When I think about those six months or so, there are certain things I remember and certain things I don’t. I remember, for example, the name of the cat everyone liked—Darby—but not the name of the other cat.
When there are two cats living in a house, the people living there usually like one of the cats a lot and the other much less.
* * *
I mostly remember the drugs. Painkillers stolen from Cory’s dad who was on hospice, dying of brain cancer. Weed from Jason, or Terry’s cousin’s friend in California—ounces weighed on digital scales, sacked and sold to kids on campus, smoked out of bongs, bowls, and blunts. Lean from doctors when our throats got sore, throwing up while driving past a cop car after drinking eight ounces in an hour. Adderall from that obese girl on campus, or my friends from back home who practically gave the stuff to me. Vyvanse from Sammy, whose doctor prescribed him 90 a month, or that kid in the dorms who sold beer to underage kids. Xanax from Tiffany, until she moved to China, or Blake who sold the yellow four milligram bars in bulk, shipped from India. LSD, staying up for three days straight and losing my shit until Kara showed up with some Klonopin, marching around campus at 4 AM thinking this is my town and I fucking own this campus, peeing my initials (JC) onto the side of a church.
I remember the junkies. The way their words seemed to slide from their slanted mouths, slimy and slurred or coughed up and short. The way their legs bounced anxiously as they waited—always waited—for Jason to come through with Opana or oxy or heroin or whatever they could find that day. The way their zombie-like eyes shone through eyelids like slits, pupils small as pins. The way they scratched their skin obsessively, like there was something underneath it.
The way I too eventually spoke from the side of my mouth, tapped my foot to that haunting, inaudible rhythm, hung pictures of past with the pins of my eyeballs, scratched unendingly at that incessant, incurable itch.
I remember sleeping on the couch, on the rare occasion that I slept, and the way I felt when people said “This is a sweet place, man” or “Oh, I thought you lived here.” I remember searching “effects of un-cleaned cat pee and feces” on Google, wondering if that was why I coughed so much, was so sick all the time.
I remember the first trip to the hospital, the second trip, and so on.
I remember listening to Gucci Mane, Three Six Mafia, and that band we liked to listen to while tripping—the one with the singer related to Sammy’s friend’s friend or whatever.
I remember the cops parking directly across the street from the apartment, pulling over every car that left the complex for “running the stop sign.”
I remember the tapestry in the living room. How someone looked it up online and said it stood “for home, love, and family.”
I remember how empty I became. How nothing meant anything and there were drugs to be done and there was money to be made. Thousands of dollars counted on the cigarette-burned carpet; guns next to the bed in the living room; friends disappearing, disappointed, gone.
* * *
Some things I can’t remember include the address of the apartment, what happened when, and everything I talked about doing but never did.
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The Main Character often wonders if it has lost any of its individuality throughout its life. It fears that it has picked up various persons’ idiosyncrasies and has lost its own in the process, becoming a patchwork of sort.
Hector Juan…that stupid fuck. The way his voice booms across halls because he is completely unaware of his own volume and he can’t hear to begin with because of his time spent in the army, the gunshots and grenades that went off next to his ear. He touched my penis, you know? Or, well, rather gently slapped it and claimed that, “they did that shit in the Army.” I accepted it and accept the absurdity of human behavior. When he speaks his sentences are concise but lead you to believe he was raised in the south side of Compton. He was not. He was from Palo Alto. He came up beside me one day at work and said, “When the rich wage war, the poor die.” I heard what he said, but I don’t think I was paying attention.
He cut me and now he bleeds right through.
The Main Character takes a brief moment to look down at a cigarette package and questions how anyone could smoke, especially in 95-degree weather. The wind blows gently and The Main Character drifts along with it in a parking lot and fragments of something that quite possibly could be nothing drift away as well.
The Main Character must return to its job (contractual obligation). It walks up to the entrance with the paranoia of objective judgment. This is typically the part where The Main Character keeps telling itself:
Projections. Probably even challenges. I wouldn’t even consider them tangible, to a certain extent.
The Main Character feels like it will be okay as long as this “amalgamated manifestation” will offer it support.
They crack a joke. They look at me, expecting a laugh or any response to let them know that I am aware of “humor.” They are easily amused. I am not. So I give them my reluctant laugh that sounds like this: haaaaaaaaaaaa *sucks in air*ssssssssssssssssss. This particular laugh is a strategic way of saying: Yes, I know, I will be your humanoid observer, but please understand that I am here for the experience, not so much your enjoyment. I endure earfuls of shit being shoved to my brain, but they will never realize that I control them remotely with the mute button. Thank you Lenny Carwell. Thank you for this laugh.
He cut me and now he bleeds right through.
The Main Character sometimes likes to get high or drunk or alter its perception anyway it can on irritable days. It likes colorful things. It likes the way a pill is shaped and comes in a variation of shapes and sizes and colors. Birthed from a clay vagina, like all people, The Main Character developed traits from connected pieces of fiction. Some are never true, but everyone is of course molded from a clay vagina, in and out of a House of Junkies, which always leaves broken promises.
Hi. I am an addict forever. I am walking up to this door. Inside this door is a family and a very unhappy life. But I keep coming back. I complain, jesus fuck I complain, but I will always choose this particular door over others. The door looks at me and says, “PASSWORD.” I smile a little and say, “What’s it matter? I will always choose to stay locked out from true happiness.”
The door opens.
She cut me and now she bleeds right through.
And from where is this most feared salutation coming from? Where does its brain revive itself? The Main Character is given an ample amount of opportunities to stop and perceive. How would it make you feel if every “free” second you had was spent unknowingly supporting your own bad habits? Shitty. The Main Character goes home one day as according to its supposed everyday destiny and thinks of people. It wonders if people think of it. It wonders if it’s even possible for these people to think at all.
The Main Character strikes a flame and lights up a cigarette. It then realizes the purposes of its surroundings: the self-immolation of one’s ego, complete—and maybe satisfying—self-destruction.
They cut me and now they bleed right through.
I was staring at the moon, avoiding eye contact with the display of inbred fascism that attempted to light up the sky with an array of colors. Instead the sky coughed and wheezed and silently screamed, begging the moon for help.
The ashes of bodies spread out over the horizon. It was a disease. It was a celebratory epidemic of mass hysteria and confusion, really.
The ashes embody me. They never miss.
Before the night was over I was covered in tongues, assholes, intestines, dried guts, horrible retorts, pleading nostalgia, and missed opportunities.
Someone had told me that every second is a choice, really. It’s all about the mindset you choose. This person would take what seemed to be a negative, and turn it onto a positive.
I guess I’m not too upset about it.
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feels like drowning
in the ocean.
I went to sleep
and a really
around my waist
but it didn’t
I still woke up
under the sea
for being able
and for just
and lookin’ at me
like the smug,
that they are…
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I can eat better, I can exercise, I can get all toned. Get more sun, maybe have a procedure or two. The eyebrows. Maybe color my hair blond, look like the others. Join the party.
* * *
They wouldn’t get around to calling for help until late evening. Everybody would look in town first. Why would she ever have taken a trail into the woods alone? They wouldn’t look where she was. Days or weeks later, a family would be hiking along, fanny packs bouncing, when they’d come suddenly upon the horror.
No more waiting in line at the post office. No more days at work being so tired she could cry. No more awkward dates. No more anything.
* * *
There’s a lump. No question about it. The water dripping from the showerhead goes cold. Toweling off in a daze. Looking online. Calling the doctor. Mom calls, and in the astonishment and fear there’s a slip. Next thing, she’s e-mailed the entire extended family about the lump. Aunt Patty is praying.
A daze of days at work. “Worry is like having a pain, without the actual pain. It blocks everything out.”
It blocks everything out.
Maniacally cheerful greetings to the woman down the hall who’s had a mastectomy.
What’s to lose? Old age? Who needs old age? Byron looked to 30 as the barrier to any real or fierce delight in the passions.
Doctors making jokes in the elevator. Everyone at the test is solicitous, as though death has arrived already. The wait. The verdict…delivered without even looking up from the printouts.
It was going to change life. It was going to mean eternal happiness. It was going to mean delight in the little things. It was going to mean utter content.
It meant those things for about a week.
Horrible Bosses seems like a movie I would like to see
after being in the hospital for three days.
Today, one of my students kept staring at me.
Then, he finally said,
“It looks like Ms. Stricker got no sleep last night”.
I laughed and the kids all stared
and I could feel the bags under my eyes gaining puffiness.
I would allow around 8 ants to sleep there,
if they wanted.
It would make a really nice bed and I feel really bad for ants;
the way kids love destroying their homes
and killing their families.
Valiantly, the ants carry the dead and wounded away.
We all looked like sad squirrels at 2am.
Like the sad squirrels that older people look at
and say they need to get their act together.
And psychology squirrels look at them and say
“Interesting subject” or diagnose them with depression.
But we were depressed together,
which eased some of my anxiety.
And now, I am not really depressed,
but I always say that.
And now, I am no longer surrounded by my fellow sad squirrels
I am by myself checking my breast to see if the lump grew
and knowing I cannot see a doctor
because the doctors do not take white patients
and I have no car to drive away.
That is my new 2am.
“Ms. Stricker says when she lays down to sleep,
she hears our voices calling out ‘Ms. Stricker! Ms. Stricker!’”
The ants carry the wounded away.
- Darcy Stricker
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Here’s the thing about bad decisions. Once you’ve been making them for long enough, you’re hooked. You think that fucking up constitutes the essence of your being, that there’s something essential about you that would be lost if you started doing what everyone’s been telling you to do for your entire life.
It’s a trap, of course. You’re doing the math wrong in your head: you’re telling yourself that because people you don’t like are telling you to do something, the enjoyment you get out of doing the opposite thing is a sign that you’re heading in the right direction. Actually, though, you’re just falling more and more into their control—because you’re losing control of your own life, and you’ll increasingly depend on their largesse.
The fucked-up fact of the matter is that you have to do what they’re telling you to do. That’s the only way you’ll ever take control of your own life. You have to do whatever it takes to be able to do it. Go far away from the people so that they don’t see you doing what they’ve been telling you to do, so you’re as clear as possible about the fact that it’s your decision and not theirs.
That’s my theory, anyway. We’ll see if it works.
Right now I’m pretty damn far from the people I like least in this world. It would be a lie to say I feel positively about the people I’m living with now, but at least I feel something closer to neutral. I feel tied to them, like they’re a sort of family. Unlike my original family, they didn’t run away when shit started to go bad.
Well, actually, one of them did. So never mind. I don’t even fucking know.
I do know I’m glad not to be in Ohio, and to be back in a room that feels like mine. I’m not sure what I think about all these bitch-ass tourists who are here now, gawking at us like we’re robot animals in a theme park. That’s what this place has turned into now—a goddamn theme park. The fucked-up thing is that the more shit I talk about it, the more cred I establish for the house as a place where hard-boiled writer types live. That’s the price of us fucking up the first time: now the gawkers aren’t just on the Internet, they’re under our roof. At least they’re not in our beds.
If you have any sense of what constitutes literary merit, it’s already obvious to you that I’m the greatest writer in the world.
I strike the perfect balance between irony and sincerity, between justified confidence and sly self-deprecation.
My sentences typically begin with virile, compelling pronouns, but I’m not afraid to lead with a preposition when my testicles tell me to. I also end sentences with prepositions when I fucking choose to.
I don’t need to use obscenity to have an impact, but sometimes I choose to swear because I know it makes you wet.
I’m young, and in writing as in all other endeavors, one can never be too young. You’re insecure about how much younger than you I am, given how blithely I’m shitting this out.
The fact that I’m willing to shit stuff out is part of what makes me such a great writer. The more I write, the greater the chances that I’ll write something truly great, and I will forever after be judged for that. You’ll wait your entire life to publish a novel, and if it’s not truly great, you’ll have missed the one chance you allowed yourself.
Thanks to the quality of my writing—helped by my compelling personal story—I’ve been awarded a lucrative fellowship. I’ve actually been on this fellowship for several months, but all the money was going to my bloodsucking foster parents. On October 4 I’ll turn 18, and then I’ll be given a check that will allow me to do whatever I want with the next year of my life.
This year, I’ll live in a house in rural Minnesota with three other writers. I expect they’ll give me what I want, because they’ll want to stay in my favor. After all, I am the greatest writer in the world—and like all great writers, I desperately want to be drunk.
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A year and a half ago, I was a poster child. A freshly-minted graduate from an elite teaching college with a 3.97 GPA and as many recommendations as I could ever have wanted. I could have gone to medical school, I could have taken a consulting job, I could have taught English in Tokyo. Why didn’t I?
I didn’t do any of those things because I had a sense that I didn’t really know myself. I’d always done the right thing, done what my parents wanted, and I’d always succeeded. Continuing along that path seemed suddenly wrong. I decided that I needed to discover myself.
Taking the Unreality House fellowship seemed so rebellious at the time—but now, looking back, I understand that my “defiance” was as much a product of my upbringing as my compliance had been. My parents are hippies. They were worried about me going off to an isolated house in rural Minnesota on a brand-new and very poorly documented fellowship, but it’s exactly what they would have done. I was getting off the grid, going to “find myself” in the wild, as though my true self was somewhere out there, detached from the self that had been living very happily in my skin for 21 years.
The first posts I wrote at Unreality House now seem incredibly naïve. “I could tell you about who I am and where I came from,” I wrote in my first post, “but I prefer to think of this as an opportunity to start with a clean slate. I’m not running away from anything, but I don’t know yet what I want to run towards.”
Reading those first posts now—mine and the others’—is like watching the first episode of a reality show, which of course it was. We weren’t selected for our writing talents, we were selected to bounce off of one another for the entertainment of the World Wide Web. In going to find “myself,” I was actually leaving myself and becoming a character, a stereotype.
If it was a reality show, I don’t think anyone anticipated how real it would get—and how quickly. When I refused to be seduced by the house’s “bad boy”—a development that would have made it all the more moving when I later fell weeping into the arms of the “good boy”—the bad boy turned on me, and so of course did the bad girl. The good boy was good, very good…but he was weak, and I think he really loved that bad girl. I could have loved Will, but I don’t think he could ever have loved me. He would have stayed with Lucy until she killed him, if someone else hadn’t killed him first.
I don’t know who killed Will. It might have been the bad boy, it might have been the wild man, it might have been himself, or it might have just been the god of bad luck. Very, very bad luck.
I was gone by then. I couldn’t have stayed. I found a place in Minneapolis, just to get back on my feet—but I never got back up. Just when I was starting to find my way, to make a plan to get my life back on track, Unreality House sucked me back in. I couldn’t say no to all that money, and the chance to mentor a boy who, I was told, was the most gifted writer the committee members had ever seen. He might be, but now he’s just another sucker.
I’m still haunted by Will, and by Daniel, and by everything about that godforsaken house in Tarrytown. I’m not ready to write about everything that happened to me last year, but none of it was good, and none of it was me. I need to get my life back—the life I had, not the life I was supposedly going to discover. I can’t do that until I leave Unreality House…but really leave it, leave it on my own terms. That’s why I’m going back. I’m going back so I can leave.
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You lounge by your parents’ pool, getting tan and reading Ulysses and thinking about life outside of your bubble, life among the people who are hungry and angry and don’t get hand-slap house arrests when they run into the kind of trouble you did. You think about how glad you are that you live in a bubble and don’t do the kind of writing where anyone expects you to go outside of it. You decide that things are only going to get worse, overall, during your lifetime and that if you happened to do something that might risk hastening your death, that would be okay.
You work at a “clever people” job, an online job where you spend four hours a day writing paragraph-long blurbs about spa specials and Canadian getaways and sushi platters in a style that communicates intelligence and cultural savvy without ever betraying a hint of cynicism. This pays poorly, just enough to buy your sex and your drugs.
You buy sex from the kind of women who will come over, sell you drugs, use the drugs you just bought from them, talk to you about the classes they’re taking at Tallahassee Community College, and then casually ask you to pay them for sex as though the idea has just occurred to them.
You make your sister take a non-hooker to the emergency room when the non-hooker ODs, arguing that although, yes, it was you who invited the non-hooker over and supplied her with drugs, it was your sister’s tit that the non-hooker did her last line off of and, anyway, taking a coked-up chola to the emergency room is no way to break house arrest—especially when the entire reason you’re under house arrest is because a man died after doing drugs you allegedly supplied.
You wait nervously until your sister texts you that she left the non-hooker on an ER gurney at Capital Regional and got out of there without anyone seeing, and then you relax and jack off, thinking of the undergrads who used to fuck M.F.A. students not because—contrary to what most of the M.F.A.s thought—of their superior writing skill, but because they had enough fortitude not to get boner-blocking drunk.
You learn that a certain wealthy foundation has intervened with your parole officer, and that you have the option of leaving house arrest to resume your writing fellowship. You accept this deal, not because you’d rather be at a rural Minnesota B&B than a Florida McMansion, but because you’re fed the fuck up with writing about microdermabrasion.