Sarah got back to me pretty fast with the name and number of a psychiatrist in Myrtle Beach. “Are you asking for yourself?” she said. “Yeah.” She didn’t prod any further. That was a few days ago, and I still haven’t called. I think I need pills, but I’m not sure how much they’ll help. I am lonely, and sad, and I feel like a fucking loser. Most of that is my own fault though.
I chose to quit an alright job where I made pretty good money so I could attend graduate school for writing in South Carolina. I left New York voluntarily, moved away from my family and friends to live in a place where I knew no one. I told myself, before I left my decent job and even better family, that I would get a job as soon as I got to Myrtle Beach. Six months later, I’m still unemployed, and some days I struggle to put even one coherent sentence on paper. My writing started at lukewarm crap, and then it baked in the Carolina sun until it turned into sweltering shit. Apart from class, I go days without leaving my apartment. “What’s the weather like today?” my mom asks me. The fuck if I know. I look around and the walls are white, and the blinds covering the windows are white, and the door is double-locked and white. All I see is white. “It must be snowing,” I say. And now, when life is something I can reach out and touch, a physical manifestation sitting on my chest and suffocating me as I beg for one last breath, I’m going to Boston, where a blizzard is expected to turn the whole city into one giant white space, for a big writing conference.
The conference sounds promising enough. I write a little, and I like to read other people’s writing. Plus, my friends are going too, and they like writing and reading also. But we leave tomorrow, and I’m staring at a map of the weather on my phone and thinking, “Snow. Just fucking snow.” In between the texts from the three girls I’m going with, the excited messages that range from “How many beers do you think you’ll drink throughout the trip? Over or under 50?” to “Boston tomorrow! What what!!!” and various appropriations of “wicked” and other Boston slang, I’m just praying this storm front from the Midwest materializes and pounds New England with enough fresh powder to make the peaks of the Rockies look like they exist in a hand-held snow globe.
I wake up the day of the trip and open two websites on my phone. Weather.com doesn’t disappoint; there is a storm coming, it says, and Boston is going to get hit hard. Spirit.com is not being as cooperative; we don’t give a shit if God himself threatens to strike the plane down mid-air, it says, this flight is leaving Myrtle Beach on time.
I had never even heard of the AWP conference before Sarah and Brittany asked me to go a few weeks ago. We all started hanging out sporadically at the end of last semester, around the same time I started seriously thinking of going back to New York, and this was the first mention anyone had made of AWP. “Seamus Heaney is the keynote speaker,” Brittany said. I guess that was supposed to really entice me. The only problem was I didn’t know who he was, and when I looked him up and found out he was an old Irish poet—“he might die soon” is what Brittany said to unsuccessfully convince other people in our graduate program to go—I wasn’t any more intrigued. But I agreed to go anyway, almost immediately, because what the fuck else was I going to do, spend the weekend looking for marks on my white walls or stepping over garbage as I moved between my ugly flowered couch and the bed sheets I’d stopped cleaning months ago?
And then Brittany said, “Coastal is paying for the whole thing!” Hold on, so you’re saying school is reimbursing us for the entire trip, and I can hear an old Irish poet spit a few rhymes? Good deal, I told her. Our friend Annie decided to go also.
I pick up Brittany on the way to school, a few hours before the flight, and she spends the twenty minute ride saying how she hopes it doesn’t snow, showing me the scarf she bought for Annie, and asking me if I think she’ll like it.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s real nice.”
“Are you sure?” she says, playing with the frayed ends of the white and black piece of fabric around her neck. “Maybe I should just keep it for myself.”
“No, she’ll appreciate it. Trust me.”
It’s not the easiest thing in the world to instruct a girl to trust you. It’s even harder when you’re sharing a hotel room with the girl, and only a few days earlier you confessed to having unrequited feelings for her. We were sitting at the bar we go to before class sometimes. I don’t remember exactly how I phrased it, except that I sounded pretty fucking stupid, and immediately after, I wanted to dive onto the floor, gather the words together, dust off the sticky beer and stale bits of leftover food, and shove them back in my mouth.
I felt my insides churning as Brittany prepared to respond. “I just want to be friends,” she said. She followed that with, “We’ll find you a girl in Boston,” and my stomach dropped into my sneakers.
I figure Annie and Sarah know about it by now, because girls tell each other those types of things.
The drinking starts in the airport terminal. For Brittany and Annie, who are sitting next to each other on the plane, it continues during the flight. By the time we leave the baggage claim and wait outside in frigid, but dry (fuck you, Weather.com) Boston for a taxi, they are both loopy and all three of them, Sarah included, are joking about how I will have had enough of them by the end of the weekend. I almost had enough before we came. Of me, not them. As my loneliness grew and my mind started to stray from American literature and contemporary collections of short stories and composition and rhetoric articles that read like they were written in Mandarin, I debated whether I’d skip the trip to Boston and go back to New York instead of waiting for the week-long spring break this weekend precedes. I was hoping the weather would make the decision for me, though I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to New York if it snowed in the Northeast anyway. Regardless, I’m getting to New York next week for spring break, and I’m not coming back to Myrtle Beach. I haven’t told anyone but my mom.
“We’re not from here!” someone shouts as we fight the wind to climb into a taxi.
“Where are you going?” the driver asks.
Our hotel is two miles away, and Sarah, sitting in the passenger seat, gives him the address. I’m squished in the back with Brittany and Annie and the luggage that wouldn’t fit in the trunk. They’re still giggling like a couple of school girls. The radio is on, and they serenade the driver with a version of “Lady in Red” that they revise so the lyrics are “Cabbie in Yellow” or some shit like that. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s fucking awful, so off-key and shrill that if this was a cartoon, all the windows of the cab would pop out and the rearview mirror would shatter into a thirty piece jigsaw puzzle. But it’s funny too, so I laugh, and maybe the whole weekend will be full of shit like this, funny cab rides and impromptu karaoke and things that the girls will tell everyone back at school. And poetry readings and literary panels too. I almost forgot about those. I’ll tell everyone in New York about how informative they are.
“I hope there’s not an extra charge for this,” I joke with the cab driver.
He laughs, but then I realize I wasn’t really kidding, because he gets “lost”, and our two mile cab ride costs fifty-five dollars. The credit card machine is attached to the back of the passenger seat, and I swipe my American Express. Brittany reaches to hand me a twenty dollar bill. “Don’t worry about it,” I say. Annie laughs. She and Brittany grin at each other.
We get to the hotel around one in the morning. By the time we unwind, we only get two hours of sleep. We take the train to the conference in the morning, where the line for registration is crazy long and crazy slow. The cavernous room is full of writers and booths and signs advertising “AWP Boston: March 7-9, 2013” and future dates in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. An hour or two passes before Sarah and Annie decide to step outside to smoke a cigarette. Brittany says she has to pee, but I sense she doesn’t want to leave me by myself. Before Sarah and Annie left, everyone was bullshitting, passing the time with idle conversation. Now I can’t think of anything to say, and neither can she. The only thing that comes to mind is how pretty she looks, that I like the way those black-rimmed glasses frame her face and flowing dark hair, but I’m not an idiot. I know she won’t appreciate the compliment, not from me anyway, and I tell her it’s alright, that she can go to the bathroom.
As Brittany walks away, someone in line behind me says, “Hi. What do you write?”
“A little bit of everything,” I say, and if there’s a way to sound more obtuse I’d like to know what it is. I do write a little of everything though, but none of it well. I write fiction, and it’s bad. My critical analysis is verbose and hard to follow. People tell me I write sentences that are way too long, and I agree, but instead of trimming the fat I write longer sentences because staying in a moment you’re somewhat enjoying is much easier than moving on to another that will probably suck. “You’re such a good writer,” my mom always says, but I’m pretty sure she’s obligated to tell me nice things. It’s somewhere in the fine print of her parenting contract. Sarah is more honest. “I can’t see you ever being a non-fiction writer,” she said once. “You don’t express yourself honestly enough.” I just say vague things like “I write a little bit of everything,” and people, like the woman in line, generally leave me alone.
The girls return, and we finally register. Everybody splits up, but it’s finally started to snow, hard, and I tag along with Annie to the Converse store so she can replace her soggy canvas shoes with a pair of Chucks and so I don’t have to be by myself.
Around four, we meet Brittany and Sarah at a panel featuring a professor from our school. I haven’t really looked at the schedule, so I don’t know what it’s all about. They wanted to come though, so I’m here. The room is half-empty. There can’t be more than forty people scattered through the rows of chairs. It’s hazy outside and the snow is still falling, so it isn’t a great day for the twelve thousand writers at the conference to try to see Boston. It’s a better day to take in a panel or reading, and it looks like we’ve picked the least popular one.
The time slot, I soon figure out, is dedicated to a poet who recently passed away. One after another, his friends get up to the podium, struggle through the emotions of vocalizing what this guy meant to them. They get choked up, and they cry, and they have to pause when the memories overwhelm them. They must all be poets, because poets are friends with other poets, I figure, and because their words are so fucking beautiful. Words about how vibrant this guy was. Words about how much his work touched their lives. Words about how just knowing him made them feel grateful to be alive. Words that I want to write and feel.
By the time our professor adjusts the microphone and clears his throat, he’s following a number of difficult opening acts. He starts talking about friendship and loss, nothing that hasn’t been covered already. But what he talks about is so moving, means so much to him, and because it means so much to him it means so much to me, and I don’t even know the guy he’s talking about, and I only just introduced myself to him a half hour ago. If I was the type of person to cry at something like this, I would. But I’m the type of person who cries when he doesn’t want to, when it will make him look like a fucking pussy, when he’s on the phone with his mom in the apartment he hardly leaves, surrounded by empty cans of beer and the demons that have multiplied over time, telling her how much he hates himself, that life is worthless, that he doesn’t know how he’s gonna go on, and she’s urging him, “Don’t talk like that about yourself. Please, please, just come home. We’ll buy you a plane ticket. You can worry about getting your stuff later. Please come home.”
I’m the type of person who thinks too much, and I’m thinking of other things so I don’t remember exactly what our professor says, but everyone claps when he finishes, and Brittany is wiping tears from her eyes a few seats over, and God fucking dammit, this is the type of shit I should be crying about too.
I wake up around seven the next morning with no recollection of going to sleep. My throat is dry, and my head is pounding.
“Can you get me a glass of water?” Annie asks from the other bed in a whiny you’re-the-guy-so-you-should-do-this-for-me voice. Brittany is still asleep next to her.
I give her a blank stare. “Come on. If it was Brittany you’d get it for her.” She doesn’t actually say that though. “Fine,” I say, and I walk downstairs to the lobby for a glass of water.
In return, Annie fills me in on the details of last night. She and I skipped the Heaney reading, which I already knew. We went to the bar across the street from the convention center instead. Brittany and Sarah met us after the reading. We had already run up a hundred dollar tab. That doesn’t sound right, and it starts to get fuzzy from there, but I know Brittany and I were taking shots, probably because she said, “Let’s take some shots!”, and I’m sure the light danced off her eyes, and if she had said “Let’s go jump off the fucking roof!” I would have done that too. Annie and Sarah decided we should leave, and Annie held me up on the subway to make sure I didn’t fall.
“Get the fuck off me,” I told her. She said “OK,” let go of my arm, and I stumbled to the floor of the train.
“Sorry,” I say. I do drink, but I don’t like to drink until I make a fool of myself. I also curse, a lot, but I have no patience for anyone who curses at women. “I’m sorry,” I repeat.
“It’s OK,” she says. “You were fine. Funny, actually.” We’re eating breakfast at this point. I usually don’t eat breakfast; my sleeping pattern ranges anywhere from three or four in the morning to noon or one in the afternoon. I also don’t eat when I’m hungover, but I’m chomping on bacon, hoping that maybe I won’t hear Annie recount all the embarrassing things I said and did last night through the gnashing of my misshapen teeth. After I go home, I don’t want them saying things like, “Remember that loser who made a fool of himself in Boston?” Brittany meets us in the hotel lobby around the same time Annie finishes her morning coffee.
It’s snowing harder today, so Brittany, Annie, and I take a cab to the conference. We seek out a panel one of them has marked on her schedule. Sarah is already bouncing around somewhere. This is her Woodstock, and the hardest decision for her is whether to go see the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Rage Against the Machine, and fuck the scheduling gods for having them play at the same time. I’m looking at the Excel-type grid of all the panels and readings like it’s a teeny-bopper festival, and I have to decide whether I’d rather not listen to Justin Bieber or not listen to Taylor Swift. What I really want to do is go into a port-a-potty, close my eyes, and stick my fingers in my ears until I can’t hear any of the noise anymore. What time is that at? I don’t see it on my schedule.
We get seats in the back, but the small room fills up quickly, and by the time it’s standing room only, Brittany rustles my arm. “Look, it’s Junot Diaz,” she says, referring to the Pulitzer Prize winner. We’re reading him in one of the classes I’m about to leave behind.
But, “that’s not him,” I say. The guy by the door is sheet-white, definitely not Hispanic. He does have a goatee though, like Junot.
“It kind of looks like him,” I say. We all laugh. Brittany blushes, shrugs her shoulders.
The panel starts, and we’re all tired as fuck. We didn’t get enough sleep again. The writers seated at the tables surrounding the podium dive into their topic, “This is Your Brain on Fiction.” Brittany’s head tilts toward me sometime during the first presentation. I feel it resting on my shoulder. I’ve taken my jacket off, and I’m wearing my favorite T-shirt, the one that says “Sarcasm: Just One of My Many Talents.” It’s true, depending on how you look at it. It’s also soft, but not as soft as Brittany’s hair nestled against it. She shuffles, trying to get comfortable, and I try my best not to move. For the next thirty or forty minutes, my body is still, and it may be sappy, pathetic, hard to believe, and/or just downright sad, but for the first time all weekend, my heart isn’t ping-ponging inside my chest, protesting to get out. My mind isn’t working in overdrive. This must be how it feels for your brain to momentarily relax.
The next day is the last of the conference, and Brittany, Annie, and I do a lot of sightseeing. It’s still cold, but it has finally stopped snowing. We go to both Cheers bars, then cut through a park where a guy is making weird-sounding music with a weird-looking tuba-like apparatus draped over his whole body, before meeting our professors for happy hour. The plan is to go to the conference dance party at ten and stay up for our flight back to Myrtle at six, which is really five because tonight is daylight savings time.
We leave the bar to meet Sarah before the party, and I step aside to call my mom. I’ve been doing this all trip, and the joke has somehow become that I’m a gambling addict, that I’m leaving our hotel room to bet on games. The truth is I want to discuss the logistics of moving home with my mom, what I’ll do with my apartment, dropping out of school, and all that. Or, more accurately, that’s what I tell myself I’m doing.
I move to a far corner of the convention center with large ceilings and huge bay windows that offer a great view of the bars across the street. I have my mom on the line, and I start crying again. I cry because I want to go home, and I don’t. I want to stay in Myrtle Beach, and I can’t. I want to make it to the airport in a few hours, and I doubt whether I can last that much longer. I want to care about the rest of the trip, but I know it’s about to end and I haven’t taken the time to enjoy any of it because I’m too worried about other things. “Just breathe,” my mom says. I can’t. I can’t stop crying because I can’t figure out why I hate myself so fucking much. “I’m alright,” I say, which isn’t true. There’s no way she can believe it either. I hang up.
Brittany texts me while I’m washing the dried tears from my face in an empty bathroom, the only other occupant a janitor running a dripping mop over the black and white tiles.
“We’re going to the Sheraton Hotel,” she says. I don’t have a schedule with me, but I assume that’s where the dance party is.
“OK are you there already?” I say.
“Yea,” she says. “Go into the mall. You will find it.”
When I get to the ballroom of the Sheraton, it is dark, very dark, and loud, incredibly loud, and I somehow find the girls waiting on line for drinks. It’s an open bar, and Annie gives the bartender twenty dollars as a tip. We’re standing off to the side of the dance floor, which is packed. Everybody is drinking beer except Brittany, who is swaying her hips as she takes swigs from a glass of red wine. I’m not a dancer and never have been. I look out at the group moving around under the lights, and I’m not sure what the fuck I’m looking at, but for the most part it doesn’t look anything like dancing.
Courage foams at my mouth in the form of all the beer I’ve guzzled today, and I ask Brittany to dance. She purses her lips, slinks away from me a little. I ask her again, and a third time, and by this point I’m so pathetic and so desperate and maybe it’s because she can see that I’m pathetic and desperate that Sarah tells Brittany she should just dance with me.
The dancing starts the same way we ended up going to dinner together a few months ago. It was the first time we all hung out at Brittany’s apartment, a week before fall semester finals. There were five of us, and we were all drinking. Out of nowhere, Sarah suggested that Brittany and I should go out. But Sarah was drunk, flicking the remnants of her cigarette into an ashtray on Brittany’s balcony. It was December, but warm enough to be outside, even at two in the morning. I was drunk too, so I didn’t think anything of what she was saying. The next day, hungover at Bob Evans, she said the same thing. I brushed it off again. I wasn’t going to ask Brittany out. We don’t have much in common. I’m ugly, and she’s anything but. She doesn’t have any problem talking to people, and I’m socially inept. “Most days I feel like dying” never seems like the best conversation-starter.
I texted her anyway. “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” I said.
“Going out with my family,” she said. “Why what’s up?”
“Sounds like fun. Was just gonna see if you wanted to grab dinner or something.”
She said “thanks anyway,” and I started drinking. It was only two in the afternoon, but I didn’t know how else I was going to spend the rest of the day. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth PBR she asked if I would want to go out the following night. “Yea, definitely,” I said, and we went to a bar for dinner and drinks.
Winter break started at the end of the week, and she offered to drive me to the airport for my flight to New York. On the way, she talked about the Christmas shopping she had planned for later in the day. We pulled up, and she tried to find a space in front of the Spirit sign. I told her she could let me out anywhere. The Myrtle Beach airport is small, just one terminal. She parked right behind one of the oversized yellow speed bumps.
I watched her whole body contort as she tried to drag my heavy luggage from the back seat. “I’ll get the bag,” I said with a laugh.
She smiled, and I pulled the bag out myself. She stood on her tippy-toes in front of me. Her sunglasses were on top of her head, her black-rimmed glasses over her eyes. I wasn’t sure about the look, but she was pulling it off well and I had other things on my mind anyway.
Our lips collided, but to call it a kiss would denigrate the term. There was no grace, no rhythm of movement. Her face got red with embarrassment, but she was still smiling. We tried again. My hand cradled her cheek as I leaned in. The second kiss, much like the first, was more accidental head bump than concerted act of passion.
When I returned from New York, she politely declined my request to go out to dinner. “I have reading to catch up on for my thesis,” she said.
Crushed, and already emotionally spent (I’d spent the month-long break visiting a psychologist, trying to tighten the precarious grip I had on my life), I said, “No worries. Good luck with your work.” I don’t know whether she had an inkling about my depression and anxiety, but I should have told her turning me down was the best decision she ever made. Probably the easiest, too.
Brittany tires of dancing with me after a few songs. “I have to use the bathroom,” she says. I walk outside as well. Sarah and Annie are standing in the lobby talking to two of our professors. After a few minutes, Annie leans over and whispers in my ear, “We have to go.” She hands me a glass of red wine, then says, “Go find Brittany.” I don’t bother asking why I’m giving Brittany a full drink if we’re leaving anyway.
The music pounds the inside of my forehead as I walk back into the ballroom. The dance floor overflows with the awkward, flailing bodies of hundreds of writers. If you want to see bad, strange, abysmally poor, incredibly bizarre dancing, go to AWP. If you want to be able to find the girl you think you’re in love with who doesn’t feel the same way in a huge, dimly lit sea of people where you can’t hear someone standing right in front of you because the hack of a DJ is blasting music so fucking loud you feel it pulsing in your feet, don’t. I finally spot her talking to a guy with an overgrown beard to the side of the dance floor. I’m a guy with an overgrown beard too. It’s the only feature of mine I don’t hate, but I guess she likes his better.
She sees me approaching them and waves in my direction. “Hey Stephen, this is Jake,” she says. Or Larry. Or Allen. Or Bob. Or Jose. Whatever-his-name-is extends his hand. He looks nice enough, and I extend mine as well, but I really want to toss this glass of Merlot in his face, watch the red beads free themselves from the tangle of his beard and drip onto his white T-shirt.
“Here,” I say, handing her the glass instead. Then, I say “nice to meet you” to the guy, followed by “we have to go” to her.
We catch a cab outside. Brittany and I sit on the back bench of the white van, Annie in the chair in front of her and Sarah in front of me. Annie starts nodding off, and I make a joke about the guy she was texting while we were at the dance party. Maybe the joke is more mean-spirited than I think, because she doesn’t take it very well.
“Shut up,” she says. She’s twisted her whole body around to face me. “At least I tell you things.”
“What?” I say.
“I tell you things about myself.”
I look at Brittany, then Sarah, but I can’t see her face because she’s sitting right in front of me and it doesn’t matter anyway because it doesn’t seem like either of them is paying attention to Annie and I. “What are you talking about?” I say.
“You heard me.”
I was just trying to make a joke. “I don’t even know what you want me to say to that.”
“All those phone calls, leaving the room. Who were you talking to? Who’s Frankie V?”
“A friend from home,” I say. “Why?”
“I saw a text from him on your phone today at lunch.”
“I feel like I don’t know anything about you, Stephen,” Brittany chimes in.
Maybe this whole thing is premeditated, some sort of intervention for a guy who is struggling to tread water. If the idea is to stomp my head below the surface and keep it there, it’s working. “That’s not true,” I say, and I honestly don’t know whether that’s true or false. I’m a guy, and I’m quiet. Plus I’m worn out and tired and I’ve drank too much and haven’t slept near enough during this trip.
“Yea it is.” This time it’s Sarah’s voice I hear from in front of me.
Annie says something else, and I say, “Whatever. You’re so drunk, you won’t even remember this conversation tomorrow.”
She turns to Sarah. “I’m done with him,” she says. She throws up her hands and turns her face toward the ceiling of the van.
When we get back to the hotel, they stay outside so Annie and Sarah can smoke a cigarette. “Let me get the key,” I say to Sarah. I take the elevator to the room, where I start packing my shit into my duffel bag. Annie and Brittany’s clothes are scattered all over the room. Sarah sends a text that says “Love you, Stephen. Everybody’s just tired.” When they return, I try apologizing to Annie. She ignores me and walks into the bathroom.
Brittany lies down and goes to sleep. Sarah must still be downstairs. I leave the room and find her in the little dark restaurant attached to the lobby. “Can I talk to you for a second?” I say.
We sit at a table in the corner of the room opposite where Annie and I ate breakfast yesterday. I don’t even care if I cry now. Tears are dripping down my face, and we sit for a few minutes in silence, minus my hysterical heaving.
“What’s going on?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve been depressed and anxious for a while.” I wipe my face with the back of my hand.
“That why you asked me about the psychiatrist?”
I nod. I usually mumble and stutter my way through conversation, so how, or if, she understands what I’m saying when I’m crying like a two-year-old is anybody’s guess.
“You should call him when we get back,” she says.
I shake my head. “I think I’m going back to New York.”
“That doesn’t matter right now. You need help.”
“I’m sorry.” I worried about this type of thing before we came, that if I had an anxiety attack, or a breakdown, or worse, they would be responsible for me. I’ve already given my mom a tour of the place in my head where the demons breed. I’d rather not show other people around up there, for their own sake.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Sarah says. She reaches her hand across the table and lays it on top of mine.
“I feel like such a failure,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“We wanted you to come with us,” she says, squeezing my hand. “We like hanging out with you.” Then she reaches into her pocket, pulls out a pill, and puts it on the table between us. “Take this,” she says. “It will relax you, get you through the rest of the night.” It’s small, like a grain of rice, and I can’t see how something so insignificant will do any good at this point.
I sniffle. “No, I’m alright,” I say. This isn’t my brain on pills. This is my brain on loneliness. This is my brain on self-deprecation. This is my brain on making too much of things. This is my brain on wanting to die, and not knowing exactly why.
“Just relax,” Sarah says. She tucks the pill back into the pocket of her jeans. “Slow down. Breathe.”
I’m trying to. I swear to fucking God I am.
Stephen Pisani is a Long Island, New York native and a graduate of Coastal Carolina’s MA in Writing program. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review and Soundings Review. Everything he knows about a good story he learned from his grandfather, Max.