THIS IS NOT A SHORT STORY
“We will make ourselves into people we hate enough to kill.”
Prompt: Write about something that happened to you when you were 16 years old. Then change the outcome of the story entirely.
My phone died in Port Moody, but I pretended that I was still listening to music from my headphones all the way to West Van, crisp twenties in my pocket. He stopped trying to talk to me in Burnaby when we passed the sign for the exit to the Vintage Carousel.
That was when I decided to start writing. He couldn’t possibly think that I would write this, or anyone else would read it. I had been away from the city for a long time, the highway seemed like an illness, like the digestive tract of an opiate addict. If you don’t know what that means, just be happy.
Each exit sign pointed to a past that I didn’t want to remember. The country’s supposed to make you feel insignificant, but you can’t forget to tip a waiter without the entire town finding out about it the next day. In the city everything goes by with or without you.
Gabriola now has several community Facebook boards. One for those who got kicked off the main board, one for Smiles and Snarls, one for lost and found, etc… On a bad day, I look up the lost and found pets. The community really pitches in when a pet is lost. And as a community, we seem to lose our pets quite frequently.
Having been away from the city, just For Lease signs made me want to cry, I can’t explain why. The mountains faded in and out of the clouds, Playland off in the distance. I remembered losing someone’s wallet on a rollercoaster and never forgiving myself, even after learning that someone lost an engagement ring in the same fashion.
I tried to close my eyes and write but got too dizzy. This was the first time in five years that I made that trip clean, no wonder I didn’t dare close my eyes and didn’t dare remember. Okay, maybe not 100% clean by Narcotics Anonymous standards, but clean enough to remember what tears were.
In London I met up with a girl from highschool, we got a family pass for the tube, twelve and under, the agent said, she’s eleven—and I don’t remember where we went or what we did only that the coffee wasn’t worth what we paid for it. As for Vancouver—it went on without me but I barely went on without it.
The mountains seemed to only exist when I wrote them down, but the illness that was the highway was always there, whether or not I wrote it or wanted it.
Dear Reader, an empty quarter flap just fell out of my notebook and I have no idea how it got there. Seriously. It’s been forever. Must have stuck in an old book and transferred here. I know you’ll tell me that’s some sort of sign. This is not a short story, not everything means something.
I licked it. It didn’t taste like anything. They use the same Keno papers that they did when I was sixteen. Some things never change. Like the illness of the highway. Empty Quarter is also the name of a desert, ranked both least and most hospitable place on earth.
In Rome it was the pope’s funeral, people were packed in tents, I managed to find a hostel with an Australian and three Mexicans who told me I had scary eyes and I stole their beer. Free crates of water, tears spilled into storm drains, endless flags. I don’t even remember the pope’s name. But I moved in with a guy named Carmelo, he smoked Camels. We watched the Simpsons whose voices were all distorted, I asked why they don’t just have subtitles—When in Rome, they said, and I wondered, when in Rome, what?
Dear Reader, my headphones hurt my ears.
A man asked me to take his picture in Rome, I still have it. I’m not sure what he thought would become of it but moved in with a guy named Carmelo who smoked Camels, we met on a pub-crawl, I lost a hoodie. He said I needed help and I said—when in Rome.
But back to the short story. This is not a short story. Back to staying within the lines of the notebook, back to trying not to remember being sixteen and doing lines off of CDs with one hundred dollar bills. I was still naïve enough to think that only rich people had one hundred dollar bills. That one was rich, not because of his bills but because of his car and watch. He told me his life story as my teeth chattered; I bit through my gums and chain-smoked. He told me that his daughter was eighteen and going off to college and how worried he was about her entering the big bad world.
Dear Reader, I was sixteen and could pass for twelve. Dear Reader, why would you want to hear this? This isn’t a short story, it’s a disease. Also, CDs? I really am almost thirty.
In highschool we did those things where we had to write down nice things anonymously on someone’s folded page of lined paper. Most people wrote cool hair, cool pictures, you are weird in a sorta? cool way. One said, you always seem so sad. Dear Reader, how does anyone survive sixteen?
I drew on my skin sometimes too. I was twelve when I first killed myself, did it last at twenty-six, but I killed myself best at sixteen. That’s when I learned what it’s like to let the windshield cry for you. That’s when I learned what the street tastes like at 2AM. That’s when I learned that the best honesty comes through lies—where’s your home, they’d ask. It took a bit of learning to answer other questions with, how old do you want me to be?
I think I might need that bag if I continue on this sidetrack. This is not a sidetrack, this is the fucking track. I need more than a bag. I need a baggie.
Dear Reader, I was just a kid writing with invisible ink.
In Spain it was the Robert Frank show, I took posters off buildings, one from a café, a man yelled in Spanish, as I went to run he handed me the poster—the first time I understood anyone. Sometimes there are things you don’t need to understand. If you want more, you’ll have to do something for it. Was I naïve or drunk? All of the above. But I would never again be able to doubt the former.
By North Van, it started to rain. By West Van, I started to cry. This is not a short story. My highschool teacher said that crying characters are cliché. Tears didn’t roll down my cheeks—they rolled down the windshield. I remembered when I used to throw up in plastic bags because he wouldn’t stop driving. You did too much, he’d say. And I would do more. God, I wish this was a short story.
Watching the arbutus trees back home—wherever that is—with their red bark peeling off, an image came to me of everything that I have done to myself. The trees looked naked to me—I wanted to cover them up. I thought of the photos I used to put online. How far removed I was from what I was doing, as if to have a fake name and a second cell phone made me someone else. Which was all I ever really wanted—to be someone else. I have always felt insecure around arbutus trees. Perhaps because they do not ask to be anyone else, even as parts of themselves peel off. In being naked, I became less and less revealed. But the trees just continue to stand proudly. And don’t they know that they are more vulnerable to the elements?
Dear Reader, I thought that to kill was to the best way to get something back. I said fuck you as I pulled my pants up. They laughed. That was Spain, not Paris, I don’t even remember the city. I remember the dirt. Hating dirt kept me alive for a time, loving it nearly killed me, as did many cities. The person yelling fuck you was not me, I told her not to, and I told her not to write about rape. I told her not to even write the word. I told her to go back to the beginning. I told her not to collect $200. I told her.
I hated Paris from the very start. I hated the idea of Paris. I was young and thought love stupid, almost as stupid as those who chose to live in the country, which is where I am living now, wishing to go back to Paris like a boardgame—to youth itself—take out the knife from its belly. Girlfriend Experience—GFE—was always a lie. Most of them wanted a kid, not a girlfriend. But that was even before Paris—that was both before and after Paris. That was both before and after pretending that two of my cell phones weren’t ringing simultaneously. Having two could have saved my life. He thought I couldn’t call 911 if he had taken one phone.
If this were a short story, you’d want to hear this.
The street was before I learned what GFE was, and that you could make way more on the internet. Craigslist. Those were the days. Sixteen was when he asked if I was working. That was how this all started. Once I was too junked out and thought I was still above the street, it was massage parlors, where I’d count down from one hundred, by sevens if I wasn’t high. And we’d hide in duvets even though the heat was high enough to kill, especially with the heroin. I liked to hide like I was still actually seven and it was a birthday party.
The walls were a disgusting pink.
Dear Reader, I was just a kid writing with invisible ink.
I tried to get a bus ticket to Paris, sold out, but you can go to Brussels—wrote home, left some bits out. Some things are best left out. If this were a short story, it would all be left out.
By Horseshoe Bay, he was singing in Spanish and I realized that I hadn’t actually been crying, it was just the rain. The mountains made me dizzy. By the ferry terminal he said, I don’t know why you’re so sad, you never tell me anything, but it’s not like I have to go kill myself over it, right?
He said something similar years earlier. First he said that he would go after whomever gave me those scratches, and I reminded him that he would be going after himself.
Dear Reader, this is not a short story; if it was a short story, I would have to tell you why in some clever, cryptic way. If it was a short story, he might have died.
A couple of weeks ago, upon learning my history, a boy sent me Eleven Minutes. I told people that I sent him back Amber Dawn but this is a lie. He wasn’t worth the postage. I feel like a postage stamp sometimes but I can’t explain. The truth is, most of the time I don’t understand myself. This is what I remembered best of the street—it never mattered.
Dear Reader, no one was more prejudiced against whores than I was.
Dear Reader, have you ever caught a star on your tongue?
In Horseshoe Bay, I finished the first pack of smokes in a week—choose your battles. I watched a crow peck at a peanut butter packet until it managed to get the goods inside, flying off when another crow came closer, or perhaps he eyed me eyeing him. Crows are smart. It takes one to know one but I don’t do that anymore, I had plenty of peanut butter at home. I had nothing but peanut butter, actually, but now I really am off track. The track was on another planet.
I debated texting him to say that my phone had been dead all along, but I still had to charge my phone to do that. I saw someone I knew and waved, and when he didn’t wave back, I wondered if he knew. I saw others I knew who pretended not to see me. This is not a short story, this is a biological fault.
Every dog in West Van was the size of a chocolate bar. One had a knitted fuchsia sweater. I remembered how sometimes you have to leave home to want to go back, and how visiting an old home makes you wonder if home needs to be redefined. And how much I loathed clichés. But people cry. This is a biological fact.
There was a girl with a stuffed animal, I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be, something white, far too old for that sort of thing. There was another with a little dog on a leash, Converse shoes that looked like they had just come back from war, and a half-baked smile. I smiled my vulnerable smile and tried not to, my vulnerable smile frequently makes me think that I look like a creep. Though when I was one of those girls, I could tell the difference between a vulnerable smile and a creep smile; it takes one to know one, though back then I didn’t understand this.
When I got back from Europe at eighteen, unpacking I found a note from Carmelo on a coaster, just one of the hundreds of beers you’ll have for free—I have developed a new understanding of cost. BC born and raised and I still feel like I’m stealing from somebody else’s story—albeit never short enough.
Reader, sometimes I go to write a short story and just end up writing you stupid whore over and over. I once debated an English professor who required a psychological analysis of sleep teaching in Brave New World. Nobody ever believed just hearing something over and over in your sleep actually causes you to believe it. I told a friend that what I miss most about my old life is never being disappointed. She said that was the saddest thing she had ever heard. It was too familiar to me to be sad or disappointing. It just was. And yet there is an Irish saying, the thing about the past is it’s not the past.
But do I really have to think about the highway, the exits, the plastic bags, the Keno papers and everything that plays from the past like a movie of a road trip? I had only gone from the Vancouver suburbs to Horseshoe Bay.
On the ferry, it appeared that tourists were back for summer. No whale shows yet, but slightly bigger crowds, slightly more expensive cameras, and less people hogging up the workstations. I do not use those unless I need to charge my laptop. And I use the same cheap Hilroy notebooks that I used when I was sixteen. The small ones you can prop on a laptop when you’re typing. I’m not grown up enough for a real journal. They expect too much of me, and I used to resent how often I was given them from people I loathed.
For ten years we bugged my brother about being almost thirty. By the time I finish this I will be thirty. This is a biological fact. My twenties were a short story, my teens were an after-school-special, my childhood was the mountains. Take what you will from that.
This is not a short story, this is life. This is not a short story, it’s never-ending.
I made my twenties into a short story because it was the easiest way of pretending it wasn’t really happening. I have lost more than wallets. I used to say that I had lost my mind in order to avoid admitting that I had really lost the courage to face up—it never really was a short story.
By Nanaimo I forgave myself. This might be a short story; I haven’t actually made it there yet. I would rather write the ending before it happens. This method frequently failed me in the past.
Dear Reader, I lost every friend I had.
Dear Reader, I’ve been almost seventeen for a long time now.
PS I lied, I recognized your handwriting. I’m not sad, I’m stuck in a short story.
Dear Alki (remember that nickname?), I was the one who said that you had cool hair. Seems like that’s something else you can add to your list of things you’ve lost. Keep in touch. We missed you at the reunion. The writing teacher mentioned you. She said it’s too bad it took you ten years to start writing again.
Dear Reader, you can’t write when you aren’t alive. I miss it though. God, I miss it. By the way, I wasn’t an alcoholic, well, not then, not yet… Those rumors about that Halloween party were total BS. Only dogs eat vomit. Enough people cast you as the town drunk and eventually you’re going to start showing up to town drunk auditions. Besides, heroin was my true love. I couldn’t write because I was just playing the part. By the way, do you think she ever figured out that that kid plagiarized everything he wrote using Chuck Palahniuk and Sage Francis?
Alki, can I send this to her? I know how you like to end things ambiguously but can I? And did you forgive yourself?
Reader, for a long time I couldn’t even say the word sex. My psychiatrist would stress these words—sex trade—as if to make me say it, or to at least point out that I was not saying it. Working, I said.
When I got my ferry ticket, I didn’t know whether or not I should protest to the disabled or the adult listed on my fare. After I finally charged my phone, I listened to Same Mistakes by The Echo-Friendly on repeat. If I let this story end I might have to grow up. I might forget the taste of the street. Besides, maybe this really is a short story? A bit too convenient, wouldn’t you say?
Writer, you’re right, sort of, it’s not what it seems. This is an intervention.
Reader, I should have seen this coming.
Writer, keep writing. The ink isn’t invisible anymore. You’ll stop looking back when you’re ready to move forward. There are a lot of exit signs in life. A lot of years spent running. Keep pretending that sixteen never happened and you’ll never move forward.
Reader, I think I should have gone with ambiguous.
Writer, when’s the last time you looked in the mirror? You only think you’re ambiguous.
Reader, true dat. God, what kind of ending is that?
Writer, a thirty-year-old who thinks she’s still sixteen.
Dear Reader, have you ever tasted forgiveness?
Dear Writer, you’re the writer.
Dear Reader, do you think people should be convicted for crimes they commit when they are sleepwalking? Dear Reader, if it takes one to know one, what does that make us?
Dear Writer, write.
Reader, but I just want to remember knowing the taste of the street, I don’t want to remember the taste itself. A writer told me to write about the shape of his dick and I threw a tantrum like a four-year-old. Even now I must delete this. Even this much is too much.
Writer, delete that and you’re never moving forward.
Reader, I was never alive enough to know that sort of thing, but I can tell you the first time I was alive enough to cry.
Writer, that’s a start.
Reader, I thought you wanted an ending?
Writer, we both know that this isn’t really a short story. Beginnings and endings are the same in life.
Reader, fuck, I really thought that I was writing a short story.