Try to stay awake.
The Menin Road (1919) by Paul Nash
Let’s replace this roof before the whole house burns down. It probably won’t rain again for months, but if it does, we won’t have to put a bucket by the bed, an open cooler in the closet. We can watch them pull our house apart, board by board, and we won’t have to listen to the slow drips hitting two at a time, like a subway rattling across the tracks in slow motion, shadows and tall trees blurring past, strangers blinking in the flashes of sunlight, trying to resist the rhythm of sleep.
Let’s put more plants in giant pots before the wildfires come, make things look green and juicy and impenetrable in spite of the dry hills taunting us from a distance. It might never rain again but we’ll live inside a make-believe jungle for as long as we can, dancing like it’s 1999, tiny umbrellas in our drinks, everything new that we choose just an echo of our nostalgia for something that slipped out of our hands decades ago, memories rattling across the tracks of these old bones, trying to stay wide awake.
My brother told us he’s moving back to our hometown in North Carolina. I followed him to Los Angeles two decades ago when he was the one with a normal job, a normal life. I would drive to his tiny rented house in Atwater and sit on his homemade canvas couch filled with packing peanuts and I’d talk about trying to push some life into my screenplay, trying to squeeze some love out of my boyfriend, trying to find something solid to hold onto. He’d say, “Sure, well, okay, I guess,” and that would be that.
We wrote music together, my clumsy electric guitar riffs struggling to keep up with his fretless bass, his Persian scale wildfires trying not to rip through my slow motion vocals, cry voice even sadder than cry face, counting muses, counting backwards.
‘Til I think how how how how lucky we are
Angel at my table, God in my car
Once we got into a shouting match over a song and his very short but muscular dog jumped up and shoved me backwards with his paws. I apologized for losing my temper. It’s hard to grow up together in the middle of an inferno, then grow up even more in the ashes afterwards.
“Sometimes it’s tough to sing about emotional shit with you around,” I told him.
“Sure, okay,” he said. “That’s fine, whatever.”
We got married a week apart, his wedding at Union Station, mine in the desert. We had our first kids a week apart, October gusts whipping their baby hairs straight up into a pointed cone, little troll dolls with twisted faces crying for some shelter from the wind. He helped me install sprinklers at my first house, the two of us choking on dust and desiccated rat bones in the crawlspace, lighting little fires to weld the pipes, holding a bucket of water close, holding our breaths, reminding each other of our escape route in case of disaster, then laughing at the image of us crawling on our bellies with our hair on fire.
We had our second kids a week apart, when March rains could still be trusted to show up and lend a hand: Four small humans yelling in sync, three dogs wrestling on the floor, two houses two miles apart, one family.
I thought about leaving LA so many times, but I couldn’t leave my brother behind, with his bad back and his big projects, with his ugly hat and his beautiful wife, with his nervous dog, stocky like the last one but so much more afraid, afraid of loud sounds and teetering lamps, afraid of big changes, afraid of the future.
We’ll watch him pull his life apart, board by board, and pack it onto a truck. We’ll wave goodbye and we’ll visit often but we’ll be visitors, just visiting. I texted him on Monday to say we should talk about his move, how he’s feeling, what his plans are.
He texted back:
Let’s burn down this house before it rains again. We won’t have to pray for rain, begging for blessings that don’t visit the same life twice. We won’t have to spot the smoke in the distance or watch the fires draw closer. Let’s stop struggling to keep things looking juicy and green. Let these leaves turn brittle and yellow and crumple into tiny flecks and drift off like ash.
Maybe it’ll rain eventually but that’s not how it feels today. I’m just another stranger, blinking in the flashes of sunlight, trying to stay alive, full of sharp verbs and ragged nouns, anxious to shove you backwards across the room, knock down the teetering lamps, raze the jungle, set everything on fire, then crawl on my belly with my hair in flames, a slow motion escape that’s more like surrender, whimpering, I wanted you to change, I wanted us to change, I wanted everything to stay the same forever.
But tonight I won’t say a word. Instead I’ll make a bonfire for the gods, whisper my silent prayers, offer myself to the fates. I can love my brother for exactly who he is, and I can love you that way, too.
Tomorrow is different, though. Tomorrow and the next day and the next, after he leaves me alone in this desert he led me to, I’ll speak from the heart in spite of great difficulties, in sharpened verbs and polished nouns, holding my cry voice high in the air like a sparkler, so embarrassing, such a spectacle, more radiant than maybe, more dangerous than whatever, bursting all over, rebuking the silence, reproaching these dry hills, resisting the rhythm of sleep.
Thank you sincerely for reading and supporting my work.