It was very early in the morning and most of Venice Beach was still asleep. The only sounds were those of the ocean waves crashing and the raucous, echoing yells of a Homeless Man leaning into his stereotype as he held a spirited debate with a fire hydrant. The sun was already shining very white and bright and the wind was blowing in lightly from the Pacific, carrying with it just a hint of rot.
Gil stood on the fire escape, admiring the morning and the way the dew from the night still dampened the windows of people’s homes and left idle cars under a layer of freckled water. He thought of the chemical coating that protected cars’ paint jobs from wear and their metal from rust. Everything, he observed, must need that — a protective layer. He then wondered what his own protective coatings were and upon more self-reflection, his mind settled on several, he tried to imagine his life without them. The thoughts frightened him, but he would never admit that openly.
Overlooking the world around him, he inhaled the last remnants of his joint, and watched the Homeless Man below as he told the fire hydrant to go to hell, picked up his cardboard sign and lit a half-smoked cigarette.
The fool stared down from atop his hill. King Gil the most righteous, arbiter of the truth, his intentions good, but unsure of what that actually meant. He felt a deep sympathy for the Homeless Man, but also a sense of superiority that he did not question.
He looked down at the cracked screen of his smartphone; 6:15. Her alarm would go off in fifteen minutes. He needed to get her coffee started — it was his way of starting her day on the right note. He wanted her to wake-up happy, they had fought last night and had both gone to bed angry.
He thought of the day’s itinerary and it filled him with dread, like when he was a kid and it was Sunday night, right before the start of a long week of school.
He smashed the joint on the metal floor and then tossed it a safe distance from the balcony door. Could be anyone’s roach, he thoughtand then, looked once more to be sure. He methodically packed away his rolling papers, lighter, and weed, and sealed them in a plastic baggy before hiding them under a loose brick he conveniently discovered months ago.
The wind pushed hard against the door as he fought his way back inside; and when he put some muscle and leaned into it, it nearly knocked him off balance. Once in his hallway, he gave himself a quick look over and smelled his shirt, which did little more than reassure. He had gone nose-blind to himself years ago.
For a moment, he stayed there, thinking back to the first time that he and Sheila had entered that hallway together. They had been so excited, everything had felt nearly perfect. They had christened their new life almost immediately in the apartment, on the kitchen floor and then again in their bare bedroom — several times over, that first night.
Gil opened the door slowly and made his way inside their apartment. He immediately started on the coffee and then moved to the couch. Now, he’d wait for the coffee to brew, as the THC slowly but surely wrapped him in a comfortable layer of protection against the biting harshness of the sober world.
Suddenly, there was a stirring from the bedroom, “Gil?”
He sat just a moment longer, delayed in his response.
He got up, poured the coffee and put in two and a half pumps of creamer andwalked to the bedroom, lightheaded and almost aloof.
“Thanks. How was your run?”
“Not bad, I can definitely tell I’m gaining lung strength.”
She looked at him so intensely for a moment, that Gil thought she might vaporize him right then and there. But, alas, he was not turned to a dispersal of water particles. Gil became lost in the thought of millions of hydrogen and oxygen molecules all colliding, repelling, coming together, falling apart.Human beings and their molecules have a lot in common, he thought. It all felt so beautiful from a distance. She interrupted his tangent stupor.
“Don’t forget we’re seeing my friend Luna tonight.”
“How could I forget that. She’s preordained it. Right?” He laughed, trying to keep it lighthearted.
“That’s not the point of — you think this is just silly and stupid nonsense don’t you!?
“What? No. I just…I just don’t see how in the hell…it’s just so arbitrary — I can’t see how any of it can have an actual impact on your personality. It’s just the illusion of control. It isn’t real.”
“The alignments are not arbitrary! — And, that isn’t the point Gil! It’s not even about that, it’s about —”
“Okay, fine…they have purpose…but so does voodoo or witchcraft for that matter. Doesn’t make ‘em real.”
“So you only ever believe in things that you can see, touch, and feel?”
Gil took a moment to think. He was quickly losing sight of the purpose of the argument.
“Yeah, I am a skeptic. I do need proof, real, tangible proof to believe in things. What’s so wrong with that? So what if I don’t believe in this fairy tale bull —”
“So, what about relationships Gil? They aren’t exactly tangible and —“
“That’s very different.”
She sat up in bed, rubbed her eyes and stared out through the window for a long, long moment. Then she sniffed the air, her face screwing up in disgust at the recognition.
She looked at him. “Why do you smell like cigarettes?”
Gil paused for a moment; there it was.
“What? I don’t smell like cigarettes?”
“You’re so…frustrating! Just go to the couch!” She pointed toward the living room. Gil sighed, the apparent success of his lie was bittersweet. He obeyed and left the room, tail between his legs. She closed the door behind him.
Now, all alone, he wondered why he clung to the lie so tightly. He didn’t think it was as simple and trivial as confrontation avoidance. He drifted off to sleep regretting everything, and feeling sorry for himself. Then he began to wonder, just before he dozed off, how long had that Homeless Man been stuck in his eternal argument? Then, he tried to imagine where the Homeless Man would be in one year, and then five and then…He wondered if the Homeless Man had simply grown comfortable in his routine. How could anyone grow comfortable with constant discomfort, he thought. Unless, it was protecting you from something worse. Gil pictured a deep, dark abyss; he felt like it was just ready to swallow him whole. Then he fell asleep.
An hour later, Gil awoke to Sheila standing over him. She started, “I did miss you.”
He let out a long exhale. He was too scared to do the decent thing but, he felt compelled to do something.
“Yeah, me too. And, I was thinking about it and I’m pretty sure it was just smoke from the homeless guy outside. We did leave the window open overnight again.”
Sheila exhaled and rolled her eyes.
“Why do you think it’s okay to lie to my face?”
“How is it different from when you lied about the ghost of an old man watching me as I sleep every night?
“That is not a lie Gil! I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and he has been there. Standing over you. I told you, I’m sure! It’s your grandfather!”
Sheila stared at Gil incredulously. Gil paused and took a breath trying to slow the moment and collect his thoughts. He thought about just coming clean; it wasn’t that big of a deal, he rationalized. But then, he said, “Do you hear how you sound!? Why do always have to force your…goddamned world view on me? I like to live in a world of facts and truth.”
“I know you smoked Gil. Admit it. Rip off the Band-Aid! Why do you just have to have your little secrets? It’s your little way of always rebelling! I’m sick of it! Stop! Tell the truth!”
She was shaking and stood up looking down at Gil’s face, looking him dead in the eyes.
“I told you…I really did not smoke a cigarette.”
“You should leave.”
“I should leave? Are you kidding me? I live here…”
“I want out! I want this to be over. I can’t handle it. I’m so done.”
“Don’t say that.”
“ I thought I needed you. But, I don’t…I don’t need you…you’re just like him and I don’t need him either.”
“I am nothing like your father.”
“You two are exactly alike! In every way that matters!”
“Considering the fact that he blew his own head off — that’s a pretty messed up thing to say!”
Sheila stood up and crossed the room to the bedroom. She was close to tears.
“You can be so horrible sometimes.”
Gil let the weight of those words hit him fully. The emotion was too much for him to process and thus gave rise to a masochistic urge to accept all of the blame and all of the pain, because he could no longer bare being the bad guy, but still held tightly to his foolish lie. He now wanted her to hurt him, he deserved it he thought. He was completely enraptured by the role that he now adorned, the part of the sufferer. Then he thought, sometimes, the only solace for a scorned lover is the moral righteousness that comes with being the victim, but that too fades and is often never enough.
He followed her to the bedroom. It was still messy and smelled of her perfume. She was lying in their bed with her eyes closed.
“I’m sorry that…I test people. It’s what I do…what I’ve always done. I push people away before they can hurt me. It’s cliche but it’s a defense mechanism. I’m trying to fix it.”
He said this, as he stood in the doorway looking down at her.
“Stop hiding behind some character, some protective bullshit veil! You’re just selfish and bored!”
Gil felt a knife tear through him. That hurt more than he had wanted it to and with that he turned and walked to the door. As he opened it, she called out.
“Where are you going?”
“To smoke a joint!” He walked out, the door slamming behind him.
She kept her eyes on the door for a long time.
Outside it had become busy. Gil looked down at the line of traffic already forming on the speedway below him and sighed. He retrieved his secret stash, rolled a joint and made his way down to thestreet level. Stepping out from the shadow of the building he crossed the speedway and followed the sounds of a familiar yelling.
“Hey…I’m talking to you. Stop trying to ignore me you son of a bitch. Listen to me! Listen to me!”
The same Homeless Man from earlier, was screaming at the same damned fire hydrant. It made Gil sad and reminded him of ghost stories he had read as a kid. A lonely spirit locked in a constant argument that he will never win and it never ends, hopeful but forever disappointed.
We all are bits and pieces of each other he thought, most of us an amalgamated stereotype and we don’t even know it. Then, suddenly, he felt very ashamed as he remembered all of the lies that he had told. He wondered if this was truly who he was or if it was just an ill-fitted caricature he wore as a persona.
He sat in the shade of the apartment building and watched the homeless man for a long time, as he tried to think of the answer and what to do.At least he wasn’t bored, he mused and then he thought about the ghost Sheila had claimed to have seen at the foot of his bed. Maybe, he thought, it was a demon. He then felt an immense sympathy for Sheila.
Gil, with his foolish grin kept perfectly still, was spellbound as he retreated into the comfort of his own perspective. Over the far hill, the sun was still rising, its rays lighting the coming day and the world was still spinning ‘round.
Zachary Karem is a writer of fiction. Depending on when you’re reading this, he is either very famous or very unknown. In his personal life, he is admired as a great partner and cat dad, and yes all of his friends speak in hyperbole. He spends most of his spare time wrestling with the blank page, and avoiding cliches like the plague. He has penned political satire for ‘The Satirist’ and contributed Op-Ed’s to ‘MocoVox,’ an online newspaper covering the Washington D.C. area. When he’s not bleeding brilliance onto his computer screen, he’s enjoying sky diving and Kentucky Bourbon — having actually tried only the latter.