Master of Reality

The first sentence of this story is that my throat was so parched that even if I wanted to I could not have intervened in Kerry and Wei’s argument about the importance of first sentences in stories.

“That is the first rule every writer learns, are you fucking kidding me,” Wei said. “You can’t write without rules.”

“But that’s exactly why there are no first sentences in stories,” Kerry said. “Because there are no first sentences in language. Language has no origin the same way that the signifier has no signified. The first sentence of one story is also the last sentence of the last story you read.”

Wei pounded his fist on the grass and demanded, “Have you actually read a story?” to which Kerry laughed.

We had eaten magic mushrooms. I closed my eyes and could smell the last traces of Stankonia in the air between us for one last second before the breeze dispersed it. Because we were in Amsterdam, we had purchased the shrooms from a deli and our three individual portions had come in small, sealed, plastic containers, like three nice pieces of feta cheese. Wei and Kerry were on their backs, balanced on their elbows with their heads tilted up to the sun, but I sat up, rocking forward and backward, my face pointed to the cool, green lawn of the Gaasperplas Park.

I craved water—the unimaginably moist interior of the verdant grass torturing me—but worse than the ability to speak I had also lost the will to describe. I could not intervene in the debate about whether or not stories should have rules because of a deep and spreading weakness depriving me of both the will and the ability to act in any sense.

My one relaxation was the thought that there was a place where I could go, strip myself of the imperative to be an individual, and hang it up like a coat on a wall. When I thought about this, the harsh back-and-forth between Wei and Kerry became like the sounds of teeth munching on food and I could actually lean back, not rock anymore, and breathe at a less desperate pace.

It was a chateau, connected to Amsterdam by a narrow causeway over a body of water that was much wider than the other canals and warmed by neon light the color of cooling sweat under twilight that drifted out of the many tall windows of the large house. The water actually touched the horizon. I walked the causeway, which was only wide enough for one pedestrian at a time, and entered the chateau.

Immediately, a team of maids and butlers stripped off my clothes. There was a price for the relaxation that this chateau could provide: permanent relinquishment not only of liberty but of will itself, and paying that price meant becoming furniture for all time. Naked, silently posing forever, but without hunger or thirst. Humiliating though it undoubtedly was, it was the feeling I needed to escape from Kerry, Wei, and the infernal bright greenness of Gaasperplas Park so I closed my eyes and burrowed more deeply into the chateau, posing my bare arms inside my mind first like a lamp, then like the armrests of the chair, and finally like a little man on top of a tennis trophy.

“Every good college student has rules,” Wei said. “Studies have shown that students who do not begin their first day with a clear set of rules about studying, friends, parties, s-sex—”

Kerry laughed once again. “S-sex,” she said. “Burn forest crumbs adorable handshake.”

I couldn’t listen to them, I had to get away. I posed myself like the chateau itself, in miniature, as a decoration at the bottom of the aquarium in which the fish of the chateau were housed.

“You can’t tell me you don’t have rules,” Wei growled, genuinely angry now. “Girls have the most rules. Girls have the worst rules, too—about us.”

“Pearls force down their electric death stream,” Kerry shot out all in a row. “Elephants dance atop pins and the sun replaces the cars.”

“About guys,” Wei continued. “About which guys you want to fuck!”

I found myself burrowing so deeply into the chateau that I lost it and wound up in darkness, and the more I dug through it the gauzier and stickier its consistency became. Finally I pulled the last of the inky material out from over my eyes and I found myself, much to my surprise and shock, back in my dorm room—from two years prior.

Laughter filled my ears—noxious, mocking laughter. It was like the end of the world, but my butt was soaked—what was it, the cheap beer I could smell everywhere? I noticed a plastic handle of Popov vodka on the table, the $12 type that I used to buy all the time because it meant the most bang for your buck.

When I got over shuddering at the thought of that miserable Popov I realized that I had traveled through time. At first I wondered whether I had really traveled through time or just somehow entered one of my own memories, but I realized it didn’t matter when I pressed my hands to my jeans. They were completely soaked, around the crotch most of all, and everyone in the room was laughing at me. The incident felt more real than a memory because it was a half-memory—I realized that not only was I re-experiencing the past, but I was re-experiencing a moment that I had actively sought to forget in the years since it had happened.

I looked in the mirror and saw my face clenched in anger, but my knees wobbling and my arms windmilling to keep myself balanced, and the laughter in the room got louder and louder with each second that I persisted in this strange, drunken dance of rage. I recognized the girl who had been beside me on the couch—Emily, she was the one who had dumped it on me.

I found a shadow in the corner of the room and pushed on it. Instead of enveloping me in soft, moist, warm, darkness like before, though, the shadows turned dead white immediately. The more I pushed on them, the more like formica they became.

“Do you know how cheesy you sound?”

It was like the end of the world, but instead of Kerry and Wei their voices were harder, more masculine, more like hunks of wood banging against each other.

“Don’t call me cheesy and start dropping quotes on me, man. You’re the one who’s cheesy.”

“Hey at least I know what I want.”

“Hey at least I know what’s cheesy.”

Cheesy . . . It made me feel good to hear that word, it put my deep and spreading weakness into perspective. It was a word that had had almost no importance for me before I had started recreational drug use on a regular basis—you could even have said that I was pretty cheesy, with the after-school activities and such, before I came to see things in a weed-flavored light. At first, it was a revelation to see how hilarious everything that practically everyone did really was—but it became scary when it tainted the way I saw myself, as well, and it gripped me in paralysis.

The white formica was the table. I set my hands on it and then gazed to the right, and then to the left, feeling shame for the pale skin and flaccid muscles in the arms protruding from my Atari T-shirt at this moment in 2001.

“Anyway I hate fucking Gaddis,” Matt said.

“What have you read? Like, half of The Recognitions?” Peter Rothbart asked.

I remembered this well. My friends Matt and Peter Rothbart, who had landed in a position of modest fame because his brother Davy had founded Found magazine, were having a debate about Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Mr. Difficult,” in which he proudly claimed the title of a middlebrow writer by distancing himself from William Gaddis. Matt and Peter were fighting to decide whether Franzen or Gaddis was more cheesy, which Matt and Peter understood to mean whether the Oprah’s Book Club member or the lifelong avant-gardist was more dishonest about who he was and what he meant to other people. I was shaking in my boots, totally silent, because I read neither the Franzen piece nor a word of Gaddis, and it was blowing my mind to hear Peter Rothbart go off on something like that because he had never said a word about literature in high school.

It was like the end of the world, but more of a salad than a sandwich.

“You know in the first second if you’d fuck a guy or not, don’t you?” Wei shrieked.

“It repeats. It repeats. It repeats. It repeats. It repeats. It repeats.”

Emily stood up and walked out of the room while everyone watched. I finally collapsed on the floor, right on my soaking butt.

“McDonald’s Burger King Arby’s Hardee’s Roy Rogers Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Kerry told Wei, shaking her finger.

It was like the end of the world, but smoky rather than elastic.

“It repeats. It repeats.  It repeats.  It repeats. It repeats. It repeats. It repeats.”

Peter grew red in the face as he praised Jonathan Franzen. As the tension between him and Matt ratcheted up, I forgot my own private shame and regressed to a state of childlike helplessness, desperate to reconcile my warring parents but totally impotent to do so.

It was like the end of the world but silent, not set to music like it normally would be, and at last all of these jabbering squabbling voices quieted down.

Kerry and Wei stood by the canal watching a two-dimensional, black figure, hovering by the place where the street ended and the water began, one leg seemingly balanced on thin air.

“It repeats,” said the black figure. “It repeats.”

“Dude,” Wei said.

This whole time I had struggled with the choice of which of these selves to burrow into, which one to become and think and feel as, and, watching Wei and Kerry set their hands on the wall of person-shaped shadow before the canal, I realized that I had found one in this scene. I had no face, no voice, no torso, only an infinite series of realities that extended from me like tentacles and that I could manipulate at will. To live permanently in such a state was the only ambition that I had ever had and at last I had achieved it.

I looked at my hand, wiggled my fingers, and felt my will to live return upon my determination of this one, special thought. I stepped away from the canal, stretched my back, and told Kerry and Wei that I would be OK.

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