Carpinteria is a small city.
It grows without a rush, new houses and buildings adorn the streets that once upon a time were fields, giving way to a more prosperous and active community. Some of the local businesses still keep black and white portraits of Carpinteria’s past on the walls, where men hunch down, unearthing the fruits and vegetables Mother Nature birthed for mankind to consume. If you put two pictures side by side, one from the present and one from the past, you might as well believe you are looking at two different places without an iota of commonality.
That is how things and people in this place look.
Some of the pictures I am talking about can be found in places such as the Mexican restaurant next to the 7-11 on Calle Villa Real. If you look at the faces of those antediluvian humans in the photos, you can almost feel their stare as it pierces into your soul, as though they were belittling you for setting foot on what used to be theirs. There is darkness all around, and what I find hard to believe is that I am the only one who sees it. You look at the patrons here, eating their tacos, drinking their cans of Pepsi and having their day-to-day conversations, blissfully unaware of the darkness.
They can’t see the anger in their ancestors’ eyes like I do.
I sit down. It hurts to look at the time on my watch. Every time I move my wrist I feel the sharp and penetrating pain. Same with the black fedora I am wearing. I want to take it off. But I can’t. A gold pen rests between my fingers. As I retrieve a yellow pad out of my computer bag, a plate with two chorizo and one steak tacos landed on the booth where I sat. The rich smell of onions and cilantro and meat reminded me I had also come here to eat. The waiter places a can of Pepsi next to the food and thanks me. He then makes his way back to the front register. I take bites of my food here and there without any enthusiasm. The truth is, I am not even hungry, even though I haven’t eaten in days. Many of the patrons throw glances at me, wondering what asylum I have crawled out of. Can’t say I blame them. I know I am crazy, for the things I’ve experienced would never trouble a rational and healthy mind.
This story is about those things. Those strange things that make people lose their minds.
The apartment unit where I lived is as standard as they come. Its facade was beige and in dire need of another coat of paint that hadn’t happened in years. My room sat on top of a massage parlor where Chinese men and women yelled on a daily basis. At first, you thought they were fighting, but it turned out they were having a friendly conversation. Every night, as I tried to sleep, the echo of their voices managed to penetrate the floors and stab my ears. You could say the only important aspect of my adobe was its location, right on Carp Ave., making it a sought-after area for stupid people like me who wanted to feel important.
The small store in the corner, a place called Reyes Market, made the bacon and egg burritos I ate every morning as I brewed coffee in my apartment. I had a roommate, Jason, whom I seldom saw, but that didn’t keep me from hearing him every night as he brought a new girl and fucked her brains out in the room next to mine. He had always been lucky with girls, not only because he drove a black BMW, but also due to his intellect. The guy was smart. He had a job at a tech company and made decent money. The only downside was he sometimes spent entire days at work, leaving the apartment all for myself.
By now you might be wondering what my name is. I am honest with you when I tell you it doesn’t matter. What you have to know is I am one of those self-published fiction writers with zero representation. In fact, the moniker I use online is Anonymous. I am not kidding. I am so ashamed of my identity I could not even come up with a witty pseudonym. I do pretty well, considering, and sometimes my readers (both men and women) email me naked pictures, hoping to be able to hook up with me.
I’m not interested. Even with little success and admiration, I often feel unhappy.
In fact, by the time these unpleasant events started to take place, it had been six months since the last novel I published. Some of my readers (the ones I call ‘serious readers’ because they don’t want a piece of me) had been emailing me, asking for the sequel. I got nothing. A serious case of writer’s block had halted my productivity.
Looking for inspiration one afternoon, I walked out of my apartment and headed down toward Linden Ave. It was hot outside. This was one of those stifling summer days that allow you to see the boiling air hovering the pavement as you walk by. The cigarette dangling from my lips only made things worse, its smoke caressing and burning my cheeks as it evaporated into the ether. The Farmers Market was on. You could get lost walking through the market. Even people who were born and raised here were unable to resist the allure, walking around with bliss in their eyes as though this was the first time they ever saw anything like it. To me, it sounded pathetic, but I guess happy people see the world with a different set of eyes.
Trying to be optimistic (although I admit it is damn hard for me to do that), I strode around the crowd, blending in, taking in the magic and zeal for adventure people found while looking for tomatoes and onions and avocados. I sighed, my shoulders sinking at the realization: I suck at being happy. I stood like an idiot in the middle of the crowd, looking at how kids and adults walked around and got lost in the corners without going to a particular direction. The aisles of products were twisted mazes toward no specific places.
How wrong I was, though, because it was then, as I looked at the world around me when I saw a curious woman wearing a long and beautiful blue dress.
For some reason, I thought I’d seen this woman before. I’d come to this area in the past with previous girlfriends who slept with me one night and then left as though nothing ever happened. This woman in blue stood next to a tent while talking to a couple who held a box decorated with hearts all over. I found it strange that her stand didn’t have produce, but a brief look around made me realized that from that point forward the Farmers Market had turned into a flea market.
I frowned as my eyes glanced around. I could’ve sworn I had been standing in the middle of the place like I said I had, but it turned out I might have been walking without noticing. A brief chill when up and down my spine at that thought. I wanted to turn back and leave, but when the woman saw me, her welcoming smile pulled me in, closer to where she stood. She looked ageless, and her stance under that beautiful and long sky-blue dress gave her an emanation of authority and astuteness that was discernible. The shade of her dress just strengthened the blue of her eyes. The dark of her bright hair shone with the light of the sun.
The couple she had been helping walked away. I thought I recognized the man, a clerk at the Bank of America. He nearly elbowed me as he walked by, but then apologized. I said it was ok, but my eyes kept focused on the woman in blue. I approached her. The sign on the entrance stood on top of a table. It read: CURIOSITIES FROM ANOTHER WORLD.
I gave a sweeping glance. There were shelves with all kinds of stuff.
“Welcome,” the woman said. I wanted to ignore her, but her presence was so intriguing I couldn’t do that. What I thought of her wasn’t sexual, although it is safe to say she was incredibly beautiful. I want to say, putting a name to it, that her presence was sublime and ephemeral, and if I didn’t see her a while longer, she might disappear on me. “Feel free to walk around,” she commanded, and I was eager to oblige.
I saw old and worn out playing card decks. I also saw all kinds of flatware and dishes that could just have originated from the Roman Empire. Rolls of paper stood on a corner, papyri from another era that had long died in the past. Venturing further in, I had a strange feeling the depth of the tent widened, giving way to more interminable aisles. I even blinked a couple of times, sure that what I was looking at couldn’t be real. From the outside the tent was small. But why did it just grow bigger? This fact, albeit strange, had me so intrigued I could not walk away. I am sure it all sounds like bullshit to you right now, but please, bear with me, somebody has to know what happened to me as I got lost in this seemingly small and curious tent.
You may be able to save yourself from the horrors I experienced.
A bricked wall seemed to materialize in the distance, its red and vivid appearance made me gasp. It looked as though it were bleeding. I wondered (trying to find a logical explanation) if I had eaten something that could make me have this sort of hallucination. I was unaware as to why that wall aroused my interest, but as I approached it, the wall moved back all by itself, right in front of my eyes. “Fuck,” I said, unable to find a more eloquent exclamation. In any case, I wound up making a left turn, exploring an opening maze that hadn’t been there before.
“How can this be?” I heard myself asked, and the voice, the same voice that came out of my chest every day, sounded so unfamiliar I wondered if I had actually died and hadn’t noticed it yet. Did I die when I was standing in the middle of the Farmers Market? Is this the path to hell? I was sure hell was the place where I’d go. God doesn’t have time for lost souls such as mine.
I tripped and fell into a small cement step. My snickers ended up soaked in a hole of dirty water that had accumulated at the center of the steps. I looked up, finding the leak that came from the bricked roof. To this point, the place didn’t look like a tent anymore. It had transformed into a cave, an isolated and forgotten cave. I had a vague thought that suggested I was merely taking a stroll into my own mind, seeing the amount of shit and depreciation I had inside.
I shook my head, trying to eradicate the thought, as a light coming from underneath a door shone its way out and blinded me for one moment. I covered my eyes with my hands, the blinding white made me grunt. “What is that?”
Then I saw it. The door opened by itself, revealing to me a place with abstruse beauty, difficult for me to understand it or even explain it. That thought made me pity myself. How could I call myself a writer if I can’t tell what something looks like? I tried to, taking a look around.
The place that unfolded before my eyes seemed to have come from a time before everything I knew, same as the papyri, same as the fields that governed Carpinteria ages ago. It was the foyer of a palace, filled with small tents that looked just like the tent I remembered walking into. I rubbed my eyes as a thought in my head suggested this was just a dream. I even looked back, seeing the door closed by itself.
After a more extended moment of observation, the area that opened in front of me made me think of the Victorian era, where women with long dresses paraded around as men held their arms. I heard their conversations, the excessive use of ‘shalls’ and ‘musts’ coped with the pompous air of superiority made my stomach hurt as puke menaced to come out.
But it wasn’t all bad, of course. It all seemed as though I had merely traveled through time and walked into a flea market from the Victorian era. And the most perplexing aspect of this unwanted adventure was my apparent invisibility. Nobody, absolutely nobody was aware of my presence.
I tested my theory, walking and standing in front of people, and I almost lost my mind after seeing how they walked right through me like I wasn’t there. I yelled obscenities into a woman’s ears, just to see her reaction but there was none. I kicked a man in the balls, hoping to see him shrink in pain but my foot went up into his chest, giving the effect of water waves when you stick your hand into it. “How can this be possible?” I asked.
I stood in the middle of this place, just like I had done outside. I looked around, classical music came out of nowhere. There was a beige, phallic water fountain on one end with a marble sculpture of an eagle standing on top, as water gushed underneath it and into a round pit that resembled a simple well. A couple sat on the edge of the fountain, and the man caressed the water with the tip of his fingers while the woman smiled, looking into his eyes.
The place was filled with customers, admiring the items on sale. I saw old books, furniture, clothes laying on tables. People looked at them, feeling the fabric. Laughter filled the air. “Is this what happiness feels like? Is it just a mythical and pervasive fantasy, like the existence of Christ?” I asked myself. I kept moving forward, approaching the fountain, from where the couple stood and went on their merry way. I looked back, thinking for a moment that I should leave, but the crowd had blocked my view of the door.
And then I saw the same tent I had seen before. The woman wasn’t there. Hell, I had no idea where she was. She just disappeared on me. I wanted to go in but thought about the implications. What if this tent wasn’t real? What if it was a port to yet another time?
Well, that’s kind of what it looked like, right? I was already in another fucking time!
At that moment, I didn’t want to go any further into it.
I read the sign one more time: CURIOSITIES FROM ANOTHER WORLD.
I grew angry for a moment, considering again the idea that someone had put something in my food this morning and that’s why I was experiencing this bizarre dream. I really couldn’t think of a better explanation. Was this some kind of an intricate, dramatic setup my head was forming thanks to the help of a new hallucinant that was stronger than any other drug known to man? I didn’t know, yet the tiny amount of rationality that still meandered in my head told me that could be the only logical theory.
On the other hand, and this was surprising even to me, I ended up feeling like it might not be such a bad idea to get lost again. So I decided to walk into the little tent.
A string hanged down from a bell that was attached to the tent’s ceiling. I hadn’t seen that before. I looked at it. There wasn’t anything particular about the object. I surmised it was there so new customers could ring it and make their presence known in case the tent owner was nowhere to be seen. I understood that was what I was supposed to do. Instead, I walked right in, still hoping this was a dream and I would wake up somewhere else, lying on a beach or something.
“Welcome,” I heard a voice, a woman’s voice I was sure I’d heard before. I wasn’t surprised at all when I turned back and saw her, the woman in blue, smiling at me as though this was the first time she ever saw me.
Somehow, I managed to hide my surprise. This time I did ignore her, even though she was there, right there, standing to my left. I gulped as my eyes perused the area. The shop remained as it was, without walls popping out of nowhere. Nevertheless, and offering a perfect contrast with how the tent looked the first time I saw it, each shelf was thickly pressed. There were such a significant number of things swarmed one on top of the other, making any OCD-ridden person go mad at the disheveled and disorganized racks. I could barely describe what I was looking at. Old CD players? That was highly unlikely.
Forcing myself to take a closer look, I did recognize a couple of books as well as jewelry boxes with necklaces sticking out like the hands of a man trying to get out of a coffin. I saw three hookahs lying about, and that made me remember a night I spent with local students near the UCSB, smoking, filling our lungs with the flavored tobacco. Thinking about that made me touch my lips at once, just to find out that the cigarette I had was still dangling there, unlit, stuck to my skin. I pulled it off, and a small layer of flesh came right off the back of my lip, making me cringe in pain.
That wasn’t the first time something like that happened to me.
“Can I help you with anything?” the woman said behind me. Her accent also sounded as though it came from a different era. It actually made me think of the fifties or sixties, as well as the movies from the time. Hitchcock and his 1963 The Birds came to mind.
You know what a rational person would do, right? You would look around and ask where you are. You would be afraid for your sanity and plead to this person to tell you how to get back to the year you belong to. But I didn’t say any of that. “Just looking, thanks,” I replied automatically, as though my own voice and mind and entire being didn’t belong to me anymore. A brief and fading question appeared in my head, asking if I had lost my volition.
My thoughts never fully congealed into words, fading away in the dark corners of my head. I know how this is going to sound, but there was a moment where I failed to recognize myself. My eyes got lost as they observed a leather, black vest with white, suede interior.
“I see you like the vest,” she said, and her words came out with a smooth intonation. She mentioned the price, which I quickly forgot on account of my unwillingness to buy anything. Noticing my absentmindedness, the woman continued, “It belonged to a baker who was murdered.”
I was unaware of what she saw in me, but for some reason thought I would be fascinated by the origins of a simple vest. “You don’t say,” the words I spoke carried a hint of incredulity.
She nodded. “The wife did it. Bashed his head multiple times with the heaviest baking tray she could find, and then stabbed him in the eyes with a small spatula.” Her account of events sounded as simple as a mundane mention of the weather.
I looked for any sign of deception, found none. “You’re not kidding,” I said, stepping away from the vest, as though it conjured evil. I moved slowly and deeply into the place, glancing at other things. Ceramic plates and mugs with abstract details stared back at me from the shelves.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” she stated, “it was a sordid affair that made the papers and had people talking about it for weeks after the event.”
“I take it the man was cheating,” I ventured a guess.
Her eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“Crimes of passion are always the same way,” I said. “A Woman wouldn’t kill a man like that just because he forgot her birthday.”
Her smile showed me how much she agreed.
I kept walking, my stride so slow I felt as though I were tiptoeing.
“Every item here has a story to tell,” she said.
I nodded, realizing that was what this place was about. The disorganized setup was meant to trick people into diving through the mess and feel as though they had stumbled upon a relic with a sordid story behind it. Or was all of these a dreamt metaphor that painlessly illustrated the garbage I had in my head? That last question tattooed a giant question mark inside my head. The reason why I had come down to Linden Ave. in the first place was to find inspiration, and all the evidence pointed toward the affirmative.
Yes, part of me still thought this was a dream, but it couldn’t be. I touched the stuff with my fingers, felt the dust on my skin, smelt the leathery air. This had to be real. At first, I didn’t want to buy anything, but then I felt like I had to. I needed to get something from here, so in case I made it back, I could prove to the world my story was real. I kept looking, my gaze became more acute and attentive, I didn’t just want a souvenir. I needed it. I desperately needed it.
A little figurine of a blue mockingbird poking a flower stole a smile off my face. A tiny wooden desk with a typewriter and a stack of papers next to it caught me off guard, and I had to rejoice at the sight. It was all just too beautiful.
Some discolored adornments dangled from a black, rectangular jewel box that was attached to the back of a shelf. Rings and earrings of different sizes and colors, necklaces, bracelets, all of them shinning and radiating their light at me like the mesmerizing hand of a magician. And yes, they were all telling me a story about the journey of their lives, whispering in unison, their chatter filled the air. Their tales happy, though, nothing morbid like the old vest of the baker.
Standing right next to this shelf, alone in the center, I saw a watch with contrasting details. Its silver straps had traces of black, giving away its age. It was thin, simple, elegant and unisex, something anyone could wear. However, looking at it more closely, I could see what looked like a brand-new crystal case, with its hands standing at two on the dot.
“What’s the story behind this watch?” I had to ask, surprised at the excitement in my delivery.
The woman’s smile showed this was a memory she rejoiced. “The watch,” she says, a brief sigh came right after her words and a blush colored her cheeks. “It belonged to a dear member of the opulence.”
“Dear?” I said.
Her blush only grew. “He was an eccentric mathematician with indiscernible traits.”
“What made him stand out?”
“He was also a lover of words, poetry mostly, and that made him an incorrigible womanizer,” she finished that last part with a subtle, higher pitch.
“A mathematician and a lover,” I said. “I can see why you say he was indiscernible. You don’t usually see those two words in the same sentence.”
“That is true.”
“I wanna buy it,” I said, the words came out all by themselves. I didn’t need a watch. I’ve never owned one. But like I said before, I wasn’t myself anymore after I set foot in that shop for the first time. And the most mind-blowing aspect of my visit occurred after I paid the woman and turned around to leave. The Victorian era allure was gone, the fountain with the eagle on top disappeared, and everything else, absolutely everything else, came back to normal. I was back in the present era, and when I shifted, the woman in blue, her tent and everything else was gone. I was standing at the center of it all, the bank teller and his wife walked by, and I held the watch in my right hand.
The thrilled of the whole experience had me shaking to my core. Cold sweat erupted from my forehead as my heart throbbed. This wasn’t a dream. I had the watch in my hand to prove it. There was only one logical explanation. Whatever I saw was a portal to another place in time, a door that opened just for me. I looked around, gasping for air, the look of despair on my face was telling. A man even stopped to ask if I was ok. I said I was and then thanked him before he left.
I snapped the watch on my left wrist, immediately thinking about the mathematician womanizer who owned it. I scorned myself for not asking the man’s name, but then I remember we had Google on this side of time and so I could just look him up. I made a mental note. However, now that I was standing on this side of time, traces of the unhappy version of myself started to question everything, looking for explanations, and I almost convinced myself that I had fallen asleep and for some reason, someone just happened to drop a watch right where I was.
The thought was ludicrous. Who would accidentally drop a watch on my hand? I wanted to believe in the magic. At the time, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.
As I walked away, the first transformation began. That depressed man I was, the one who just questioned what happened, started to vanish. I became more confident at once and swaggered back home with a stride that caused people around to stop and look at me with admiration. I was even smiling. The image of the mathematician started to paint itself in my head. I didn’t need google for that in the end. I imagined him tall, wearing a three-piece suit, holding a Lucky Strike between his lips, walking among people with an animated look on his face, bewitching both men and women with the deep sound of his voice and inadvertently drawing in everyone and intoxicating them with his love for life.
As the days fell off the calendar, my thoughts became actions. I thought of myself as one of the characters in my own stories, and imagined the voice of the mathematician, whispering in my ear, dictating my every move. I went on a shopping spree and dressed up the same way I imagined him dressing up. Three-piece suit and shiny shoes that clack across the pavement as I strode down the streets. My voice changed too, becoming more profound. I was a new man. I became the mathematician.
My skill with numbers increased. As a man of words, I used to disdain math my entire life. Now, every time I needed to make any calculation, say at the grocery store, for example, I only had to picture the numbers in front me and use my hands in a pantomime, creating figures out of thin air and finding the answers I needed.
I frequented the local bars on a regular basis, talking to groups of women and laughing at their jokes. I went from an introvert with few verbal interactions to an extrovert who sprinkled words of wisdom and elaborated metaphors into women’s minds, waking up their sleeping libidos, inviting them to sin. I sensed the jealousy of the men around me, dying to be like me at that moment. For a week, I took home a different woman every night, making fervent love to her, reaching into her every labyrinth and making her touch heaven more than twice at night. And after that, I’d look at the watch, wondering how a simple object could make me change so much.
For the next two weeks, I went to the Farmers Market. I wanted to see the woman in the blue dress again. I wanted to ask her questions about the watch, I wanted to know if there was a magical element, something that was making me change. But I failed every time. The door to that world I had visited in the past wasn’t there, it didn’t want to open to me anymore. It pains me to admit it, but I was acting like an addict, wanting to go and find a stronger fix.
It was more than a month later when shades of the old and depressed man I was began to show again. I hadn’t shaven in two days, the stubble on my face and the look of desperation in my eyes were too visible to miss. Then, a smile illuminated my face as I saw the ageless woman, wearing her same dress and smiling back at me as I approached her. The door had opened once again. Behind the look of desperation on my face, the woman was able to recognize my new persona.
She looked at the watch on my left wrist. Due to our previous interaction, her tone was even more inviting. “How do you like your watch?”
I had a brief flash of how things went on my first visit, how I walked into the place and opened the door to another world. It didn’t happen this time. I decided not to pay too much attention to it. “It’s great!” I said. The elation in my words was evident.
She looked at my clothes. “I see you’ve made some changes in your wardrobe.”
I smirked, something I never did when I didn’t have the watch. “It was about time,” I said. “The clothes I had before were disheveled and in desperate need to retire.”
“Clever,” she said.
I smiled, holding eye contact with her for a long while.
I wanted to ask her about the watch. I wanted to know what was that magical element that made the mathematician’s lifestyle stick to me and made me be something else. It sounds like I am complaining, I know, but that wasn’t the case. I was grateful. I just thought, if I had a little bit more information, I could get a better handle on things. Our eye contact was prolonged, and I began to notice I had run out of words. I couldn’t say anything to her. She had a particular power over me. Hell, she had control over everything, it seemed. She was the owner of the tent, for Christ’s sake!
My ego began to shrink in front of her. Trying not to look like an idiot for another minute, I walked into the tent and started looking around aimlessly. The items were different this time. I imagined she had sold out and gotten new merchandise. At that thought, an image of Carpinteria’s residents living new lives lit up in my head. Perhaps that was true, and I wasn’t the only one who had a personality update.
Among the items, I saw a very interesting calligraphy pen bathed in gold. It was obviously old. I wasn’t surprised anymore at the thought of this pen coming from a different era. It also had those distinctive black lines of age that time left imprinted there, like wrinkles on the face of a man. The pen also made me remember that I hadn’t done any writing ever since I had bought the watch. I had become great with numbers and women, yet I had forgotten about the only part of me I liked. But I didn’t seem to mind. I asked, “This pen. What the story behind it?”
“Ah,” replied the woman, “that, my dear, belonged to a very famous Irish writer from the eighteenth century. He was primarily known for his epigrams, poems, and plays but also penned works of fiction.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you talking about Oscar Wilde?”
Her smile was earnest. “You know your classics, don’t you?”
“I guess I do,” I said. I lifted it carefully from where it rested on one of the top shelves. “I’ll take it.”
“You still don’t know how much it’s going to cost you.”
I hesitated for a second. It was because of the way she said that sentence. It sounded menacing. I convinced myself that I was just paranoid. “There is no need,” I said, but it was that confident mathematician in me who was talking. “This object was meant to be with me.”
She gave me the pen. I don’t even remember what I paid for it. The excitement I was experiencing was so unprecedented I rushed back home and wrote from the time the sun went to bed up to the moment when it came back and brighten the new day. I had penned an entire forty-thousand-word work of fiction. To put it into perspective, that is the equivalent of a small novel from about one hundred pages. I couldn’t believe it. When it was done, I left it on my desk and went to sleep, waking up five hours later to a massive muscle pain in my right hand, mostly the thumb and index.
I was in pain. But I was happy.
Happy? That word, either in my head or the tip of my tongue, sounded alien and strange.
I gave Eve my story to edit a week later. She was a good friend and mentor who always read my fiction and gave me advice on what needed to be changed. She never sugar-coated anything. Her eagle-eye was able to find mistakes, and, since honesty is essential in this business, I was sure to have it with her. But I was surprised this time when she called me two days after I gave her the story.
“This is an excellent story,” she said. “But weren’t you working on a sequel to the previous one?”
I sat in my room. I had my phone on my ear and my feet on the desk. “I was,” I said, “but this story just came out of nowhere and had to put it down on paper as soon as possible.”
There was a brief silence. Eve was preparing her next thought. “I have to ask you,” she said. “Did you have anybody else edit the story before you sent it to me?”
I frowned. “No. I don’t have anybody else to help me edit at the moment. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” she said, “I hardly ever say this, but your story is perfect.” The way she said ‘perfect’ seemed to hurt, proving that she still couldn’t believe what she had read. And I know she reads my stuff repeatedly and meticulously. “I didn’t see any Grammar mistakes. You also didn’t misuse any words and your punctuation was precise.”
One thing was still clear in my head: if I had been me, in other words, if I had not come in possession of the watch and the pen and had remained the miserable person I had always been, I would have begged her to give it another read just in case. But I didn’t do that. I could think of the words, but they would not come out. I was now a lifeless puppet with the confidence of a womanizing mathematician and Oscar Wilde himself.
“I guess I am becoming a better writer,” I said, the word ‘better’ hurt as it left my lips.
I ended up publishing the story, and it became a booming success. Some of my fans still inquired about the sequel I had promised half a year ago, so I posted a blog on my website to let them know that I was halfway through it. They forgave me, of course. Witnessing my conspicuous change and new-found success, Jason offered to throw a small gathering in my honor at the apartment, inviting many of his friends, people I had sporadically met in the past but never entirely got to know better. Even the Chinese-Yelling man and three of his masseuses joined the party after noticing we made more noise than him. Jason took care of the catering service, bringing a seafood feast with plates and all kinds of fish I hadn’t heard of before. There was wine, too. Lots of it.
The stares of admiration the girls gave me, as they fondled their glasses and sip on their drinks, sent a current of blood to my head. My muscles shook and became stiff, as I anticipated a not-so-distant future lying in bed with anyone after the party was over.
Someone brought beer after the wine was gone, I don’t remember who did it, and we kept on drinking as though this was our last day on earth. Later, while the girls danced to rap music in the middle of the living room, one of Jason’s friends fished a baggy of cocaine off his jeans. I was talking to the Chinese man about the cost of a session with one of the girls when Jason elbowed me. I turned, saw the clear plastic bag with the powder of the gods and smiled.
We didn’t need words at that moment.
We all walked toward the dining table, cleaned off the food containers and tossed them in the sink, on top of a pile of dirty dishes. Turned out Jason’s friend had more cocaine in his car. He brought it up, and all of us sat and drew three lines per person using our cards. I sat at the head of the table and couldn’t avoid thinking I was Jesus, and this was my very own Last Supper. And we were precisely thirteen people at the table, which made the comparison even crazier. I had a chance to look at them and counted nine girls and three guys.
Instead of food, we had the white powder. Instead of wine, we had Budweiser.
They all looked at me as though they were waiting for me to give an order. That felt so empowering. “Alright!” I said, talking in that sonorous voice I didn’t recognize, the one that made more than one woman bite her lips after hearing it. “I have a feeling this party isn’t gonna end just yet,” I exclaimed. “Now, at the count of three, we’re gonna snort this shit!” They all yell in excitement. “But,” I said, raising my hand, giving them a commanding stare, “we have to make this interesting.”
They looked at each other, the place filled with murmurs, wondering what I had in mind.
Jason had to ask, talking in a way that couldn’t hide his drunken enthusiasm, “What is it, man?”
What I said next would have never come out of my lips if I were myself. “Whoever finishes first…” I paused deliberately, building up some tension. “Is going to choose who he, or she, of course, sleeps with tonight.”
More murmurs and exciting looks flew around. I wasn’t concerned about their feelings, really. If they were offended, they could just fuck off for all I cared. “Any objections?” I asked, and after that, I invited them to leave if they wanted to. To my surprise, everyone was in.
I counted, “One…” they all got ready, positioning themselves, staring at the lines of coke on the table, holding a rolled-up dollar bill with the tip of their fingers. “Two…” the guys cleaned their noses, making room for the coke. In retrospect that was gross, but nobody cared at the moment. “three!”
We all bent in front of the table at once and snorted the white powder. To my surprise, everyone took it slow. I assumed Jason had told them to let me win and as you might guess I was ok with that. Inhaling the coke, the thrill rushed through our bodies. The tingling and numbness in my tongue and jaws were almost instant. I attributed it to my lack of experience in the realm of cocaine.
I stood and let go a winning shout after the last line was in my system. Most of the others were barely on their second line. I told them they could stop now.
I took the liberty of choosing three girls that night. Or, if I am honest, I had a feeling they picked me, based on the way they looked at me, with lust pouring out of their eyes. We didn’t need to go to our room. The living room was ample. We all went there without saying a word. In the end, the whole affair turned into an orgy, filled with laughter, coke and sex.
This same kind of gathering took place more than once. Sometimes three times a week. It was the same script, always ending the same way. Yes, I enjoyed it, but there was still a part of me that was feeling exhausted, that part I like to call ‘the old me,’ the one that was trapped behind the layers of the other two personas that occupied my mind and body.
The hold those two personas had on me governed everything in my mind. The body was still mine, and it was in desperate need of energy. I felt drained while thinking of a solution to solve my exhaustion. Sleep was the most logical answer to my problems, yet it was hard to close my eyes. I had a plethora of story ideas in my head, none of which I ever felt like I wanted to write about. And still, that sequel I had promised to pen inhabited a forgotten and dusty corner in my mind.
Such was my lack of self-awareness that one day I made my way through the Farmers Market without knowing why or how such a task presented itself. I was on autopilot, walking around the streets like ordinary people do on a regular basis. The Old Me, still hidden behind the prison of my mind, prayed for the absence of the woman in blue and her mysterious world. It was not my lucky day.
She stood there, outside the tent, as though she had been waiting for me to come. She looked me up and down like she always did, noticing I still wore the watch on my left wrist while the gold pen rested between my fingers. She also saw the bags under my eyes and the exhaustion I hid behind a smile on my face.
“You look like you haven’t slept in weeks,” she said.
“There is some truth to that,” I agreed, the voice I uttered that time sounded a lot more like The Old Me, which gave me some hope and made me glad I hadn’t lost myself completely.
“Come with me,” she said, as though knowing for a fact that I was too weak to question her. She strode into the tent, walking with so much grace and pose I could’ve sworn she was levitating. I tailgated, glancing briefly at the rhythm of her hips and feeling guilty afterward. She took me to a far corner of the tent, to a place I hadn’t seen before. “I have a feeling I’ll find something that is going to make you feel like a king.”
I like that feeling when people stroke my ego.
In this corner, all kinds of accessories and pieces of clothing lay on a thick, wooden table; from pointy shoes that might have come out of a fairy tale to old sets of farming tools; spades, hoes, shovels, etc. My tired eyes wanted to concentrate on each item, yet a feeling of overwhelming lassitude made me yawn so hard my throat hurt a little. “I’m sorry,” I apologized.
“It’s ok,” her reassuring words made me feel better. She looked through the items and picked up a black fedora that rested right in the middle of the table. Under it, there was a picture of a man, a sepia portrait from years ago. “I think you’ll like this one,” she said without hesitation and placed the hat on my head, making the process feel like an actual ceremony in which I had just become a king.
The Old Me wanted to ask about the man in the picture, a pale looking man with a thick mustache and angry eyes who was wearing this same hat. A man with structural face features that appeared to be turning into a skeleton every second I continued staring at him. I wanted to ask about him, but the words could not and would not come out of my mouth. Instead, I said, “Yes, I like it.” My left hand reached into my jacket and got a fifty-dollar bill. The hat might’ve cost less than that, but I was unable to willingly ask.
As usual, she told me about the prior owner. I waited, thinking she was going to mention a more significant member of the opulence, another mathematician or writer or even a scientist. But I was wrong. “The man who owned this hat was William Smith,” she explained, “a common name suited for a common man. He was one of the first settlers here in Carpinteria. I cannot think of anything else to say about him.”
Oh, but there was a lot more to him, wasn’t there? She avoided saying it with her mouth, but it didn’t matter. I was already wearing the hat. I already knew Billy’s little secrets. That was what they used to call him. And it pissed him off. I could already see and feel his hatred running through my veins. I smiled. At once, the tiredness left my body. I was filled with vigor and adrenaline after realizing William Smith was Carpinteria’s first boogeyman, a serial killer who didn’t make any distinction and killed whatever happened to cross his path.
As I exited the shop, I felt my hands growing and stretching, the color turning paler. I saw they became callous, like the hands of a field worker, which happened to be Smith’s day job. My whole body was changing too, my shoulders widened, my legs thickened, and I even felt as though I had gotten taller as I made my way toward my apartment.
William Smith’s presence was stronger. He was definitely territorial, the only one who was from here. I did a google search on William and wasn’t surprised to confirm what I already knew. His method of execution was strangulation, and since he was a massive and robust man, it was always easy for him to overpower his victims. He was lucky for some time, getting away with his crimes even though back in the day Carpinteria was a smaller town. The only reason why he got caught was the hat. Witnesses had come forward and said they had seen a man wearing a distinctive black hat who always seemed to be in the vicinity, at the time the crimes took place.
The police took him in, charged him and sentenced him to death by firing squad. What was memorable and terrifying about the case was his calm demeanor and demands. He practically ordered the police to kill him without covering his eyes with a handkerchief. His reason? He wanted to see his executioners in the eye, and before they fired, William swore he would come back and killed more people.
To this day, some folks still talk about Smith.
The trio of identities was in harmony with each other, taking control of my senses while The Old Me watched from afar, like a man seeing his own movie but finding himself unable to try and change the script. The mathematician now became a more sought-after man in the bars, mainly because of his subtle, sublime, poetic and mesmerizing qualities. He and Oscar Wilde had a lot in common. The mathematician alone did fine, but with Oscar Wilde by his side, life was better. And if the words of wisdom weren’t enough, William Smith’s muscled body saved the day, making women melt even more as they imagined themselves sleeping in my arms.
My arms? I feel weird writing that. Makes me sound crazy, doesn’t it?
Again, other men grew even more jealous of my presence at the bars. One particular fellow in his late forties who wore shorts and a backpack would always want to talk to me. I blew him off more than once. He had this penchant to talk about the revolution while licking his lips. He was Hispanic, always complaining about other Hispanics (or half-Hispanics like me) who didn’t speak his dear Spanish language. For some reason, he forgot he was living in the United States.
The number of women who slept with me only grew as time died on the calendar. Sex, drugs, and cigarettes abounded, too. My sex game always followed the same script; I would let them reach the zenith of pleasure with my lips and tongue, nipping and sucking on their erect clitoris while a line of powder waited for me on their lower backs, waiting for me to snort it as soon as they came. Then, courtesy of William Smith, the beatings and strangulation would culminate the affair. At first, the women wouldn’t resist, feeling a strange and subliminal release, but when the air failed to enter their system, death came and stared them in the face.
I’d smoke another Camel as their lifeless bodies lay next to me.
Watching this movie of my life more closely, I was able to learn more about the trio. Turns out the Mathematician and Oscar Wilde began to resent William. I would sit in my room, alone, staring at my computer, while their voices and arguments flooded my head. The first two only wanted to have fun. It was never their intention to kill anyone. William would yell at them, saying he was the one killing the women and there was no reason to argue or feel guilty. But they felt guilty. So did I.
Listening to this felt like the intro to a story I didn’t want to write.
I was in a haze, unaware of the passing of time. The Old Me was so far back, hidden in a place I didn’t even know. Although I didn’t want to, I had to listen to the three men fighting on a regular basis. To my surprise, Wilde and the mathematician also had dark pasts, stories of crimes they wished they didn’t have to unearth, but unfortunately, thanks to William Smith, they had to remember them. I could feel their pain. They didn’t like William because he reminded them of an ugly past. As I got into the mathematician’s head, I saw the moment when he stabbed his father to death because he was an abuser. A valid crime, you would say, but it was still a heavy burden for a young kid. Wilde’s offenses were worse. I could see why he tried and failed to hide his homosexuality. Turned out he had killed a man while having sex with him in a dark alley. He was able to take the secret to his grave, but it haunted him his entire life.
I wanted The Old Me to escape, get out of whatever corner in my head he had so blissfully inhabited while I had to live like this. This world was cruel and evil. A brief memory from the past came. The Old Me, walking down the street, wallowing in depression while looking for inspiration. I missed being depressed. I missed it so much because at least I was something. I was a real person.
This thought I was having brought up an unexpected surprise. William and the other two suddenly stopped talking to each other. I could not see them, but I felt their stare. Then an image of The Old Me appeared, running from the back of my head and into the front area, ready to jump out of his prison and take control. William grabbed hold of him. I will never be able to explain this, but I was watching the whole ordeal take place in my head. The Old Me started to yell something. I could not hear it at first because William had covered his mouth.
But he bit William’s hand and yelled, “Take them off! Take them off!”
I frowned, looking around, having no idea what he was talking about. “What?” I shouted back, knowing for a fact how crazy this sounded. I was talking to myself, and I didn’t give a fuck if anybody thought I was crazy. I needed to save myself. “What is it? What do you want me to do?”
“Take them off! Take everything off!”
Then I got it. The Old Me was talking about the items I bought. I hadn’t realized it, but I hadn’t taken off the watch, I had been holding the pen between my fingers the entire time, and the damn hat was glued to my head. “What?” I asked, going back into The Old Me’s head and seeing what has been going on. I was holding the pen even during the party and the orgy, I was carrying it with me when I went back to get the hat. I thought I had it in my pocket, but I didn’t. Later, with a pen in my hand and a funny looking hat, I became popular at the bars.
The eccentricity of it all was what made me look interesting. It wasn’t just the head knowledge, but all the idiosyncrasies that came with it.
I smiled, even after realizing all of these things. I was happy because The Old Me was able to get out and tell me what I needed to do. So I started, trying to put the pen down. But I couldn’t do it. I tried pulling it off with my other hand, but it didn’t come off. It was stuck to my skin. I panicked, yelling like crazy, while the image of Oscar Wilde appeared in my head, telling me how sorry he was and assuring me he hoped things were different. Seeing that I couldn’t defeat a pen, I tried my luck with the watch and failed. The fucking watch had eaten my skin, and I could see how my veins seemed to run through the straps. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, the blood in my veins running through a plastic strap as though a surgical procedure had taken place to accomplish that.
Then I tried to do the same with the hat, but I guess you know already how hard that was going to be. I heard William laughing inside my head while The Old Me sobbed. I had to find a way to get rid of everything I had bought.
It took me weeks to find the elusive flea market. Walking among the people and listening to their laughter had become an annoyance. What used to be a straight line in the middle of the street became a twisting maze. My head about to explode forced itself to focus. But it was hard, for the three men inside my head had formed an alliance. It seemed that after having found out how much they really had in common, they had decided to make the best of the situation and used my body and mind as much as they wanted to. As I kept walking down the street, images of The Old Me appeared in my head, sitting on a chair with his hands tied behind his back while William slapped him across the face. When they realized this aggression was pointless, Oscar Wilde would try to reason with him with soothing words, as though I was in an interrogation room with lawmen who played bad-cop and good-cop.
Be that as it may, the mathematician thought of himself as a nobleman; I could even see the thought spinning in his head. He was only pretending to agree with the other two. He was merely a seducer, a man who would embellish women with his presence and try to convince them to have good old fashion sex. He wouldn’t even force himself to them, if a woman rejected his advances, he would just walk away. From the start, his whole interest laid on the enjoyment and culmination of sex. He was as afraid as I was and equally unable to change the situation.
Able to read the mathematician’s thoughts, William walked toward him and pounded him with his bare fists. The mathematician bounced against the walls of my head, making me wince in pain as I stopped in the middle of the street, yelling for William to stop the madness. Some pedestrians would stop and ask if I was ok, seeing how I sunk to my knees in the middle of the street. Someone said he would call 911, I said I was ok and walked away.
This time I was lucky to find the elusive woman and her tent. I even felt time stop for a moment as I crossed an invisible threshold that popped open in front of me. It was like a bubble or a body of water that only I could see. I wondered if that had been there before and perhaps I was unaware of it.
As soon as the woman laid her eyes on me, I was aware of an air of indifference, the kind you see in store clerks who are having a bad day. The words that came out of her mouth startled me, for it was as though she had also been inside my head the entire time, playing the villain alongside William, lurking in the shadows of my thoughts, hiding from me. “Look at the sign.”
Her finger pointed toward a sign I hadn’t seen before, standing right next to the one that had been there all the time:
NO REFUNDS -OR- EXCHANGES
ALL SALES FINAL
“But,” she said, “I can sell you something else.” The way she said that was cold and calculating, as though she had planned my extinction from the beginning. My stomach turned as vomit menaced its way out of my throat. I gulped it down quickly, trying to remain calm.
“No! I’m not buying your shit, anymore!”
The woman lifted her eyebrows, as though a comeback were forming inside her head. I know she wanted to say something as vile as what I just said, but I had a feeling she was too refined for that. “I think it’d be best if you went away. I don’t want you to kill yourself here because you’re going to scare away the customer. Sales haven’t been good lately.”
I couldn’t keep my cool any longer. She was taunting me, making fun of my situation. I had a sudden idea. Maybe I couldn’t get rid of the items before because I was in a different realm. I tried yanking the hat off my head, but it was still stuck, same with the pen and the watch.
“You can’t do that,” the woman said, her calm and poise amid my desperation were inhuman. “You have to let go. You’ve wanted to let go since the beginning, don’t you remember?”
I frowned. “What?”
Then it hit me. As the world around me spun out of control, I remembered the reason why I had come here the first time. I was looking for inspiration. I just never realized how much it would cost me. Before all of this, I was merely a new-age, anonymous self-published writer who had some success but was unhappy with the life he lived. I was The Old Me, the one who was incarcerated inside my head while three entities did with my body and mind as they pleased.
But I still had some free will, I said, in a weak attempt to make the woman think I was strong.
She agreed, to my surprise. “Sure, you do. That is why you were able to come here. But like I said, you have to let go of the person you used to be. You become this irrational and jumpy person every time you allow your old self to think and hope life could be different. That’s what is wrong with you. Let the entities who live inside of you take control. They know what they’re doing and never second-guess themselves like you used to.”
Whatever she was talking about seemed like a twisted philosophy of life. It made sense in a way, I should let the entities in my head run wild and do what they wanted to do. They were never depressed like I was. They were terrible people, sure, but they had a purpose. For one moment I felt like I should listen to this woman and let them be free. The Old Me had to be put away in the attics of my mind like an old toy nobody played with anymore.
“That’s the only way?” I asked, my voice breaking down as I gasped for air.
She smiled. “Yes. If you want your body and mind to be in harmony,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed that you only feel this way every time you let your other self out of his cage? You have to let it go. He was miserable, wasn’t he? Always thinking about suicide even though he was making decent money. You have to embrace who you are now.”
I breathed. “If I accept that, will I be able to take off the items? I don’t want to be walking around with a pen in my hand like a fucking idiot!”
She frowned. “Well, my friend, I’m afraid that will not be possible since the items you wear are part of your eccentricity. You’re not a normal person. You’ve never been.”
She looked surprised. “See? That’s the old version of you, right there! You think you’re an idiot because you carry a pen around? When have you heard a plumber or a mechanic belittling the tools of their trades? They love what they do and so should you!”
“This is a bit too much, don’t you think?”
She sighed. “I’m worried about you.”
As soon as she said that, the world around me started to change. A spiral turned around in front of me, turning everything into the way it was supposed to be. I saw the people who had asked if I was ok earlier, walking around. The flea market and the woman were gone.
That was the last time I saw her.
To this day, William and the others still torture The Old Me. It turns out the mathematician had to accept his part in this whole mess because William claimed to have the power to destroy him. William’s voice whispers in my head every day, telling me to give up and let him use me like he had used me before. Right now, as I write this line at this Mexican restaurant, I can feel William’s fists hit me in the gut because he knows what I am about to do.
I write and write, my hand hurts as blood stars to ooze from my fingers and tickle down the pen, smearing the pages. The people around me still stare, seeing how an army of flies has landed on my food. I didn’t even finish it. I take a sip of the Pepsi, its warmth burns as it goes down my throat. I try to write as fast as I can, mostly because William’s presence just got out of my head and projected itself right in front of me, wearing the hat, the same hat I was wearing.
How can that be possible, you ask?
Well, I have no fucking idea!
“You know,” William says, his voice is even more threatening in person. “It’s funny how you came here, of all places, thinking you could run from me. Us, actually.”
I stop writing, “What are you talking about?” I ask out loud. Those around me are even more conspicuous, staring at me mercilessly. The young man behind the register makes a phone call. Maybe he is calling the cops. “I’m not running away from anyone. I just wanted to write.”
William lifts a demanding finger and points it at me. “Yes, but Oscar just told me that you’re not supposed to write what you’re writing right now. And I trust him because we wouldn’t be beating your ass if that weren’t the case.”
I sneer. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His smile is sarcastic, “Sure you do! We know when you’re trying to be your old self. We’ve been in your head for quite some time now.”
I look around. Now more people are on their phones. There is even a kid taking a fucking video. I wonder if he is able to see William, too.
“Leave,” I say under my breath, noticing that I haven’t stopped writing as I speak to William.
He leans closer, “Sorry, I didn’t get that.”
“I said leave!”
The scream startles everyone. Some of the customers decide to leave, others stay there, waiting for something to happen.
William smiles. “I’m going to ‘leave’” he air-quotes. “But I want you to look behind you for a second.”
“What?” I say, but my hand still writes.
“Just look,” he says, growing impatient.
I look at the old pictures against the wall, particularly the one of a man who was hunched down, working the land and looking at the camera. I had seen that photo before, sure, but I hadn’t paid attention to it. There, staring at the camera, William Smith stares back at me, winking like a madman through the photograph.
I gasp and turned back. William is no longer sitting at the table.
I continue writing, while part of me expects the police to come at any time. I have already made some people leave, so I am sure they are going to kick me out, too. As I focus back on the page, a grown man wearing black shorts, white shirt, black hat and a red backpack enters the restaurant and starts greeting everyone loudly. A brief glance at the clientele tells me they have no idea who he is.
But I knew him. He is the Hispanic, revolutionary asshole who went to the same bars I frequented. I never talked to him because I was always busy doing my thing, remember?
He tries to greet me in Spanish, “Hola amigo, como estas?”
I look at him dismissively. Even though I have some Spanish blood in me, thanks to a father whom I never met, my knowledge of the language isn’t enough to establish a conversation. “I’m in the middle of something here,” I say, hoping he gets the hint.
But he doesn’t. Even though he has no idea who I am, the man-child starts to call me racist in front of everyone. And now, speaking in perfect English, he says, “Just because you’re from here you don’t want to speak Spanish, anymore?”
What is wrong with this fucker? I wrote. Then, looking back at the page I am shocked at what I am writing, describing this exact moment.
I am writing about this as it is happening!
I don’t have control anymore. I want to stop but can’t. My free will was reduced to zero. Inside my head, Oscar Wilde starts laughing and saying, “Kill that petulant peon. You know you want to.”
Then I stop.
Sirens cried in the distance. I’m covered in blood, hiding in the restroom. I can’t stop writing, though, my hand moves, the words form in my head despite my lack of will to proceed. People yelled outside, demanding I get out. I hear a child cried. He has been weeping since he saw me walk to the kitchen to grab the knife I used to stab the fucking man-child who came to bust my balls.
I stabbed him repeatedly in the chest and face. I wanted to cut his tongue too, but my right hand still has the pen stuck to it, so I did what I could with what I had. I stabbed both his eyes once he was on the floor, then I penetrated the knife under his chin, the cracking of the jaws and teeth made me smile. Someone tried to subdue me, but I cut that person with a swing of the blade as he put his hands on me.
Then I ran here, as my bleeding hand continues to write.
I’m snapping out of it, it looks like I am now able to process my own thoughts. Oh God! Thank God. I need to set the record straight. You see, I only came here because I wanted to write my story and then kill myself. That’s it! I didn’t want to kill anyone else! I swear! But William and the others made me do it, I swear
The police just walked into the restaurant, someone is telling them I am in the restroom. God! I have to hurry up! I want to die, but not like this. I don’t want to be remembered like this. They are pounding on the door. They want me to get out. Someone is telling the cop I have a knife. I want to talk, but I can’t. I can’t.
I don’t have any more time. What am I going to do?
The police officers yell again. I am done. There is nothing I can do to save myself. The door burst open.
I grab the knife. The policeman. Just. Shot. Me____
Copyright © 2018 Gabriel Lucatero. All Rights Reserved.