Michael Mungiello ~ Blue

and then for a long time i didn’t write at all. this meant i knew what it was like a lit­tle bit final­ly to be like mom or dad, to not write, i knew what it was like to have giv­en up on some­thing you thought was your life and then you keep liv­ing any­way. i wasn’t dat­ing any­one either, things with jas­mine got so fucked up towards the end i just want­ed to be by myself for a long time. even though i want­ed that, it was still hard and in a lot of ways i was scared. being real­ly on my own and giv­ing up writ­ing were sort of the same thing: they both meant i was stuck with my feel­ings, i couldn’t turn them into any­thing else, i couldn’t make some­thing out of them to give to some­one else—all those bad love poems. and now that i couldn’t do any­thing with them, i felt my feel­ings more intense­ly than i ever had before. so wh­­at do you do when you can’t fix your feel­ings by chang­ing them? i wal­lowed, i read and reread, lis­tened and relis­tened, watched and rewatched, any­thing, i just need­ed to crowd every­thing out. like dad, now i couldn’t fall asleep unless i was watch­ing some­thing, any­thing (fam­i­ly guy for him on the tv; frasi­er for me on my lap­top). and just like how mom had to always play lite fm in the car, turn the vol­ume up all the way even though she didn’t know the words to any of the songs and didn’t even like them beyond enjoy­ing the fact they were famil­iar to her, she hummed the tune, just like that, i couldn’t walk out the door of my build­ing any­more with­out head­phones in, full vol­ume, one song again and again. this to me felt like real life, unre­deemed: no writ­ing. i walked around at night lis­ten­ing to sara by bob dylan over and over. he has this one line i always loved, talk­ing about how he made music for his ex-wife: “stay­ing up for days at the chelsea hotel, writ­ing ‘sad-eyed lady of the low­lands’ for you.” that meant a lot to me then, i’d tried to write through the prob­lems with jas­mine. but like i said i wasn’t writ­ing any­more. besides, i wasn’t bob dylan and my sto­ries weren’t songs. my friends lis­tened to cool­er con­tem­po­rary music. jay lis­tened to ani­mal col­lec­tive and dirty pro­jec­tors. enzo lis­tened to william basin­s­ki and i don’t know what hasan lis­tened to—i assumed he lis­tened to some­thing, he made music. jay, enzo, and i went to the local cof­fee place where he sang every two weeks, every time they had an open mic. hasan did plain­tive whis­pers into the mic and played long low notes on the syn­the­siz­er. i was hap­py for him. peo­ple seemed to like it; he was hand­some and qui­et so peo­ple gen­er­al­ly liked him. one time a guy who worked at a near­by hos­pi­tal even brought a gui­tar and played along while hasan sang. the guy’s name was echo. that’s actu­al­ly true. hasan didn’t mind. he’d just got­ten a kit­ten. the girl he loved had just left him, in the wrong way—again and again and again, instead of all at once. she was cool with short red hair which some­how made it worse. he’d already start­ed dat­ing some­one else, like some­one who didn’t want to accept the fact he was alone now. i don’t blame him. who could accept some­thing like that? i still can’t. she was short with long blond hair and her tall big broth­er had been a pro­fes­sion­al adren­a­line junkie, com­pa­nies paid him to sky­dive while scream­ing their name or climb moun­tains while wear­ing their hat, it was all on a gopro, he tried to climb a moun­tain and died. right after hasan start­ed dat­ing her he asked if i could meet him for cof­fee. i said “okay” because it felt good to be a good friend and since jas­mine was real­ly gone now and i wasn’t writ­ing being alone felt use­less. i don’t know why i stopped writ­ing. it wasn’t on pur­pose. which maybe makes sense: it’s not like i start­ed writ­ing on pur­pose either. the prob­lem was expect­ing it to ever be more than it was when i first start­ed writ­ing, at eight or nine, a spon­ta­neous con­so­la­tion, a good dream. i wouldn’t have been so dis­ap­point­ed in how every­thing turned out if i’d just remem­bered that, how it made just as much sense to be ambi­tious or pur­pose­ful about writ­ing as it did to be ambi­tious or pur­pose­ful about dreams, they were both just things that hap­pened, they didn’t mean any­thing. the mean­ing was some­where else. that’s what i told myself any­way and even though i didn’t believe it i still thought i should try so i got cof­fee with hasan who looked con­fused. he looked at me like i was some com­bi­na­tion of his uncle and his doc­tor which was how a lot of my friends looked at me back then. they’d ask me to inter­pret their dreams. that real­ly hap­pened. but hasan didn’t tell me about his dream, he said “uh lau­ren had this dream.” lau­ren was the blond girl he’d just start­ed dat­ing. she had a dream where she was at hasan’s place then she hugged hasan then he turned into her big broth­er then he turned into hasan again. then she heard her big broth­er say “you should be with hasan.” hasan told me this and i said “so what did you say?” “noth­ing.” “what did lau­ren say?” “she asked what i thought the dream meant.” “so, what did you say?” “um. i didn’t real­ly say any­thing. then she said what she thought the dream meant. she thought it meant that her broth­er want­ed her to be with me. like it was a mes­sage from heav­en..” nei­ther of us said any­thing for a lit­tle bit. i told him how, from the sound of it, she was prob­a­bly con­flat­ing things in an obvi­ous and messy way. he made a face like “let me chew on that.” then he laughed. then he said “yeah, prob­a­bly.” i said “and you think you can han­dle the sort of inten­si­ty that kind of thing can involve?” he laughed and said “yeah.” then i real­ized he’d nev­er want­ed my inter­pre­ta­tion; he didn’t need it; some peo­ple just saw life for what it was. i laughed too and we took our cof­fees and walked by the water. i had dif­fer­ent kinds of con­ver­sa­tions with jay. he was a phi­los­o­phy guy so in a big way, yes, he want­ed to inter­pret every­thing. he’d just start­ed dat­ing some­one who he thought he’d been in love with for a long time. they’d been friends and she’d dat­ed oth­er peo­ple and he’d dat­ed oth­er peo­ple and they both act­ed sup­port­ive most of the time but then when they were drunk they did stuff—nothing crazy, just stuff that showed they felt con­flict­ed about the whole thing. her name was mona and when jay dat­ed oth­er girls and they were all drunk at a par­ty togeth­er mona would go up to the oth­er girl and say “so do you real­ly love him?” the next day mona would text jay and say “jay!!! i’m so sor­ry about last night…my mama bear instincts kicked in and i think i might have been grilling your new gf (who seems real­ly sweet!!)” i don’t think jay mind­ed even though his girl­friends def­i­nite­ly mind­ed. the thing jay did when he was drunk and at a par­ty with mona and her boyfriend was also very reveal­ing: he ran away. we’d find him lit­er­al­ly in a tree or on the roof of a ran­dom build­ing. mona would occa­sion­al­ly come with us but usu­al­ly it was just me, enzo, and hasan. when we found jay he cried. one time he spit on me and then cried. it was clear­ly about mona but when we asked that night or the next morn­ing he’d balk and say it had some­thing to do with “my fam­i­ly.” on some very fun­da­men­tal lev­el i’m sure that was true but real­ly, it was mona. all of that con­fu­sion was in the past though. now mona and jay were dat­ing. and it was great. until mona said i love you and jay said it back. then the next day he texted me “cof­fee.” we got there and he said “i actu­al­ly don’t love her.” delib­er­a­tion, inter­pre­ta­tion, rein­ter­pre­ta­tion. i said “so what’re you gonna do?” we dis­cussed dif­fer­ent options and how each dif­fer­ent choice would make him a dif­fer­ent per­son. he frowned and said “i think i’m just going to have to be hon­est with her and tell her the truth.” i said “you mean take it back?” he said “jesus. yeah.” he did, she cried but under­stood and didn’t take back what she’d said, and they stayed togeth­er. the ambiva­lence didn’t go away though and he and i still had a lot to talk through and i loved talk­ing those things through with jay. i was actu­al­ly moved by how he felt respon­si­ble to the peo­ple in his life, moved by how often he end­ed up doing what he knew he should do. he would’ve just called that guilt but i knew it was some­thing bet­ter. he told the truth even though it wouldn’t make any­body hap­py. and even though it made his life hard­er, it made his life less com­pli­cat­ed. don’t get me wrong, the whole mona thing was com­pli­cat­ed. maybe it’s just that jay dealt with the com­pli­ca­tions up front, so they didn’t turn into real evil, not just emo­tion­al but moral com­pli­ca­tion. i don’t know. enzo’s life was prob­a­bly the least com­pli­cat­ed out of everybody’s. he’d nev­er been in a rela­tion­ship with anybody—never want­ed to be, he nev­er would be. no guilt-strick­en or risk rel­ish­ing cof­fees; just art. weird art. books that didn’t do what books do, movies that didn’t do what movies do, music, paint­ing, even clothes. he took the face of a qui­et anony­mous co-worker—dave wu—and put it on shirts, hats, he framed a big pho­to of it and a friend put it in a gallery and now that i was in a new place in my life where i’d stopped every­thing that had always meant every­thing to me (writ­ing, love) i saw enzo’s life and what it was and who he was and i thought “that’s it.” i thought “i can be that too, i can have that free­dom from every­thing, i can make my voca­tion a kind irony, i can keep this head on my shoul­ders by unfail­ing­ly thumb­ing my nose.” like me, he was ital­ian-amer­i­can. like me, his name was loren­zo, but he was still just dif­fer­ent enough from me—family from north­ern italy, he had that nick­name enzo—he was still just dif­fer­ent enough from me for me to believe that he was liv­ing in anoth­er world and if i took him seri­ous­ly from the oth­er side and if i real­ly kept my eye out, maybe he’d throw me the key to the world he was in and i could catch it and use it and leave my life behind, the lis­ten­ing to sara while walk­ing up and down the williams­burg bridge at 3am, the bad poems, and the real prob­lems of a life com­pli­cat­ed by oth­er peo­ple. it’s impor­tant you know how much i loved enzo—and all of that sort of is what love can be, i think—because oth­er­wise i nev­er would’ve gone along with what all four of us did which was his idea. we were only a year out of school and lived near cam­pus. enzo worked at the school library front desk on the week­ends. he did this so he could keep his stu­dent card and take out as many books as he want­ed. he had a big stack in his bed­room, all those weird­ly embossed lam­i­nat­ed paper­backs made arti­fi­cial­ly, mono­chro­mat­i­cal­ly hard­cov­er. we both loved those. we both loved hav­ing books we wouldn’t read. those nights when i was too depressed to read and fell asleep watch­ing frasi­er instead, i put the book i felt like i should’ve read under my pil­low and then i could fall asleep. not writ­ing didn’t stop me from still being weird about books. the only dif­fer­ence book-wise between me and enzo was that i loved under­lin­ing and anno­tat­ing my library books (i’d end up hav­ing to buy them); enzo didn’t do that. if he liked a para­graph he’d take a pic­ture of it on his phone and save it to the same fold­er on his com­put­er where he saved every­thing. every­thing-every­thing. this was also one of the things about him that made me love him—admire, respect, and trust this cool­er freer ver­sion of myself. the peace with which he lim­it­ed his life to the things he could safe­ly con­tain; what you can keep are things, he’d made his peace with that and it even made him hap­py. and the book under my pil­low was so much more des­per­ate than the pho­tos enzo kept in his fold­er; the book under my pil­low was just con­so­la­tion for not hav­ing some­one else in bed. i was lone­ly, sure, but i didn’t regret any­thing. dur­ing the day, on the sub­way, at work, at lunch, i made myself smile by remem­ber­ing i’d nev­er have to meet anoth­er moth­er again. no more new fam­i­lies, split­ting up christ­mas eve and christ­mas day, no more com­pro­mis­ing new year’s. i’d read philip roth, espe­cial­ly my life as a man, and think “yes, yes, def­i­nite­ly. yes.” i want­ed being alone to feel as vig­or­ous as he’d made it seem. roth and his decades of being alone, remem­ber­ing vivid­ly and let­ting that be his life. it was so dif­fer­ent from dad; he met mom in high school and locked him­self into his life. mar­ried after grad­u­at­ing from the same col­lege then me two years lat­er then anoth­er kid four years after that and anoth­er kid thir­teen years after that. as irre­versible as take­off and all dad’s indi­vid­ual ambi­tions would just be sus­pend­ed, aloft, until my broth­er was on his own too and my sis­ter after him (and she was only four). the wheels would touch back down on the run­way of dad’s own world when he turned six­ty. until then the tur­bu­lence (of fights or the hard-won soli­tude of insom­nia) was as close as he’d get to the tex­ture of sol­id ground, being alone. he’d want­ed to write; he want­ed to be a sports writer, bas­ket­ball espe­cial­ly. but when you have a wife and a kid and the star ledger isn’t hir­ing for the fifth year in a row—i don’t know. even at his office i could tell he real­ly was hap­py, some­how, even amid the regrets. going with him to bring your kid to work day, it took me until lunch to fig­ure out every­body was being nice to me because they respect­ed him so much and want­ed dad to like them and dad? he didn’t give a shit about bank­ing, even though he was great at his job. he was great at his job because he loved me. i was his joy and the oth­er pos­si­ble lives with­er­ing in the cor­ner of his mind like plants on a radi­a­tor? he for­got about them like that when we were togeth­er. but could i for­get them like that if were him? even though he lit up in the warmth of being an adored dad, he couldn’t sleep and spent nights crum­pled and shift­ing on the black leather couch under the blare of fam­i­ly guy, there was a rea­son for that. and did i real­ly think i was any bet­ter? frasi­er was just fam­i­ly guy for peo­ple who hadn’t accept­ed their fate. and i don’t know if roth’s life was any bet­ter than mine or dad’s—roth lit­er­al­ly lost his mind for a few months and oth­er­wise seemed so angry. and even though he struck the pose of brave­ly pur­pose­ful and soli­tary artist, beyond all the human com­pli­ca­tions, his life nev­er real­ly was the strong whole pil­lar he’d want­ed it to be. even as an old man he kept fuck­ing up in the fractures—he was meet­ing a new girlfriend’s fam­i­ly at sev­en­ty. she was thir­ty. com­pli­ca­tions, real life—even he couldn’t escape it. and he’d got­ten clos­er than any­one else, at least to me. but there were some years he got free, which was maybe what i want­ed now. or “for now.” i couldn’t think about it too long with­out get­ting dizzy. dad wasn’t roth; roth wasn’t dad. nei­ther of them were me. both were hap­py and unhap­py and i couldn’t decide whose life could pat­tern my own; i need­ed a guide. who i had was enzo, jay, and hasan. most­ly enzo who because he worked at the library took out roth books for me—my stu­dent card was already expired—and also some­times he had to lock up which meant he had cer­tain keys. we were going to use those keys to get into rooms where our old school kept art: huge per­sian rugs, kitschy framed paint­ings of sal­vado­ri­an mar­tyrs, an orig­i­nal picas­so, and, once, a life-sized wood­en cross. we stole all of it and i’d nev­er actu­al­ly stolen before: i’d nev­er shoplift­ed chap­stick. the clos­est thing i’d done to a crime like that (and i do real­ly think of this as a crime) was in my last year of school, jas­mine and i were on the outs, and i’d writ­ten and had won a large cash prize for a revenge story—that’s what it was, plain and sim­ple. it was embar­rass­ing and pos­ses­sive, meant to pun­ish her and win her back, some­how, at the same time; it was noth­ing but a ges­ture of vio­lent com­mem­o­ra­tion and some­body should’ve stopped me but nobody did and i don’t blame any­body for that because i did it in a way where nobody could’ve stopped me. i want­ed to keep it a secret until it was too late and i’d already won some­thing for let­ting life out in that nox­ious lit­er­ary way, until i’d already won mon­ey for some lethal leak. i stole from life because i thought that’s what you were sup­posed to do and i was proud of it and i told my cool writ­ing teacher. he looked like leonard michaels and when i told him about the prize he smiled and said “enjoy it” and laughed and said “$1,000 for two pages? may be a while before that hap­pens again haha.” and he was proud but mere pride wasn’t what i was look­ing for, i need­ed him to know i had been reward­ed for doing a bad thing so i told him it was a revenge piece, trans­par­ent, and i’d tak­en from life to avenge some­thing “haha.” and he looked at me and he didn’t look like leonard michaels any­more, now he looked like a good dad who had to do a hard thing: his whole face was pos­sessed by authen­tic dis­ap­point­ment and it mat­tered to me because writ­ing was the only thing that mat­tered and i knew he knew it bet­ter than i did, he said “no. there’s no need to do that, it doesn’t make the writ­ing any bet­ter. why make your life messy like that? why make your writ­ing less like that? why dirty the whole thing and even turn your read­ers into unwit­ting accom­plices in pro­long­ing the stu­pid mis­eries of life that writ­ing is there to tran­scend in the first place? you’ve got it wrong, loren­zo. writ­ing isn’t revenge on life. all it can do—if you’re lucky and if you spend your whole life on it maybe you can get there once or twice—all writ­ing can do is redeem life. and that’s bet­ter than revenge. why not let go of the need to make your mess in pub­lic? why not move on? why not let go, let fly, for­get?” i had noth­ing to say so i said some­thing stu­pid that even i didn’t believe, i said “no, i don’t think that’s right. also, steal­ing from life is the only way to be orig­i­nal.” we’d been walk­ing togeth­er and we reached the place where he had to make his turn. he said “some things are more impor­tant than orig­i­nal­i­ty. actu­al­ly, many. any­way, the whole idea of using writ­ing to get real life revenge is wrong. it’s like try­ing to use a mir­ror to build a house.” i felt stu­pid because i was wrong. as use­less penance i wast­ed all the money—literally burn­ing it would’ve been more pro­duc­tive than how i’d spent it—and i real­ized that if i couldn’t do it with dig­ni­ty then writ­ing wasn’t for me. but i guess every­one does some­thing like that at some point and i’m luck­i­er than a lot of peo­ple because i did it when i was still a kid, in school, and not as an adult who could be sued or divorced or shunned—it was ear­ly enough in my life that, luck­i­ly, nobody cared about my writ­ing, i didn’t have a rep­u­ta­tion (i nev­er would) or a career so i couldn’t use indis­cre­tion to sab­o­tage it, no mat­ter how hard i tried. but that’s all to say that before i stopped doing it writ­ing was a way of being bad, and when that’s all you use writ­ing for then what you get is bad writ­ing. so now that i wasn’t writ­ing, i was try­ing to be good but i still need­ed some way to be bad, do some­thing bad and that was the steal­ing. we talked about it like it was a joke then took it very seri­ous­ly. enzo told us the night before, we got drunk on the gri­fone jay and i bought and lugged from food­mart. drink­ing jus­ti­fied the pre-exist­ing gid­di­ness and pro­tect­ed it a lit­tle from being sentimental—we were guys hav­ing fun togeth­er and we all had our dif­fer­ent moti­va­tions. jay was glad to do some­thing he wasn’t sup­posed to do. after the con­fes­sion to mona he’d been struck by both writer’s and reader’s block. he couldn’t make it through a page of hegel, and not just for the reg­u­lar rea­sons, plus his grad school appli­ca­tions had become impos­si­ble. he’d made two attempts at the per­son­al state­ment which was sup­posed to be five pages: one draft was a sen­tence and the oth­er was around 10,000 words. so to start the night know­ing what he’d accom­plish by the end? he didn’t need the gri­fone, he was intox­i­cat­ed by assured suc­cess. and for hasan the steal­ing was just anoth­er cool risky thing in a life that was quick­ly fill­ing up with cool risky things. for enzo it was an “expe­ri­ence.” embar­rass­ing­ly we had code­names, i was chili dog, jay was le pain, hasan was rivers cuo­mo, enzo was mr. stink. there was no rea­son. we ate bananas with our sec­ond bot­tle of wine and left. the rug weighed too much and we alter­nat­ed teams of two, two to stag­ger with the thing sag­ging in between them and two run­ning ahead back­wards, tak­ing pic­tures. every­one smil­ing. every­thing archived. hasan got punched by lauren’s ex-boyfriend who said “you nev­er even met her big broth­er, i did!” that same night on the way home hasan ran into his ex-girl­firend, the one with red hair, and she was with her new boyfriend who had a baby-face and a man’s body and hasan got home and wrote a song. then, the kitschy paint­ing of sal­vado­ri­an martyrs—this was the only tricky one, by which i mean enzo over­heard some­one say­ing some­thing about it at work, along the lines of “hey has any­one seen that paint­ing that we kept in the clos­et? we can’t find it.” enzo said noth­ing and he nev­er heard any­one ask about it again. we nev­er paid for any of this. mona kept telling jay she loved him and that it was okay if he didn’t feel the same way then one night she said “i love you” in her sleep and jay, just to try it out and see if he was ready, said “i love you too” in a whis­per then mona opened her eyes like she’d heard some­one break in and she said “what did you say?” jay thought “well, i did get one prac­tice shot” then he just said “i love you” for real and this time it was a week before he knew it hadn’t been right that time either. at no point dur­ing this time had he bro­ken through his writer’s and reader’s block. then, the orig­i­nal picas­so. this was the only heist i wasn’t there for. in spite of every­thing, what i knew in my heart and every­thing, the shame over what i’d reduced it to, the clear truth it was no bet­ter than frasi­er or fam­i­ly guy or get­ting drunk and was in fact in a lot of ways a much more dan­ger­ous waste than any of those things, in spite of all that, i was in the library secret­ly, five hours a day, at night, writ­ing. i flashed enzo’s library card to get in, we looked iden­ti­cal so it worked. with a stack of roth nov­els in front of me: the green library of amer­i­ca hard­cov­ers, the real ones. i was doing the kind of writ­ing that hope­ful­ly only hap­pens once in life, hours on a sen­tence, treat­ing it like math. you think you’re mak­ing the sto­ry a test of the reader’s intel­li­gence when real­ly it becomes a test of their patience and nobody wants to indulge a nobody which is what i was. those sto­ries were nev­er pub­lished and, more impor­tant­ly, they weren’t good. sur­re­al noirs, effort­ful and mean­ing­less. they almost sweat on the page. but i was try­ing, i couldn’t let it go even though i knew i need­ed to, and i thought “well because i can’t stop, that means the feeling’s real—right? that means i’m a real writer?” but i was wrong. not being able to stop writ­ing didn’t make me a writer. in the impor­tant ways i was forc­ing it and what i “couldn’t stop” was the want­i­ng to be a writer, des­per­ate to be some­thing, any­thing, oth­er than myself. this equiv­o­cal self-torture—ripping my molars out then prac­tic­ing my par­ty smile in a cracked mir­ror was what it felt like—that’s what i was doing while enzo, jay, and hasan stole a real orig­i­nal picas­so. a very very minor work but still real. i don’t know which picas­so or even which peri­od: by the time i got back home from the library hasan and jay were passed out upstairs and enzo was drink­ing gri­fone on the couch pet­ting hasan’s kit­ten which at that point was just a cat. i asked where the picas­so was and enzo said “don’t wor­ry about it” in a way that made it seem like he was joking—doing an imi­ta­tion of a mafia tough guy—but he also actu­al­ly wasn’t going to tell me where it was. he was drunk and he wouldn’t remem­ber this con­ver­sa­tion. no mat­ter how much he drank he nev­er seemed drunk in the usu­al way, slur­ring words, falling over, giv­ing hugs. the only way you could tell is that he’d say some­thing about being deflec­tive instead of coura­geous, some­thing about “veneer” or “per­for­mance” and he’d spend a long time star­ing at the man­nequin head we kept on the bath­room sink (he’d keep the bath­room door open though so if you had to use it, you could, he’d take a break) and he’d want to spend the rest of the night watch­ing videos—dark ones, espe­cial­ly one about peo­ple who thought the inter­net was real life and lit­er­al­ly loved their com­put­ers and devel­oped a lot of sex­u­al hang ups which i remem­ber because i watched it with him then thought “com­pared to these peo­ple, i have a very healthy rela­tion­ship to rela­tion­ships.” that was his only tell, the “per­for­mance” stuff and the man­nequin star­ing con­test and want­i­ng to watch dark stuff. not like me, my tell was that i’d play that real mccoy song very loud and then sing along danc­ing on our couch—“in the night, in my dreams, i’m in love with you ‘cause you talk to me like lovers do, i feel joy, i feel pain but it’s still the same, when the night is gone i’ll be alone, anoth­er night, anoth­er dream, but always you—it’s like a vision of love that seems to be true—another night, anoth­er dream, but always you, in the night i dream of love so true. just anoth­er night! anoth­er vision of love, you feel joy, you feel pain ‘cause noth­ing will be the same; just anoth­er night is all that it takes to under­stand the dif­fer­ence between lovers and fakes.” or that smokey robin­son song where he sings “peo­ple say i’m the life of the par­ty ‘cause i tell a joke or two; though i might be laugh­ing loud and hearty, deep inside i’m blue.” it was time to name the cat but we couldn’t. it was time for jay and hasan to dis­en­tan­gle them­selves. god bless. lau­ren had start­ed hav­ing dreams where hasan was chas­ing her then it was her big broth­er chas­ing her then hasan telling her to kill her big broth­er and then she’d wake up. she texted hasan and said “we need to talk about us.” he was eager to exit unscathed and have it not even be his fault. i don’t blame him. who wouldn’t want that? she broke up with him and they stayed friends and she’s a good per­son and hasan’s red head ex asked him to get cof­fee. she’d bro­ken up with her replace­ment boyfriend at around the same time lau­ren left hasan. hasan and his ex got back togeth­er and he took her indoor rock climb­ing. they wore the wired har­ness­es togeth­er and one time he swung all the way from one end of the wall where he was climb­ing to the oth­er end of the wall where she was climb­ing and that made her laugh and that made him hap­py. at the next cof­fee­house open mic he sang the song he wrote about her and she record­ed it and put it on youtube. a few months lat­er they broke up again. and jay? he’d been spend­ing more and more nights with mona—he hadn’t tak­en back the sec­ond “i love you”—but he still need­ed to talk things through so he’d been tex­ting me, ask­ing if he should tell her, what the right thing to do here was, and i couldn’t help him. even though i liked mona i told him to leave her and said “the fact you’re equiv­o­cat­ing so much doesn’t real­ly bode well.” he left his phone on mona’s bed with our con­ver­sa­tion on the screen and went to the bath­room and mona came in and sat on her bed and saw every­thing. she threw his phone out the win­dow and told him to leave and tonight he was on his way to her house to talk things through with her. i didn’t know whether they’d stay togeth­er or break up but i did know one thing—reading and writ­ing-wise, he was back. i could tell because when he first got back from mona’s house i showed him a sto­ry i’d writ­ten in thir­ty hours called “wag­n­er,” it was a mur­der-mys­tery love sto­ry struc­tured around the tris­tan und isol­de over­ture: the main char­ac­ter lis­tened to a minute of it to begin each new sec­tion of the sto­ry: there were eleven sec­tions. jay read it and all the trou­ble left his face. he saw some­thing true unob­struct­ed. he was back. he fin­ished read­ing and said “the first two lines are good.” it was twen­ty pages long. i said “thanks.” then there was a very deep silence and he said “you should delete every­thing else.” he was right. he was back. and at least now i knew even if i nev­er wrote again i had friends good enough to nev­er let me believe some­thing very bad was very good or good or fin­ished or “the best i could do.” and now jay was off with mona and what­ev­er deci­sion he made would be the right one, he was back in the truth-mix now. and hasan was gone too so it was me and enzo togeth­er, alone, love’s losers, life’s win­ners, and he had “one last score.” a real cross. our school was jesuit and that year’s class was about to grad­u­ate and a big part of the cer­e­mo­ny was reli­gion, they brought cross­es out. grad­u­a­tion was two days away. we decid­ed it’d be safest and least con­spic­u­ous to only take one cross. also, one of us had to be the look­out. that was enzo. i didn’t have the strate­gic calm you need to be a look­out but i did have the glee­ful and only half-iron­ic masochism you need to car­ry a cross—even if strict­ly speak­ing i lacked the upper body strength. there was a guard lit­er­al­ly pac­ing the halls: it felt like a video game. enzo gave me the right key, i silent­ly opened the wire door, silent­ly dragged the cross along the linoleum, silent­ly shut the wire door behind me, enzo held the ser­vice ele­va­tor, i held my breath and we got it all in, i got it all out, we went down out­door stair­ways, enzo first and quick­ly, giv­ing me a sig­nal from the bot­tom when it was safe for me to clear the next flight with­out run­ning into cam­pus secu­ri­ty, cruis­ing in their golf carts. why were we doing this? what could we do with a cross? to our cred­it we were not annoy­ing­ly athe­ist in the ricky ger­vais way so it wasn’t an anti-god thing. it was the right wrong thing to do: uncom­pli­cat­ed. easy stu­pid fun; we weren’t even steal­ing from a per­son, it was a school, an insti­tu­tion. enzo and i, unit­ed, were steal­ing objects from an abstrac­tion and that seemed to me to be the heav­en you could actu­al­ly have amid all the fuck­ing tur­bu­lence of real life, love and lying and telling the truth and degrad­ing it all by try­ing to make it mean some­thing, the bad-faith betray­als of writ­ing, and oth­er peo­ple, oth­er peo­ple most of all: it was com­pli­ca­tion after com­pli­ca­tion and then at the end sad­dled with indig­ni­ties you just dis­ap­peared in a way that wouldn’t even give you relief. wasn’t just doing dumb shit, using dumb code­names, being dumb, bet­ter than that? i was wrong when i said fam­i­ly guy and frasi­er were the same. one is def­i­nite­ly bet­ter than the oth­er. and if i had to choose whose life will pat­tern my own—between roth and dad—it’s obvi­ous. but also the obvi­ous part is that i nev­er had a choice to begin with. enzo wasn’t a guide, he was my friend, which is bet­ter. what we did together—stealing what we didn’t want and couldn’t use, art—it didn’t revenge or redeem a thing but it did some­thing real. it gave us pur­chase on life. that’s as close as i can get to say­ing it. i could at least say to myself “i’ve got my hand around the han­dle and wher­ev­er this thing is tak­ing me i’ll stand where i am: the bumps won’t knock me down.” my life a series of sub­way rides instead of a cross-con­ti­nen­tal flight. we got home and enzo poured us gri­fone and poured some in the cat’s bowl. it was 4am and jay wasn’t back and hasan wasn’t back either. enzo put on a movie. i always trust­ed his taste and would for the rest of my life, years lat­er we watched warhol’s empire togeth­er in a the­ater, eight hours, noth­ing. we start­ed laugh­ing six hours in and the five oth­er peo­ple in the the­ater had to shush us. we left laugh­ing, wily smiles like we’d got­ten away with some­thing, we had, and even those years lat­er i still hadn’t learned my les­son, the les­son that you could live with noth­ing and that a life built around noth­ing could real­ly be a rich life, you could be free and that free­dom could be a sort of way to make your life mean­ing­ful, i was on my way back to my own apart­ment and i didn’t live with those guys any­more, jay had got­ten into grad school, hasan had moved to cal­i­for­nia to work in tech, enzo moved back with his par­ents and took all the stuff we stole with him, and i was leav­ing the the­ater after hav­ing seen empire, changed, and i took the sub­way back to my own apart­ment where i was liv­ing with my girl­friend, not jas­mine, and there’d be a mess at the end of that rela­tion­ship too, i was still get­ting entan­gled, again and again and again instead of all at once like dad did, which between the two maybe his is the bet­ter way to go—but enzo; enzo like always stayed free, even freer than philip roth, and on the sub­way that night after we saw empire i remem­bered what we did after we stole the cross, years before, the movie he’d put on. Blue. we watched it in the dark in our liv­ing room on his big tv which hung on the wall oppo­site the paint­ing of sal­vado­ri­an mar­tyrs and above the per­sian rug. it’s still the most beau­ti­ful movie i’ve ever seen, blue for 80 min­utes and a voiceover read­ing lines from the diary of the dying direc­tor derek jar­man. he reads some lines, his friends read oth­ers. it is the freest thing i’ve ever seen. jar­man was under no delu­sion that the movie would change his real life, he was right up against his life’s last lim­it and he knew a mir­ror was just a mir­ror. but the movie’s not nar­cis­sis­tic, even though peo­ple say it is. real­ly he couldn’t have made Blue if he hadn’t actu­al­ly believed what nar­cis­sists nev­er do which is that there is a dif­fer­ence between you dying and the world end­ing. he wasn’t being spite­ful or iron­ic or nihilis­tic. he was doing it with dig­ni­ty. revenge on death. he did it so dif­fer­ent than roth. he wasn’t tak­ing any­thing with him but say­ing good­bye by giv­ing it all to us—his lovers’ first names, the first time he saw a les­bian, the bicy­clist who’d almost run him over—watching Blue is the oppo­site of being an unwit­ting accom­plice. you don’t feel dirty. i felt clean; i was clean. i’ve nev­er want­ed an accom­plice since. nothing’s felt like a crime since. the cross was the last thing i stole. i cried. the movie end­ed and it was just like when you wake up from a dream and for one full minute you have no idea who you are, you’re free and blank and whole. we got an email from the school addressed to alum­ni in the area let­ting us know to keep an eye out for a stolen cross. we had to get rid of it so he picked up one end, i picked up the oth­er, we walked to the water and threw it in. he took a pic­ture of it float­ing away.

~

Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.