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The Next

By:Rafe Haze

Chapter One

When I first arrived in 1993, I was told I'd know I'd become a real New  Yorker when a body pancakes on the cement at my feet at the base of a  high rise. My agent disagreed. She said you become a New Yorker once you  find the engorged blackened body of some glum neighbor rotting on his  toilet after complaining to the super that his apartment smells foul and  the pile of yellowing newspapers at his door has expanded into the  hallway.

Either way, like most New Yorkers, I'd Yep with a grin. Yep with the  understanding that some inevitable proximity to death would inaugurate  me into a galvanized and oddly covetable world of cynicism. Yep with the  assumption that on any one of the 7,300 days in the next two decades of  cement-glass-steel-brick existence with the constant proliferation of  people above, below, in front, and behind, it'd be fairly likely I'd  encounter a flattened slash rotting body.

Not once in those shiny, nubile days twenty years ago did it occur to me that I might become one of those bodies.

At what point, as I rounded which pitch-pitted asphalt corner of one of  the Empire's seventy-two thousand city blocks, did this new grey notion  begin to metastasize inside my gut? Stirring which cardboard cup of  appallingly uninspiring burnt-brown Starbucks did I transform into one  of the miserable sorry saps? The eyes-cast-down-on-the-subway  have-nothings? One of the ones who gave up?

As one drowns, at some point the sack of bricks cuffed to your ankles  starts doing you a favor. No songwriting gigs for the last six months. I  had enough to pay the maintenance fee for perhaps one more month, after  which I'd probably be allowed three months of non-payment before the  landlord raised a true stink. The Con Edison bill had not yet arrived  for this month, so I could remain burrowed in denial about grid energy.  My Verizon cell and internet service would be cut off at any moment  since those payments were delinquent too. I hankered to talk to nobody,  but I needed the ability to accept and negotiate projects for the cash  because even the cheap corner Thai food was starting to pop holes in the  purse.

Was I cognizant I was slowly lowering myself with bent elbows and  strained triceps into a self-cemented slough of green-brown shit,  bill-by-bill, rejection-by-rejection, withdrawal-by-withdrawal? Was all  that kept me from slumping into the slough entirely a telescoped  ego-inflated conviction I had good songs at my fingertips, really good  songs, straining as always to bleed out into tangibility? And how much  longer could I continue to blame environmental influences for causing  these musical lifelines to clot? My fear was that if something stays  clotted long enough, one loses the ability to recognize its beauty. At  what point would I just see the scars?

December eighth. Forty years old.

The sack of bricks decided my birthday was the perfect day to cuff  itself to my ankle. For my first gift, I received an email from Mr.  Palmer, my brother's trailer park neighbor in a greaser town called  Placerville, located in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.

Paul is dead.

A year of shit-slurping in the muck trough had my emotional reactions  well flat-lined, or at the very least well delayed, so these three words  were redirected to an examination room in my brain for a clinical  breakdown. Paul is dead. Literally three words. Intentional or not, the  brevity had its own connotation. He died unnaturally. Not hit by a semi  on Highway 5 or a stray bullet at McDonald's. In those cases it would  have read, Paul was killed. Not drugs, for Mr. Palmer would have  informed me, as he had three times before, that Paul was using once  again. But there was no phone call. Just one definitive short email  which circumvented both conflicting emotion on the part of the messenger  as well any on-the-spot further inquiry of details. Paul is dead.  Passive in its tense … an insinuation of shame …

Oh. Oh … Fuck.

He succeeded this time.

He killed himself.

Paul would have been thirty-seven in March.

But on that morning in December I had no time, let alone faculty, to  process the impact of my brother's death. No time to be hit with the  acute awareness I now had no family left alive. No time to realize I  also had no tight group of friends to substitute for family.

Writers have their egos tightly entwined with the work they  produce-largely because the moment they put their names to a song, they  simultaneously imagine every individual actually reads the credits in  the CD inside covers and proceeds to judge them to be a success or  failure. With ever-sharpening fatalism, your work and its explicit and  implicit deadlines become all-consuming to the point where even  scheduling dinner plans becomes a chore. One by one, your friends begin  to sense this, and it drives them to other New Yorkers more reliably,  authentically, and overtly grateful to see them.         



I recognized the pattern. I did not change the pattern. And on the  morning I turned forty, the only person I had in my life on a  day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis was the one person who  would walk into my apartment that birthday morning and begin not doing  the dishes.

Juicing the last of the Palmolive, Johanna was cleaning the dried green  peppers of leftover Thai food crusting on a translucent plastic  container from three days ago, a Styrofoam cup that once contained  banana pudding, plastic silverware, and an empty Orangina glass bottle.  Yes, she was cleaning the recycling, which told me she was merely  finding an activity that would allow her not to make eye contact with  me.

9:17 a.m. She wanted to make this quick, so she chose a time where she  would have an excuse to cut any belabored discussion short by the  urgency of rushing off to work. She was wearing a dark blue suit more  suitable to a law firm than the sales department of the luxury women's  clothing design company at which she spent sixty hours a week. She  revealed no cleavage, messaging with absolute crispness that on this  morning she was goal-driven, pointed, clean, and efficient. Nothing goes  on the body of a fashion chick without a thorough subjugation of  purpose-from the geographic source of the silk, the centimeter of heel  height, the luster of gold on the bangle, the direction of the point of  the collar, to the goddamn choice of stitch for the inseam.

Ten seconds after I'd learned my brother had committed suicide, and I was actually analyzing inseam stitching.

Fucking Christ.

"Johanna, just recycle the shit and get it over with."

"It's not another man."

"You're disgusted with me and me alone. I'm feeling better already."

"I'm stopping this because...of so many reasons."

She wanted me to let her off the hook rather than force her into the  shithole of specifics, but I remained silent and forced her to struggle.

"We talked about them," she said.

We did, but I shrugged my shoulders anyway and adopted my shell-shocked  facial expression just to anger her, leaving her no choice but to  retaliate.

"Your not remembering the reasons is one of them."

"Johanna," I paused until her averted eyes finally wandered back to mine. "Leave."

She was too surprised at my own crispness and efficiency to acknowledge  it. She instead circumvented the command by focusing on the closed  dusty, thick, red curtains.

"How can you write in such a depressing environment?"

I repeated, "Johanna, leave."

Her reaction was scripted and inorganic, precipitated by a year of  lunchtime bitch fests with her well-coiffed colleagues, inordinately  high-priced, coffee-clutching therapy sessions, martini fueled  Sex-in-the-City girl-power nights out with her bedazzled gal pals, and  isolated sweat-slicked thoughts during furious sprints on treadmills at  Equinox:

"I give up trying to convince you not to give up."

To me, the saddest part of her final words was not the appropriateness  of the sentiment; it was its unoriginality. Even more pathetic was how  unaware she was at how uninspired the notion was. My thoughts  immediately circled back to how pathetic I was to focus on originality  rather than the fact that Johanna was completely justified in giving me  this particular middle finger, no matter how it was phrased.

She shrugged her petite shoulders as her final gesture to me, which,  when punctuated with the curt clicking of her heels towards the door,  communicated the ultimate disgust she'd felt since the day I stopped  bringing in enough income to buy her six dollar soy caramel decaf latte  every morning at Starbucks. Since the day I stopped paying a hundred and  eighty-two dollars a month for the Equinox gym membership just to take  the core boot camp classes with her and the room full of others  desperately substituting tone and tightness for fulfillment and  personality. Since the day I encouraged her to begin making a clear  distinction between who she is at work and who she is away from work,  and valuing the latter.

She closed the door behind her.

Thud. As conclusive and as brief as Mr. Palmer's email. So much thudded  away. Thud-those inane but energetic ongoing political and philosophical  discussions concisely ended. Thud-the sexual ecstasy that once  headlined the front page of our relationship suddenly castrated to a  tiny bubble thought in the cartoon section. Thud-the delight of finding  that kosher pizza joint and proclaiming it as our secret go-to place on  Friday nights deteriorated into a piquantly annoying place to be  avoided. Thud-the flirtation with marrying her and having kids curtailed  with a dry, irreversible "No thank you. Not with you." Thud-I no longer  deserved her love, nor did I ever to begin with. I could feel that sour  pill disintegrating my guts like a mug full of Drano.