Electric Fire

Sat 19 December 2020

One

You never would have come to this frat house voluntarily. The sting of alcohol in the air called forth unpleasant associations with hospital antiseptics. The darkened room was a riot of color: Christmas lights strung up on the walls filled the space with warring multicolored shadows, and where the LEDs couldn't reach, yellow-and-blue sparkles swarmed thickly in dark corners. The faces of the strangers around you were a jumble of abstract shapes that clashed against each other and churned like a shaken kaleidoscope.

You were seated in a stiff folding chair, "borrowed" from one of the on-campus lecture halls, next to Leah, the only other person in the house who you knew. Her boyfriend, Jonah, was a member of this frat, Triple Omega. Jonah, within the next ten or fifteen minutes, would be performing some kind of striptease with the intent of auctioning off a private date with him as part of a fundraiser for the frat.

You and Leah had front-row seats to a makeshift catwalk consisting of a couple of rickety tables pushed together in a line and covered with mismatched bedsheets. Someone had duct-taped high-powered, Realtree-dipped flashlights to the ceiling, and these were serving as spotlights, casting thick beams of semisolid light through the air to puddle humidly on the catwalk. Atop the catwalk there was a football player. You knew he was a football player because he was artfully holding a football in front of his crotch, wearing little else. You squinted at him, although the room was dim; the indirect glow from the spotlights and the starry fairy lights pricked at your retinas. Motes of light, blinks of color, and afterimage-like flashes half-obscured the football player as your brain fried the room into a storm of random neural inputs. The pulsing music was dominated by a red and purple, oval-shaped bassline, and the drumbeat stuttered black vertical lines between the ovals. The music was uncomfortably loud and seemed to squeeze in on either side of you, smashing you into your seat. The conversations around you were jumbles of staticky noise, syllables devoid of sense. Leah was clutching at your arm. "Max. Someone else is going to buy him. I'm going to die. Are you even listening to me?"

"Kinda," you replied through gritted teeth. Jonah wasn't even on stage yet, but Leah had already worked herself into a jealous frenzy over the idea of him going on a single, platonic, paid date with another girl. At some point you had been sympathetic to her anxiety--otherwise you never would have let her talk you into attending the event--but you were finding it difficult to summon up that sympathy at the moment.

Leah was saying something else about Jonah. Her voice fuzzed in and out like a detuned radio. You were processing it very slowly; a few seconds after she finished a sentence, it would come together in your head, words coalescing out of a formless, multilayered heap of sound. You nodded, hummed, and pointed your eyes towards her face, which was falling apart as your brain began to give up on the chaotic environment. Her eyes were black pits, swarmed with the same false points of lights that colonized the entire room. You patted her shoulder absently. Eventually she huffed out a sigh--perhaps at you, perhaps at the situation--and turned the other way and began to talk to the other friend she had taken here for moral support, Mackenzie.

Bidding on the football player standing atop the tables began. Someone turned the music down for the bidding, which made the room 2 or 3 percent more bearable. People rushed the makeshift catwalk, waving money in the air and yelling out their price for a date with the almost-nude man. The price drove up and up; the amount of disposable income these people had to spend on a single paid date with a random guy had ceased to shock you after the third or fourth striptease. Finally, someone bought him for over two hundred dollars. Leah steepled her fingers under her face and went wide-eyed and rigid as she waited for Jonah, the next performer, to take the stage.

You later wouldn't recall how exactly you made it through Jonah's performance. He, at least, was clothed, and had put together a slightly more chaste dance that involved handing red roses out to random people in the crowd. Leah clawed your arm, torn between lust and terror at Jonah's performance. Jonah was a flirt, and he made coquettish eye contact with half the crowd, handing roses to swooning girls and guys and dancing like he'd once taken lessons. You didn't get a rose; his eyes slid right over you, although you and he had talked before. Somehow that didn't surprise you. You were not the rose-receiving type.

The bidding on Jonah was even more intense. Leah bid against a few other girls, and you couldn't follow the action except that numerical shrieks were emanating from all over the room. Jonah was an attractive man (apparently) and the numbers were even higher this time. Someone on the other side of the room eventually won the bidding and Leah slumped back into her seat. "Oh, thank god."

"What? I thought you wanted to win so he wouldn't go on a date with someone else."

"That was my friend Nathalie. She's not going to try anything with him. She knows he's mine."

You rolled your eyes. Jonah wouldn't let anyone "try anything" with him, but it was useless telling that to Leah's overactive jealousy gland. Jonah stepped off the precariously wobbling table he had been standing on, assisted by some other frat bros who slapped his back and nodded at him. Leah's major crisis now over, you excused yourself from your seat. Leah was already focused on Jonah, watching him as he pushed through the crowd to talk to Nathalie, and she didn't even see you slip out of the room, knifing through the coruscating crowds like a shadow.

Out back was a porch, flat gray against the rough gray of the backyard. A dormant hot tub was covered with a tarp. The chill air hit you like a slap, sweat and humidity cooling on your skin. You had already been sober, but you felt twice as sober now. You pushed the heavy glass door to the porch shut behind you as you went out to lean on the rail. The wood dug into your forearms, grounding you. Before you, the thick haze of rainbow noise and heat-haze ripples made it difficult to make out a quiet flat of grass backed by a stand of silhouetted pine trees. The moon smeared vague white light across low-hanging clouds. Half-muffled music pulsed through the door. The house behind you bulged with warmth, light, and activity. You slumped over the rail, trying to tune it out. Had you ever felt at home, even for a moment, at one of these parties Leah dragged you to? You considered walking home alone. It was about a mile back to your dorm, and your jacket was still inside. It might clear your head, give you a chance to untense some of the bunched muscles of your upper back and neck that were trying to harden into some sort of carapace that could deflect all the house's music back inside.

Just before you intended to leave, wading through the thick darkness, the glass door opened again. You froze, already half a step towards the street. You didn't recognize the shadow in the doorway. Leah's signs, by which you could recognize her without being able to see her face, included long hair and her short, thickset stature, and this person was tall with very close-cropped hair. They approached you and leaned on the rail next to you. Was this someone you were supposed to recognize or know? Their face was a mosaic of pieces that seemed to jostle against each other, softened into abstract art by the colorful blur of the night. "Hey," they said. A deep voice, definitely not the voice of anyone you recognized.

"Hi," you squeaked.

"I'm Jeremiah." You didn't answer, still trying to make out the visual details of the body next to you. He was wearing a short red dress and smudged makeup. His kinky hair was cropped in a harsh high-and-tight that showed off liquid dark eyes (you quickly looked away, before you could start to see points and needles of lights fizzing in his eye sockets) and cheekbones that carved a hard shadow out of soft moonlight. "You seemed like you could use some company." He turned, leaning back into the rail to put himself near your line of sight as you slumped forward over it, and glanced up at the sky. "Beautiful night," he said conversationally.

"I'm fine," you said, excusing him.

"Okay," Jeremiah said. He made no move to leave, though. Belatedly, you realized you recognized this person. He had danced on the catwalk in that red dress earlier in the night, singing along badly to some pop song. You still couldn't recognize--or even really make out--his face, but there could only be so many six-foot-tall men in red dresses at this party, liberal though the youths were. He was humoring you by standing out here in the cold. You tried to resent him for that but found that you couldn't. He was likely sincerely trying to be helpful. "Did you come here with anyone?"

"My friend Leah is Jonah's girlfriend."

"Ohhhhh," he said, "I know them." He began to recount to you the story of how he'd first met Leah at one of the frat parties that Jonah had taken her to, at which she'd gotten very drunk and recounted the entire plot of Lord of the Rings to another frat member who had never seen the movies or read the books. She'd retold the stories for nearly an hour and a half before falling asleep on the couch. You had heard the story before from Leah's point of view, and were half annoyed to hear it again, but half relieved that because you already had this information, you didn't actually have to listen to Jeremiah as he retold it.

Jeremiah left a pause after he finished the story, seemingly content to lean back against the railing and breathe. You were openly watching him now; he had an attractive jawline that you were enjoying looking at. He was gazing in the direction of the glass door to the party, and the pale blue light from inside the house limned his front, but he didn't look like he was really watching the action inside.

"Why aren't you going back in?" you asked. You realized it was rude a second after the words left your mouth.

"Eh, I like the frat, but these fundraisers can be a bit much. I'm a psych major; I like to talk to people. It stops being interesting when it gets too loud and drunk for talking. Why did you come out here?"

"Too loud," you say, glancing at Jeremiah sidelong again, taking in details of his face slowly, in stuttering snapshots, then gazing back out at the lights dancing on the lawn, glassy needles of light prickling through the shadows, dark shapes undulating under the evergreens. Too loud was a sliver of the truth.

The pumping bass from indoors was beginning to raise your blood pressure. Half-heard words and phrases from inside wormed inside your head and crawled around in there, echoing. The party was beginning to overwhelm you, even from out here. You felt the series of tics coming a moment before they happened. You shivered involuntarily, shook your head as though throwing water off your hair, hissed, and thumped the heel of one hand to your breastbone before returning it to the railing. You looked over at Jeremiah as the fit concluded, and found him looking at you coolly. You didn't offer an explanation. There was no explanation in the world that someone like Jeremiah would understand.

Jeremiah stayed with you for a few more minutes. You didn't walk away; you couldn't figure out how to do so. Instead, you stood and occasionally ticced as Jeremiah told a few anecdotes about his friends, other guys from the frat who were stripteasing indoors. He mentioned that he'd been bought by someone called Craig, and that he didn't think the date was going to work out well because Craig was a Republican. Finally the glass door slid open, letting out a gush of cacophony, heat, and humidity. "Max!" Leah's drunken voice came from behind you. "Who are you with? Oh, Jeremiah! Great to see you! You were so good onstage..."

You turned around as Jeremiah drifted to a point equidistant between you and Leah, who was standing with Mackenzie and Jonah. Suddenly there was a smooth conversation flowing between Leah and Jeremiah, and you wanted to disappear into the fuzzy night. Finally Leah completed the handoff, announcing that you were walking home with the three of them.

"Maybe I'll see you around," Jeremiah said politely to you. You nodded, unsure whether he could make out the motion in the dark.


On the way home with Leah and Mackenzie, Mackenzie was chewing gum. The electric agony of the noise built up in your scalp and ears and under your fingernails and inside your nostrils until you careened through the door to your single dorm in a blind panic and bruised your forearms as hard as you could until the pain deafened the echo of the sound of her spit.

Then you were crying in frustration and rage and you sat in your closet, shut the door, and stared at a wall in the dark without moving for forty five minutes, gazing into the neural fireworks of your misfiring brain, listening to the loud silence of your own breathing and the overlapping chatter of a roomful of phantom voices. By the time that was over with you pretty much had forgotten about Jeremiah.

Two

A month later, the semester was ending. Jonah had gone on his one platonic date with whatever girl had bought him at the Meat Market, and Leah had, somehow, survived her fit of jealousy. You had finished most of your exams. Last week you had been so stressed you'd bitten the joints of your fingers until they'd bled and sparked with pain whenever you did anything with your hands, and this week, you were free, except for a nearly-finished essay for your course on 18th century English literature.

Not having much of a social life, you had spent this morning holed up in your single dorm, keeping the lights low, alternating between essay-writing and playing video games, drowning out your neighbors' footsteps with white noise. In the afternoon you finally went stir crazy and left your dorm for a walk. You knew that all the other students hung out at a place they called The Fort. You always heard them talking about illegally smoking weed at The Fort, having illegal bonfires at The Fort, or illegally underage drinking at The Fort. You had even been given directions to The Fort multiple times. But you had never actually been there, and now you decided to go.

It was bright outside--a painful, overcast bright--and there was a hard cold wind blowing that felt like heaven licking your face and sounded even better. Great rippling sheets of sky-blue noise soared up beside you every time the wind picked up. The gritty and brownish sound of the occasional car passing still made you clench your jaw. Everything iridesced in the screaming white light. While the wind sent you into rapturous conniptions, the light sliced into your eyes. Bare trees were a shivery black against the white sky, and the sky itself rippled, shimmering with rainbow static, and lit up in your peripheral vision with illusory black lightening. You couldn't tell if you were ecstatic or suffering.

"Max!"

You were listening to the wind so hard, you didn't hear him the first time.

"Max, hi. Where are you headed?"

The second time he said your name, you jerked around. A tall, brown stranger was coming up behind you. He was showing his teeth in a smile. You had looked at his face for too long and you were getting disoriented. He had eyes, you were pretty sure. You glanced away, then looked back. You didn't think you knew this person. He had a very symmetrical face that you knew was conventionally attractive, and the way he approached you spoke of a confidence and ease so foreign to you that you were sure this couldn't be one of your friends. "It's good to see you again. How has Leah been?"

You stammered, "Uh, stressed."

The stranger laughed. You were afraid. You hated talking to someone you knew and didn't know at the same time. You hated having to pretend you were a part of your own past. "And what about you? What are you majoring in?"

"English."

"Have you had to write a lot of essays for finals?"

The two of you were walking side by side now. You broke. "I'm sorry, who are you?"

You tensed for his reaction, but he smiled and paused on the sidewalk. You paused with him and tried looking at his face again. He had deep brown eyes, an assertive nose, a multifaceted facial structure that reminded you that mouth motions were driven by muscles attached to the skull. You could see every shape of his face, how the diffuse sunlight cast the creases of his face where his zygomaticus major muscles pulled back into deep shadow, you could see the slightly pearlescent texture of his skin, the color of his eyes, the lengths of his eyelashes, his untamed eyebrows, and yet you couldn't see his face.

"Jeremiah. From the meat market."

"I'm sorry," you said. "I do remember you." You never said this normally, knowing that it was an excuse, but this time you added, "I have prosopagnosia."

"What?"

"I usually can't recognize faces."

"That's very unique," Jeremiah said neutrally as he started walking again. The two of you were walking together now, but you weren't sure why. Was he accompanying you, or walking along this same route by happenstance? "We did meet in the dark."

"We did," you agreed, knowing it had been darker for him than for you.

"Where are you going?"

"I am... attempting to go... to the fort," you announced.

"Oh," Jeremiah said. "Well, it's the other way."

You had stopped on a corner. "Oh," you said stupidly. The wind picked up and blue rippled around you, hemming you in, closing you and Jeremiah into a private blue tent whipped up by the gale.

"I can show you how to get there."

"That would be good."

He turned the two of you around and lead you to the fort. You had accepted reflexively, taking the path of least resistance deeper into a social situation you didn't like, yet found that his company was almost pleasant. You walked a few feet apart from him, watching him like you would watch someone's badly-behaved, growling pet dog that they insisted was friendly, out of the corners of your eyes. That was the best way to enjoy the matte fuzziness of his burgundy sweater, to enjoy the crisp rough texture of his mustard-colored chinos, which you could feel inside your mouth when you looked at them.

You walked slightly behind him, letting your head tilt back, watching the black lightning flickering in the clouds. Jeremiah lead you down a side-street, then off the road onto a forested path. The damp fall leaves on the path had been trampled into a smooth, leathery carpet, and you stared at them and they danced across your vision, refracting and tessellating with each other. You followed Jeremiah half by sound and half by sight. You could smell him, just barely. Your sense of smell was normal and not hallucinatory like some of your other senses: his cologne or aftershave smelled like fermented apples and tannin, above the rich damp scent of late autumn.

The forest path was peaceful, but well-traveled. In a few places you saw crumpled beer cans with their paint crumbling into the dirt, half-buried in drifts of autumn leaves. Tiny flying bugs caught your eye. So did stalks of grass tugged by the wind, the flickering motions of dead leaves clinging to their branches, and the fractal crisscrossing of the dry twigs in the forest canopy as the trees swayed in the wind.

Jeremiah kept his side of the conversation flowing smoothly as you walked. At first, you felt self-conscious about how little input you gave. Words were beyond your reach. You wanted to engage him but couldn't figure out how. But over time you began to think Jeremiah wasn't bothered by your silence. Once, you managed to say more than a few words to him, when he asked why you had begun your degree in English. "I heard that Stephen King quote when I was young, that writing is a sort of telepathy. And I became obsessed with that idea." He nodded, looking you in the eye as though you had something interesting to say, and you wished you actually did.

The path to The Fort was short, but by the time you reached it, you had been outside in the flat bright light for well over thirty minutes and your visual processing was starting to fail you entirely. The outer ring of your vision had dissolved into a jumble of inseparable colors; everything glowed at the edges, and Jeremiah's face was a confusion of shadows and glints of light. The fort itself was a short, decaying structure, a cylindrical building of multicolored natural stone slapped together with now-crumbling mortar. It was only about two stories tall, and sat on the lip of a deep valley; rounded cliffs dropped away a few meters beyond the tower, and beyond those was the blue-hazed skeleton of the forest on the opposite ridge.

You lead Jeremiah wordlessly out to the edge of the cliff, and there you sat down and lay on your back. Rock pressed into your spine and the planes and contours of your back muscles. You arched until it hurt sweetly and stretched your arms up overhead, letting the fascia and bones of your chest open up and flood with cold air. You opened your eyes and stared into the painful scintillations of the clouds, and watched as multitudinous motes of light darted between them, as the clouds rippled and undulated faster than any wind could have whipped them, as patterns emerged from the seething chaos of points of light in the sky, sweeping over you in a beat Jeremiah couldn't see.

"What are you thinking about?" Jeremiah asked you.

"Nothing. Just looking."

"What are you looking at?"

You rolled your head to the side, the hard soothing pressure traveling from the back of your head to your ear as you faced Jeremiah, who was laying on his back next to you, placidly, his hands folded on his chest. He was relaxed. He wasn't experiencing any of this: the rainbow scintillation, the rippling of the sky, the flat blue color of the sound of the wind, the texture of his chinos appearing in your mouth: these were an uncrossable gap between you. Your secret was, you were a failure of an English major. You could define any literary technique, you could write a five-paragraph essay in fifteen minutes flat, and you knew how to format an APA citation of a journal article without checking the APA style guide, but still, after three and a half years of study, you couldn't name the colors of the sky.

"The clouds," you said. He stared after your answer for a second too long. Just long enough that you wondered if he somehow knew that this, too, was just a sliver of the truth.


You told Leah later that after the walk, you and Jeremiah had exchanged cell phone numbers. It hurt when she teased you by pretending to be surprised. You made your face placid as you had always done, hiding how deep the joke cut, but you didn't force yourself to laugh along.

Three

It was the beginning of your last semester in college, just after the first week of classes where all the professors did was distribute syllabuses and almost kill you by forcing you to sit in a room full of fifty other college students for an hour, ostensibly silent. Every semester, you rediscovered how raucous a silence could be: sniffles, coughs, students' quiet grunts of frustration, the sound of denim rubbing on denim as someone recrossed their legs that unseated your teeth from your jaw for a second. It usually took that first week for you to remember you didn't belong on this campus. Lecture halls weren't built for students like you. And yet you clung to your standing in the college. You would rip the degree from the acoustically insane halls of this fucking institution if it killed you.

The past three and a half years had worn on your patience a little.

You and Jeremiah had spent some time together the previous semester--he had interrupted some of your solitary dinners in the cafeteria, forcing you to remove your earbuds to hear him as he asked politely if he could sit next to you and catch up for a few minutes. You hadn't always accepted, but sometimes you had. Maybe it was out of masochism. You still weren't sure why he spent time with you. On pessimistic days, you wondered if he suspected--wrongly--that you might be a suicide case waiting to happen, and was checking up as an act of minor heroism to prevent a tragedy. On optimistic days, you wondered if somehow, in your dozens of painful and fumbling attempts, you had at some point said something charming, or at least comprehensible, to him.

Even after the semester had ended, he had surprised you by texting you over the long winter break, asking how you were holding up at home. He had eight aunts, all on his mother's side, staying with him at his parents' house. He texted you about their endless squabbles over the best brand of robot vacuum cleaner. You didn't understand the attention, but you thought you liked it.

Now, a week into class, he had invited you to see some kind of indie music show at Bean Me, a small coffee-shop just off campus. You had never heard of his friend's band that would be performing--it was a three-woman ensemble that Jeremiah could only describe as very experimental. You discovered that you would risk The Public to listen to a sound that Jeremiah couldn't describe.

You waited outside the coffee-shop, leaning against the wall in the cold to avoid The Public, for Jeremiah to show up. The sky was clear except for the neural fireworks, and if you didn't look up, the static was almost unnoticeable. The air was still, crackling with cold that bit your fingers and nose, and your lips were going numb. Beside you, warm golden light poured out of a window like syrup into the deepening evening, and you could hear voices and cups on saucers from inside, but not well enough to make out any words.

You recognized Jeremiah this time as he walked up to you, even though it was getting dark out. He was straight-backed, tall, square-shouldered, but the way you had learned to recognize him was by the deep vee of cheek muscle that clothed his mouth when he smiled, as he did when he saw you. Your usually useless mirror neurons fired up, sputtering from disuse, and you broke into a crooked grin too, taking yourself by surprise.

You pushed off the wall and he took your hand and he lead you inside, and his warm, rough hand in yours was so distractingly pleasurable that you almost tripped on the threshold when he took you through the doorway.

The chatter of the coffee-shop enfolded the two of you, and you were on edge in seconds. There was light jazz playing in a lavender ripple over the deeper colors of peoples' voices. You hated light jazz. Everyone was talking, and you could understand too many of the words, nonsense phrases like "Italian truffle market" and "asked me to slice it on a zero" and "electrocuted through the screwdriver", that all tried to crush themselves into your ears at once. A TV was whining in a sawtooth white blur. Jeremiah squeezed your hand, because you had stopped moving. "You okay?"

"Yeah," you said dizzily.

"You need some air? Want to take a rain check?"

"No, I... no, I'm good." You made yourself smile. Jeremiah pretended not to notice you were pretending to be okay. You liked that about him.

"Where do you want to sit?" he asked you, and you chose a table in the corner that looked safe.

"You won't be able to see your friend easily from here," you fretted as the two of you sat down, already regretting your choice.

He shrugged. "We'll still hear the music. Want me to go up and order for you?"

"You don't have to do that."

He shrugged again and did it anyway, and came back a few minutes later with your decaf soy latte. The cup gave you something to worry between your hands, and the hot latte in your mouth was something to focus on. You clenched your teeth and told yourself you were going to white-knuckle it through the evening's entertainment, rather than upset Jeremiah by having to leave.

The women took the low stage at the front of the room, and introduced themselves into the mic--they were Electric Fire, a name you liked because your brain was also an electric fire--and then they started to play, and you realized you wouldn't have to white-knuckle it.

They were a pure percussion band: drums only. The sound was deafening. One of them had a snare and they worked up a rapid, rolling drumbeat that became like a long tone in your ears, singing in a series of undertones and overtones that made you sit up straight, your lips parting as every calorie in your body was redirected to experiencing the continuous noise in as much rich detail as possible. Then the others joined in, in a polyrhythm that never lost that driving beat.

Every hair in your body stood up, and you were filled with the pure blinding joy you had no word for, so strongly you crushed your hands to your chest. You squeaked in the back of your throat from the pressure of the happiness, and Jeremiah looked at you and smiled his polite smile in confusion. You flapped your hands spasmodically and then shoved them into your lap and grinned so hard your face hurt. You closed your eyes and went inside and listened to the drumming in the dark. You became nothing but a medium for vibrations you could feel in your body, in the tabletop, the soles of your shoes, the fibers of your clothing.

The show was short and you were startled when you opened your eyes to find Jeremiah beside you and half a cold latte in a mug in front of you. "Well," Jeremiah said neutrally, "that was something. Did you like it?"

You nodded enthusiastically, speechless. Jeremiah said, "I thought you might have."

The two of you left shortly after the show. Outside, a quietly melodic rain was falling. The drops hitting the pavement were small tan circles near your fingertips. Wet surfaces shattered the streetlights, lit-up shopfront signs, and car headlights into sprays of glittering light, and your astigmatism cracked each particle of glitter into a needle of color. And over it all, the swarms of colorful static. You pressed close to Jeremiah and let him lead you back towards campus. He had disliked the band, but he seemed to find it funny that you liked it. Mostly you were too tired for thought, but the part of you that refused to stop thinking anyways wondered if he'd ever find you more than amusing, more than a curiosity.


Back on campus, you shut yourself into your single dorm without turning on the ceiling lights, so you could see almost nothing by the status lights on the fire alarm and your desktop monitor. You tore off your wet clothes and used the flashlight in your phone to turn on the shower. You stood under the hot spray in total darkness, shivering with excitement, and touched yourself until the eigengrau was a different kind of fireworks show.

Four

The following summer, all of you graduate: you, Leah, Jonah, Jeremiah. Cut loose from the order of campus life, you drift into separate apartments in the city. You are surprised that Leah and Jonah, now living together, stay in touch with you. You had thought that you were a curiosity to them, too. But you see them occasionally, between mind-numbing days in your office job as a technical writer, and excruciating commutes to and from the center of the city that, about once a week, drive you to tears.

You live in a two-bedroom apartment with a stranger roommate Leah helped you find online. Within two weeks, you hate him with the desperate kind of hate that stems from the fear that he'll kill you--not violently with his hands, but with the sounds he makes in your space, the stuff he leaves lying around your common room, the thousands of intrusions he makes into what should be your safe territory, each one feeling like it chips away a piece of you until you're dust on the inside.

You think you might not be cut out for living with a roommate, but you're not making enough money to break the lease.

It's ironic that gatherings at Leah's apartment, with people and alcohol and sounds and lights, are a respite for you, but that's the shape your life has dissolved into. Still, the third time she invites you to one of her gatherings, you almost say no, because you've stopped seeing the point in most kinds of activity. You're lying face-down in your bed and texting her between pathetic attempts to sleep, awash in an ocean of the strange orchestral strains of music that whisper in your ears at night when you're tired. You brush off her invitations until she mentions that Jeremiah will be there, and this one spark of novelty makes you change your mind.

It's a familial dinner party, with about ten total guests in attendance. You take turns rolling out and pan-cooking your own tortillas to make lentil-stuffed burritos with five different sauces on them, two of which Leah invented. You sit down to eat at Leah's banged-up, secondhand wooden table while half the crowd sits in mismatched wooden chairs and the other half squeezes onto a couch together, and everyone talks over each other in three or four separate conversations. You tune into different conversations in turn, listening without participating, comfortable with sitting in the crowd and nodding along as long as nobody starts paying too much attention to you. Leah has put music on, so the sounds of the others chewing doesn't send fire racing over your skin like it normally would, just the occasional unexpected flash of irritated heat.

Jeremiah is explaining what he's been doing since graduation: he's working as an admin for a psychiatric hospital downtown, and he likes his job. "It's nice to be able to help with all the behind-the-scenes work to keep the doctors and nurses moving. I like to think that indirectly, I'm helping their patients," he says. "It's not glamorous, but I really don't mind it." You can't understand how he can be happy, living in the city and working a boring job, when you live in the city and work in a boring job and are beginning to want to kill yourself. Then again, maybe that's just Jeremiah, holding life up to the light, turning it until one of its facets reflects something beautiful. You sip a beer--your second--and stare at him for a while, and it's nice. Right now, you think you're happy.

Jeremiah gets up from the table for another beer from the fridge, and he gets caught up in a conversation with another guy--someone he knows from that frat back at college, a redhead with cute freckles. You don't want to talk to anyone else, and you seem to abruptly disappear at the table. You sit there, your mouth sealed shut, and trace patterns in the beer-condensation on the wood. Maybe it's not a surprise that within minutes, you end up out on the balcony. Leah has a third-story apartment, not high enough for a good view. The cars on the street below her are fist-sized and the sound of their motors is jagged and dark grey, each car's unique groan overlapping the next. The traffic never stops in the city. You never have a second to breathe between cars. Leaning over the railing, you suck in air at a careful pace to avoid hyperventilating, wondering for a second if you're going to puke before deciding not to. You look up into the sky, so the tears flow back into your tear ducts.

A smoky wind tousles your bangs and caresses you under your sweaty shirt. It's a clear night, but the glow of the city blots out almost all of the stars. You can faintly discern Orion's belt between buildings. You jerk convulsively and one of your forearms flies down into the metal rail and glances off, bruising to the bone. The pain stuns you for a second; it feels like your forearm is turning inside out. You turn it to look and find you've taken a little skin off. You glare at your own arm like it's betrayed you; you didn't realize you were going to hurt yourself until it happened. Then you do it again. The balcony railing rings with the impact, and your throat clamps shut with pain, then relaxes. The moment of pain and shock, if it hurts enough, is also a moment in which sound doesn't exist. The city is silenced around you. The traffic stops. The light pollution flickers for just a moment as pain clears your mind.

You draw back again but Jeremiah's hand slides between your bruising arm and the rail. "I don't think you should be doing that," he says gently. You didn't even hear him come outside. You're shaking and you're afraid he can tell.

He takes your wrist and turns your forearm--gently--so he can see the place where the skin is scraped off. He runs his hand over the raw patch and asks softly, "What's going on?" in such a way that you know he's not really asking about your arm. You're both drunk, but his movements are steady and clear.

"Everything," you choke out. "Everything's going on. I can't handle this." You cut off; you've come to the place where words end.

"What can't you handle?" he asks.

"You wouldn't understand."

"Try to tell me. You won't know if you don't explain." He's still cupping your forearm where you'll have contusions tomorrow. You sniffle. This is probably the worst evening of your year. It's not the first evening you've hurt yourself to escape a sound. But it's the first time Jeremiah has caught you doing it.

You look away, staring down at the little cars on the road, their headlights surrounded by ostentatious starbursts, haloed by foggy light. "Can you hear the traffic?" you ask.

"I guess." Jeremiah cocks his head. "Usually I tune it out."

"I can't," you say. Haltingly you try to explain what it's like for you to live in the city: the impossibility of it. As much as you want to drag him into your mind, let him look around, and announce this, this is what it's like, that has never been an option. You can't even explain yourself clearly, with poetry or metaphor, because after four years of learning everything you could about language to try to find the words to take others across this impossible bridge into your synaesthetic reality, you still have never had the courage to actually try.

Instead you use any words you have, forcing them out and stumbling to a stop every few sentences. The explanation requires more swearing than you ever would have imagined. When you enrolled in the university, you thought the professors would teach you to write, and someday, you'd put pen to paper and draft a poem or a novel that would finally bring others into the cacophony of sound and light you have never been able to escape, the storm that comes from the inside and howls inside of you like Jupiter's perpetual dark spot.

You had wanted it to be beautiful. You imagined you would bring your peers the delicate rainbow filigree that laces a clear blue sky, the dark red velvety sound of a piano, the majesty of the silent, dark lightning that arcs through the clouds every time it's overcast. Instead, you describe what it means to live next to a freeway when your brain is incapable of tuning out the perpetual metal scream. You tell him what it means to live with a roommate when the nerves in your ears are wired directly to your fight-or-flight response, how you spend some evenings shaking on your bed, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, and not moving, because you're afraid that if you see him you'll throw a punch for the first time in your life. You show him the scars where you bled out that tension, the price on your skin of living this way. You tell him how you can taste what you see and see what you hear, and how you used to pray when you were young that someone would take pity on you and obliterate your senses so the chaos would stop and you could rest.

He asks you if you have ever thought about silencing the storm permanently and you tell him your only real secret: you have thought about it every day for most of your life; the only question has been when.

You stare down at the cars on the road, gripping the balcony with both hands, showing nothing on your face, refusing to look at Jeremiah. He puts his hand on your hand. "You can't live like this," he says. "Call me tomorrow. We're going to make a plan."

"Okay," you breathe.

He shrugs. His demeanor says, no big deal, I help with peoples' mental breakdowns on a balcony all the time. "No, it's fine. I'm just happy I got to see you again."


You had thought that you no longer cared what happened to you, and you had thought you believed nobody could save you from the relentless storm, but the moment someone reached out a hand, you grabbed on as though you were drowning. You don't think Jeremiah can really pull you out of the water, but he's offering to try, and you're exhausted: you don't have many options left. You shock yourself: you call him.

Five

You graduated eight months ago, Leah's party was six months ago, and two months ago you moved into your own apartment, without any roommates.

You've just woken up and are sitting in bed, the dark bedsheets puddled around your bare waist. Chill air stirred by the heating system makes your arms pebble up with goosebumps and your nipples are hard nubs. The bed is pushed up under an east-facing window, and you lean your forehead into the cold glass, watching prickling navy twilight yield to a yellow pre-dawn glow. It could be an hour before the anemic winter sunrise peaks.

The blankets are warm with half your body heat and half Jeremiah's. You twist to look at him, still asleep on his stomach, tangled in the blankets and facing away from you. You squiggle back down under the duvet, turning to face him so you can slide your cold fingers around his waist and tuck them under his warm belly. He doesn't wake up. You adjust further until the two of you are pressed together from feet to shoulders, and then you bury your nose in the tightly curled baby hairs at the nape of his neck.

You don't sleep, and you hear and feel it when he wakes. His breathing deepens, and he stretches. His muscles pull taut from his lower back to the tips of his fingers as he reaches up behind his head, his lanky arms colliding with the headboard. "Hey, morning," he says.

"Morning," you echo. He slowly turns over, shifting to reverse the direction you're spooning, and pulls you tightly into the curve of his waist, your back to his chest.

The morning light doesn't obliterate the scrim of sparkles over the bedroom wall. But it dampens some of the more distracting flashes and streaks of light that fill the room when it's dark. You watch the ripples of flickering shadow from your brain, and then you switch your focus to the light of the sunrise streaking the wall, picturing what the pool of golden light would look like if your eyes and brain could cooperate and agree with reality, if all the sparkles and blinks and flashes were erased, if the creaking of your neighbors' footsteps next door weren't painting orangey streaks across the lower part of your vision. You can't really imagine it. It would be very cold and still.

Jeremiah sighs a warm breath down your back, making your hair stand up with pleasure, and just for a moment, you lose your train of thought completely.

Category: Fiction Tagged: realistic fiction fiction writing neurodiversity