A few months before my breakdown I sat down across from Alex in the library. Senior year. I was skipping gym; she was in a study period, studying.
“Hey Dyke,” I said. “How’s being gay so far?”
It’s important to understand that Alex and I were friends. Or if not friends, friendly. Still, looking back, it’s amazing I never realized what an asshole I was.
She set down her pencil and glared at me. “I’m studying, Dick,” which, touché, my name’s Richard. “I don’t like it when you call me that.”
“Call you what? Dyke?”
She nodded. “Dyke.”
“But you’re gay.”
“Richard, listen to me. I don’t like it. Stop calling me that.”
I leaned back in my chair. The legs dragged along the library’s carpet with a soft, farty noise. “But we’re friends,” I said. “I don’t mean it hatefully.”
“It’s hard to tell.”
“Are you kidding?” I was relieved. “Yeah, of course. You’re great. I think you’re great and strong and brave and you should be proud. I only use that word so, like, if people ever use it hatefully, maybe you’ll be used to it. It won’t hurt as much.”
Alex nodded, not looking at me, as though all of this was good and fair in the abstract world of the middle class white hetero male. She said, “It doesn’t work like that,” and got back to studying. When it was clear she wasn’t going to look at me or talk to me anymore, I got up and left. But I didn’t learn my lesson, I don’t think.
Then: psychiatrists, medications, blowups at home, a couple times running away where I’d come to my senses miles from my parents’ house in the rain in the middle of the night, electrical storms inside my chest. Or else finding dawn somewhere behind the steering wheel, not realizing I’d been driving all night, having to track down a mileage sign to place myself on a map. The crazy I was didn’t excuse the asshole I’d been, but I still feel they’re related, that one was a symptom of the other.
I tried to go to college and failed, tried again, failed again. I came back home ashamed, but eventually regained some kind of balance. I got to the point where I could look my former friends in the eye and recognize a fellow human being. It was a skinny time in my life because I walked a lot. I thought many thoughts, often very slowly because of all the drugs I was trying.
It was around this time, at the tail end of the worst of it, that I saw Alex again at a party hosted by a mutual friend. Most people at the party had recently graduated college and were pretending they were still there. I didn’t relate to anyone. I felt like some wisp of air, a pile of dirty clothes propped up and expected to intuit humanity. Alex was sitting on a sofa talking to a couple of people I recognized as people who hadn’t liked me, for reasons I didn’t bother recalling but didn’t hold against them. She saw me, uncrossed her legs but didn’t stand up.
I didn’t recognize her. She’d gone to school somewhere in New York, and she’d turned into an intelligent, alert, and stylish woman, like someone had advised her what to wear. Her hair seemed less red. I think she’d had a breast reduction. Something about her seemed more vertical. She was slender and urban, with severe, modelish cheeks.
She said, “Good to see you, Dick.”
I let her friends look at me, hate me rightfully for whatever. I asked what she’d been up to lately, how long she’d been back in Portland. She laughed at how attracted to her I was.
“Her dad just died,” one of her friends said, which I thought was rude. “So don’t be an asshole.”
Alex was proud of her friends, I could see. Proud that they would preemptively protect her. They made her feel safe. I was jealous.
She said, “I’m just in town for the funeral.”
Just saying this word—funeral—gave her hollow cheeks a different pallor. No longer glamorous. Her sadness was real, which was more than most of us could claim.
I didn’t say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because we were too young to understand loss. I offered her a new drink and asked her what else was going on in her life.
“I just moved in with my partner,” she said.
“That’s a big step,” I told her. She got up from the couch and joined me on the back porch so I could smoke a clove, that buttery spice of a cigarette I was into at the time. “So your partner,” I said. “Can I ask… is it… are you… what’s the… you were…”
“He’s a man,” she said, patiently, and sipped.
We talked about writing, which was something we both liked to do. The way she spoke about her stories made it clear that she was a better writer than me. Had a better grasp of the form, had more to say about life in general.
“I’m in a ‘slice-of-life’ mode right now. Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor. How about you?”
“Mostly I’m writing in my journal. It’s green. I call it The Green Book.”
“The color of envy,” she said gravely.
Sometimes when I drank too much in those days, back when the scars of my breakdown were still fresh, I could rupture the sutures and let that whole mindset out of my body like a swarm of hornets. Booze was a dance on the edge. I slammed the rest of my drink and said, “I’ve been working through some pretty serious questions.”
“Like, your own questions or whole-world questions?” she asked.
I recognized this as an opportunity to appear a halfway decent person, but instead I was honest. I told her, “It’s up to me to save the world.” And as if it were the first time it had occurred to me, I added, “That’s a lot of pressure.”
Alex raised her eyebrows. It looked like she was surprised how high her eyebrows could go. “That’s true,” she said. “Saving the world is a lot of pressure,” and then she excused herself.
I woke up in a tree, which I vaguely remembered climbing. It hadn’t been long, and I hadn’t gone far—I could still hear the party a couple blocks away. It was a comfortable branch, so I stayed where I was. A city bus pulled up beneath me, let someone off, and then pulled back into traffic. That’s how I knew it wasn’t too late.
I lit a clove and the person who’d just gotten off the bus looked up into the tree. “What are you doing up there?” he asked. It was a man, that’s all I could tell for sure. “How’d you get up there?”
“I’m an excellent climber,” I told him.
“You got another cigarette?”
“It’s not a cigarette.”
“Even better!” he said, and he thought this was funny enough to laugh about.
“It’s not drugs. It’s a clove.”
“Like an herbal cigarette. But it doesn’t get you high.”
“You wanna get high?” he asked.
“Man,” I said. “I’m way up here.”
“How’d you get up there?” He was circling the trunk like he wanted to join me.
“I told you,” I said. “I’m an expert climber.”
“You’re a crazy sombitch, huh?” he said. He thought this was funny, too. “Smoking herbal cigarettes in a tree. It’s a Friday night. You should be getting high.”
“My dad just died,” I told him, I don’t know why.
He stopped laughing. He said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I shimmied down the tree after the stranger left and I figured out where I was, hiked back to the party, and looked for someone I knew to try and be normal around. Here’s what I wanted: I wanted to find Alex, to have her touch my jaw with one finger, delicately, and to tell me that even if the world didn’t know what to do with me, I had a place here just as much as anything else, and that place was among people, like her, who didn’t know they needed shelter from this unknowing world. I was almost convinced of this fact when a dog rumbled out of a bush a few houses away from the party and sniffed at my ankles.
“Hey pup,” I said. I picked it up in my arms. It was heavier than I thought it would be, and awkward, but it seemed to enjoy being held. It had extra skin on its face and its tongue fell from the side of its mouth. It wore a collar, the tags jingling, and so I knew I’d know where to take it when the time came.
I carried the dog to the party and waited, as if because I had returned Alex would appear and this dog would be the conversational impetus that would lead us to a resolution we could hold onto forever, or for years, or for an hour or until the sun came up, which were all equivalent measures of time because time is elastic, which is what I would say to Alex if and when she appeared. I stood at the foot of the steps and looked at the front door, saw that it was wide open, and acknowledged that it was odd for the door to be so wide open, just an open door of one of the houses on the street. It didn’t feel special to walk through a door like that.
The dog was still in my arms. A guy I’d never met walked out of a bathroom and looked at me funny.
“Do you know whose dog this is?” I asked him.
“What the hell?” he asked.
“I found this dog and I don’t know who it belongs to. Someone is probably looking for it.”
“Probably,” he agreed.
The dog was heavy in my arms and I adjusted it. The guy walked around a corner into the living room, and I took a few steps to watch him. There had been a dance party in there when I left, but now it was four or five people sitting on a sunken sofa, nobody speaking above the volume of the music that no one was dancing to. None of them were Alex. I adjusted the dog in my arms once more and stepped away, back down the hallway. The dog seemed perfectly happy in my arms, her tongue dangling, her face-skin curling in on itself like multiple smiles. I’d decided she was a she, and that her name was Beatrice. I was certain that when I checked her tags, this would be the name I’d see: Beatrice. It would be an amazing feat of serendipity, of intuition or cosmic alignment, and it deserved witnesses.
Alex wasn’t in the kitchen or on the deck, not anywhere I could see without opening a door, which I couldn’t do with my arms full of Beatrice. I returned to the hallway just outside of the living room. I could hear the last few people sitting inside the house and stood around the corner, listening, not wanting to be a part of the world they knew. I hugged Beatrice tightly, gripping her tags in my fist so they wouldn’t jingle and give me away. I knew they’d be talking about me, and they were. The guy I’d bumped into when I came in said to the others, “So a strange thing happened to me a little while ago. Some rando just came up to me carrying a dog and asked if I knew who it belonged to.”
“Shut up,” said one of them, a woman.
Then a pause, and then came Alex’s voice. “So weird,” she agreed. I’d missed her somehow when I first glanced in the room, but she was here now. She’d waited for me because she wanted to say goodbye, and she wanted to hold me and read The Green Book and tell me that all of my impulses and insecurities were unfalteringly breathtaking.
“It wasn’t his dog?” Alex said. “Who brings a stranger’s dog into a party? Why?”
It took all of my willpower not to peer around the corner. I wanted to hear the answer. Why would I bring a stranger’s dog to a house party?
“Because he’s crazy,” said the guy.
Beatrice looked up at me with her coy eyes. I looked back at her directly, steadfast—not the eyes of a crazy man but my eyes, my expert and unfalteringly breathtaking eyes.
There was a hush as I turned the corner and faced them directly—a collective gasp indicating that they registered the dog in my arms, understood that I’d been listening. I looked at each of them in turn. None of them were Alex. I checked the corners, the other entrance to the living room. She wasn’t there. I set the dog down and knelt beside her, took her tags into my fingers. “Her name,” I said, “is Beatrice,” and I showed them the tags to prove it.
They waited until I was out the front door before bursting into laughter. I picked Beatrice up again and nuzzled the soft back of her head, assured her that they were only laughing at me. I massaged the heavy skin beneath her chin and set her gently in the passenger seat of my car before driving somewhere, I’m not sure where, but definitely not home.
Robert Martin is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he works as the Director of Operations for the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. His work has appeared in Revolver, Great Lakes Review, Sixfold, and Rain Taxi Review of Books. He is at work on a novel.