Paris, Texas, and the Frontier of Heartbreak

by Guy Walker

Some years ago, I roared off in the middle of the night, driving the thousand miles from Los Angeles to Aspen in order to catch the ballet in time. I would have to drive fast to make it, in this very old Mercedes that was barely hanging onto life. Because this ballet dancer had broken up with me weeks earlier, and my friend and a shared bottle of whiskey convinced me it was a great idea for me alone to drive out there and surprise her. I had to ask my boss for a couple days’ pay in advance—three hundred dollars for gas and whatever else. Snacks, I guess.

It was my first time doing this—being in love, and being so busted up over our sudden split. And you don’t think straight when you’re still in love with someone who has totally vanished from your life. You become possessed somehow, completely deranged in the florescent midnight all around, the howling moon itself coursing through your veins and lungs. One would think driving seventeen hours would give you the time and momentum to think things over, to return even the semblance of your usual easygoing rationale. But that wasn’t the case. The hypnotic glow of the heart’s intoxication was thorough—there was no attempt to veer off course.

I hadn’t thought about this drive in a while. But all of it came back recently, the events played over like an old film reel you find in the garage behind bags of Christmas tinsel. When the pandemic first arrived, and scores of us were fired from our jobs, and told to huddle in place, barracked behind mildewed drywall and crumbling brick, watching house flies pester the confused space between the curtains and the window, some friends and I started a book club. This quickly and predictably turned into a movie club. We watched Kurosawa, and Truffaut, and Bergman, and all the usual ones you watch in that kind of group.

I had the group watch Paris, Texas, the 1984 western masterpiece directed by Wim Wenders, written by Sam Shepard. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and is arguably one of the best most redemptive love stories written for the screen. Wenders is a major figure in New German Cinema, who often tells stories of men who can’t touch the people they love. Wings of Desire is about guardian angels who crave real physical touch amidst their duty of quelling despair in humans. The American Friend is about a terminally sick man who commits a crime to leave money for his family. As a photographer, Wenders captures the grand desolate landscapes, places where humans have stepped back from and left abandoned, left in overgrown tumults of weeds and crumbling ruins. His documentaries, Pina, Buena Vista Social Club, and Salt of the Earth feature bright, mysterious worlds we as viewers will most likely never touch. And yet still, Paris, Texas is his greatest accomplishment, one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments. Because we are all trying to be in love in a world void of meaning; and the sumptuous materiality of this world is saturated in opaque dreams propped up against the wide open frontier.

I’ve seen this film countless times, and, until discussing it the other day with my friends, didn’t know why it continually left me crushed, wiping my eyes into my Covid-issued handkerchief, sitting there transfixed after the credits roll, reminiscing about life and love and the frontier of heartbreak. It’s arguable to claim that film criticism is too innately shallow and irreverent to be an actual legitimate vocation. We come away from a film, in passing discussion, saying if it was a good film or a bad film. I liked it. Or I really liked it. Or, it sucked. But from time to time a film comes around that fills you with all of life’s flourishing virtue, that stave off a crippling cynicism one more day.

The film begins with our hero, Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), in a tattered unbuttoned suit, a red baseball cap, and a bristling beard. He’s walking through the desert, not aimlessly, but purposefully, looking forward determinedly as he marches across asphalt roads to continue in the infinite nowhere ahead. He doesn’t speak for the first thirty minutes of the film, but his face is saying too much for words. Shepard says that Harry Dean Stanton’s face is one of those that already tells a story. Stanton is a quiet, incredibly reserved man, much like my own father who was also an actor, who trained mightily in Chekhov and Shakespeare, as did Stanton. Shepard had written the script, and him and Stanton were drinking tequila in a part of New Mexico where my ex, the ballet dancer, now lives coincidentally. And Stanton mentioned that he wanted to play a role with some sensitivity and intelligence. And so that was Paris, Texas, the western of all westerns.

There is of course the sun blinded squint of Clint Eastwood in all those spaghetti westerns, a cigarillo gripped permanently in the corner of his mouth. Film critic, Pauline Kael, agreed, noting that the range of Clint Eastwood as an actor is severely limited as some kind of contrived seriousness. No one is really that cartoonishly cowboy. Or John Wayne’s sneering bravado as he punches the sordid air like an invisible bean bag. Harry Dean Stanton on the other hand, stares into the distance with a relatable brokenness and sad paralyzed gaze. He has been pushed to the edge, and by most judgment, been pushed over. A writer like Shepard is magically able to commit to sharp and immediate dialogue, unburdened by the usual bouquets of self-worship so many of us feel compelled to write, intoxicated by our own presumed wit and wisdom.

There’s an audio of Tarantino reviewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, in which he notes that the opening scene, when Daniel Plainview breaks his leg falling down the mineshaft, only to drag himself across the unbounded desert—that alone could be an entire film. Where others would have mercilessly died, dragging their bloody and broken selves under the bitter boiling sun, our hero, a soon-to-be oilman, a modern-day vampire, sucking at the throat of the earth—succeeds somehow. The same is true of course for Travis Henderson walking through the desert of the American southwest, stumbling upon a German doctor in the middle of nowhere. Who are these lonesome cowboys, and how did we get to our privatized states of desperation? Travis is the redemptive spiritual triumph of our ubiquitous quest for love. He is not the obvious hero, because he has a zen-like aesthetic to his beauty instead of being young and chiseled and handsome. He was in love. And he still is in love. But he does the impossibly difficult and noble order of not falling for a temptation so pretty and so pleading to be reunited with at the end of the film. It always and only makes the inevitable worse; the next breakup even more chaotic and cruel.

I didn’t know why this movie meant so much to me over the years. I’ve always idolized Shepard as a playwright and storyteller, for his own tender masculinity and stalwart elegance of the American man. For his fury and squall; for his accuracy of the mania of being alive. Similar to my worship of Walt Whitman, how I keep Whitman’s portrait framed above my writing desk. To write something so western, so American, to plunge a vile full of the hallmark American psyche through your veins, and see what comes out the other side. In writers such as these, there’s a redemptive quality to being a white man in America these days. At least, nothing is more western than to walk through the magnificent red archways of the American southwest, hawks and peregrines buzzing overhead, as you don’t know what’s ahead.

And then I remembered why it stands in another realm of importance to me. Some years ago, a ballet dancer and I were in love. She too was adorned with the shoulder-length bright blonde hair much like Nastassja Kinski’s character, Jane. We lived in this quiet beach canyon, and were foolish and fast in our love. We did everything together, and even the mundane became a feast of laughter and good trouble. One day—in the middle of the night—she broke up with me, right before driving off to a scheduled performance to dance in a ballet in Aspen a few weeks later. So a few weeks passed, and I got in my car, and roared off drunk into the abysmal cosmic night. My front window was broken, stuck halfway down; the sunroof wouldn’t fully close; no heater, no radio; just the dull caustic rumbling of my 1980 diesel Mercedes, joggling my testicles for seventeen hours into the dull and petrified seat cushion. The rain literally pouring through the cracked sunroof and onto my head; the higher altitude blizzard billowing through my open and broken window. I fell asleep so many times, jolted awake by the grated sides of the highway, I started to rely on it, getting sleep a couple seconds at a time. I carried on entire conversations with hallucinated ghosts sitting in my passenger seats, laughing hysterically at their jokes.

Much like Travis, entranced as he walked dutifully across the desert, I was possessed by the dreary aftermath of love, the stain of heartache I didn’t know was possible. I have always before and always since determined myself an impenetrable pessimist—this sorta thing doesn’t happen to men like me. For whatever contrived insecurity, I’ve barricaded my vulnerabilities behind dams of fury, trying in my own flailing and quiet mania to convince myself that it would be easier for everyone if I played no role in the rambling maudlin theater. It’s because of this selfish idiocy, I have unwittingly hurt many women along the way. I’ve gone silent and withdrawn when the trouble returns to the surface.

Travis went walking through the desert for four years; Jane moved to Houston, and made a living flirting with men in a peep show styled sex club. Men who couldn’t touch her through the glass; men, who she couldn’t see, or rather, wouldn’t have to see from her side of the one-way mirror. Day after day, she would give men what they wanted, barricaded behind the glass of anonymity, and she would presumably talk or flirt or give a striptease, the whole time staring at herself in the one-way mirror, confessing relishing details to no one but herself.

When Travis enters the establishment, he enters one of the curtained-off rooms at random, picks up the telephone and asks for a blonde woman. The wrong blonde woman enters, in a nurse’s costume, smudged lipstick and heavy eyeshadow, strung out and intoxicated. Thank god this isn’t the Jane that Travis and his son Hunter drove across multiple states to find. Because in every sense of the real world, it could have been. It’s been four years, and we are just bugs skittering about a stage of random, painstaking rot and decay. For most of us, it’s our once gorgeous and pulsating innocence that gets mopped up in the years of drink and drugs and sordid antipathy. But these are the movies, and this is a sad and beautiful movie, and Jane is still very beautiful and very sad, and perfectly worthy to drive across the country for.

In one of the greatest monologues ever written for the screen, Travis replays the story of his and Jane’s love and eventual loss. Stanton gives a movingly calm and stoic performance of it, an Aurelian deliberateness that seems so enviably out of reach to me. He is on one side of the glass, Jane on the other, unable to see him. At first, for her, he is just another pitiful customer who wants to talk, until the unraveling details of these “two people in love” reveal to her who exactly this man on the other side of the glass is, and who he is talking about. “He was kind of raggedy and wild,” he tells, “she was very beautiful, you know? And together they turned everything into a kind of an adventure. And she liked that. Just an ordinary trip down to the grocery store was full of adventure. And they were always laughing at stupid things.” Upon falling in love this first time, I had just returned after years of strange and deliberate lawlessness, having farmed in Thailand for many months and almost losing my dick in a terrible staph infection, having sailed to France with no money with some older family man who tried to fuck me, having been homeless in England for a time until finally I sold some paintings that allowed me to hitchhike above the Arctic circle, where I made surfboards in an abandoned fish factory in the fjords of northern Norway for some years. Which is to say, I fit the mold of being a bit raggedy at the time of falling in love. “He loved her more than he ever felt possible,” Travis continued. I was previously certain that what people called love was merely a compromise for loneliness. Whether they knew it or not, in a world void of meaning, they all just self-prescribed having a buddy around. Walking through a few decades of meaningless turmoil would somehow make it more palatable. But once again, my own dogmatism of negativity is wrong.

I arrived fifteen minutes before the ballet began, wiping my long nightmarishly windblown hair back into an unkempt ponytail, trying to contain my chronic bone-chilled delirium under my grandfather’s Pendelton wool coat. No amount of hot fluids could warm my insides again—disjointed popsicles for bones, viscous glugging of chilled blood just barely thawed in their veins. I hadn’t eaten much in the previous weeks, and felt my gaunt knobs of bone knocking against themselves while sitting there in the dark doom of the audience. And then there she was, the pristine heiress of dance itself, twirling under the spotlights of a preposterously ornate stage. This marbled athleticism, this animated and refined worship of the female form—this is what it’s all about, you tell yourself. A very beautiful ballerina is a goddess I’ll never know how to fully quantify. They have everything to do with sex and true mastery of an impossible vocation, and yet they have somehow transcended the meek mortality of us drunken peasants, as we collectively stammer in their awe and aura like pigeons.

There you are. An audience member, stuck like a mute and a prisoner in the dark, as she performs night after night, doing the same skillful routine, unable to see who’s watching her there on the other side of the lights. But just as in the one-way mirror at the peep show, there are moments throughout any ballet in which you’re convinced she’s looking straight at you, smiling, thrilled in the moment. Ah, this is no longer a vacuous performance, you tell yourself, she’s actually having a good time. She’s happy I’m here. The beauty pageant smile is a sad painful smile, like pornstars badly faking an orgasm; but the ballet dancer performs something righteously beautiful and redemptive, a protest of form that careens beyond any tiara and tutu.

Wender’s contemporary dance documentary, Pina, opens with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring performed on a square parcel of dirt on the stage. The first performance of this ballet was famously met with riots, or at the very least, critical and popular uproar for the ungentle stamping of dancers like they were untethered brutes, flailing tantrums of drama and horror. Because it broke conventions before breaking conventions was cool. It’s too bad that the dance I had to see was The Nutcracker, which is now just an obligatory ritual of nightmarish proportions—year after year, dance halls put on their reliable moneymaker season performance of it, and convince another generation of girls and boys that The Ballet is simply an orgiastic circus of cartoonishly horrifying costumes and faces lacquered in cement-thick makeup. Maybe I was just exhausted, but aside from seeing her dance and her smile, and seeing again those star-spangled turquoise eyes—besides that, the ballet was just about awful.

My drunken mania wasn’t wise after all. She was caught off guard by my sudden appearance, and was polite enough to hear my stammering admissions of love or whatever the hell I was trying to tell her. I had finally been snapped out of the sleepless delirium, and realized how mad and idiotic this all was. This wasn’t any knotted-up gallantry; it was embarrassing to finally be the crazy and trembling ex I had scoffed at so many others about. My god, I have become such an ass. Too bad. So she hugged me goodbye, and I slept in a dusty motel down the road that night. I checked behind the shower curtain for a hiding serial killer, ate Taco Bell in bed, watched Cheech and Chong in my underwear as the farts escaped without a sound. 

In Paris, Texas, Shepard keeps us in the dark about what exactly went on between Travis and Jane.  In Travis’ final monologue, we hear that he got increasingly drunk and paranoid with jealousy, thinking she was seeing another man. But why do they both abandon their four-year-old child? Why do they both abandon such a seemingly cherishable love of romance and friendship? Whatever the case, it was terrible and seemingly irreparable, an angelic innocence that burned off as quickly as summer’s morning fog. Shepard of course does this deliberately, demanding we imagine how those boiling and gasping remnants of love died at last. I too, under the given circumstances, can’t say why we broke up; it’s not mine to tell. And so, the reality of a world, in all its carnal and flourishing bursts, became just a memory package the size of a movie trailer where you can play the best parts over and over again until the memory is just a grainy Super 8 reel. Or, you just block it out. You delete all the pictures of you together from your phone, block them from your social medias, altogether banish them from the gates of your rose-clutching psyche. Because eventually, we all become heartbroken castaways shuffling through the sun-scorched frontier.

I remember driving back to Los Angeles, too forlorn and broke to do something reasonable like get drunk at Woody Creek Tavern since I was already in town. If I had money and the mindset, I could have kept driving, taken a trip somewhere, gotten to know what’s beyond all those wild unbridled sunsets, and seen if there was love or purpose beyond our broken starlit dreams, the cloistered avenues of delirium and decay here at home.

But I didn’t. I drove straight home, tailgating eighteen-wheelers best I could to save on gas, as they drove into the emergency lane to kick up gravel on my windshield, and threw their food scraps back at me, shredded lettuce and lumps of ketchup smeared with my wipers. Even some months later, I wrote idiotic blabbering messages to her when drunk and high on cocaine, and that all too familiar audible pain of waking up the next morning, and checking your phone to confirm that you indeed did send those messages. Not quite the calm warmheartedness that Travis performed.

When I eventually did run out of gas, I got out of my car and just started walking out into that same red frontier as Travis did, the impossible architecture of iron and rust-choked rock arching their way across the sky, a peregrine resting on the branch of a dead tree somewhere. I didn’t see Paris, Texas until long after my drive to Aspen, but there is a familiarity in heartbreak that goes beyond just the metaphor of being lost in a desert, something that Shepard surely knew firsthand. You can only write what you know, and then the writing will be as honest and true as it is. I didn’t go as far as Travis—a couple hundred meters rather than four years—but I wandered in other ways. Stories for another time.

Instead of the ballet, I soon became a regular at many of Hollywood’s burlesque bars, the sense of erotic familiarity as you stand there holding a whiskey, talking casually with an elegant woman in lingerie and an open kimono and eight inch heels. I knew most of them by name; they always let me cut the line or through the side or back door; I went to their birthday parties, and sometimes dated them or their friends. And as was the case with the peep show establishment in Paris, Texas, there were of course a few straggling ones that seemed sad and rundown, the currency of their moneymaking talents shambling under the decay of gravity and cigarettes. But far more often was the case that they prospered under a reeling fortune of faculty and flair—singers and playwrights and actresses, coquetting with those prodding chins of men to chuck their entire month’s savings at the stage like a snowball of confetti. In a way, strip clubs and burlesque bars are more honest than the ballet. Because expensive ballet dance halls are usually funded by oil tycoons like the Koch brothers, so we can lather ourselves in some cosmopolitan salad dressing, and rehearse how agreeable the libidinal twirls of parading-in-place was over a glass of white wine.

That’s what I told myself anyways. Who knows how I really felt. In reality, there’s no point to compare two dance forms—one doesn’t debate Bacon to Renoir, because they’re doing different things. But we are looking at ourselves through all of this. And watching a film as good as Paris, Texas is more than just a metaphorical reflection of your own experience of heartbreak. There’s an element of the literal.

The psychoanalytic theory of the mirror stage, as promoted by Lacan, says that an infant’s development from six to eighteen months is encouraged by their recognizing themselves in the mirror. Their obsession with standing hand-in-hand with themselves, dragging their cheeks and open mouths and tongue across the mirror is a realtime development of gaining a sense of self-identity. Who knows how long Jane has stared at herself on her side of the one-way mirror. Each day, she collects herself as a bouquet of starlit garnishes, not yet withered by life’s lonely fatigue. It’s what we all do, brushing our teeth in the morning as we stand in front of the bathroom mirror sometimes naked, herding ourselves back to ourselves. This is probably what selfies are all about. We never really leave the mirror stage entirely, because it’s all one sprawling recollection, trying to remember who we were all along.

Looking back, it seems like a movie. I imagine most of our memories work this way—the grainy retelling of important scenes in our lives, a kind of fractured storybook of pictures and cascading diatribes. You weave these in and out of the framework of your biases, your judgements, your contrivances, forming the resemblance of a very-long-but-hopefully-interesting-film. Your childhood is a cemetery of innocence and replenished naiveté. Your adolescence, a bombardment of libidinal angst and worship. But it’s the love affairs especially that crumble into the ruins of a bombed-out city. When there was love and friendship, and the sun was always coming low through the trees. We dismiss these memories because we have to, because we’ll drive ourselves insane, and drive our friends away if we keep at it, keep telling about how good it once was, how you had your ear pressed firmly against the heart of the universe, even for a few moments.

Even as I write this, I’m living in the same remote beach canyon, drinking a beer, eating a pile of plums I just picked from my tree, feeding three baby foxes some hunks of bagel on this completely private patio smothered in oak trees and flush succulents. I can surf anytime I want, and this entire canyon is populated with beautiful women who seem to live permanently in yoga pants. It’s not so bad. And yet I’ll still never be able to quell the general haunting delirium, the deafening strata of obscenity and glut. I can stamp it down pretty good, but the all too familiar voice of the insane babbling man still whispers in the shadows of your ears. 

How do any of these things end? In the 1990 documentary on Paris, Texas, Wenders admits that for anything to be called a story, it needs a beginning, middle, and end; and he’s “never been able to imagine the end of any story.” There’s almost a spiritual transcendental admission of this truth, in that there is no end to any of it—it’s all one cascading series of love and loss and longing, whether it’s very good cinema or our own lives impressing upon the others ahead of us, not yet born. Stanton was livid about the ending in Paris, Texas, admitting he “fucking wanted to kill [Wim]” for not letting his character end up with Jane and Hunter. For a time, I was livid about the ending of my own story. But it is the right ending—the most appropriate and challenging ending, in both cases. I suppose it’s one of those Marilyn-Monroe-is-still-beautiful-because-she-died-young type of things. If I carried on with the ballet dancer, or if Travis carried on with Jane, they would probably blur with the general mass of indifference. All our other relationships that went on too long, and became terrible in unspoken ways.

Things seem to mean more—for me at least—when they are bright and vivid for a time, like a fire raging embers into the big empty night, until almost all at once it’s gone. The warmth is gone, and all you’re left with is yourself. And somehow, that’s more beautiful than anything else in the world.

Notes on Eternal Recurrence

Salvador Dali - Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory - 1954

by Guy Walker

“Death created time to grow the things that it would kill, and you are reborn into the same life that you’ve always been born into.” Detective Rustin Cohle

Then they fantasize gleefully about what they would do if given one week to live, what perverse finale of drugs and hookers and assholes they’d engrave their last memories with. But it’s a useless and banal notion, revealing nothing of the human condition except for the desperate grunts of splendor we prefer to indulge in. A better question is how would we continue from this day forward if we were to learn that we’ll be reborn into this same life again and again, for eternity?

Eternal recurrence. It’s an old notion, discussed at length by the ancient Egyptians and Indians, eventually passed on to the Pythagoreans and the Stoics. But it was lonely frail Nietzsche, the same man who contracted syphilis from the only woman he fucked, a whore, who postured the notion of eternal recurrence best: one should live every day as if they will relive every detail of every second of their lives over and over and over again. Every laughter and despair and lonely insecurity, every drunken orgasm and rotten boredom will have to be repeated innumerable times, and with the knowledge that you will relive this innumerable times. So I looked around my own shuffling regimen to see if it was true, if reliving all this ephemeral dank theatre would be a heaven or a hell.

Today, like all the others, I pulled out the guts of three thousand fish, shoving them along the next step of the hallucinatory journey. Their liver and egg sacks separated into different containers, the rest of their guts eventually swept into the harbor, their heads into another container, their bodies packed neatly into styrofoam boxes, eventually shipped off to Spain or Italy or the south of Norway. The enormous machines rattling, the conveyer belt itself is a blue plastic mockery of the eternal return, the literal form of the phenomenology of nihilism—the last five seconds repeated over and over for fourteen hours, every day repeated for as many months or years as you can stand before hurling yourself into the frozen sea. Beyond the harbor where I work, the mountains erupt a thousand meters straight into the sky, and the coruscating morning fjords carve endlessly into the crust of the world. A bright wind howls against all the little red houses hoisted on their stilts in the village, and a seagull flies madly against the gusts, not gaining an inch. The sun is always low, so it’s always a sunrise or a sunset (depending on your outlook of course), and on the clear nights the northern lights rip and gnaw at the stars. They are green and violet violins, the infinity of gods amid their dazzling sinusoidal chorale. At night I get drunk alone, read Adorno and Benjamin for the company, eat a pack of soft-baked cookies and fall asleep to the hazy beautiful defeat, the intermezzo of freedom circling back on itself.

Every moment there’s a looming suggestion that you should simply scrap it all, head to the desert in your underwear, throw rocks at snakes, eat a huge portion of peyote and dive into permanent psychosis, never returning. I’ve often considered moving to some miserable dusty town on the outskirts of Las Vegas, loiter suspiciously around dank acheronian bars, meet a nice desert girl with cut off jean shorts and pink hair and three porcine children with ice cream cones melting over their fat little hands, and settle down  .  .  .  maybe start chewing tobacco. But it’s too late for any of that now. We’ve been shoved into this carnivorous orbit again and again and again, without our consent.

Here we are. We’ve been launched like a cannonball into the future, everything turning into blurs and specks of dust. Many generations go by, but they are all our own generation  .  .  .  the same one cycled around itself. After ninety recurrences—not even a measurable mark of a fraction of my eternity—my work in the harbor has gradually contorted into something else. I’m still there, with a little hunch in my back, still smoking expensive cigarettes on the edge of the docks with the twenty-something year old Chileans, the old wind-torn fishermen wearing snowflake patterned sweaters their wives knitted them, still delivering tons of fish at a time; but the fish aren’t fish anymore. In my besotted hypnosis, they’ve morphed into miniature Donald Trumps, like Chucky dolls, their heads spinning around in hysterical laughter. Coming across the conveyer belt, I hit them over the head one by one, trying more to thrash myself out of the beige hyperreality. It’s no use. He’s ruined everything, branded his name and his little dick onto every vacant surface. There was clearly a flaw in the system, some sort of entropic detour on the main highway that Nietzsche and Schopenhauer never considered. Everything is cycling back on itself, trees into mushrooms into soil and back into trees again. That’s how it always used to be. But humans were a glitch in the system somewhere. The bright chaos of animals and moss and stars gave birth to humans, and the gods trembled at the horror.

With each cycle, cleanliness and normalcy degrades. I moved back to Los Angeles, the rusty homes are abandoned, the churches and bowling halls and porno studios of the San Fernando valley degrading further every time we pass through it. After the hundredth recurrence, there’s only something vaguely familiar about this world, the landscape completely lifeless. It’s now too hot to step outside for more than a few minutes, the sky is opaque and causes prurigo, and our politicians strangely enough, are porcupines, hundreds of them shuffling around in the ramshackled Capitol building, sweetly fidgeting about controversial bills, such as, ‘Should we bomb Antarctica for melting on us so quickly?’ and ‘What do we do with traffic lights, now that yellow is illegal?’

I begin watching porn just for the entertainment, if you can even call it that. No, for the nostalgia, for the high aesthetic appeal, the natural lighting and baby-blue duvet covers. A pornstar with big glossy tits is riding a completely shaven man, their naked bodies humping in crude geometric configurations. Thwak! Thwak! Thwak! Her gluey pink flesh slaps against his. Arrghhh! Uh! Uh! Roooo! the man grunts—this makes me smile sweetly, the way people used to watch films by Truffaut or Fellini or Kurosawa just for the black and white sentimentality. The Fury of Verschwindens was here all along. I lean back in my rocking chair, the floorboards creaking under me, the aleatory ennui sweeping by with the red wind.

Everyone stays indoors, trolling celebrities on the internet, binge-watching several seasons of television shows, taking pictures of our own asses and submitting them to purveying masses online, everyone hunched behind their own glowing screens. In other words, not that much has actually changed. The last remaining priests are scribing the antiethnologies of symparanekromenoi, a practice that brings us brilliantly graphic standup comedy. I finish my glass of milk, and sit up from my flower-printed vinyl couch, its sticky adhesive binding to my skin, slowly peeling off my back, and emerge from my gloomy track house, and across my lawn of dust. It’s two in the afternoon, so I head to the nightclub.

My entire generation meets in the air conditioned nightclub during the day, drinking expensive cocktails, sweating, dancing for hours. I see a few kids squatted on all fours, striking pieces of flint together. Another group is huddled around a dying campfire, trying to keep their fingers warm. A man who has dropped acid everyday for the last seven hundred years is dancing with a lady with one arm, dressed in pink linens, her bulging fat swishing from side to side. They shake and push violently, the floor of neon squares flickering sporadically under them.

‘This is all so absurd,’ I think to myself. And I pick up a stone and throw it at the DJ, everything stopping for the first time in eternity.

Baudrillard was right: ‘the masses themselves are caught up in a gigantic process of inertia through acceleration. They are this excrescent, devouring, process that annihilates all growth and all surplus meaning.’ Yes, eternal recurrence will shove us back into the squalid days and nights until there are no fond memories and no bad ones either. But the spectacle of hyperreality is degrading further and further until there is nothing left. Eventually it’s just a chimera of gold dust, a strange dream with the sounds of young laughter echoing in the background. Schopenhauer discussed the ultimate nature of reality as being driven and defined by the Will. We are trembling mannequins of meat, driven entirely by the need to satisfy desires. Our ephemeral fury to make something of ourselves, to attach some purpose to all of this, to build a little legacy—whether it’s a man raising his children or Trump erecting his coruscating phalluses—is a symptom of the Will, pushing everything further and further into the absurdity of existence.

What eternal recurrence fails at considering is the nature of the Will. Desires can never achieve their satisfactions  .  .  .  once the Will attains some momentary triumph, it gets bored with it, and banters off to some other colorful frontier. We humans are the only animal who will never attain true satisfaction  .  .  .  the restless torpid bodies of this recurring dream try again and again to achieve something tolerable, scratching at the sky to make all this worth it, until death finally swallows us, soothing all of our desires and illusory sense of purpose. This is why people have children—they want to destine their own blood to the endless cycle of suffering and defeat. We willfully orchestrate the eternal recurrence for ourselves.

Schopenhauer said the only reasonable response to the absurdity of existence was to denounce the Will everywhere possible, especially that of sexual desire, in order to not reproduce little replicas of ourselves that will have to carry on further into the absurd of the eternal. But denying yourself face-sitting, 69-ing, long spouts of ecstasy-induced fucking, is surely the most miserable and absurd of all existences, some sort of cruel illusory asceticism that will only cause you to hate sunsets and everything beautiful.

Eternal recurrence was beaten by the Will. There is nothing certain anymore.

At the end of it all, we’ll have a few rusted accruements above the fireplace. We’ll have our various degrees and conquests, like seashells of legacy that we can rub with our thumb. Most of all, we’ll have memories of our lovers. When we were young, and we loved without consequence—at least we’ll have that. One day, we’ll find a fresh bubbling spring, and we’ll bathe with the native choirs all around us. One day the vines will swallow everything. A cool breeze will move the grasses and we’ll smile with the sun on our faces.

The Fire in the Night


“Or else I’d try to force myself to fall in love; in fact, I did it twice. And I suffered, gentlemen, I assure you I did. Deep down in your heart you don’t believe in your suffering, there is a stirring of mockery, and yet you suffer—in the most genuine, honest-to-goodness way.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The girl with the long red hair and the amber woolen dress looked up just in time. She was riding up the escalator from the underground train platform as I was riding down, and she looked directly at me and maybe smiled a little. It was only two or three seconds, but that is enough to flood the mind with ornate frenzies of love and laughter and all the bright candid idealism. At least there’s a recognition of it, and you know that she knows, and that she feels the same. Because the primary animal sense is always at work, our peripheral vision is always scanning for a fragment of beauty, pleading for a bit of decency. For all our purposeless brutish humping, all our desperate gaping orgasms, all our drunken theater, all our regret and tremendous heartbreak, we keep panting through the hallways, seeking one more moment of validation.

The girl and I passed each other and never saw each other again. She, into the brisk gold autumn in Stockholm, into the buoyant avenues, the routine loveliness that pretty women know so well. So many Holly Golightly’s, so pristine in their warm laissez-faire. I, into the fuss of the underground railways, the clamoring bodies pushing like rodents into their various compartments and holes.

Train platforms have no season, no variety or color or gaiety  .  .  .  there is only the constant stink of suffering, only the gross antipathy of machinery and neglect. It is all so stupid, the frantic banality of finding your right seat and shuffling passed all the men and women crowding the narrow hallways inside the train cars. An especially fat one was coming my way—he turned and pressed up against the wall, allowing still only a few inches for me to pass. I turned to my side, side-stepping passed him, my penis rubbing across his huge ass, the whole flaccid arrangement barely successful.

It was six in the evening, and this first train ride was headed eighteen hours north, so we packed ourselves like a thousand swollen sausages in our cars and cabins and beds, six people to a cabin, everyone’s shoes and socks airing out in their cramped chambers, everyone breathing heavily against the night, the moon no longer full but it looked like it could have been. I sold a number of surfboards in Stockholm, and had a best friend on a faint island in Norway who I hadn’t seen in two years.

I was the last one to reach my cabin, with two remaining vacancies. The other three men were merely boys, dark-skinned teenagers, or at most, in their early twenties.

“Yo! Man!” one of the boys lying on the top bunk called out, “you join us, there is room.” Subways are typically pageants of cynicism, everyone glaring down at their glowing rectangles, but these kids were warm and welcoming for some reason.

They were all from Afghanistan—all friends from home, traveling together as one. There were two sets of three bunk beds, the middle of each pulled down to turn the bottom beds into couches. The kid on the top bunk slid down immediately and I sat down next to him. He had a thin mustache, probably the only facial hair he could grow, and knew by far the most English of the three of them.

“Where you guys headed?” I asked.

“Finland. We are going to freeze ourselves, I already know this. The more north we go, the smaller my dick gets. This is not good for me,” he laughed, slapping me on the leg. The other boys laughed, but didn’t say anything. “Yeah, they understand some,” Saed continued, “He is the funniest,” pointing to the youngest looking one. “I wish you two could talk. It’s because of his jokes that we ever made it this far. Went through Iran, Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and maybe others, and now we have to go straight to the cold. As far away as we can get.”

“Looks like most this train is Syrian though. The cap just blew off down there.”

“The Syrians follow us though. This one big thing, and all Syrians are accepted. We from Afghanistan and it took us so long to leave. The Syrians, all over, on this train, they are everywhere. And they smell so bad, worse than my mother.”

“How do you know English so well?” I asked.

“I know seven languages. English is not my best though. I know English from American movies, I love movies, I watch them for eight years now. I just teach myself, I know nothing before. Let me ask you, why everyone in America always say ‘fuck,’” he smiled, “this is a good word, but everyone says it all the time.”

The other boys laughed, talking and joking to each other and Saed in Dari. Saed ate another chocolate, his ultra-thin mustache almost laughing, his hair styled with the precision of childlike vanity, trimmed short on the sides, then his long hair on top was flipped upwards and back, held perfect in the slickness of modernity that you knew you mustn’t touch it. “It’s your most descriptive word,” he continued. “If you are happy, sad, angry, ‘fuck’ is what you can say for everything. ‘I fucking love you.’ ‘What the fuck.’ ‘Get the fuck outa my house.’ What a great fucking language you have, American. Ha! ha! ha! ha!”

“Ha! ha! I guess it is,” I said. “We have over a million words in the English language, but we prefer such beauties as ‘fuck’ ‘stuff’ ‘man’ and a few other solid details of the world. How has the road been? Fucked in it’s own way, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, of course it’s fucked up. They shoot at us. They chase us ’til we hide all night. But we not pussies, American? We are the fastest in the country. Everyone knows Afghanistan only for being at war. My whole life they shoot at me. They hate us because we are going to be beautiful. Because I’m the most handsome, because he’s faster than all us, and because he is sleeping with all their women, that is why they shoot at us.”

“Ha! ha! let’s race then at the next stop.”

“Race me across eight countries. Race me through all that war.” He threw his arm around my shoulder, and smiled big and bright. “How many Syrians on this train are still virgins, you think? I know he is,” pointing to the quiet overweight kid. “He went to the hookers every night in Istanbul that I never saw him,” pointing to the youngest one. “But the Syrians, I bet they’re all virgins.” he said to me. “I lost mine a month ago, in Istanbul when he took me to see a hooker, and ever since I been a lion.”

We joked a while longer about women and war and men, in that order for another hour or so as the others drifted off to sleep. I pulled up the middle bunk and crawled into bed, and read from Dostoyevsky before falling asleep. Raskolnikov murdered the old pawn-broker and then Lizaveta, her half-sister, with an axe, a meticulously orchestrated murder, then barely escaped the police. The whole thing he almost couldn’t believe, then to be haunted only by his own mind. Because man is a marvelous sufferer—he chooses his suffering as an escape from Reason and Beauty and all the adroit restlessness in man. This breed of sabotage itself is a mockery, an able-bodied nightmare. Because suffering is meant merely to provoke the mania of love and color in between.

I started to drift away, when Saed poked his head up from below. “Let’s walk around the train together and try to pick up girls,” he whispered, not wanting to wake the others.

“Nah Saed,” I said with my eyes closed. “I’m too tired for women. They’re all sleeping anyways.”

In the morning, we came to my stop, somewhere in the sweeping desolation of northern Sweden, where I would switch to a train that was headed over to Norway. I walked out of the cabin, and turned to see if anyone had their eyes open. Saed was rolled up in a huge blanket, the other two also sleeping soundly, headed somewhere in Finland, somewhere in the naked homeless autumn, the tremendous expanse of birch trees and their golden hymns of leaves and a thin frost covering all the mosses. The sun pushed up over the horizon and through the trees, gently warming the faces of the millions of modest sleeping things. A morning bird flew across and landed on the bench on the train platform, pushing out his little breast, then hopping down to eat a crumb. There were only two train cars. I boarded and sat down at a small table, across from another dark-skinned man, this time not a boy.

“No. They don’t let you walk, because you can make the police know the place  .  .  .  the men have guns, so they make you get on the boat from Turkey, from Baharam to Greece.” We were drinking coffees, talking about the highly-publicized smuggling of refugees passing through Turkey, of which Ahmid, a Syrian refugee himself, was forced through just a couple weeks earlier. “We stay together as a group, the boat has sixty-five people, children and families, way too much people for this boat. We tell the men, they can keep the money but we don’t want on the boat. They tell us, ‘if you don’t want to get on boat, we kill all you, all the group.’ So we don’t have choice.”

“And you don’t have a choice because you now you know the place, and could maybe tell the police?” I repeated what he just said, wanting him to continue.

“Yes, this is exactly so.” He stopped there.

I just wanted to lightly probe this hell. “I’ve heard this again and again, almost exactly. The other day I heard of a smuggler bringing forty people onto a boat much too small for them all, and about a hundred meter out he jumps off the boat, and tells them to keep the motor on and head in the same direction, but he knows it’s not gonna make it the whole way  .  .  .  he tells them to handle it themselves, and he swims back. Have you been through Hungary?” I finally asked.

“Mmm, yes, yes I have. But the way is not so easy. It is up and down, up and down. From Matanini, we go to Athenia. Matanini is not a nice place, there is fighting everywhere, so you have to go with a big group, so no one attacks you. There is safety in a group.”

“And your family, where are they?”

“My father is in Australia, not my mother, she stay in Syria, she must stay months, then she go to meet my father. But in Syria, this is not good. Very difficult.”

“Why is no other country in the Middle East opening their borders?” I felt guilty for asking so many vapidly political questions, so many dead-ends and redundancies. There would never be enough time on this train to get beyond any of this, to share a smoke and a drink, and laugh about something plain.

“They don’t want anyone from Syria. They have no good relationship—Sunni and Shia relationship. Saudi and Qatar are terrorist countries. They want you killed and go far away, and want your oil, they will kill everyone of us if they could. So we go through all the countries. We have to sell everything before. Your car, your house, leave everything, all into cash. So you have to cross the sea, or they kill you. But when the boat sinks, we lose everything we have.”

I stood up to buy chocolate and another coffee, and asked Ahmid if he wanted anything. He shook his head, saying he just ate before getting on the train. Three people in front of me in line  .  .  .  even the Scandinavians are getting fat, their huge asses waiting for some cookies. I sat back down and asked him if he’d ever been married.

“Not married, no. Have you?”

“No. You been in love though.” This was obvious  .  .  .  no one phrases it “not married, no” without nudging the edge a little, without confessing to a bit of benevolent insanity. But more importantly, he looked amused and sad at the same time—the permanent look of those who have been in love and heartbroken. I suppose it’s more of a jovial skepticism, a tit of melancholy that makes us crave the suffering of heartbreak.

“Yes, in love. True love, you know this. We were together three years but her family doesn’t like me because I am Sunni, and so we are no longer together. We were ready to marry. She has no problem with me being Sunni, and my family has no problem with her being Shia, but her family has problem. So she married another man.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“But when she is married, she does not love this man as much, so she wrote me before and wants to see me, but I know this is a bad idea so I block her from all. This is the most difficult thing to do. I love this woman very much. I turn into a little boy with this woman. But this is no good to thing, because she is not mine, so I make myself not love her. She lives just four or five streets beside me, with her husband is very rich.” He laughed to himself, in a sad beautiful way. “So you want to marry in the future?” he asked me.

“Ah, maybe maybe not. I don’t know. I never want to be heartbroken again, so maybe not.”

“I know what you feel. I know this exactly.”

“You?” I asked

“We will see. If I meet the right woman, then of course. But we will see. It is difficult to love someone too much.”

“Yes of course. And this is the most difficult thing, to not love anyone too much. I liked my woman too much. No, I showed her that I liked her too much. When you show anyone too much affection, they draw away, instinctually, it is the law of the land, I don’t know exactly why, but this is always how it is. The trick is to not show too much. This is crude and in a way dishonest, but if she loves you too much, you do not love her as much. The trick is to present yourself as more complicated and interesting than loving one woman, than loving just her. Because we know ourselves the most. And if a woman loves me more than all else, but I know that I am merely a simple man of hunger and loneliness, then I do not think much of her for liking me. The same is true of her. A rockstar is desirable only on the stage. A dancer is perfect only while performing. All other times they are all too human, too regular for the great facade of beauty. We want to deny normalcy, but that is all there is.”

“Ha! ha! Yes. Exactly. Relationship is a bond, and that is it. You cannot let her see how much you love her. If she knows she will leave you. The girl loves the difficult man, because he is always searching his inside, what he feels and so on. She likes a complicated man. An easy man is a man she can easily leave. Yes, my friend loves this girl so much. He tell her one day how much he loves her, and next day she leave him.” He looked only at his hands and at me when he spoke. When he finished, he looked out to the pretentious haunted autumn, to the fat birch trees growing in their packs. Every now and then we traveled past an enormous lake with one or two cabins at its edge, someone’s quiet home, like a strange love affair with loneliness. The images of such places are universally romantic, clichéd postcard material, but the reality of their romance is so phenomenally rare, so completely desolate that no one dare try them. Romance itself is a storm behind the painting. It is a brutal peasantry of doubts, tears, and private infidelities.

“It happened twice on separate occasions,” I said, “in which I told her too much. I ate a bunch of MDMA and told her I would have married her. We are all so stupid. We show too much. So I can never show this, and maybe it means that I will never feel this. Maybe one causes the other, it’s hard to know which is which.”

He looked at me as if questioning me. “All women, if you tell her you want to marry her, she gets scared. Why this is? Because if you tell Arab woman you want marry her, she will not let you go, you can never get away. You must die for her to let you go.” He paused a moment. “You have gift from the woman?”

“No gift. Gifts, yes, but nothing like that to keep with you.”

“I have. This necklace from her. I give her as well, but it is gold. This is silver. You need to throw away that photograph of her, it only makes it more difficult. Give me your phone, I’ll do it for you.”

We sat there a while together, in silence, staring out the window at the endless scenery of  go by, and he started laughing to himself, at first trying to hide his laughter under his hand, then just laughing uncontrollably. “I remember you say to me before when a girl asks you if you love her, and she is laying on your bed almost naked, you say yes, of course you do. But you don’t really love her at all, you only say this to get her clothes off. You only want to see her naked. Ha! ha! That is the truest thing ever hear.”

We carried on a while, in our laughters and our silences, agreeing on the vice of love. Because love is never the complete freedom that they say it is. There is always a squeamish suffering, always a brutish strain of slavery within its body. Either it burns off in a gorgeous mania, into smoke and ash, or it fades out into gross antipathy. One is beautiful in its suffering, and all the more terrible.

It was still four hours by car until the islands. I bundled into the corner of a bus stop, thinking I’d wait here ’til morning, and rolled a cigarette that went crooked on me, and smoked half of it hoping the night would pass in one great swoop, that it would be halfway through by the end of this smoke. But I was cold and dizzy from eating only chocolate and coffee all day. I heard footsteps draw nearer—this is the worst sound in these places because you know you’re going to frighten whoever it is. It was a young woman with long magnetic legs in tight black jeans  .  .  .  she walked by and saw me hunched over on the ground waving at her, and she began walking faster. I let her think what she wanted, and when she was far enough away, I got up and began walking through the flickering night, out of the town to the other side, the houses trembling like speckled flames, slowly fading away behind all that night. A band of northern lights cut into the sky like a mad green poem, a sudden rage of violins, my little stub of cigarette burning nicely in the breeze. I would have loved to sleep here, in a nice patch of dry grass, in a sleeping bag with my shirt off, feeling the cool air creep in. But I had no such sleeping bag, and it was far too cold to sleep anywhere outside.

It took me at least an hour to hitch my first ride. A woman with a child in a carseat took me to the next town thirty miles away, through the sometimes-single-lane road winding in and out along the coastline. The second ride was fairly quick—the man drove me the rest of the way, blasting through the straightaways and five-mile-long tunnels that go under the ocean, talking about his times in prison. He dropped me at my old home, a lonely antique fishing village in the Lofoten Islands, where I met Paavo, my long time best friend from Finland who works as a fisherman in these parts, and reads more Chekov than anyone I know. I hadn’t seen him in two years, and it was only a little passed midnight, so we got drunk together and talked about our conquests, and Russian writers, and places we could climb in the mountains in the following days. I went to bed with an overweight girl with long shining red hair and an almost beautiful face, and we fucked on a narrow cot, its creaking springs straining under all that gravity, her overweight pussy swelling in the cramped room.

The morning was bright and clear, but my head was swollen. The little space heater was on all night, the thick airless room so stifled in the heat. I flicked it off, pushed open the window, and the cool morning flooded into the room, waking the skin like bathing in a cold spring. I left immediately, dressing in the living room, packing a fishing pole and lures and an extra jacket, and making a sandwich mostly of bread, and a thermos of coffee, and went bicycling out of town, up a path around the lakes. Occasionally there is a red house seen between the trees, and once or twice even the chimney is smoking in its usual warm loneliness.

The walking path began at the far end of the second lake, where I hid the bicycle behind some trees, and began hiking up the steep mountains, through the thick packs of birch trees, where the massive show of color and autumn haunts the sky in hunger, where the mushrooms and the lichens and the wild berries grow in their indulgent theatre, like highbrow wilderness, smug with its beauty and morning dew. There was another lake behind the first range of peaks a few hundred meters high. I would fish and camp here on my way back down, but the early afternoon had time to meander, so I continued up along the steepening ridge, eventually into the thickening snowpack, another few hundred meters high, the view always reaching further beyond the fjords, slipping on the icy faces of rocks, my fingers losing most of their feeling. Nine-hundred meters high, but the last peak was too steep. There was absolutely no way.

It didn’t really matter. None of it did  .  .  .  this was high enough. In every direction there was ocean or fjord or mountain. A raven the size of a hawk flew directly over me, I could hear his wings lifting in the wind  .  .  .  he screamed at me as he flew by, calling out once more but never looking back at me, finally disappearing in the distance behind a ridge of snow and rock.

From Here to Eternity

by Guy Walker


Three oysters for twenty-four dollars. Every time I sucked in the erotic phlegmy growth, I paid the waiter my half-hour working wage. I have a habit of counting ten dollars in hits of ecstasy—an appetizer at a fancy restaurant in Hollywood on a three-course Christmas eve dinner for the price of two and a half hits of ecstasy. Not bad. I couldn’t help remember when I lived in a spare closet in a house on an island in Norway, and in the evenings we’d bicycle out to the river mouth and collect hundreds of blue shells, and the pretty girl with the long red hair would cook them in garlic and butter, and we’d drink a jug of cooking wine together and make love until the seagulls screamed their vile obscenities—it was mating season for them too, and the sun never slept, and neither did we.

“Sounds like this is clearly a pattern for her,” my uncle said, sitting across from me, always slightly smiling in his jovial penetrative old age, “to just run out on someone who loves her.” He was speaking about the ballet dancer who broke up with me and then drove off in the middle of the night, leaving Los Angeles altogether.

“Another Pellegrino please,” I called to the waiter. He wore an ironed black collared shirt, his hands folded behind his back, and he bowed obediently at my request. I craved a martini, but my aunt and uncle don’t drink, and I respect them because they are rare and gentle and good enough to be respected, so this arrogant magisterial form of water was the best I could do. I don’t remember what I replied to my uncle—something about the loss of innocence—all I remember was the girl with the long tan legs and the good posture and the gorgeous face walk into the restaurant. It’s easy to automate any conversation—I do it with everybody as I think about the ocean, or how I would like to throw rocks at sand dunes, or how it would feel to hold an ice-cream cone until it melts completely over my hand. Anything. We live in playgrounds. So I automated the rest of the conversation with my relatives, and stared at all the strutting pullulating romance ahead. The girl sensed I was still looking at her, and her eyes turned to mine, and she smiled a little, I’m pretty sure.

She then turned away and headed to the other room of the restaurant with her family, to go suck oysters in their buttered cream.

“Any special plans for New Years?” my aunt asked. She sipped her raspberry Izze from a champagne glass and then wiped the corners of her mouth with a crudely neoteric purple cloth napkin. My aunt is one of those extremely beautiful women who could probably heal the world if given the right chance. But we’re all chewing on the last morsels of innocence, and I knew not many of her kind are around any more.

“Well, a friend from college invited me to Vegas,” I replied, “It’s all very random and unexpected how it happened, but she was always just the sweetest person in school.” And we all smiled and agreed that it would be a very lovely time indeed. The waiter returned to our table and poured my Pellegrino like it was a choice Italian wine.

On arriving here, I parked my car around the corner, and walked past the sick miasmal backdoor of the restaurant, where the cooks took out dripping bags of food scraps and wasted meat and coffee grounds and crumpled blotted toilet paper all spun and sprinkled with used tampons. Who knows what else. My lonely cheap appetite for ruin wanted the overloaded bags to burst from their bottoms, for all their contents to spill into heaps of trash, as piñatas of misery, and the pigeons and the homeless and I could all scurry into a frenzy, sorting through the garbage and picking out little morsels of red velvet cake and hunks of fat cut from the steaks. But it didn’t happen. The trash boy just heaved the bags over the edge of the dumpster, and that was that. The sidewalk was stained forever from years of heaving kitchen waste over the edge. A homeless man walked by me, his head down, muttering his obscure lucid rituals to himself. A pigeon limped on her peg leg. A rose bush grew from its square-foot portal, cut back for the winter, but still pushing madly for a bud.

“O darling!” a lady across from our table touched her breast and smiled, and her apparent man-crush or husband leaned back and laughed approvingly. “O darling,” she said again, “you shouldn’t have.” And she set her nearly empty wine glass down and leaned across the table and he leaned across the table and they kissed—just a peck, if that even qualifies as a kiss. If no bodily fluids are exchanged whatsoever, then it is usually something else—a tepid grunt in the animalistic heap of conversation. They smiled more and said a lot more blushing reassuring things to each other, and then he excused himself, either to piss or to shit, or to jerk off or clean under the rim of his penis. Bathrooms are the last deserted refuges for us to go. Whenever I go out to bars or clubs, I go to the bathroom so many times when I don’t need to—it’s the only place you can breathe, the only place you don’t have to keep bluffing, where you can sigh in the comfort of yourself. The lady kept tapping her bright red fingernails against the edge of the glass, and she kept pressing her very listicked lips together, staring down at her glowing phone, scrolling through various doddering archives of the young and the famous.

I wanted to see the girl with the good posture and the gorgeous face, and make her smile and lean forward. I know it’s pretty much everywhere—the brief consorting episodes that help us make it through the squalid nights—a little hope and intrigue that keep our pulse quietly surging. Lacan was right—desire itself is what we have to chase but never catch—it’s what keeps us running towards the light again and again. When it comes to romance, we are all dogs, running again and again after the ball that was thrown, retrieving with little scraps of optimism, panting, gasping for more. Somehow we all believe getting laid helps, as if for just a moment it actually relieves us from the immortality of quarantine. Anyways, I looked down and ate my fish and velvet cake, and sipped my espresso. Before leaving, I asked the waiter for a pen, and wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper, and walked into the other room of the restaurant and gave it to the girl, and she smiled and told me her name was Lily. I would have kissed her right then and there because she was so damn pretty, and I know she could have too, but there are rules to these sorts of things—we would need a very tailored context to actually do what we desire. So I just told her to call me sometime.

I hugged my relatives, drove home to my little house in Topanga beach, collected my kitten, tent, coffee, stove, two huge blankets of many sewn together rabbit furs, firewood, and many other odds and ends for the next week. After Christmas in the mountains at my parents’ huge secluded home, I kissed my kitten on the head and he bit my finger and sucked on it, and he kneaded my chest with his paws and purred loudly, and I hugged him again, leaving him at my parents home, and then drove a hundred-and-ten miles an hour through the desert where all the Joshua trees grow and the spiny creatures hide in their corners of shade. The wind blew hard and burned my lips, and I went hiking and got lost amongst the huge swirling red rocks during the day, and huddled around my fire drinking box wine from a tin can. It was so cold, I couldn’t feel my fingers. Sometime that night, there in the middle of the desert, I received a text message from Lily. She wanted to meet up, sometime tomorrow evening, but I’d be out here a few more days in the desert before heading to Vegas before heading back to Los Angeles. So we wrote back and forth a while and made plans to meet up as soon as I returned. I set the phone down and stoked the florid embers until the flame returned.

Vegas on New Years Eve happened with the other beautiful girl who normally lives in Amsterdam. I could die just seeing her smile. We drank and danced and snuck into the parties, and did everything you’re meant to do in Vegas. I like strolling the casino floors early in the morning the best. Somehow you feel the same lonely confidence on the crowded casino floor as you do in the desert. The winds howl through the red canyons, biting you around your neck, and all the cacti shiver in the wind, and a pack of coyotes scream and convulse in the middle of the night, and you get a glimpse of Eternity, as if this here is the state of the Universe forever and everywhere—nothing but wind kicking sand into the overcast sky, and only you’re there to see it. Crowded casinos are much the same. Obese men hunched over their wheelchairs, pressing the buttons of slot machines again and again, trying to win back their happiness and youth, and the ubiquitous ringing of bells and chatter and coughing. Blonde women strutting around with cigarette trays, smiling at everyone, their panties sweating and aching from all that endless roaming around. Vietnamese ladies dressed in uniform, just standing there with unused aging faces behind their blackjack tables, waiting for any random half-drunken stranger to sit down and play cards with them. Every casino has its own distinct fragrance, but really they’re all the same miserable pheromone of a free America. A thousand bartenders pour their ten-thousandth drink at the same time, and a girl in a tight little white dress sips one from a miniature straw. I was with the beautiful girl, standing in line for a crepe at the Bellagio, staring at the chocolate fountain, staring at the parts that flow freely and the stagnant chocolate pool that had formed a thick film with a stray hair on top. A large Chinese lady in a long green and white striped penguin coat is behind me, and she smiles at me with big wide-open eyes.

“Helloo honey,” she says, “you having a fine time?”

“Very fine,” I reply. Her smile is contagious and honest, and I can’t stop grinning. “Sure is the happiest place I’ve ever been.”

“Oh yes honey. I’ve been coming here for twenty-nine years. My mother is waiting for me, she just loves it so much too. Oh you and your girlfriend are just so pretty. You are very lucky, you both are.”

“Ah, thank you. You been lucky tonight?”

“Oh yes, I started in the morning by losing thirty-two hundred. But I went to eat my lunch, and I came back, and I said, ‘Betty, you’re going to make it all back,’ and I’ve won everything back so far. Very lucky.”

We talked a while longer, and she told me of all her big winnings over the last three decades, and then told me not to eat the pastries in this front window. They are old and I will die if I eat them, she says. She eventually leaves without buying anything, and I never saw her again. But the beautiful girl and I danced more and drank many more Old Fashions, and kissed beautifully when the New Years exploded, and in the morning I dropped her off at the airport to fly back to Amsterdam, and I guess that was that.

Driving home I knew I would miss the desert—everything constantly roaring and exhausting inside your head is quieted when you are in the desert. The cities are just a perishing thunder. All that empty squalid paradise passing by—there was an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere with huge overgrown palm trees towering over its crumbling walls. I was writing a lot with Lily during my drive, and then she told me during “a photo shoot in Malibu” her car got broken into. Just terrible. “And now I have a lovely cardboard box on the window haha,” she wrote. I told her not to worry, that my front window has been stuck rolled up halfway for the last several months. That was the last I heard from her, she never wrote again. I wanted to tell her I didn’t like the window in the first place, or I can do eighteen pull-ups, or I can beat everybody else on the freeway. But I didn’t, I just turned up Giorgio’s From Here to Eternity as loud as I could, and drove with only one hand on the steering wheel.

From the road, I could see above me a flock of birds flying in formation. I pulled over and ate a hotdog at a remote dusty gas station, and watched the sun set across the enormous old desert. The wind had calmed, and everything was quiet once more. For the first time in months, I finally felt happy again.