I Thought I Left You In The Countryside – Keegan Swenson
September 9, 2021
Move to a city to start a job you hate. Smoke in your only chair, stare at the white wall. Occasionally, walk to the bathroom, always return to your chair to smoke and relish in the thought of owning furniture as you were homeless for a couple years in Portland—absent father, broken mother. Pour a glass of ice water with a lemon wedge. Close your eyes to taste the lemon. An ambush of memories comes rushing in but breathe until they’re gone. You’re good at this, breathing memories out of your mind.
First day at your new job. Research past projects the company launched.
“I want you to learn the ins and outs of what we do here.” Steve says, his pointy nose distracting you. “Study successful campaigns, but also look at our failures too. It’s important to learn from your past mistakes, don’t you agree?”
“You’re going to do great here Zoe. I have a feeling about you.”
Stare at your computer screen. You can’t understand any of the text. Begin making little poems of the marketing language. You want to rescue the poor words. You feel it’s unfair to hurt language like this, after all it’s done for everyone.
Live in the city for two months. Your melancholy resurfaces. Ask yourself what are you doing here melancholy? I thought I left you in the countryside.
Buy three more chairs and a dining room table. Put a single daisy in a case to sit at the center of the table.
After work, sit in one of the chairs and imagine all the interesting guests you’ll have over for dinner parties. Presidents, philosophers, athletes, poets, musicians, models. You need to buy more chairs and daisies. Feel warm all-over. Let this warmness evaporate into a hollowness as you look around you at the empty chairs.
Let the melancholy overtake you. Your body becomes frail with the lack of eating. Spend weekends in bed staring at the ceiling. Your older cousin tries to reach you, but your phone is muted in the bathtub.
No-one at work notices your moods. Let this bother you. You hardly get anything done and frequently leave the office hours before anyone else. Suppose the building is papier-mâché́ and the people in it wax dolls. If you breathe too heavy it will come crumbling down. Breathe softer when entering and exiting the building.
Steve emails you. The heading reads hey you. You distrust any man over the age of twenty using emojis. I just want to compliment you on the stellar job you’ve been doing since joining the team. Also, a few of your teammates wanted to invite you to a lunch we’re having for Greg’s birthday this Tuesday. It’s a surprise, so don’t bring it up to him! Applebee’s 1 pm. Hope to see you there. You wonder why he didn’t capitalize the heading when the rest of the email is formally standard.
When arriving at the lunch, you’re overwhelmed by how many chairs they have, but the people aren’t poets or presidents, they look more like accountants and DMV employees. Spend most of the lunch listening and smiling when everyone else smiles. Give brief and dishonest answers to all the questions thrown at you. Describe Portland as ‘beautiful’ and ‘very hip.’ Neglect to mention the time mom slept with that mean man so you’d have a place to sleep for the night.
At one point during the lunch, people begin having smaller side conversations. Your verbal partner is Jarred with diamonds in his ears and a tattoo of an avocado on his right forearm.
“God I just hate these lunches, don’t you?” Jarred says.
Say nothing. Stare at his avocado art.
“So, if you’re miserable, why stay? The pay isn’t even that good.”
You’re surprised. Had you been wearing your melancholy on your face this whole time?
“I’m new to the city. I needed to buy new furniture.”
“Furniture’s good. I know a place that would get you happy. In just a couple sessions.”
“Oh, I don’t really go for therapy. But thanks.”
“Who said anything about therapy? I’m talking about ketamine. An infusion center.”
The rest of lunch goes by in a blur. The off-key happy birthday performance is followed by everyone sharing a favorite memory of Greg. You stumble trying to summon a memory of a man you hardly know. Tell the story about the time he helped you find the printer.
Leave Applebee’s. Jarred hands you a white business card. Under a blissful yellow sun, it reads Dr. Sustrum 24 Delancey St.
On Saturday you make brussels sprouts covered in honey. Eat them and stare at the wall. Purchase a small Hopper, place it at the center of the wall. Everyone looks so lonely in the diner. Their loneliness is perpetual, frozen, sort of haunting.
Upon arriving at the facility, you’re surprised at the modern furnishing. The receptionist has pink hair, she’s wearing a Buzzcocks t-shirt. Think about complimenting her taste but say nothing. She takes your credit card number.
“Did you fast for an hour before?”
“I don’t really eat anyway.”
The receptionist looks at you. Her deep green eyes remind you of mom. Breathe this memory away.
“We just don’t want you getting nauseous. The experience can be pretty intense for some people. Dr. Sustrum will see you now.”
Blink and you’re in a new chair. In front of you sits an overweight bearded man. His shirt is tacky and you hate it. He’s in a black, swivel chair and you’re in a small wooden one.
“I’ve been administering this drug since the early 70s. Unlike other anti-depressants, it has virtually no side effects. Your standard SSRI takes 4-8 weeks to work.” He performs exaggerated air quotes for the word work.
“You don’t come here to trip. This isn’t the 90s and we are not a club. You come here to reframe. To gain clarity.”
Notice his yellow tie covered in ducks. You want to cry but you hold it back.
“Have you experienced depression your whole life?”
“I don’t really use that word.”
“What word do you use?”
“How was home life?”
“And how long have you been living in the city?”
“I came four months ago. For work.”
“Do you always wear that expression? Like you don’t want to be where you are.”
“This is my face.”
“The session lasts about an hour. You’ll want to rest a few minutes after to come back to Earth.”
You’re ushered into a small room with what looks like a dentist’s chair. The nurse pricks your hand until a vein makes itself known.
“Oh there’s a juicy one.” The nurse winks at you.
On your way home feel a lightness in your feet. Your ambitions jump to the front of your mind and suddenly you feel capable of accomplishing them. You can be anyone. You don’t want to go home, feeling too good. Buy wholegrain bread and brie from the market. Head to the park.
You always admired moms’ hands. Smooth, white as a cloud. In those brief moments of stability, mom would use those hands to peel oranges for you, placing the fruit in a juicer, pushing the handle down with a force almost inhuman. She’d scratch your back in a soothing, repetitive motion while you fell asleep. When she would slap you, you wouldn’t mind. The slaps were usually justified.
Second appointment at infusion center. The new nurse doesn’t make a joke about your veins. You miss the old nurse. You have a small quote on a scrap of paper hidden in your jeans. Take the quote out once the drugs kick in, read it out loud repeatedly like an incantation. You’re not a spiritual person, but you believe in words. You’ve seen entire nations built by them, people destroyed by them. You know the heartache a single phrase can inflict.
“Just hit the little red button if it becomes overwhelming. We’ll come right in and lower the dosage. Dr. Sustrum wants to you to have a more potent dosage since you responded so well to the last one.”
Fall into the floor. Watch your life pass before your eyes. Welcome death as an old friend.
You’ve become an extremely proficient employee. People start to notice. Steve gives you a promotion along with a flurry of emails praising your commitment to the company. He offers you a bigger corner office, but you decline. You prefer your small cubicle until, after the third ketamine session, you don’t. You email Steve asking him to meet the following morning for a chat.
“There’s my super star.”
“I can’t give you two weeks either, sorry. I’m leaving after we’re done talking. I’ve packed my things.”
“This is an expensive city; how will you afford it?”
“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me Steve. I consider you something of a friend.”
“What will you do now?”
“I’m hosting a literary salon.”
You were thirteen the first time you saw mom naked. School ended early that day and you took the bus back to the motel. You heard moaning. Opening the door, a strange man was on top of mom. He had a black snake tattooed on his right bicep. They must not have heard you, because they continued. You shut the door and waited in the motel lobby. Ahmed, the front desk employee, asked who your favorite Powerpuff Girl was and gave you a flavored sucker. You liked the chairs in the lobby, green and cushy as if someone who loved you had just sat there.
Wake up early for your first day of unemployment. Experience yourself as evacuated. As if your body belongs to someone else. How strange to go around to the grocery store, the dentist office, to see an old lover in a busy intersection, and know you’re really not there. You’re vapor. Boil water. Feel your diaphragm expand like a balloon. Buy a new dining room table.
In the furniture store, realize how much you hate modern architecture. Everything is scrubbed of all identifiers, of anything that might give it character. Chairs, sofas, dressers, bed frames, kitchen countertops all reference the past while erasing any sense of history. People want the prestige of reference without the baggage of culture.
Find a piece that changes your mind, an oak table hiding in the corner. Take it home. You have a party to prepare for.
Walk home through the city. The cab almost hits you. Look in the eyes of the driver and mouth the words I’ll end you. The sun beats down on you as you flip through a phone book in the park. Look for the occupation “poet.” Find nothing. Do the same for “philosopher” and “president.” Groan.
Walk to the university near your old job. A woman with red hair and a white pearl necklace sits at the front desk.
“Do you have a philosophy department?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“Philosophy. The nature of existence. Usually, a tweed jacket and prickly beard.”
“Yes, we teach philosophy here. Are you a student?”
“I was wondering if you had the email addresses of your top philosophers.”
“We can’t just give those out. Did you want a glass of water?”
“I’m throwing a dinner party. A kind of literary salon.”
The woman blinked.
“Forget it. Dumb bitch.”
You storm out of the building to further communicate your rage.
Outside, a sudden rainstorm begins washing the garbage on the street toward the sewers, you wait under the scaffolding for the rain to abide, and by the light of a green neon sign coming from an adjacent pharmacy you see, with a tremor moving through your body, the unmistakable silhouette of a ghost. This ghost is named Steve.
“Strangest thing. I had a dream about you.”
“That’s not strange. I float through many people’s subconscious.”
“Are you crying?”
“You don’t say.”
“Are you free tomorrow night?”
“Do you want to come to my literary salon?”
You want to fall into him, your body loose sticks he can carry home to burn a fire to keep warm by and read all night, because it just occurred to you how lonely you’ve always been, and like anyone with a sudden epiphany, you tend to overcorrect, and because Steve is before you ordinary and plain and almost boring in his sweetness, he has never tried for anything great in his life and it gives him a veneer of barrenness.
And you want to collapse all over him.
Third appointment at infusion center. Dr. Sustrum talks to you.
“Is it normal to feel like a superhero?”
“Do people go around feeling like this all the time?”
“Some people. They tend to burn out.”
“I don’t ever want to stop feeling like this.”
“You’ll adjust. Beneath our world of jobs and friendships and diets and paintings exists a deeper world, this world is tapped into by people we label crazy, especially musicians. Mozart never wrote a song. He was open to the deeper world. It’s always there. This is why fast-food restaurants pipe in pop songs. You might just put down the burger if you’re tapped into the deeper world.”
“Do you know what a toile is Dr. Sustrum?”
“No. Tell me.”
“In dress making, a toile is the early draft version of a final dress, usually made with cheap fabric. The toile fabric is stitched and fitted on modes to see how the design looks. This is what having a body is. We’re all just toile fabric thinking we’re the real deal. A sick dress rehearsal so God can perfect his pretty dresses.”
You’ve exhausted every contact in your phone. None of your friends or family members know any poets or philosophers, except your aunt who’d been to a W.H. Auden lecture during undergrad.
“He had the largest hands of any man.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Oh Zoe. You know I have no idea. Before the war. Your mom was just a pip-squeak.”
“You didn’t remain in touch with him by chance?”
“No, dear. How’s the city treating you?”
You hang up without giving an answer. You picture mom as a little girl, which makes you sad.
The party starts in an hour. You’ve only invited Steve. How have you made it thirty-two years on this Earth and not met a single smart person you could call a friend? You spent your teenage years doing drugs with people you hated, in your twenties you told everyone you were a writer but never seemed to do much writing, mostly just the occasional stab at reading one of the thick postmodern tomes on your shelf to impress people. You met many interesting people, but your ego would have you distance from them. They’re okay for now, my real friends will come later. Later came and went like a winding road running into little towns no one’s ever heard of. You’re alone and wounded by the tiresome habit of seeking detachment.
You fall to the floor and try to cry but no tears come. You hate Dr. Sustrum. He gave you clarity where you swore by secrecy. Put your jacket on and collapse out of your apartment, your plan is simple: talk to the first person you see. The street is empty.
You spent most of your twelfth birthday cleaning the motel room. Dirty, snotty tissues, ashtrays with sandcastles of old Marlboros, small rolled up bills. You enjoyed cleaning, the yellow rubber gloves, your hair in a tight pony. You prided yourself on cleaning the bathroom sink which mom would notice in her drunken entrance, saying her kid was a clean kid, her kid was a clean kid over and over with varying degrees of lucidity. Mom came home around ten at night.
“Look at my little reader, good girl.”
You were reading a book of Grimm fairy tales from the library.
“How was your night mom?”
“It was a night.”
When mom put her hands over your eyes from behind, your first thought was admiring her knotting veins and the small batches of black knuckle hair.
“Did you think I forgot? My little reader.”
Mom removed her hands to reveal a chocolate cupcake with a single candle—the icing read 11. Close enough, you thought as you began crying.
“What do you want to do with your year?”
“I don’t know?”
“Don’t be cowardly.”
“I’m not a coward.”
“This is the only time you’ll get this year. Magical.”
“Why are you gone so much?”
“You only get one pass on this year sweetie. Then, it’s gone.”
You find the street to look as it always looked, barren, zig-zaggy, and full of disheartened ghosts still trying to make it in the city. What you don’t find is any people. You search every avenue and cross street within a six-mile block radius and find no-one. You throw your hands in the air and scream at the gods because you’d seen it in a movie.
Then, you see him.
You’d seem him before outside your Trader Joe’s asking strangers for loose change. You’d never given him a thought before, but here he is. The Last Man on Earth. His beard is thick, unkempt, a little ginger. You can’t tell how many sweaters he’s wearing, a mess of green and brown and cotton and polyester. You hate his inconsistent teeth, but this hatred is honest. Most people submerge their sharp judgments so deep that they re-emerge as bitter jabs at the people they love. Not you. You face the worst parts of yourself and let them breathe, only never out loud.
“How’d you like to come to a dinner party?”
“Don’t be rude. I want you to have dinner with me.”
“You’re joking. I don’t like liars.”
“Look at that. Our first thing in common. What’s your name?”
He agrees to come provided there would be booze. You double down and offer him a shower and fresh clothes. You make a pit-stop at J. Crew on the way home. The employees wear confused, angular expressions.
Walking up to your building, Walter remarks that his grandmother used to live here. You don’t reply. Dread permeates every step you take. Steve texts you: There in 10. You turn the shower to the hottest setting and retrieve a fresh towel and face cloth. While placing the towel on the closed toilet lid, you feel his cold presence behind. You let out a nonsense noise involuntarily while turning around to see tears on his face. Your body stiffens and your hands tremor. You hate yourself.
“I didn’t believe you at first, but thank you miss.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Do you often do this?”
The decorations feel desperate upon entering the room, alone.
The first time a man broke your heart, you contemplated suicide. You drank beer alone at a local dive and pictured buying a gun, placing it in your mouth, and not feeling all the feelings anymore. You’d think of the near-by river, how wild it ran, and jumping in. Giving yourself to nature sounded graceful. You thought of how sad your heartbreaker would be hearing the news, how forever scarred he’d be, but this brought you no joy. Only more shame. You often placed other’s needs before your own, even in your suicidal fantasies. But of course, you never had the courage to act, and life happened, which is to say a series of decisions largely out of your control were made that thrust you into various jobs and cities and social circles, until you ended up where you are. What a shame to want to be anywhere other than where one is, but so you do. You could never shake the feeling that you’d been living someone else’s life and with every new city, you felt a lesser version of yourself.
Steve arrives wearing a paisley tie. He hands you a small gift bag.
“Oh you shouldn’t have.”
“It’s a copy of my new novel, science fiction.”
“I didn’t know you wrote.”
“Then why’d you invite me?”
“It’s about a future where all the cattle on Earth die out. And AI runs the world’s banking system.”
“And it’s protagonist is in love with some hacker chick wearing leather?”
“Oh you’ve read it?”
When you take him into the dining room, Walter is sitting with his new blue button down, staring at the wall, his beard trimmed and shaped. You can’t believe how handsome he looks.
“You trimmed your beard?”
“There were scissors behind the mirror. I hope that’s okay.”
“You look marvelous.”
Steve doesn’t bat an eye. He sticks his hand out.
“And how do you two know each other?”
“She picked me off the street.”
“And how about you two?”
“Well, I was her employer until she bravely quit. Now, we’re friends.”
“Would the two of you like some wine?”
You began drinking heavily. Walter and Steve follow suit.
Steve begins making the moves on you. He starts out subtle and a bit charming—compliments on your shoes, questions about your ambition, your family history—but as the alcohol increases, so too the physical contact. At one point, he places his right hand on your lower back when asking for the bathroom. You look up at him and mumble some version of two doors on the right. A sudden vision of the dirty bathroom embarrasses you. You take this moment of privacy to ask Walter about his life.
“How long have you been homeless?”
“What a word.”
“That isn’t what you use?”
“I don’t mind. People see you; they need a word for it.”
“Did you grow up in the city?”
“My mom did. I bounced around a lot, odd jobs. And you?”
“I just moved here not too long ago.”
“Is this some sort of set-up?”
“How do you mean?”
“You and your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my—”
“You just invite strangers into your home to fuck?”
Steve walks back in from the bathroom.
“What did I miss?”
“Your girlfriend here was just asking how long I’d been homeless.”
“She’s not my girlfriend. I was her boss for chrissakes.”
“I invited you two over to talk about philosophy and literature and history.”
“Who’s your favorite of the moderns?”
“Well, Spinoza is a joy, once you get used to his style.”
You can’t believe your ears. This is your chance. A real literary salon. You blurt out your first thought on Spinoza.
“He’s sort of like a Hindu don’t you think?”
“Yeah, Atman is basically what he spends 500 pages describing. Imagine that, a Jewish Hindu.”
You all laugh. Three empty bottles in front of you. Walter starts questioning Steve.
“So you were married?”
“Six years, we were kids. Me more than her.”
“Why’d it end?”
“She said I was too pushy and manipulative.”
“Yeah. I wanted it all: a driveway, kids, unconditional love. I never felt manipulative in the moment. But looking back, it’s clear. I wanted her love and then I wanted more.”
“I still don’t know. I suppose you want something that’s unattainable.”
Walter stands up, stretches his tan arms to the heavens, and walks over to Steve. You’re not sure what you’re watching. Walter places his hands on Steve’s legs and Steve doesn’t stop him. Walter kisses him and Steve lets his body respond, placing his right hand on Walter’s thigh.
Walter waves at you, turns his hand around to gesture you closer. Your throat tightens, your right eye twitches. Suddenly, you’re outside your body seeing the three of you.
You’ve never had a threesome before. In the room your bodies fling, contort, in and out, without control, yet always with a purpose as if a choregraphed play; Walter emits high frequency screams, he’s a train about to leave the station; and now and again one of you laughs as if aware for a brief moment of the divine. This carries on for several hours until you fall asleep to the sound of a rainstorm outside, the beginnings of a hurricane headed toward your city.
Wake up the next morning. They’re gone. A note stuck to the coffee table reads THANKS FOR EVERYTHING. You make coffee, the sun half-way up, casting rays on all the buildings, like a lamp over a cluttered desk.