The morning of July 28, 2018, I woke up because a cat was meowing outside my open window. In those days, it didn’t take much to begin to feel awake, so I basically sprang out of the twin mattress to look out the window at it, through the screen. It saw me and looked back at me for a moment, then walked along down the curved road of the subdivision, between the townhomes, casting a shadow in the early-morning light as it passed out of vision.
In a neighborly way, I decided it wasn’t my problem, this cat-on-the-loose. So I just threw on a shirt and my bathing shorts, trying not to wake my mother with the noise, and poured myself a glass of taupe Soylent from the fridge. (To drink it, its smooth granularity satisfied a craving between hunger and thirst.) Then, towel draped jauntily over my shoulders, I unlocked the front door and headed to the neighborhood pool across the street.
One of the maintenance men was tending to the chlorine level, so we said good morning and I waited to enter the water, instead laying down, somewhat uncomfortably, on one of the pool chairs. The deck beside the pool was itself cantilevered above a larger pond, one of the nicer features of our suburban neighborhood in South Ann Arbor.
A few days previously, I had turned twenty-four, celebrating with my mother at the restaurant in town which served paella — at the end of the meal, wishing silently, while blowing out the candle stuck in my churro, to become President. The year before, I spent six months institutionalized in a grim residential facility outside Chicago, recovering from a long manic episode. All summer and fall, pacing in circles around a locked building, in various agonies; then, when I was released, I got a letter from Social Security saying I was owed two year’s unpaid benefits, making me rich, by contrast. I took Seroquel every night with Lamotrigine, and tried not to think too much about what might have been. I was doing a lot of shopping.
The maintenance man waved me into the water, so I slid in and kicked around the kidney shape on my back — at intervals, closing my eyes to blot out the sky. I thought about how I was going back to college in Vermont at the end of August, reconvening with my old advisor. With a surge of pleasure, I remembered I had a bottle of delicious raw juice in the fridge at home. Then, instinctively turning my head to the right as I floated, I seriously thought I saw the figure of a tall, long-haired man with a red face smiling at me, of upright posture, like an Abrahamic prophet. But when I checked my eyes, it was a rescue board with a red float, propped against the cobwebbed wall of the poolhouse.
The apparition and its disappearance into its constituent parts had startled me enough to get out of the pool. Water clung within and spilled out of my sage-colored shorts as I dredged up out of the water. “All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,” I muttered, very quietly — toeing a couple lines within myself, but also legitimately overcome with devotion. “The All-benificent, the All-merciful, Master of the Day of Retribution.” I sat on the same chair and read from Madame Bovary until the Soylent made me feel full, looking up occasionally at the rescue board I’d mistaken for my savior.
Inside Madame Bovary, at the end of Part One, where she becomes pregnant, is where I kept my acid. And since it had been a few days since last time, I thought it was a good idea to take it again. I had a sense all the trips that summer were building up to something. In New Orleans, leaving the airport, the air had been electric. Wherever I went, I carried a little knowledge with me from the previous times.
Because I was tolerant of it, and the Seroquel probably dampened its effect, I took two tabs under my tongue and set off back home to wait for the day’s big event — the soccer match that afternoon between Manchester United and Liverpool, for which I had a single ticket to see them at the stadium just North of us.
The intervening hours passed easily. I returned home, greeted my mother cordially, fetched my chilled juice, and closed the door to my room. I had bought a projector, to watch sports in high detail — it filled a stucco wall with colorful shapes. In the warm atmosphere, I laid in bed, sipped juice, and played a two-dimensional video game on the wall. After some difficulty, my avatar procured a pair of wings enabling him to float across distances, then suffered further trials. In the afternoon, I emerged briefly to take another glass of Soylent, then switched over to baseball. In truth, I wasn’t noticing much from the acid: even the juice tasted the same. For a while, I napped with the blotter-paper under my tongue.
Then it was time to walk over to the stadium. While I had dozed off, the stream had frozen on the distorted image of three amber bottles in an advertisement, putting me in mind of a Manet painting, of sorts. From the dresser, I drew out a blue heather Nike training shirt, hiking socks, and rock pants which I cinched around my ankles, stuffing my rain jacket in my backpack with the tickets, finally pulling on my dirty suede New Balance 904s: and then I noticed I was tripping, a little bit. (My black titanium Ray-Ban glasses, which were quite light but still, because of the lenses, cut into my ears, were eliciting a kind of chromatic aberration I’d never noticed before.) My last haircut had been after Clooney’s in Out of Sight. Overall, I felt very mobile. I just threw a liter of Evian into the bag, along with my flip phone, before stepping out the door again and walking over to walk North along the highway.
When the light of the afternoon hit me, I grinned, the sadness in my eyes slowly turning into something else. Diagonally, I skipped through the parking lot of strip mall, with its cell phone stores and fast food places, weaving between new-ish American cars, passing through the sharp shadows of clouds. Gravity became a light sensation. Walking across the overpass, I kicked up dust along the sidewalk, feeling the cars on the freeway thrum beneath me, hearing my legs swish.
A silver Audi convertible drove past in the direction of the stadium, top down, light glinting off its edges, playing a rap song: subject to the Doppler effect, I could make out the bounce of the beat before any of the lyrics.
…here as a vessel to teach people the lesson
Feel like they wanted me dead but couldn’t pull it…
Which because I knew every single song in Drake’s catalog, all at once, in that moment, I recognized immediately as “Weston Road Flows.” I followed along until it was out of earshot. Then, at the next intersection, the Manchester United team bus turned in, and I raised my hand to welcome them, making eye contact with a trainer at the front of the bus, just visible through the tinted windshield.
People were beginning to populate the road on both sides, walking in groups through long grasses, as I drew nearer the stadium. A good number were wearing soccer jerseys. At the parking lot of the high school, with the huge facade of the stadium visible across the road, a motley collection of souls were tailgating, grill-smoke flooding the air: I could see it in tendrils, with a gaseous translucency demarcating the fluid boundaries of the smoke. In other parts, it was more spread out and contributed to the general haze. Looking up, I realized I could see the same effect in the action of the clouds above: it was as though I was looking at the currents of the wind.
Walking up to the stadium, I was surrounded by a crush of people. Those of us with bags to check were diverted to the East; I asked an attendant standing by a crooked barrier a rather empty question, trying to get a sense of things, and he responded with a polite tentativeness. I thought that security was not very tight. At the golf course to the South, employees hung out leaning against white cars, watching the crowd progress.
I took my seat in the 27th row, high enough for a tactical view, and waited for the game to begin. The Liverpool players were gliding around in baroque patterns on one side of the pitch, while on the other half, Manchester United had dispersed about the entire surface and were kicking a few balls around. It was pre-season, so they were featuring youth players, in addition to a few stars. Virgil Van Dijk, the centerback, looked to me like an animal, absolutely. The physical fitness of all the players was radiant, though the United players tended to look stockier.
The game set off, the field surrounded by the huge bowl of the crowd, and I noticed immediately how much more tactically sharp the action was compared to what you would see on TV. On TV, a game would look kind of like a scrum, with certain plays developing at times. In person, everyone had been drilled to the utmost and no movement was wasted or diverted from an overarching approach. It was beautiful to see — like a space battle between jet fighters.
Shaqiri scored a bicycle kick in the goal nearest me, which drew a reaction from the American crowd. Yet to one of my neighbors, nothing was so pleasurable as when one of the Manchester United defenders did happen to intercept the ball and frustrate the Liverpool attack, drawing from him a satisfied shout, or nearly eructation like: “Boouf!” Nearing the second half, I drew out my flip phone from my pocket and self-consciously framed a picture of the action on the field. When I put it away, everyone around me seemed to be in a slightly different posture, not saying anything.
A while later, when I emailed the picture to myself and had a look at it on my computer, I saw that though I’d pointed the camera at the set-up of the players on the field, according to the internal spatiality of the picture, what I was looking at was a clearing in the crowd a few rows nearer the game, in which was sat a mother and daughter wearing bright yellow coats, lit tenderly in the late-afternoon sunlight.
In the second half, a young Mancunian won a penalty and fought over the spot kick with his teammates, grappling with them for the ball. When he scored, he blew a kiss to the crowd, and I remember very clearly the shock wave of appreciation that was felt through the audience in response to his gesture. In the end, Liverpool won. It didn’t matter much to me, since I’ve always been an Arsenal fan.
I left the stadium with haste, imagining my exit protocol should I ever have kids and a wife. I remember whispering to myself: “Let’s move quickly, now,” as I Euro-stepped between people. I picked up my bag from the checking area and spooled out into the end of the day to walk home.
But everything had changed. At some point I had gained this notion of being somehow aristocratic, fatefully incognito among a vast peasantry; the acid then shifted that archetype so that I was more of a genteel wandering-man, something much more ancient. I walked by the tailgating groups again and their Technicolor lives were impossibly beautiful; I would have traded with them. Deeper in the tall grass at the side of the road, cars were parked and couples headed back to them; I wanted to say something to them to make them laugh or smile.
But I walked on. South — deeper into the light. I was following fewer people now, just a couple groups of Hispanics, laughing particularly. We all passed the dentist’s office at the side of the road, and then the shopping center. So they, too, were headed for the overpass. The overpass is where I left them and became alone again.
As I was walking through the parking lot, near the Tesla charging station, I realized I wasn’t quite ready to head home again. So I sipped some of my Evian water and thought about what I could do next, until I stopped feeling so strongly. For when I was bored, which was often, I kept a baseball at the bottom of my backpack that I would pitch against a wicker chair left sitting in some woods near the apartment; that and swimming, or floating, were my primary leisure activities. So, with the thrill of sport lingering in my heart, I guess I decided to go to the woods to work on my curveball.
I walked down a sun-dappled asphalt road past mailboxes belonging to houses which had that Schrodinger quality of not disclosing whether or not they were empty. At a certain point, well-known to me, I crossed over a grassy median to cut between two homes and enter the forest beyond their backyards. When I went beneath the trees, the air was cooler and little spots of golden light wavered on the ground, courtesy of the canopy. Yes, I could see more colors in the forest, but nothing was unreal; I was simply more sensually alert. It was a grove that development had preserved from a birch forest which at one time had covered the area.
At the wicker chair, I set the water bottle upon it and retreated to the beaten path to pitch. If I missed, I would have to follow into the forest to retrieve it. But at my delivery, the ball curled off my outstretched fingers and wung through the air to strike the bottle neatly on the cap. I decided I was done — this wasn’t Space Jam. So I sat slumped on the chair among the thin trees, in the slight breeze, and tried to keep myself together.
The subtle wind was whistling into my heart. I closed my eyes, replacing my vision with a reddish darkness. Sinking to my knees from the chair, I touched my head to the moss beneath me, first swiveling left and right. “You alone…guide us to the straight path,” I said to God, not whispering, “The path of those you have favored, not of those who have angered you, or those you have led astray.” And I stayed there for a long beat, breathing into the dead leaves on the ground, rocks digging into my knees.
When I finally rose, I gasped loudly, or really nearly shouted, because the red tabby cat from the morning had crept up on me and started to nibble on my hair as I’d pressed my head to the ground. The cat looked affronted at my reaction, then shook itself and bounded away back towards the neighborhood, meowing twice. It was then dusk, and I lost sight of it when it was no more than 20 yards away.
A little dazed, I resolved to follow it, shouldering my backpack. I was nearly out of the woods, passing between some bushes when instinctively, I stopped short and looked to the left: just below eye level, not two feet from my nose, was the largest butterfly I had ever seen, with pure yellow wings, practically aglow. As I looked closer, it had black patterns at the base of its wings which were made of — Maya, I think — they were so black they seemed to dissolve the matter of the air around them, and they had a teardrop shape. The butterfly was perfectly still and seemed to know I was there. I was utterly still, my mouth agape.
I stared at it for a long, long time. Still, it is the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen: I wanted it to live forever. Later, I would question whether my mind had invented it, but then I remembered being so close to it in the woods, when in my heart of hearts, I knew it was real. I tore myself away from the butterfly and stumbled nearer the entrance to the woods.
“I will never tell,” I promised aloud, and then I repeated that, breathlessly: “I will never tell.”
Stumbling to the edge of the woods, all the trees and leaves and rocks and streams of light were sentient, and whispering to me words of love: come to the edge of the night, I heard, where she lives. They were inviting me to die to them; I was very close to accepting.
I wandered home through a scene like a watercolor painting — somehow I could already see some of the stars — and headed straight to my bedroom, where I took out my laptop and pulled up a translation of Song of Songs, the love poem in the Bible. Laying on my narrow bed, with a leg dangling off its edge, I smelled barbeque smoke through the window and remembered someone I had loved when I was younger, or still did, actually. My phone never rang; no messages came in.
My beloved is like a gazelle or young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
Peering through the lattice.
There was a pallor in the dark blue sky over the roofs of the houses. Pixels on my screen, the passages seemed to me not passionate so much as terribly wise. I thought I could sense a presence next to me, but there was no one there.
I laid down in bed and closed my eyes. “I love you,” I whispered, to no one or everyone, or God, or the butterfly, or people I can’t mention: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” More than I can tell. I took a Seroquel. Then I stared at the ceiling, my chest shaking, and waited to fall asleep. I waited a long time.