Darkness, My Old Friend – by Matthew Hoch

There are too many examples to choose from that illustrate how I became such close friends with sadness. I’ve been told, admonished even, to lighten up, find the good in this beautiful world. But, I’m too loyal a friend.

The loudest voice protesting my somber ways was Terry Coalter, a friend since my elementary school years, and my polar opposite. She didn’t have a sad bone in her body, truly believing the universe was good, and that everything happened for a reason.

It was two years ago, twenty-six years of friendship and counting, that I sat at a table in Dominick’s, waiting for my friend. But, she never showed.

A few blocks down the road, where she had parked, she saw a kid being chased by his peers. The newly teenage boy was running from his anti-gay persecutors. Without looking, the kid ran across the street. A car was careening down Beverly Boulevard. Terry jumped into action. She pushed the boy to safety, but not herself.  I sat in my chair, texting her: WHERE ARE YOU – WHY DO YOU HATE ME?? It was then I saw the ambulance through the window. I miss her trying to cheer me up.

Word on the street was the kid was found a few days later in red tepid bathwater, lifeless after slitting his wrists. The note he left read, “I don’t believe it gets better.” Terry Coalter was a dear friend of mine. If we could sit at Dominick’s once more, I would ask her why that happened. When people listen out into the world, hoping to hear the mellifluous sounds of good, all they’re listening to is the sound of silence.

The only thing that helped my mind was writing. And it led me to a sliver of light in my dark world; her name was Sam Bennet.

All my failed loves, my belief of elusive love, and my all-in-all self-loathing made great fodder to write about. A few sad short stories of mine got some eyes on them from an agent. Then a novel, The Discovery of Nothing. It won a PEN award and sold about nine-thousand copies. I was disappointed. Critics said—“Darkly comical”; “Chris Rew’s novel will make you re-think ever being happy”; “His poetic prose, filled with darkness, made me cry for hours and re-think my entire life”—and there I was, praised for my tears. It was even cited as being the cause of an increase in suicides that year. I got an advance to write a short-story collection as a result of my novel. It was enough to keep me solvent for another year. It also brought me Sam. I felt so different around her.  Looking at her, touching her, breathing in sync with her made me feel like somehow I’d been absolved. It had all the fixings of love.

“Hey, aren’t you Chris Rew, the author of this book?” Sam asked me, a year-and-a-half ago, holding a hardcover copy of my first novel. I was glad I wandered into Intelligentsia Coffee that day.  I looked over my words, bound together with binder board, to see sandy hair, blue eyes framed by thick-rimmed black glasses, tan skin, full lips, and a pink tank top, all attached to a girl. My book was only noticeable now for being held by her.

“Guilty,” I said, doing a double-take. I was taken aback by her natural beauty. I moved from my table and took a seat at hers. “And so now I have to ask, what do you think?”

She gave it some thought. She pushed her thick-rimmed glasses up from the bottom of her nose with her thumb. “I’d have to say…I like it! So incredibly sad though. I really haven’t read anything this sad, I think, ever.” She pushed her glasses to the bottom of her nose only to push them back up with her thumb. “You’re a really good writer,” she told me. “Just, very dark.”

“I’d rather get my demons out on the page than on the roof of a department store with a sawed off shotgun, rambling about socialism,” I said with a smile. She gave me a once over, her glasses down and then up again. “I’d love to get you a drink to say thank you for your kind words regarding my sad words.”

“I’ll take a white chocolate mocha from the brooding author,” she ordered.

“Their drinks aren’t strong enough to numb my pain. Laurel Hardware on Santa Monica has better ones. Let’s say 8:30? I’ll wear a powdered blue t-shirt, so I appear less brooding.” She tilted her chin down and let out a bashful smile.

After that night at Laurel Hardware, we became joined at the hip, which led to her being in my bedroom, critiquing my latest work.

I paced my living room. I sat on my IKEA couch, which I built amid cursing fits. My couch was brown, and not knowing how to decorate, I only purchased brown IKEA furniture to match. I hated the way my apartment looked. My digital clock went from 8pm to 9pm to 10pm. I hadn’t heard a peep from Sam. Was it possible she hated my new stories as much as I hated myself? I hoped not.

I placed my hand on the gold doorknob that led into my room. With caution, I turned it. As I pushed the door open, I saw, under posters of my favorite movies—Up in the Air, Harold and Maude, Blue Valentine, Clockwork Orange—Sam lying motionless on my unmade bed (brown sheets) with tears rolling down her eyes. I assumed my inability to avoid the proverbial clichés had brought tears to her delicate blue eyes, and she realized she was with a hack.

“It’s…it’s so sad, Chris,” she finally found the strength to say.

I ran over, smiled, and kissed her forehead. “That’s great, right?”

“It’s so sad,” she repeated. The pages were washed over my bed, with one on the floor, as if she weakly dropped them. “Why is it so sad?” She looked up at me like I just told her Santa Claus was a lie.

“It seems to really strike a nerve,” I said, trying to hide my excitement.

Somehow, and without argument from me, her crying led to us having sex. She was louder than normal. I’d come to find she was effusive during sex when she wanted to cheer me up. That night, I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the cops with a noise complaint.

I was woken up at three-AM by reticent sobs. They were muffled by the pillow Sam had placed over her face. I gently moved the pillow to witness the moisture escaping her eyes. “Hey, hey, what’s wrong? You okay?” I asked.

After a long minute she said, “I don’t make you happy.”

“Why would you ever think that? You make me incredibly happy. You’re the light in my dark world; I always tell you that.”

She grabbed the neckline of the oversized t-shirt I liked to sleep in. “Your world wouldn’t still be so dark if that were true.” She clenched her fist, strangling the fabric, and then let go.

“No, that’s not, no,” I stuttered. With an exhale, her neck muscles released, and her head fell weightlessly back on the bed. “What do you want me to say? Yes, I’m unhappy at times. Never because of you. And hey, you said you loved the sadness in my novel.”

“I did. But that seems to be all there is with you. Sadness. You get an advance for a second book, but it’s not enough. You didn’t get this or that; your career isn’t where it should be at this stage; you don’t get people, and the workings of the world just brings you down,” she said, all while lying motionless on the bed.

“Sam, I’ve never understood the world. It’s a bunch of people trying to make nothing mean something. People blindly accept constructs and adhere to the rules. Shun those who don’t fit the mold.”

“Yes, Chris, I know. You were shunned. You never fit in. Jesus, it’s your favorite topic.” She covered her face. “You’ve just gotten sadder and sadder. I don’t know how much more I can take. All these stories end with the main character either killing himself or a love not lasting or something. This story, ‘The Long Road Home,’ is a cross-country journey for this guy to try and escape his abject failure. When he gets home, he realizes he can’t escape it. And so, his parents come home to find him hanging from the staircase. WHAT THE FUCK, CHRIS?” She shot up in a convulsion and shook her fists. “Do you feel that way?  A failure? Do I mean nothing? Does what we have mean nothing?”

I was confused. She once told me I made darkness and hopelessness seem beautiful. It was then I knew I loved her. “No, Sam. No.” She looked me dead in the eye.

“Chris. Do you want to die?” she asked in a slow, drawn out matter. I shrugged the question off. She wrapped herself in her arms.  “Do you realize how incredibly insulting that is to me, Chris? Can you see why that would make me feel like shit?”

“It has nothing to do with you. That’s not fair. You know, the very thing you’re crucifying me for is the very thing you praised me for!” The way her beautiful eyes almost turned red, I realized I had to employ some damage control. “You’re my muse.”

“Oh great, I make you think about how depressing life is. What’s so hard about finding the happy ending?” With that question, she collapsed into the fetal position, wrapped the covers over her, and decided not to speak to me for awhile. I did the only thing I knew to do; I started writing. It was the story of a man whose life is a long sad tale of melancholy. He meets a woman whose life is the picture of happiness. They fall in love. He corrodes her happiness like a cancer. Judging from our most recent conversation, Sam was going to hate this one.

I kept scribbling until I heard, “You have got to be joking. You’re turning this into a story, aren’t you?”

“False. I’m drawing rows and rows of smiley faces.”

I couldn’t believe it; there was laughter. She crawled over to me and put her lips next to my ear. “I love your writing. I just need to know that I make you happy,” she said as her tongue traced my ear.

I grabbed her hand and placed it on my crotch. “That’s not a result of sadness, Sam.”

I SAT ACROSS Ted at Urth café a few afternoons after that. Ted was in all black except for his blue and white checkered scarf. This guy was naked without a scarf. He had pale skin that looked like he went outside about once a year. His black hair was always a mess. He was a well-respected writer and a friend since middle school. His writing tended to be pieces with deep and profound messages for humanity. Two books and one produced independent film comprised his growing resume. His frustration was obvious, though he tried to down play it, at my PEN award, especially for something with such a negative message. We had gathered because I asked him to take a look at some of my stories. I couldn’t stop thinking about my three-AM conversation with Sam a few nights ago.

The stories were in front of him. Pen markings littered the page. “You do know you’re contributing to the California water crisis by eating that burger? It takes gallons of water just to make that,” Ted informed me.

“Must be why it tastes so good,” I said with my mouth full. A few annoyed breathes were released as he shook his head. He took a sip of his water. “Now you’re contributing to the water shortage. I’m ashamed.”

Ted scowled at me. “I discussed your stories with Barbs,” he said. Barbara was his fifth wife. Yes, fifth wife. Ted was thirty-two and had been married five times. An odd characteristic for someone with such moral rectitude, but pointing that out would only validate my role as the pessimist. She was twenty-two and just out of college. I’m sure her amorous feelings had nothing to do with her being a creative writing major trying to publish her first novel. “The writing is good, but how dark is this world of yours? One story you have the main character shoot a kid!”

“Wait a minute; it’s not a real kid,” I said, raising my palm to illustrate that he should really just wait that minute. “The kid is a manifestation of his younger self. He needs to rid himself of it. It’s symbolic.”

“It’s just dark. Why are you so averse to a redemptive ending?”

“Art imitates life. In life, redemptive endings are few and far between.”

“Seriously, how dark is this world you live in?”

“Sam asked me that the other night,” I said as I played with my fries. “It was like she appreciated my book because she was away from it. She’s part of these stories, and therefore can’t deal with the sadness.”

“Sorry, friend. That’s rough.” He moved his fork through his kale and beet salad.

“It’s weird; the sadder I am, the more sex we have. And she complains I’m sad.”

“Just think how much better it could be if you replaced the sadness in the sex with joy. That’s how it is with me and Barbs. Just joy.” He gave me a solicitous look. “After reading these stories, I feel obligated to ask if you’re okay.”

“As okay as I can be.” I always appreciated how he cared.

“Don’t always have to be glum, old chum.”

“Am I always that glum?”

He laughed to himself and said, “Two weeks ago, I asked you what you wanted to do, you said suicide.”

“Followed by, we should probably shower first. That’s funny. It’s funny. It was a joke.”

He shoved kale into his mouth. Little green leaves jumped to freedom as he said, “It’s a very dark joke. You’re missing the beauty around you.”

I looked around at the obsequious Angelenos who would kill you to get ahead, and soaked in the beauty of humanity.

With an awkward hug—he was five-three and I six-two—we said goodbye. He got into his electric Fiat and sanctimoniously drove off, but not before reminding me that happiness was a choice.

THE NEXT FEW weeks, things with Sam got worse and worse. She got mad at me for being upset about the current harrowing state of modern music on our date. So, we went home and had sex. We played no music. I chided her that I would write children’s books about believing in yourself.  She got so enraged with me that we had sex. She read two new short stories of mine, including the one I was working on about destroying her happiness. After having sex, she threatened to leave me unless I sought help to do away with my gloomy ways.

Dr. Conners, psychiatrist extraordinaire, studied me. He wore slacks and a plaid button-down. After some lackluster research, I chose him based on his latest pharmaceutical achievement. He was on the forefront of the war on depression, working on and championing a new drug called, “Sunshine Pills.” It promised to turn that frown upside down and then some.

“You think I’m that bad, doc?” I’d just filled out a mood questionnaire that he was studying.

“Well, um, on question five, um, that asks do you like yourself, um, either, yes, or I like myself sometimes, or, um, I have trouble liking myself,” he showed me the questionnaire and added, “you, um, wrote a fourth option that goes, ‘I hate myself so so much and for good reason,’ um, and then circled it.”

I gave my eyebrows a fatalistic raise, “So I did.”

“You definitely qualify for this new drug, um, that is in trial, if you’re interested.” He smiled. He told me the only known side effect was pure bliss. He got a kick out of that one.

I met Sam for lunch. She was nervous to hear about my evaluation, bracing herself for another sardonic comment. Instead, I showed her my bottle of manufactured happiness. I’d never seen her smile so wide. “Thank you, Chris. I love you.” A warm embrace followed.

Sitting on my brown couch, alone, I held the bottle in my hand. It was unusually overcast outside. I opened the bottle—the pills looked like miniature yellow suns—placed a pill on my outstretched tongue, and swallowed with a glass of water, as per instructions. I savored the silence that surrounded me on that gray afternoon. “Goodbye, old friend,” I said to no one.

Sam came over that night and cooked me a celebratory dinner. As she was putting her famous Italian-seasoned chicken in the oven, I caught her smiling at me. “What?” I said.

“You were sitting there, smiling. Did you know that?”

I told her I hadn’t noticed. Not noticing it caused me to smile even more. I walked over and kissed her forehead and wrapped my arms around her thin waist. Her shirt felt like velvet. I moved my hands under her shirt and felt her skin. It felt like running my hands through soft cream. When I kissed her, I tasted every ingredient in her raspberry lip gloss. My senses were heightened. As the chicken baked at four hundred degrees, Sam was on top of me on the kitchen floor. We were making love. I felt every bit of her as I slipped in. We brought each other to fruition at the exact same moment. It was rhapsodic.

The subsequent weeks were very different for me. I was diligently taking my pill, and it was working wonders. Every morning when that ray of sunlight hit my face, I woke up with an orgasm of excitement. I couldn’t remember why I’d been so dang sad. I was grateful for everything in my life. Some people didn’t even have a roof over their head, but I did.

Colors were more vivid as Sam and I strolled down the street. It was a little chilly during our early morning stroll; I was so happy I could put on my favorite cardigan to complement my outfit. Heck, all my cardigans were my favorite cardigans. My face muscles were sore from smiling—it was fantastic! As Sam and I held hands, we saw a thin, hungry cat cross our path.

“That’s so sad. I wish I had some food on me,” she said as she checked her pockets.

Looking in her beautiful eyes I said, “Honey, it is sad for the cat, but someone will have the opportunity to help it. It will all work out how it’s supposed to. Look at you: you’re so beautiful. Look at us: in love. How can anything in this world make you sad when we have that?” I pulled her close and hugged her tight.  “Do you want to sing? Let’s sing!” Holding her hand, I skipped down the street belting, “Put on a Happy Face.”

At Urth café, where both Ted and I had a kale and beet salad, Ted told me he’d found out Barbs was sleeping with a musician from Los Feliz.  Good ol’ Barbs did love music. I reminded Ted that happiness was a choice, and he should choose to move forward and be grateful to have spent time with Barbs. “I don’t know, Chris. Maybe my expectations were too high this time. Or should I just not expect someone to love me for any extended period of time?” he asked.

“It was you who told me: there is someone for everyone; all detours will lead you to the right path. Isn’t it great you get to follow that advice now?” He sure was being a silly goose.

His face formed a puzzled expression. “I don’t know, maybe you were always right. Maybe the world is dark, friend.”

“No! It’s light and beautiful and here for you—for us! Every day, every moment is wonderful. It is sure a shame what happened, but you have a good friend you can talk to about it. You’re living. We’re living!” That reminded me: I wanted to get a car wash.

Ted was tugging at his scarf with an awful force. He was shaking his head back and forth. “You know, I try. I try to be optimistic, I do. I really thought I had gotten it right this time.”

We ended lunch with a warm hug. In spite of our height difference, it was nice that we could express our friendship with such an action. Smiling, I went into my car and blasted, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and sang along. I really did have this old world on a string.

I picked Sam up in my freshly cleaned car. We were going to dinner. I had alphabetized my book collection, and we just had to celebrate. Sam, frustrated with work, was complaining the entire night. “They promoted Robert over me, Chris. You know how much I wanted a development desk. I’ve been working my ass off.”

I had this chicken that was fantastic—I made the waiter bring out the chef so I could shake her hand, snap a picture, and tell her how she made my night. I was eating this delicious chicken, wondering how I could cheer Sam up. “Honey, I know that’s a big downer, but it just means you weren’t supposed to get that job. That just means there is a much bigger and better job waiting for you. So exciting, right?”

She couldn’t close her mouth and started to cry. She was so happy to realize there was an even better job out there. We went back to my apartment and snuggled under my big warm blanket. “I just can’t stop thinking about it. It must be nepotism or some shit. I was an assistant way before Robert even got there,” she said to me again.

I gave her a warm kiss on the forehead. “Honey, harping on it will only make it worse. You know that. You used to tell me that. You’re gonna get a great job, remember?” I was really excited for her. We didn’t have sex that night, but it allowed me the opportunity to spoon her and hold her close as we slept. When Sam went to work the next morning, I decided I should finish me some short stories. This was my job!

I sat in my living room while Sam was in my room, under my new posters—a giant yellow smiley face, the bright sun shining down on a green meadow, kittens, and a stock photo of two people hugging—reading my latest creation. I was watching the news to distract myself from wondering about her thoughts. It was amazing. There was a story about how a seventeen-year-old girl was raped and murdered in an otherwise safe neighborhood. I was in awe of how the community gathered around her family and came out to support her memory. It really made me like humanity. I couldn’t help but smile. My door creaking open broke my gaze at the television.  Sam shuffled out and sat next to me with my story in her hands.

“What did you think?” I said with budding excitement.

“Definitely a departure from your usual work. There isn’t much conflict in it.”

“Why would you want conflict? It’s about the beauty of friendship.”

She looked away. “It just seemed like everything was great for Johnny. Then he gets this new puppy and things get even better.”

“You must’ve missed something. In their journey together, they learn even more about the world, each other, and loyalty. Didn’t you like the scene where they crashed his neighbor’s birthday party and provided unexpected juggling entertainment? The best present of all!”

“You’re right. Good work, Chris.” She rubbed my knee. I felt accomplished.

Sam started staying at her place more, which gave me a great chance to explore new sleeping positions. Our sex got even better. I would spend hours kissing her and telling her how each part of her made me so happy. She loved it so much; she would tilt her head back and let the positive emotions knock her out cold. I would ejaculate from happiness.

Sam order sushi for us one night and invited me over for dinner. I was so excited! “You really should come to yoga with me, honey. My chakras feel otherworldly,” I said. I’d been trying to get her to come, but she was a little hesitant. “Oh, I wrote another story.”

“That’s great, baby,” she said. She had barely touched any of her dinner.

“It’s called, ‘Redemption Need Not Apply.’ It’s about people who don’t need redemption, because they get it right the first time. It has a happy ending, like you always wanted.” She began to cry. “Wow, you’re really happy I wrote that story, huh?”

“Yes.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and gave me a quick smile. She had such a wonderful smile. “Chris, I, um, I just want to say how happy I am you’re happy,” she said.

“It’s everything you wanted.”

“It is. Absolutely.” She exhaled a year’s worth of breath, “I’m going to go on a trip. It’s going to be a girl’s trip. Just me, Emily, and Heather. We’re going up to Napa, Portland, and then Seattle. I got time off work, and, I hope that’s okay,” she said. She was looking at the floor. I saw a rogue piece of rice on the wood floor. It fascinated me as much as it did her. “We’re planning on leaving tomorrow. And the girls are coming tonight, so, um.”

“I’ll get out of your hair then. I’ll leave my story here for you to read,” I said as I placed the printed copy on her black dining table. “You’re gonna love this trip, I bet!”

There was a moment of silence as she looked at me, studying me. All of a sudden her flood gates opened and she started crying. I’d never seen someone so excited; I was so happy for her.  “Yeah, I probably will. But, I’ll miss you,” she said without looking at me. “Bye, Chris.”

I loved the solitude I had been afforded over the next few weeks, because I really got to know myself. Ted always seemed to be busy, and Sam was enjoying her trip so much I hadn’t even heard from her. It was then I discovered how to feel even more alive than ever before. When walking to grab a cup of ice water from the kitchen, I stubbed my toe on the coffee table. “Yes!” I screamed. The pain was so intense that I knew I was alive. I was so grateful to be able to feel this life-affirming feeling. After it went away, I looked at the table, wanting to feel alive again. I reared my leg back and let it fly forward. My left foot’s forward motion was stopped by the top corner of the table. When it connected, it hurt something fierce; it was wonderful. I got such a rush from life that I ran straight for the wall and slammed my head into it. Blood dripped from my forehead down to my lips. My tongue swirled up to lick its metallic flavor. I tasted my life, and it tasted wonderful. The rush I was feeling guided my eyes towards the steaks knives sticking out of the hardwood knife block in the kitchen. I smiled ear-to-ear. I was really going to feel alive. My friend, Terry Coalter, was right all along; being alive is a beautiful thing.

matthewhoch

Matthew’s previous fiction has appeared in Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Press, The Bookend Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Mulberry Fork Review.  He is an East Coast transplant currently residing in Los Angeles, where no matter your mood, it’s always sunny outside. Out west, he is still a loyal Mets fan.

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Categories: FICTION

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