I lie on my bed, smoking, staring at the ceiling. It is obvious that I need something, but it is not obvious what.
I have a lack, an emptiness; at first I had thought it was for excitement, but I rode roller-coasters, cliff-dived and drove much too fast on the highway, and found it all hollow despite my racing pulse. It feels more like I have a need for a certain something, like a hunger for a specific food; a particular quality rather than a broad type. Fire, not heat. But I know not what.
So I go to the nearest bar and start drinking pints of beer. It is early, but time passes quickly; by the time I have finished three pints it is dark, and by the time I have finished five it is very late, and I am very drunk. No answers come to me, although now that I think about it, it seems unlikely that they would have.
I leave the bar and start to walk home. It is only five blocks, a ten-minute walk, but my sense of direction is shot, and I quickly make wrong turns and am lost. Within twenty minutes I find myself in an unfamiliar area, walking between gray, close-set buildings, a confusion of alleys and side streets.
It is cold, unusually so for the season, but I am not bothered by it, any more than I am bothered by the uncertainty of my navigation. It is a little like the minutes of the morning, after waking but before opening one’s eyes; I know that problems may be out there, some of them even belonging to me, but for now, for the time being, I am warm, my eyes are shut, and it is all on hold. So I keep walking.
Eventually I pass through an unmarked lot and, for no apparent reason except that I am drunk, decide to enter an open doorway.
Through it, I find a small room. A nondescript man is seated behind a desk, facing me, and shows no surprise at my appearance.
“You look lost,” he says.
I feel like my reply is obvious; I say nothing.
“What are you looking for?”
Some amount of the strangeness of the situation manages to intrude upon my mind. I stare at the man and ask, “Who are you?”
He makes no reply.
Another small wave of drunkenness passes over me, and things seem stable and ordinary. The man speaks again.
“What are you looking for?”
Answering with the first thing that comes to mind, I tell him, “I don’t know.”
“What do you want?”
Staring at him, incredulous, as if it were a clear and fundamental truth: “I don’t know!”
“Do you want to know?”
I am in a darkened room, lit only by the glow of two candles. Behind me is the door the man indicated, and when I turn I see that it has closed; it looks different as well, no longer utilitarian and metal but richly finished wood. My head seems to have cleared completely.
I turn back and seat myself at the candle-lit table, noticing for the first time my companion. At the other end of the table is a woman: young, dark-haired, seemingly attractive although I cannot seem to isolate her features. Nevertheless I feel that I know her; in fact I feel bound to her intimately, with a tremendous and organic closeness of spirit. I feel that I would certainly kill or die for this woman.
She takes the bottle from the table and pours me a little wine. “Long day?” she asks gently.
“The longest,” I whisper in reply, and she smiles understandingly.
We begin to talk, about various things. They seem to involve me, and her, and the both of us, and the world with us in it; none of it seems very weighty, but the exchange itself seems eminently satisfactory, seems to resonate with a kind of rightness. Occasionally we laugh or smile, but not too often. More frequent are long silences, where I am focused on my own thoughts, and I realize something unusual — the sensation of simply being in this woman’s presence, of existing with her, more or less regardless of the circumstances, is almost an ecstatic state. It is not a high-pitched emotion like excitement. Instead it is a kind of tranquility; I have a feeling of deep belly-filling contentment, of satisfaction, of being in my place. Just knowing that she exists, and that I fulfill the same function for her as she does for me, seems to be a universally effective balm.
At one point, I reach out my hand across the table, and she extends her own. We touch fingertips, and I am, for a moment, exceptionally happy.
At that same moment, I know that this is not what I am looking for.
I am running forward with a gliding, mooching Groucho Marx walk, keeping pace with the five black-garbed men around me. The submachine gun is light in my hands and my breath comes out in tight, evenly-paced spurts — out-in, out-in, out-in.
As we approach the squalid, plastic-sided building, we split into two groups. Alpha team moves to the front door, and Bravo — myself and two others — head around to the back door, which we find shuttered with steel. One of the men with me has a long prybar in his hands, and prepares to wedge it behind the metal lock while the other man crouches next to the building’s rear window.
Our radio crackles. “All units ready?”
“Bravo go,” I hiss back.
“Breach in — three, two, one, go go go.”
Immediately, my teammate jams the bar under the edge of the security door, and with a vicious pull at its long end, he pops open the lock. At the same time, the second man breaks the window with the barrel of his rifle and tosses a flashbang inside to an ensuing crack! I hear an echo from the front of the house as Alpha enters, and my pulse starts to climb, my heart yammering in my chest. Taking two steps forward, I hit the inner wooden door with my boot, splintering it open, and then I am inside the house.
Trying to see through eyes that seem to have turned into small, narrow tubes, I swivel my head to pan them across the scene. Narrow corridors, open doors; I clear them one by one, then finally burst into the kitchen.
The presence of two men — that is all I seem able to perceive, but my one-track mind focuses obsessively down on the pistols in their hands, fascinated. Immediately, like a nervous reflex, the weapon attached to my shoulder indexes on one of them and rattles off three shots, as if it is some sort of fluidly-honed mechanism for which I am merely a guidance system; all three bullets take him in the gut, knocking him back into a wall. The second man dodges and ducks and is gone through a doorway, and with blood and primal outrage, I charge after him.
I come through the door and through a small connecting corridor and burst out to find the pistol-wielding man standing behind a smaller female, one arm wrapped tightly around her neck and the other pressing the weapon into her temple. He is backing away and dragging her, and I can see her face desperately bulging as her throat takes her own weight.
“Don’t you fucking — ” he screams at me, and as he does I aim straight between his eyes, which are easily visible above the woman’s head, and I fire once, knocking him immediately limp, collapsing him to the floor where he partially breaks the woman’s own fall. I am over him in a moment to confirm the kill, but he is clearly, obviously dead, so I scan the room for more threats, then secure his weapon and zip-tie the female. “Clear!” I hear from another room, then an answering chorus:
“Alpha team clear!”
Both of my teammates chime in, and I look down at the man I’ve shot, the life I’ve ended, and the other I’ve likely saved, and my adrenaline-infused veins are making me rise and fall like the breathing of a living thing.
“Bravo team is clear,” I speak into the radio, and close my eyes as I realize that this isn’t it either.
I open my eyes to find myself seated at my desk, looking out my small office window at the light spring rain. My hands are on the keys of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, and a plain sheet of paper is half-curled out the back. With the slightest of hesitations, as if I’d only paused to consider a word choice, I start typing, finishing the sentence on the page, then beginning another, tying up the paragraph and then the page and loading another sheet and filling that one too.
I pound confidently at the keys, the heavy mechanical strokes supplying a continuous, sturdy bassline to the flow of ideas passing through them. It is as if the very fabric of my mind, the amorphous, wholly pure material from which I shape sense in my private world, is able to find a path onto the page in the deftest manner possible — forced to squeeze through the tight and constricting bottleneck of words, true, but using the best bottlenecks, the choicest of pat invocations, perhaps sometimes even obtaining special power from language’s peculiar trick of customizing its nature for each reader. The flow is unstoppable, or at least as-yet unstopped; I fill page after page with the raw life-stuff from my head, the wholest essence within me that is always seeking to escape, just a gentle pressure at the best of times, a dangerous and aggressive force at the worst.
After weaving threads and breaking them, then starting them anew stronger and richer; after forming a subtle foundation and a powerful structure, teasing the reader to engage the vital parts of his mind and passions; after building up the words in the most uncliched yet utterly inevitable of ways, I form on the pages the climax itself, a peaking of ideas that brings together every far-flung molecule of the human condition I strove to invoke, and arranges them such that one must step back, gaze upon life, and giving it the slightest twist, say yes — yes, that is the truth of things, the truth seen in maybe the only way which is bearable.
My hands finally stop, and I strip out the last sheet and place it in the stack. As I tap the pages neatly together, I reflect on what I’ve done, and almost without surprise, discover that despite having performed the most perfect act of which any writer could dream, I feel nothing. Whatever I am looking for, it is something else.
I creep into the darkened room, and sneak up on the crib like a gentle burglar. When I reach the edge, I lean on the wooden rail and look down.
The tiny thing inside is asleep, its little face relaxed but still seemingly squeezed together like he smells something bad. I don’t want to wake him, but all the same I can’t resist the urge to reach in and lift him out, which I do as carefully as I can. He stirs, but his eyes stay shut.
I sway back and forth a bit, something I’ve never been very good at, but instinct compels me to do my best. The feeling of the warm life in my arms is unbelievably comforting — almost unbearably correct — and after a moment I wrench myself away, screaming “NO!”, and fling the baby at the wall, because this isn’t right either.
I am standing on the second floor of a burning building, supporting a thick canvass hose and directing a blast of water onto the overheated support stanchions. Yells come from behind me as more of the ceiling collapses — I turn to see a beam land upon my hose, instantly choking the flow to a dribble —
I’m in a small, top-floor studio in Brooklyn, and the six of us are motionless on futons when the second round of salvia hits us behind the eyes and blasts through the backs of our heads. I gasp as the bottom drops out of my field of vision, and suddenly things become clearer —
It’s noontime, and I’m eating lunch in my executive office. I can afford the best this city has to offer, but at the pace of my schedule, takeout Chinese is the only thing I can manage, just like most of the traders and floor staff. But that’s the nature of this job, and at the end of the day the money and the excitement is easily worth it —
I’m on my knees in my king-sized bed. Beside me, the blonde is shifting over, leaning onto her elbows as she looks back at me with a sly smile. I position myself behind her and drive forward with one motion, making us gasp together. As I start to rhythmically thrust, the stacked brunette — whatever her name is — leans back against the pillows and starts to touch herself between her legs, and the third girl, the short one, winks at me and kicks up her legs to slide off her panties —
Wind and light. My lungs are frozen in my chest with shock, then spastically I take a huge breath, and another and another, and I burst out from the wet clouds into the broad, crystalline expanse of air above.
I cannot seem to speak, can hardly move, but with a twitch of my feathers and the slightest of thoughts I triple my speed and slice through the sky, carving a long, geometrically perfect curve in the firm texture of the blue surrounding me. With a twist of my wings, I roll and dive, now soaring over the wind, now driving against it as if to penetrate its individual fibers, now riding along it, faster than anything, daring to outrun the sun itself.
I come out of a flawless arc with a gentle toss, rolling my belly towards the sky and embracing the sensation of true, boundless freedom —
— and I am standing in a small, poorly-lit anteroom, in front of a boring little man behind an ugly gray desk.
I am stunned for a moment, then enough pieces click together in my brain to locate myself, though not to explain very much — and I am across the desk, seizing the man as if to attack him.
“That was it! That was it! Why did you — why did it stop?!”
The man looks impassively at me from a few inches away, and after a few moments, I let him go. I realize that I am drunk.
“That was it,” I say tiredly, drooping back. “Why . . . can’t I stay?”
Adjusting his ruffled coat, the man seems to examine me for a few moments, then asks abruptly, “Who do you think I am?”
I peer back, uncertain and uncaring. “A magician?” I suggest, only a little serious.
“I don’t care. Look, what — ”
He gives a sharp wave of a hand, which somehow silences me. “What has happened here is this. You came in here with no knowledge of what you lacked. You have that knowledge now. I can give that to you — only that — free of charge or obligation.”
I stare at him, bewildered, trying to process it all through the fog of alcohol, nearly the entirety of my mind still dumb with the sensation of the sky. As the man pushes back his chair and stands, I finally manage to stammer out,
“But . . . can’t you just . . . let me go back?”
He turns with mild surprise, one hand on the knob of the small, plain utility door.
“I can give you knowledge,” he said simply. “I can make you conscious of your place and passion. But your life is your own to live. You must attain what you will.”
He has opened the door and is almost out before I blurt —
“But nobody can fly!”
Stopping halfway through, I watch him stand motionless. Without turning, I hear his voice say:
“Oh. Well . . . ”
He hesitates. Then, flatly:
“It is nowhere written that all dreams are possible.” And he is gone.
I race to the door, but when I open it, an empty supply closet gazes back.
The cold hits me like a wall as I exit the building, so I zip up my jacket tightly, and shove my hands into my pockets for the long walk home.