An Enormous Meanwhile – Teddy Burnette
February 1, 2022
He’s had the phrase “corrugated leather” stuck in his head for a couple of days now. Doesn’t know what to make of it. It’s a term E’s never used. He probably never will. Wrinkled leather, folded and what not, how’s that apply? His brother, R, is in town, he used to sit on this leather chair they had in their childhood home, sitting and sitting, plucking away at his keyboard, string movement as technology and so on, and the leather took a beating. Cracking in places, pieces flaking off like dry scalp; weakened downwards and R along with it, and maybe that’s some corrugated leather, but E’s not sure, doesn’t think much of it. R and he hugged earlier when his flight got in, felt good holding his brother in his arms, when they love each other, and let each other know it. It’s nice living with him, sharing with him like this.
Sharing, as it continues. E takes R to his friend’s place in Brooklyn, near Prospect Heights. Never really comes out here and E’s checking his map on his phone as much as he would if he was in a new city, reconfiguring his idea of a neighborhood layout. Finds his friend’s house, taps on the door once twice three times and D answers the door, lets them in and says: I’ve started drinking again. I went three months but now I’ve returned… E: Good for you… He introduces R to D, explains how he got here, what his brother will be doing here. E says: He’ll be living here just like you and me and everyone else in the city and we’re all made the same because of that… And D doesn’t respond other than to ask if they want a drink, if they want to go out later because it’s a Friday and it’s been a long week and wouldn’t it be nice… E cuts him off, says: Yes, we would… All three are drinking now. R’s loosening up, which E appreciates, hates being in a situation where he’s having to actively bring both people into a conversation. Making sure each person feels included, having to switch the recipient of speech every thirty seconds or so, so no one’s feeling left out by not being spoken to, told directly a story. Used to be that E and R wouldn’t let each other lie to their friends. Found it to be a way to get one over on each other. If the other told a lie, or even slightly exaggerated a story, the other would be quick to point out the inaccuracies, not in a tone of “are you sure this has happened as you’ve said?” but much more of a “you’re lying to our friends, why?” and usually it’d be the obvious reasons. One of them would wish to push themselves up in their friends’ collective minds, creating a tale which presented them individually to be funny or appealing or good-looking so that their friends may think they’ve been out and about, living in the world since they last saw each other. Hardly ever true, though. E would find this out later on in college, speaking with his friend, G, who he’d grown up with in San Diego and attended college with, lived in the dorms with even freshman year. They’d been doing coke in E’s room senior year, both of them living apart but coming together for parties or just to spend time together still, routinely and happily. They were doing coke and E was smoking from a bong every so often and instead of returning to the party which could be heard through the shut door, one wall in E’s room sharing a wall with the other side of the living room and so revelers could be heard dancing to the music which throbbed out of the speakers. Rap changed into EDM then into a massive drop which caused everyone to go wild once again, a cycle repeating for the benefit of the dancers, and for E and G, ensconced in his room, talking and inhaling. E was saying at the time he always thought of G as so much more confident than he was in high school. He couldn’t fathom how easily G walked around the school, making friends and jokes as he pleased. G had come to their high school during junior year. Immediately, he had friends, had a position on the student board, was up on stage during talent shows doing silly routines with batons or ribbons, laughing and laughing, it was an infectious laugh which turned him into someone without speech, waiting to gasp air again once he was done being amused. He told E he had always thought if he could do anything, he’d be like E in the sense E was stubborn and committed, and believed in the things he said and had trouble backing down but not because he was wrong and held onto the point but because he truly believed in whatever he was speaking on and did not make a fool of himself in that regard and G had always wished he could do the same. Wished he could be so sure of himself. They both had thought the world of each other and envied each other for what they did not have, and so they were and are friends, so they can have what they don’t anytime they’re together. Same with R. E’s so happy he’s here. So happy he’s here with D because he never imagined he’d actually bring R into his new life like this. Thought R would come to the city once in a while, say hello to his friends, and forget about them until he was here next. He is grateful for what he has in this moment, sipping once again, on a couch in a room in New York. Can you sit in the silence? How long? E feels comfortable in it. R appears comfortable. D is sipping, he hasn’t been drinking, like he said, so he’s more gung-ho about the whole task at hand right now. D used to live closer to Williamsburg but his apartment burned down. E and D had been interns at the time at a magazine in the city. They were unpaid. They sat in a large cubicle and worked, and one weekend D went home and while there was informed by a roommate that their small home had burned down, the three bedrooms and living room, the bathroom too, and most of their possessions. D had to systematically rebuild his wardrobe of clothes. His collection of books. He had listed off the books he had lost one day while they sat in the cubicle: a first edition of Underworld by Don DeLillo, the entirety of Dana Spiotta’s, Dostoevsky’s, Noy Holland’s, Pynchon’s and Cixin Liu’s bodies of work, in addition to a prized first edition of Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, which he had let E read at one point and E had thought was just okay. E had always wanted to ask D for more details. Did he have pictures of the ruins? It was as if E didn’t realize houses still burned down. He brings it up, can’t resist. E: Do you have any video of the fire… R questions this, and they both explain, and D gets into it, explaining the way the fire must have taken over the roof and billowed smoke in and it’s a wonder none of the tenants were inside when it happened. Something to do with the water heater. Or a heater. D can’t remember now. Like he’s washed it out of his brain, wrung out his insides of the awfulness. E’s saying: You’re the only person I know who has had their home burn down from something other than nature. Maybe even not that. I know people who know people who have lost homes to forest fires, but that’s it. You’re the one person I know whose current home burned down… R agrees, D says he’s also the only person he’s aware of besides his old roommates. He says he thinks it’ll be an interesting story to tell down the line, when he’s far enough away from it to find the true, random humor of the whole situation. E continues: I think I brought this up at the time, in the cubicle at work one day when you were back. Said, I know people who have been shot in mass shootings in bars and people who have been hit by cars and by drunk drivers, who have overdosed and fallen out of school and life, slinking back to their hometowns to do nothing at all except exist, I know people who have struggled and made beautiful art and bad newspapers and good podcasts and I know people who are so much more talented than me, geniuses even, and I know the most incredibly stupid people in the world, the people who appear at ease in school but seemingly are lucky to survive each day, maybe that’s it, that I know so many people that are so lucky to survive each day, not to mention the people you see in the gutters or shooting up in public or when I’m doing lines or pills or smoking and smoking and smoking and I know lots and lots of people but no one whose house has burned down… D: Glad I could do this for you… R laughs, looks like he’s going to chastise E for talking like that, going on and kind of elaborating too much, kind of elongating a pretty simple point, and he’s talking like a writer and yes, R knows E wants to be a writer one day but it’s sometimes weird to speak that way, to try to be so writerly in day to day life when really, being writerly is best suited for silence in the dark in front of a computer screen, but anyway, R doesn’t say anything and smiles and sips from his beer and they make D clink, cheers. D turns on the television, a basketball game, they spend some time going down different rabbit holes about teams, about players, R a consummate professional when it comes to defending his favorites, like he’s been training with funny comments and points, and how stats are stats and titles are titles and the player on the screen looks the best he’s ever looked in yellow and purple on the court, and they’re all still drinking, starting to imagine the night out ahead, or at least E is. Thinks, as he does when a night is beckoning, that he might meet someone tonight, which everyone believes, believes in as hard as they can. He’s going out and he’s hoping he talks to someone new, not even take her home or go to her place or sleep with her but if he did, wake up the next day and awkwardly see himself out but already he’d be thinking about texting her and he can get so impatient where he can’t hold himself back so he jumps off the ledge and plummets and sends a text saying he had a great time last night and let’s hang soon or along those lines and the response was often vague or dull and clearly meant to dissuade so he was dissuaded because he was told to be. He’d like to meet someone new is all. Find cues to work off of, discover what kind of humor works best, if he should be his normal self and be dry and sarcastic, ironic too, and not crack many smiles but when he does it’s kind of a smirk as if he’s still restraining his lips from curving upwards but obviously he’s going to lose the battle because what she’s said is so funny or clever that how could he not beam back at her and laugh, say yes and nod along to whatever she’s going on about because he’ll be enraptured no problem with the light bouncing off the edges of her eyes, how they’re brown on the outside but a deep, moss-like green in the middle and he’s never seen eyes like that before; he’s reflecting back in them because they’d be so close while talking and it’d be a new meeting of minds so there’s that instantaneous chemistry, meaning a hand placed on arm tells E he’s going to continue on as is and she might be so breathtaking he’ll ignore the rest of the night to speak to her instead, losing himself and leaving with a phone number when he loses his nerve and says goodbye and smokes a cigarette outside before going home on the subway. He wants to meet someone new tonight. Glances at R and D, both sucked into the basketball game. Flinching from time to time when someone dunks, sipping on new beers too; E’s holding a full beer, doesn’t know how it got there. He smokes out of the bong in front of him and breathes out towards the ceiling, a dissipation upon impact, as he knew would happen. Smell lingers. Was there already. Might be harder to meet someone new with R and D with him, though he wouldn’t go alone, definitely not, and always goes with other people. He needs the assurance of a person to turn to. His phone calls out to him without someone there, a light to gaze into while action happens around, never seen by him, never having occurred at all. He’s inside the light, he’s gone, going going going gone, imagine the outside world now, the phone whispers in his ear. It could be anything. The room is a fortress on the beaches of Normandy. The couch is a futon on the side of a street in Los Angeles which before was in an RV and before was in a dorm room and before that was in a guest house and they’re sitting on it now because it’s traveled far and wide, been sat on and moved, loved on and slept on, until it reached here. The room is a church. The television is the altar. His phone is the cross. He prays. The room is God’s grace in physical form. He cannot look up from his phone because HE does not want him too. The room is speaking to him now. He can’t look up from his phone. He can’t look up. Do not look up until we have reached cruising altitude a voice says, please stand clear of the closing doors another says. The room is St. Paul’s Cathedral near the World Trade Center, it is mocking the buildings that fell in the early 2000s, it is saying, I am not affected by this loss and people around, hearing the building utter this, feel nasty and gross, they want the church, they want the room E sits in now and it is a church it is an altar it is the holiest of holy, do not doubt this, do not ask why something is holy, ask why something is not, and the people are saying you should be thankful for having been saved and the church says I made this happen which causes bedlam. The people are coming for the church, trying to climb the wrought-iron fences around, they’d like to finish the job, or begin it really, the job that the towers did not even start when they could have so easily. The people believe the church was saved by god, not that the church was already saved and was never in any danger. The people say should we live and congregate always in the church? For safety? And the church doesn’t answer that because it’s already saved who it needs to save, and E looks up from his phone, and sees that the room is still the room he arrived at early for just this instant. Heart beats slower. He looks down again into his phone, sipping on his beer, extending his arm out into the room with his eyes cast downward still until he feels, hears, the clink of a glass against his and he’s secure for the time being because of this. What was he thinking about? Wants to meet someone new, right. Been ignoring the two people around him, though he knows they’re there, hasn’t forgotten about them, it’s just…the phone…please stand clear of unlocking screen he imagines, please stand clear of incoming notifications he mumbles to himself before opening his phone, scrolling Twitter, three texts, four texts, a couple more coming in asking what he’s doing that night, if he’s with anyone now and if he wants to come over before the night begins. He answers no to most of these, says he might come to some party which he won’t, and keeps drinking. Eyes are drawn to D who’s brought out a baggie of coke and is laying out lines on the back of a laptop. Eyes now on R. He’s saying, not really , but E’s hearing him say: please stand clear of the opening baggie, please stand clear of the white lines, do not cross the white lines, but he doesn’t say anything, and E’s eyes haven’t moved from the lines. Wonders why he’s so obsessed with them. Aesthetically pleasing, maybe. It’s not because it’s what it is. What it is doesn’t matter, not at all. Who’s to know if it’s actually what it says it is, what D says it is? Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter at all. He’s said that before though, he’s just so focused on the lines. How many are there? How many are there of us? Did the lines ask that? E shakes his head, trying to clear out whatever needs to be cleared. What is even muddled? Is it his eyes? Is it his brain? What needs clearing and how does he find out this information? Please stand clear… he says out loud and D turns to him, but E turns to the game so they’re all watching that as far as he knows.
Finds it possible to sit and watch the game for a while after a couple lines, leaning over the laptop, straw in hand. It’s nine at night. They’re sitting, waiting to leave. Knowing they can’t leave yet. D’s talking. Explaining when he was back home with family a month or so ago, there had been a traveling circus in town. Tent and exactly what you’d expect. Bright red tent, appeared out of nowhere, assumes it rolls up and can go in a shipping container or something like that, says D. He continues: The…uhh…what’s the head of a circus called? The ringmaster, he comes out and it’s me and my friend from town, family got me tickets, though, that’s almost embarrassing… Both E and R nod… D: We’re sitting there, taking in the ringmaster walking forward, flaming hoops around him on a dirt circle with a net up high and I’m already picturing elephants walking out in a colorful garb and maybe a seal bouncing a ball on its nose, and, it’s amazing they can have elephants still, one of the more outlandish things in my opinion, and I’m sitting there, not really understanding why I’m there, why I… E’s pouring out more coke from the baggie and pushing it into lines with a credit card but waves his hand at D and he goes on with his story: Everything slack in my face, I swear I’m sitting there motionless taking this in and I’ve completely forgotten my friend’s there, we’re people sitting in a crowd that is one mass, waiting and waiting for the man to speak before us who we have all gathered here to see, sort of thing, and he finally starts up with the moment you’ve all been waiting for right at the start, like first words out of his mouth are those, and, I guess everyone expected this, was ready, or had heard rumor this was how it went? I’m not, I didn’t know what, but he says this, crowd goes wild, nuts, clamoring for more. Ringmaster waits for a little pocket of silence to say now, please some silence, for here it is, it’s happening, the moment, it’s here, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…and he trails off and doesn’t say anything, crowds about to collapse in anticipation, ringmaster says and finally without further ado, the moment you’ve come here from so many miles away to see is….well, it’ll be later in the show of course. Thought there’d be a riot but nothing much, people sat back and watched, some animals came out, no elephants, no seals, though the hoops were on fire and people were jumping through them which seemed right… E laughs at this while doing more lines. Thinks how his parents used to take him and R to the circus when it’d come to town, out in some parking lot near a sports arena, and the magic was in that you forgot it was a wide expanse of asphalt you were watching the performances on, rather than anything else that happened. Real transformative moment for the area, every time the tent came and obscured. Maybe they had a terribly normal childhood. Maybe that’s good. Wants to ask R, did we have a normal childhood? Grew up near the beach, went to a good school, never in any trouble or danger, none that was actually terrifying or death-defying or whatever, nothing like that. Rode their bikes. Swam their swims. Played baseball, had friends, almost never physically fought anyone, can’t even recall fighting at all physically, neither of them growing up wanting that even one bit, and R became quieter or was possibly always quieter than others, and E thinks he took over from R, took over where he saw the space to do so, a lacking quality to the space around him. He wanted to fill it, has done so for a while now, as long as he can remember by filling up the world around him sometimes with words and jokes, cleverness and snark, really all because growing up R allowed him to, as did his mom and father and even when they were divorced he would chatter away at each of their homes but would sit down after or be lying in bed and hate how badly he wanted to speak. Wishes he would clam up, wishes he could be aloof, give off the impression he doesn’t care. Why’s he want that then? Anyway. Wants to meet someone. Was thinking about the circus. How his parents helped him and R have this normal time growing up, didn’t move much even. Almost did a few times, like his parents were ringmasters dangling a new life, away from his friends and assumptions, the experiences he had grown so used to, and at the time didn’t feel like fleeing or fighting to leave, quite the contrary, but either way his parents would dangle in front of them that they might have to move because of their dad’s job or that the rent prices were getting a little high for their liking, but they never did. Moved around from house to house to house to apartment to smaller apartment as their dad moved out but all in the same city and then E moved out and it was only R and his mom at home and now it was just her and R was here next to him. Hadn’t considered his mom alone at home. Tries not to picture her. He does a great job of picturing her. Can see her so clearly. There’s an old wooden rocking chair, made of some tree from Hawaii that is next to the leather sofa they have back home; a plush velvet chair is off to the other side, the one that replaced the leather chair, the place that R still sits and leaves an impression, the place that R is like a dog in his steadfastness. It is R’s seat through and through. Rocking chair was the one thing their mom always said to sell if something goes wrong. She had said: If I were to go hurtling off a highway or the house burns down or I contract a rare form of cancer or disease or what have you, sell this rocking chair so you have money to spend right away, well I have no idea the speed of the processes to get my money to you and obviously my parents, if they’re still alive when this hypothetical occurs, will help you out, same as your dad will, but it will be good to have cash on hand for expenses that pop up from this sort of thing rather than having to dip into your own money… She hadn’t said much else, nothing on how to sell it or to who, but both of them knew that was what they would give up if they lost their mom. Pretty confident he wouldn’t make it all that far without his mom, if she were to die or disappear one day, he’d be done for. Knows everyone loses their mom. Doesn’t think enough people talk about this. You have to lose your parents, have to lose your loved ones and friends because that’s life and who’s to say if that’s worth dealing with? Knows he wouldn’t make it very far with just his dad as his only parent, or he’d have to on-the-fly figure out what life’s looking like without parents, on his own and independent. Probably picturing himself as independent now but knows he has all the help from his parents, and from his brother and friends. People are so good to him. People are so good for him most of the time. Feels good about all this. He does. E thinks he should stop drinking, at least until they get to a bar or a new place to drink, only because he’s about on the edge here, close to any movement prompting a black out, just like the couch with R, but now it’s the couch with R and D but it’s pretty much the same. Is this vertigo? No, no, it’s deja vu but neither are real. He doesn’t know. What’s real? Does some more lines, smokes from the bong again to take the edge off, piling some tobacco on top of the weed in the bowl, watching it light up and spark and heat the weed below. This is the head rush, the combo that leads to it. Takes the edge off, senses he can breathe again, air allowed back into his lungs and he’s taking big gulping breaths, gulping it all up, please stand clear of the closing lungs but now they’re wide open. D and R are watching him, but not really, basketball game is still on, and E’s thinking about his past and R is thinking about what he’s thinking about and they’re brothers no matter what they’re thinking about. Can’t change that. The smallest gifts, the ones that are the most important, are irrevocable. What’s he talking about?
He wants to meet someone new. Finally they’re moving, finishing off final lines on the laptop and opening the door to the chill air outside which announces it is different than inside where they have been with a simple gust that rustles leaves and creaks wooden doors and rusty old metal hinges. E’s noticing he hadn’t picked up on any noises this whole time. Usually thinks he’s receptive to the sounds that abound around. He likes that phrase. He likes hearing noises. He likes the noises to come sweep him away from contentment, from not being anything at all, and to remind him he’s a vessel for noises and that’s almost it, he’s barely anything else, if he doesn’t speak or eat or drink water or sleep or even move for a day but he still hears sounds then he’d be a vessel, alone and afraid, taking in noise. Would he be afraid? He thinks he would be, hates the kind of indecision he’s had recently, wishes he was still as stubborn and forthright as G used to believe he was in college and while they were growing up. R’s talking to D, which makes E happy, seeing his brother speak with his friend who he just met, who he could have judged or just been silent around like he might normally be. But instead they’re chatting. R is saying he’s never understood the tradition before weddings of obtaining something new, something blue, something old, and something borrowed, is that right? R asks… No one’s sure, going along with it as always. R: Could have been a much more interesting collection of items. Could be a phenomenally difficult task, something the bride and groom spend months trying to get together, it’d make marriage important again, something to struggle towards. You find love, then the real work begins, which isn’t normally how it’s pictured, in my opinion… E: Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, millions of course, trying to get married, coming to the altar and begging the priest to wed them there in front of their families and friends and witnesses and then the priest simply says no because the two standing before him haven’t brought the five, priceless artifacts or items, or faberge eggs or whatever… R: Flowers from each of the base camps on the tallest mountains in the world, if flowers are able to grow. The highest growing flowers on each of the tallest mountains on each continent. Plus one flower, of your choosing, from the DMZ. This the bouquet needed in order to be wed these days, maybe that’s how it could go… D: I feel the need to offer an idea… But he doesn’t. Lacking for anything. Lacking anything, rather. D asks where they’re going instead, all of them moving in a direction, taking left and occasional right turns on street corners when others do as well but no assurances the destination is even in any of their minds, the journey the main step of this path, of this timeline of the night they are on, the end surely coming, if not soon then eventually, it must. It must. It must. Except it doesn’t. Partying, drinking, consuming, consuming, consuming, they’re doing this all night long and it starts to be early morning, one am, then two am, then three am, and after, but the sun never rises, daylight never comes. It must not, E thinks. The timeline is out the window. The destination is gone. They are lacking anything. They do not have a route or a goal, they are walking on St. Mark’s, wandering, the lights off in stores and restaurants and bars, the lights coming on in windows and residences, and the night doesn’t end, they find themselves wishing and wishing for the sun to rise, and can’t bring themselves to check their phones to see if the rest of the world didn’t receive their due this morning, the due we’ve come to expect and need, and maybe the Earth has stopped spinning on its axis and maybe it too has stopped spinning in its orbit and so too has the sun stopped spinning and the Milky Way is no longer orbiting the center of the universe and so everything has come to a full and complete halt, halted forever and ever, except for those walking in the darkness, waiting for anything at all to lighten into day and begin the march towards the usual fall towards dark again that night. Rhythms are gone. Cycles are no more. They walk through the world freely, their hands stretching out to the sides of them, sound escaping out of them now, no words swapping between them at all, silence abounds and abounds and so does the night, and E and R and D walk through it and wonder if this is home still, if this is anywhere at all. Is this all of it?