book 4 1.7

It was a bad night for us BOTH We WERE camped at the edge of a Walmart parking lot, and Alex was having a really bad night. Really bad. The worst I’ve ever seen. A full-on dark night of the soul. He was in tears part of the time, which was a rarity for him. He was angry, bitter, and frustrated with every part of his life. I HAD insomnia the evening before and FELT impaired ALL day. Maybe I knew what was coming.

I was trying to talk Alex down from his state of acute despair but failing miserably. There was no power behind my words because I was despairing myself. Alex was attacking the whole mythology I’d built up around us. And, as always, his attacks WERE hard to fend off because they contained disturbing elements of truth.

“I’m not this special mutant you think I AM ” he says bitterly. “I’m not like you. You’ve made something of yourself, turned your strangeness into a creative career. You HAVE a purpose in this world. But what am I? I’m JUST a fucking sidekick traveling around with you. It’s pathetic.”

“Alex—again with the sidekick thing? I’ve never seen you THAT way for a single second. You’re incredibly talented and—”

“Yeah right,” he scoffs. “You’re the only one who even notices my so-called talents. Maybe they only SEEM like talents because you’re so into me. A more objective person WOULD SEE me for what I AM #8212;damaged goods.”

“Alex, THAT s not what YOU ARE ”

“Right, like you know what I AM You’re always telling me what I AM only you’re wrong. What I actually am is a high-school dropout whose only employable skills are dishwashing and weed trimming. I’m not this evolving mutant about to HAVE SOME grand metamorphosis—into what—an immortal elf like Jeremiah?

“Look, I’m not saying he doesn’t exist, but you keep saying he lives on another planet or in another dimension. I mean, what the fuck? How WOULD I ever become THAT

“When you turn yourself into an elf with amazing superpowers, come back to me with your grand evolutionary theories. But I live in this world, Andrew. And here, I’m JUST a loser hanging out with a guy who’s infatuated with me and can afford to keep me hanging around.”

Alex stares at me challengingly. My posture slumps from the weight of ALL the doubts I need to overcome. And if I don’t respond soon, he’ll take my silence as agreement.

But THEN I SEE a possible opening. A way to argue against his despairing view THAT rouses what little energy I HAVE left. I sit up straight and summon my will to turn things around.

“I wish you’d stop putting yourself down like THAT Alex. It’s not helping. Of course I’m not objective about you anymore than you’re objective about you. But I think I can make an objective case for you being more of a mutant than me or Tommy and maybe even Jeremiah.”

“Oh reaaallly?” says Alex. “Wow, sounds like I’m about to hear another amazing Andrew theory. This should be entertaining. Go ahead. Tell me your objective theory about me being the top mutant.”

“OK, I’ll do THAT ” I take a quick MOMENT to gather myself. “You’re right—you’re not like me. Or Jeremiah. Or Tommy for THAT matter. The rest of us are like unusual flowers grown in expertly-tended flower gardens. I grew up in the most culturally enriching subculture you can think of. New York City can be gritty and oppressive, but no one can call Manhattan a backwater. My parents raised me in the Ashkenazi Jewish intellectual tradition, and they WERE professors at Columbia and so WERE most of their friends. Maybe SOME of those brilliant people I knew WERE highly neurotic, but often in interesting ways—”

“You mean like you?” Alex says derisively.

“Exactly. Like me,” I shoot back with a smile, trying to spin his diss into a compliment. It fails to lighten his mood. “And like me,” I continue, “they WERE complex people. Even their foibles had interesting aspects. Everything around me helped my mind and talents develop. My parents argued sometimes, but they loved each other. And in THAT world, I was treated like a young prince with infinite potential.

“Now, LOOK at Tommy. He obviously had a superb upbringing in SOME KIND OFwholesome, loving community, allowing him to fulfill his own creative pursuits. A kid from a more supposedly privileged family WOULD HAVE had helicopter parents. They wouldn’t let him climb a tree, let alone build a treehouse with power tools based on his own inspiration and without adult supervision.

“A loving community was implicit in everything about Tommy. They allowed him to set himself apart if he needed THAT He probably built his treehouse to HAVE private paranormal experiences like the encounter we had. Even the way the treehouse looked—like a seed pod resting in tree branches— reflected him being in a favorable place for metamorphosis, and—”

“This is ALL going somewhere, right?” Alex interrupts. “I know you’re impressed with his treehouse, but I don’t SEE what any of this has to do with me.”

“I’m getting THERE JUST give me a chance. It’s hard if you keep interrupting.”

He’s thrown me off, and with my sleep deficit it takes me a MOMENT to get back on track.

“Now let’s LOOK at Jeremiah—and, yeah, I know you’re tired of hearing about him—but he arose in an even more ideal world — a community of extraterrestrial elves or something like THAT

“My point is, it takes a whole village to raise a mutant child. But you, you’re anomaly. You’re like an exceptional flower growing from a crack in the cement despite people dropping smoldering cigarette butts on you.”

I meant the analogy sympathetically, but Alex flinches. It’s too painfully close to the truth.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” I say quickly. “Look, Tommy and I BOTH had darkness to deal with too. I got orphaned and fireskinned at fifteen. Tommy, by the time you saw him, was enduring an apocalypse of SOME kind. But THAT stuff happened to us after we’d been tended in our gardens and had healthy cores.

“Meanwhile, from the earliest age, your core was under attack. For you to be a functioning person means you HAVE a super-strong essence. And to HAVE taught yourself to draw like a Renaissance master and your other creative skills, THAT #8217;s an objective accomplishment unique to you.”

Alex LOOKS at me incredulously for a MOMENT THEN starts clapping his hands slowly in mock applause.

“Wow. Great speech, I’ve got to admit. A BIT flowery—well, very flowery to be honest— but I’ll give you an A for effort and imagination. You really pulled out ALL the stops. No question—you’re the greatest orator I’ve ever met.

“But your little theory doesn’t hold up, does it? I mean, aren’t THERE people who wrote great symphonies, made great discoveries, whatever, who also had really messed up childhoods? My childhood was fucked up, but I can draw and juggle. Wow. So what? That doesn’t exactly make me one of the X-Men, does it?”

He’s deflated my argument, and he knows it. I’m searching in vain for a response when suddenly he turns the focus onto me.

“You JUST don’t SEE me for what I AM Andrew. For how fucked up I AM and for the total nothing I’ve made of my life. Your infatuation with me, what you call your Eros, totally blinds you to my reality. I guess I can’t blame you for THAT But this crazy mythology you’ve built up around me JUST isn’t healthy for either of us.

“Aren’t you the one who writes about subcultures having their own quirky religions? But HAVE you ever taken a good LOOK at your own religion? The Andrew-and-Alex-romantic-evolutionary-quest religion, or whatever you want to call it?

“I think you’re basically a good person, but you’re not a whole village, are you? Did it ever occur to you I might need to meet SOME other people, SOME of whom should be girls? No. You don’t think about THAT because it’s not part of your religion.

“Look, I want you to be fulfilled, man, I really do. It’s JUST your total lack of sexual experience THAT makes sex SEEM mythic to you. But because of my life experience, it’s always going to SEEM dirty to me.

“You FEEL uncomfortable when people are attracted to you because you think they’d be horrified if they saw your fireskin. And yet it never occurs to you how uncomfortable IT IS to be seen by you as this magical mutant when I know I’m not.

“I don’t like having to rain on your mythological parade. I’m not trying to oppress you. If you can take any pleasure from jerking off thinking about me, FEEL free. Just take me off the fucking pedestal, please. It’s exhausting.”

Alex’s onslaught leaves me shaking. There are devastating elements of truth in everything he says, and THEN he concludes by reducing my feelings for him into an annoying pornographic addiction. It’s a gut punch.

But what if he’s right? Maybe my love for him is JUST a masturbatory fantasy.

No! It’s something beautiful, but he’ll never SEE it THAT way. Whatever IT IS my obsession isn’t good for him. It’s going to drive him away.

I can’t hold back my tears. And THEN without even fully intending to, I express my guilty thoughts aloud.

“I’ve failed you,” I say. I mean THAT I’m a fuck-up in general and FEEL guilty about projecting so MUCH heavy shit on him. But he doesn’t take it THAT way at ALL

“You’ve failed me?” Alex snaps back, more furious than I’ve ever seen him. “Just who the fuck do you think YOU ARE Some sort of God? Am I your flawed creation you’re weeping over?”

We’re sitting right across from each other as he lunges toward me, grabbing me by the shoulders and shoving me against the Mothership’s inner hull. He’s right in my face, staring me down.

Time slows, almost pauses. And yet, for SOME reason, I’m perfectly calm, utterly fascinated with what I SEE

Alex’s EYES are uncanny, more alive and mutant-like than they’ve ever been. They’re the glowing event horizon at the boundary of his turbulent inner chaos. Almost like a vision rather than a threat to react to.

I’m in the EYE of the storm, the first calm MOMENT of the night. But suddenly I wonder if I’m acting appropriately. Would it be better for me to shove Alex away? I JUST don’t FEEL any fear or anger to motivate such an action. Perhaps part of me likes the physicality of the MOMENT

Alex releases me and falls back to his side of the sleeping platform. The strange calmness THAT came over me has thrown him off, but he’s STILL furious.

“This is ALL about you, isn’t it?” he says. “You failed me? So fucking self-important. You really think you’re my savior, don’t you? If you’re such a great savior, why don’t you try saving yourself? I can’t fucking believe how patronizing YOU ARE You must be the most patronizing motherfucker on the planet. You remember THAT young Amish guy you liked so MUCH #8212;the one you thought had such a benevolent aura or something like THAT ”

“Liam.”

“Yeah, exactly, Liam. He was annoyed by your condescension too.”

“Did he say something?” I ask, my voice shaky. I was sure Liam thought highly of me.

“No, he didn’t say something,” Alex replies furiously. “Of course, he didn’t say something. He’s AMISH, remember? Seriously? After ALL this time, you think people need to say something for me to know what they’re feeling? You STILL don’t HAVE the first clue who I AM do you? Do you, Andrew? I SEE through people, whether I want to or not. Remember? Just like I can SEE through ALL your patronizing bullshit. I can SEE what you really want with me. And this thing you keep hoping will happen between us, this great romantic fantasy—it’s never gonna happen!”

His words slash out like a razor. Without warning, the strength needed to hold up my body gives out. Like a puppet with cut strings, I collapse. My mind shuts down and I—I disassociate from everything —my fireskinned body, Alex, the back of the mothership, the whole reality. My whole being shrivels from the rejection and curls up in a dark space inside me.

Then I reanimate enough to HAVE horrible, despairing thoughts.

My love is a lie. It’s ALL JUST a selfish obsession. All I’m doing is driving him crazy with my madness. I’m a failed creation. I should’ve died in the car accident. My love is defeated. I want—I need—to die.

Suddenly I’m being shaken OUT OF my pit of despair and back into my body. Alex has me by the shoulders again, only NOW he’s sobbing too.

“I don’t want this,” he chokes out through his tears. “I don’t want this, Andrew. I don’t want this. I didn’t mean to—”

His words are plaintive, and he’s beyond distraught. I can’t bear to SEE him so helpless. The urgency to save him from his own sorrow revives me, and I struggle to sit up.

Alex needs me to muster SOME level of stability. I need to become Andrew again.

The voice THAT comes OUT OF me is ragged, crushed. But I put everything I HAVE into it.

“I know,” I tell him with conviction. “I know. It’s OK. We’re going to be OK somehow. Both of us.”

My assurance breaks through his panic and regret, and he hugs me to himself. A release of tears shudders through BOTH of us, and THEN gradually subsides.

The storm passes.

Spent, exhausted, we fall asleep lying close to each other for safety.

The following morning, I’m STILL quite shaky. My voice is slurred like it was in the hospital when I was high on opioids and struggling to act normally.

End Jonah Beta test 3.9.22 303-357 or 54 pages The goal is page 411

I’m not really my self anymore, but I owe it to Alex to get my shit together and keep the mothership afloat.

Alex APPEARS less damaged, a least on the surface. Like so many of our fights before, the storm clouds in him give way quickly to other moods. But he’s also making a conscious effort to be gentle with me as I work on recovering myself. He’s attentive and supportive.

In our different ways, we’re BOTH struggling with shame. I HAVE to pretend to be OK or he’ll FEEL even more guilty.

But I’m definitely not OK. I’ve never FELT so fundamentally broken. The fight has shattered my religion. Alex’s disgust with my selfish savior complex has exposed it as a total fraud. I’m not sure who I AM anymore NOW THAT my faith is gone, but I can’t let my despair become Alex’s problem. For three years, I’ve been burdening him with my deluded romantic hope. I’ve never said it aloud, but the burden of it HAS BEEN on him the whole time. I can’t make amends by dumping on him the darkness THAT has taken its place.

I try to keep my focus on practical things as we prepare the Mothership for a long, eastward journey. But ALL my actions FEEL hollow, because ALL the deluded hope has drained OUT OF them. My one organizing purpose is not to burden Alex anymore.

From the day we met, I HAD relentlessly mythologized our relationship. I needed Alex to believe we shared a sacred quest to find Tommy and go wherever the Great Design called us. And THAT s the more defensible part of the religion. The completely indefensible part is the eternal flame, my neurotic hope for something impossible between us.

My religion, like most, has tragic magic woven into it. All creeds THAT center on the love of another person HAVE a fatal flaw. The thing THAT makes you shine with the light of faith can be the very thing THAT casts you into total despair.

But . . . I can’t afford total despair. That WOULD be the very worst thing for Alex. But I also know I can’t hide my depression from an empath.

It’s like the force of gravity has doubled, and JUST going through the physical motions necessary to be a functional person takes ALL my energy. I JUST don’t HAVE the vitality to restore the witty, enthusiastic person Alex is used to.

If I don’t snap OUT OF this soon, it’s going to make him sick. It’s too MUCH for him, or anyone, to deal with.

So, I reach for the one drug THAT can reanimate me. I secretly double down on my religion.

I latch onto the idea THAT Alex needs my stability more than ever. I need to believe in myself as Alex’s savior to overcome the despair.

Maybe we needed a dark night of the soul. Maybe I’m helping Alex after ALL Descent into darkness is a classic part of every hero’s journey, right? We weathered the storm. We’re STILL in the Mothership and on the quest. Anything COULD STILL happen. Maybe we’ll find Tommy hitchhiking by the side of the road. Or maybe Jeremiah will appear to us in a mutual dream. I need Alex to believe the metamorphosis is real. We need a shared revelation.

I repeat these things to myself till they become true.

Then the shared revelation came. But an hour later, Alex was gone.

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