscuro), almost carried away by his own wings, apparently weighted down only by the morass of human history or more probably, in true Ovidian fashion, mischievously traipsing through it in the aftermath of his devious calculations.
Everything, Brandon believed, deserved more than one glance; a careful walk-through, circling and circling and circling back and circling back, the story changing ever-so-slightly sometimes but not always but our interpretation of it does. The biggest obstacle was the possibility of confusing himself while viewing things from more than one angle. Understanding of a sort can be achieved, but it creates interesting contradictions if nothing else.
He was too high for this shit.
Djuna arrived at his doorstep days later. She sank into his couch and stared ahead. Brandon knew better than to assume she was admiring the work slapped on the wall collage-like before her. She was quiet. He appreciated that.
“I think I’ve got Kombucha in the fridge.”
“I don’t drink that shit. Too acidic. Got chamomile?”
“Beer is fine.”
“Chael might’ve left some last time he was here.”
Clutching a can of 25 oz BUD ICE®, she stood and approached the wall. He informed her it was permissible touch because it’s not a museum, it’s an intimate experience. She muttered something and stopped at a picture.
“Oh. Nice tits.”
If someone were to ask that he close his eyes and explain exactly what’s plastered on his wall, he wouldn’t be able to say. Sadly, he only guessed she was pinpointing the picture of his ex with mud covered breasts because he assumed her interest in him was purely sexual, possibly romantic. The first possibility he supposed was understandable. The second, however, especially when married to the first, seemed quite remote.
“You like tits?”
“Love them. They swell with the water of life.”
“Not Bud Ice, I imagine.”
“Funny. Yeah. I choose not to procreate, but any womb person who chooses that destiny is a goddess.”
“By everything. But it could be worse. You could be talking about shitty indie films or Smurfs.”
“Doesn’t seem like a high bar.”
“It’s not. Would you like to partake of my garden?”
The girl was strange. He performed cunnilingus on her on the floor. She squirmed and wriggled and kicked. She did not lubricate, but she did hoot, wail, and pant. He would make no assumptions about whether or not she was pleased. He didn’t have to. She told him.
“That was nice.”
They sat quietly in the Hornet waiting for the engine to warm up. She wanted to “show him something.” The flatness of her voice would’ve imbued the declaration with sinister or ominous undertones, but it seemed it was her manner of speaking in general and not necessarily a tone shift. He didn’t know her. He only ascertained her impulsivity.
“It’s weird to lead,” she said.
“Used to following?”
“Krishna, yes. People? Why the fuck would I?”
“I don’t know.”
“The earth is an ample guide for anyone if anyone would actually listen. Typically, we do not. Do you?”
She did not give him an address.
“Just listen to me. Siri will lead you into the arms of Krishna knows what. It’s not good.”
“I would ask if you trust me, but Westerners intellectualize trust to the point where allowing yourself to connect and dialogue with the spiritual world glowing around the material is a scholarly discourse; limiting and not wholesome self-growth. It’s why so many Catholics don’t believe in shit unless you twist their arms or give them common cause.”
It was best, he thought, to remain conversationally terse but not completely silent so as to avoid any possible conflict. He could not agree nor disagree with shit he did not truly understand. She confidently directed him to a familiar place. He knew he’d driven this exact route several times before. Too many times.
He pulled into the parking lot of ECONO-STOR #3. Like he’d done so many times before.
“You look paler than usual. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. What are we doing here?”
But everything was wrong. He had a storage unit here.
“Wild, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me when you get it.”
She wrestled a key from her bag as they approached the first door. He let her enter the code because he didn’t want to give anything away in that moment, and he was not sure if there would be a moment in which he would want to. 2214. 2214. 2214. 2214.
2214. 2214. 2214. 2214. 2214.
“Are you kidding?”
2214. 2214. 2214. 2214.
“Breathe, Djuna. Breathe,” she said to herself. 2214. 2214. 2214. 2214. Finally, they were in. They moved up two flights of stairs and all the way to the end of a corridor.
“To be honest, I pretty much live here.”
He could relate to that. Sometimes he wasn’t sure why he rented space here and also his small apartment. There was the fear about welcoming and coveting clutter, and there was also some shit about wanting to save space for what’s important without it taking up space. She lifted the door and flipped on the light.
“Anything that means anything to me is in here.”
“These are all things.”
“To hypocrite is to human, I guess.”
She led him to a corner created by a couple of boxes.
“I try not to burn incense in here, but what do you think?”
“Yes. Like your wall.”
It was not like his wall. It wasn’t. His wall was plastered with disparate bouts of his expression over the years. This was a literal altar to a single individual. And he suspected this person was not blood relation to her.
“Even though he didn’t understand the love of Krishna, I loved him,” she said, caressing a photo.
“Yes. Don’t ask me how, but I managed to get some of his ashes.”
He was more curious as to why.
“This is going to be a weird question, but… do you think you can drive us to Cleveland?”
“Cleveland. He always wanted to go. Like in the movie.”
“You can say no. I wouldn’t. But you can.”
He tried to back away but disturbed some boxes and nearly lost his balance.
“It’s just. The guy killed himself, and I don’t think he’ll be at peace until his remains are somewhere he lived in his sweet little Anglo western head.”
“I have work tomorrow, and to be honest, this is just bizarre.”
She moved toward him.
“I let you taste the earth. Why won’t you give him the same peace?”
“You said it was a dumb movie.”
“It is a dumb movie, but he liked it, and I am connected to him. You’re telling me you aren’t connected to the big titty ex? That it seems normal to you but it might be gross and off-putting to the next lover who comes around?
“I’ve seen you around here before, Brandon. Your unit is downstairs. You have somewhere to live and yet you hold on to something. I don’t really care what it is, but I’m also confused as to why you hang out with people you obviously can’t understand despite your, I guess, best efforts. Or do you try at all?”
“Same reason you do.”
“Fuck you, Brandon.”
“Djuna, this is weird.”
“My name’s not Djuna, it’s Geraldine. My friends call me Geri. If you talked to anyone instead of trying to get me alone, you might’ve known that. I picked Djuna because I watched you read one of her books while standing over a box. Must’ve really meant something to you.”
He knew he’d made an error. Whether or not it was fatal was yet to be seen, but he didn’t wish to stick around to find out.
“Okay, Geri. I can’t drive you to Cleveland. My car’s a piece of shit.”
“You get around okay as far as I’ve seen.”
“How do you know any of that?”
“You obviously never had to just survive, Brandon. Gotta be more aware of your surroundings, dude.”
She turned to the altar. It was his time to turn and go, but he was somehow frozen. Aware of my surroundings, he thought. I am aware. I know where I am. Geraldine put the photo of the movie boy in her bra, and in her other hand was an ABUELITA container. She popped it open and gently sniffed at it.
“He smells like cocoa.”
Then she dipped a couple of fingers in and blew some of him into Brandon’s eyes.
“What the fuck?”
He fell back in pain and she pushed him the rest of the way down. He landed awkwardly and painfully on his hip. She patted him down and relieved him of his car keys.
“I’m sorry. Sorry to both of you. But Cleveland calls. It sounds like an indie song, I guess. Think, like, Modest Mouse or something.”
“No, no, no! What are you doing?”
The door slammed down, and he heard the latch fall and lock. His vision was blurred, and his face was wet with pain. The light stabbed at the dark. Chiaroscuro was better on canvas.