Part One: Preamble
Chapter One – The Telling of the Story
A nurse brings me lithium and Xanax three times a day, along with a tiny paper cup of water, the kind I used as a kid to wash out my mouth after I brushed my teeth. I feel like a child when the nurse watches suspiciously as I down the pills. The Xanax kicks in immediately, making me mellow, loose and docile, able to smile for the first time in weeks. When I do smile, I have no idea what I am smiling about. But then again, I don’t care. Life, even in a mental ward, is a lot brighter and more cheerful when you’re stoned.
I told Dr. Maddox everything, as best I could, but I don’t think he believed any of it. What sane person, one who has only experienced the limited wares of this reality, would believe in something as fantastic as my story? Even religious people, who believe in some omnipotent, omniscient deity—this fantastic idea of a god—are skeptical when I start talking about life after death and spirits and real women living in someone‘s dreams. Their eyes get wary, their bodies tense up, and all of them, no matter how wacked their religious beliefs are, will tell you they do not believe. It’s the old joke: any church congregation embraces the believer warmly—amen, brother!—who talks to God about everything. But if God ever starts talking back—watch out, brother!—they’ll put you away.
It’s these limited belief systems that make me so very sad. Why can’t people accept that the world is a strange, fantastic and miraculous place, where things way beyond our understanding happen, things that operate contrary to the physical laws we accept as truth? Miracles are real, my friend. Trust me. I know.
Most of the patients were admitted because of attempted suicide, or they did something crazy under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol—usually “and”—alcohol being a catalyst for most of our extreme behavior. Many are regulars, swinging through here every few months like clockwork, either because they stopped taking their meds, or the meds stopped working and they needed a switcheroo or a dose modification.
Since I’m suffering from neither alcohol nor drug abuse, my case is rather unique for a place like this. And because my particular predicament is an exotic one, I get a lot of attention, which I enjoy. I like being fussed over, pampered, dissected and analyzed as if I am some complex being unable to be understood by mere mortals. Not that I have gone out of my way to be misunderstood and confusing. It’s just how it is.
My doctor’s name is Dr. Robert Maddox, although he prefers simply Dr. Robert. He is a tall, thin man in his early fifties with a neatly trimmed black beard and hair parted in the middle, flowing straight over his ears. He is always dressed casually, in slacks and sports jacket over an unassuming shirt. He never wears a tie, and never screams out with his wardrobe I am a medical man. He’s a good guy, and I trust him, up to a point.
“You like novels,” he tells me, during one of our daily chats. While the other inmates are watching television, I’m still reading my Life and Fate book. The nurses don’t approve, because they think I’m best served by interacting more with the patients. But most of them stare silently at the TV anyway, so what’s the point?
“Yeah,” I say, wondering what he’s getting at. “I studied literature in college.” I rarely tell anyone this, but here we have developed the role of Dr. Robert as the confessor and me the confessee. Trivial biographical tidbits pour out of me in almost every sentence.
“Why don’t you write your story down? Like a novel. Have you ever written anything before?”
“I took a writing class in school,” I say, intrigued. Where would I start? With Janie, I guess? The year I met Janie.... “But it was too much work, and the results were pretty poor, to tell you the truth.”
“Like anything else,” he says, “it’s something you learn. And I think it will be therapeutic. You don’t have to, of course, but I highly recommend it.”
Having nothing else to do, and feeling a compulsion to get the story out of my system, I am writing furiously now in a black moleskin notebook, in tiny, barely legible letters. (They don’t let us use computers here.)
This is what you’re reading now.
Every word of it is true.
Chapter Two – Seeing Janie
The year I met Janie I was a sophomore at the University of Washington studying literature. I had figured out early on that the reading, dissection and writing of elaborate essays was the only thing in the world I was good at. I also enjoyed heavy books, the bigger the better, so literature was the perfect fit. It was October, about a month into the school year, with the leaves changing color into gold, the air beginning to turn cold, the rain a perpetual, dreary haze like Seattle so often is that time of year. People wanted to hibernate and wait for spring. I was writing a paper on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, focusing on my two favorite themes at the time: sex and death.
Everything I wrote at the time had sex as a major theme. Whatever essay I wrote, I would tie it to sex. My sexual obsession was even starting to worry my professors so much they made me see a counselor. He told me to go out and get laid. He was right, of course, and I fully concurred with his diagnosis. But even with the counselor’s pep talk, getting laid was something beyond my powers at the time. When I was still a freshman, I did make the occasional, drunken, blind, mad lunge at some waif late at night at a party, but I was rebuffed enough times that I eventually gave up and became a confirmed onanist.
Isn’t that a pretty word? It sounds a lot better than something like masturbator. Or jerk-off artist. Oh-nuh-nist. Yes, I found onanism much safer and less taxing than the pursuit of real, live, nubile, hot-blooded females who could hurt me with barely any effort at all. Call me a coward if you want. A man with too sensitive skin. I will agree with you. Wholeheartedly.
And death, well, that had been on my mind constantly since I was a boy. Although I didn’t consciously dwell on how sex and death were linked, they poured out of me in every essay, two essential points on the same circle.
I had one good friend. His name was Steve Jensen. He lived on the second floor of the dormitory down the hall from me. He was a computer science major, as alienated with the rest of the world as I was. We got along well, at the time.
That’s pretty much it. My life in a nutshell. Literature and masturbation my two obsessions. Although it sounds like I’m patting myself on the back, I did them rather well, if I say so myself.
The day I met Janie was a Tuesday evening, that strange, awkward day of the week that doesn’t belong anywhere. I was at the university main library as always, working on my Dostoevsky paper. It was a quiet in there, with most of the students gone for the day. I often imagined they were at some wild party everyone knew about except me and the few other geeks at the library. I was in the deserted main foyer waiting for the elevator to take me to the fourth floor where the private rooms were. It’s where I preferred to study, on a large table where I could lay out all my books and papers, without that cramped feeling I got in a cubicle.
When the elevator door opened, I was just about to step in, but froze instead with an uncomprehending combination of terror and awe. A short, Japanese girl was in the back of the elevator staring blankly into space. She looked like she lived in a different world than the rest of us. In a flash, seeing her went right past my conscious brain, down into the depths of my deepest being where I recognized her as kin.
Although I enjoyed looking at girls just like the next guy, I had all but given up on ever getting to know one in any kind of romantic, sexual way. And here I was, after one miniscule glance, practically salivating in front of her. I had the urge to get down on my knees and throw my arms around her ankles like some crazy, desperate maniac. Love me, love me, love me, love me. Racing around my head was the thought that standing in front of me was my salvation, and it scared the hell out of me. But I stood there instead, a frozen statue, a terrified little boy, gaping at her with my mouth open, my eyes popping out of my head, unable to turn away or even move into the elevator where I so dearly wanted to go.
A part of me registered the fact that the door was quickly closing, and this beautiful creature was about to disappear, perhaps never to be seen again. But I had temporarily bypassed the practical part of my brain that handles mundane things like movement. Just as the elevator was slamming shut, a hand came between the door and the side of the elevator and pushed it back open. On the end of one of her slender fingers was a coiled snake ring, head pointing up, red eyes staring at me. When the door opened about halfway, she spoke.
Hearing the question knocked me out of my mad reverie, and I stepped tentatively into the elevator, which immediately went down instead of up. But I didn’t care.
I remember perfectly how Janie looked that first time I saw her: the olive skin and the long, thin eyes of the Japanese. Tiny body, oval face with thin lenses in round glasses, hair perfectly straight, falling just above her ears. It was midnight dark, but somehow it glowed in the dim light. Her jeans had holes at the knees, her sweater colorful and heavy, looking as if she had slept in it. She had on her choker I would get to know so well, the one made of smooth black leather, its tiny silver cross falling just above her breasts, which were on the small side. She wore black Converse shoes, with writing on the sides in blue ink I couldn’t make out. Even while standing quietly in an elevator, she had a fierceness to her that was striking. There was also something androgynous about her, although she didn’t come off as masculine. She was without a doubt a girl not to be taken lightly.
As the elevator crawled loudly down to the basement, which seemed to take much longer than it should have, the air in the elevator got thick and heavy, as if it were imbued with an atmosphere of tension and expectation. I wanted to stare at her, but only if she couldn’t see me staring. So my eyes darted all around her, occasionally making it onto her face and her body. She watched me with amusement in her eyes, her lips parted as if she wanted to smile, but kept herself in check.
Instinct told me we were on the same wavelength, which I had never felt before, from boy or girl. Our brainwaves got tied in tight knots right then and there, immediately and irrevocably joined. I guess you can call that love at first sight. But using the word “sight” implies you can look at someone and fall in love with them from their appearance. This was deeper than that—second sight, perhaps—coming from the soul, emanations of the soul. Souls speak, and at that moment in that elevator at that time, both our souls spoke loud and clear.
I watched her intently as she got off, pushing an empty book cart that I had somehow missed. She walked passed the “Employees Only” sign and down a long, gray hallway that disappeared into darkness. Her empty book cart had a damaged wheel which rang in the silent hallway, its stilted banging bouncing off of the walls as if in a chamber hall. As she pushed the mangled, hideous cart, she hummed to herself a tune I could almost make out, walking gracefully, sinuously, and quickly, as if she were in a hurry. Before she disappeared into a room on the left, she turned around, smiled and waved at me. I waved back tentatively, and knew I had to see her again. And when I did, I would talk to her this time around.
I rode up to the fourth floor and got to work on my Dostoevsky paper, inspiration oozing from every pore. The words flew out of me. Sex, sex, sex, sex, I kept thinking. But this time after every sex, was a quiet question: love?
Chapter Three – Jerking Off
That night I stayed late at the library like I often did, until eleven when it closed, walking out with the few diehard stragglers. The night was cool, but I was so psyched at my seeing Janie that I don’t think even a freezing temperature could have cooled me off. I lit up a cigarette under one of the tall lamps outside the library, watched the thick smoke scatter into the air in a hazy fog and marched back to my dorm room with one mission in mind. When I got there, I locked the door, put on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, lay down in bed on top of the sheet and blanket, closed my eyes and imagined a slightly different elevator scenario between me and the beautiful Japanese girl.
In the fantasy, when I get on the elevator, without any hesitation, we both look boldly into each other’s eyes. As the elevator glides down, we move closer to each other as if pulled by some invisible force. Our noses nearly touch, and I can feel her body heat and breath, our energies pulling at each other like powerful magnets. We are both on fire.
The elevator suddenly stops midway between the first floor and the basement. That’s the sign we’ve been waiting for, the sign from a kind and loving God that says he wants his children to love and fuck like rabbits. Procreate! Be fertile! What are you waiting for? We listen to the divine words and stick our tongues down each other’s throats, probing, probing, as far as they can go, into the larynx, and then through into the trachea and then the lungs, exiting into the heart where we wallow around for a while, tasting each other there, reveling in the heart going thump, thump, thump in rhythmic bliss. I reach under her sweater, deeper underneath her shirt, and grab her breasts (no bra!) and fondle them as we kiss each other wildly.
I, of course, am diligently stroking my cock at this point, the fantasy in my head feeding the blood rushing down there in torrential waves. It was as hard as iron and about twenty miles long, or at the very least the length of the Statue of Liberty (freedom! freedom!).
With the miracle and practicality of dreams, the clothes separating our genitalia disappear, and we are going at it standing up right there in the stalled elevator. She has her legs spread as wide as they can go, her ankles wrapped around my body. I am inside her, deep, attempting to go as far as I can. If I could burrow myself inside her completely, I would.
Around this point in the fantasy I would ejaculate, a volcano erupting. Boom!
Although technically I was a virgin, being the dedicated onanist that I was, I had made love in every position and with every type of woman imaginable. Occasionally my thoughts even strayed to the same sex, but that wasn’t as fun and satisfying for me. In other words, in the land of the sexual imagination, I was an expert, a king, Casanova, Don Juan, and even, when feeling a bit risqué, the Marquis de Sade. I had read his Justine during my summer break. It provided a lot of exotic material for my fertile imagination. I had also read The Kama Sutra and had every sexual position permanently branded in my brain.
The connection I made with her on the elevator made my fantasy much more intense. I felt her energy enhancing my own when I reached out to her with my mind. When I imagined holding and touching her body, I could really feel her, as if she were there in my arms, soft and warm and oh-so-real flesh, with the real woman inside. Every time I reached out to her with my mind, on some level of reality, I was touching her. And she was able to feel it too. I was certain of that.
Using my new elevator fantasy, with minor variations, I jerked off at the very least three times a day, even occasionally hitting six or seven, depending on my stamina and food intake. Sometimes just imagining kissing Janie, my dick would grow hard in two seconds flat, and I would cum almost immediately. I think cigarettes had something to do with it too; the more cigarettes I smoked, the more I was able to jerk off, and vice versa. Once I started realizing this, the number of cigarettes I smoked a day went way up.
Between classes I spent all my time at the library working on my sex-and-death Dostoevsky paper with great gusto and enthusiasm, while in the back of my head was that girl I saw on the elevator, whom I was imagining fervently as my incestuous soulmate sister. No matter how into the paper I got, I kept interrupting my writing to ride the elevator down to the first floor and back up again to the fourth where I was studying. I’d occasionally ride it up to the sixth, where I would wander around among the book stacks like some somnambulist to see if she was there returning books to the shelves.
I even rode to the basement once, getting off the elevator, staring at the EMPLOYEES ONLY! sign that was like a troll guarding the bridge. Past it was an ugly, gray hallway that echoed with the sounds of a machine coming from a room in the distance. Once I did gather my courage and walked past the troll, but I only got a few feet before I turned back. What would I say if I saw her again like that? I’ve been jerking off to your image three or four times a day, and I think it’s imperative we get together. Perhaps, Let’s have lunch would be more appropriate. But I wanted to run into her by accident, naturally, not some awkward, forced meeting.
I became more and more desperate with each passing day. It was as if by thinking about her as obsessively as I was, without seeing her, a part of me was evaporating away into nothingness. One can only give so much into imagination before there is nothing left.
Chapter Four – Getting to Know Each Other
It was another Tuesday, around six p.m. I had packed up my books in my knapsack and was on my way to the nearest dining hall to grab a bite before returning to the library for more work and more rides up and down the elevator. Waiting for the elevator door to open like I had done a million times before, I wasn’t thinking of Janie, for perhaps the first time in days. I was wondering what the dining hall was offering that night and praying it was good. I imagined dessert, soft ice cream in a dish with a scoop of strawberry sauce over it. It was so vivid, I could taste it.
Then the door opened and there she was, standing there, like before, with an empty book cart beside her. She smiled instantly at me, while I gawked at her like last time, hoping she was real.
“Hi,” she said, in a voice I had been imagining for days. “I’ve been looking for you.”
We had dinner that night in the dining hall closest to the library. At first we didn’t talk much, focusing on our meatloaf with mashed potatoes. It was the usual, grubby dining hall fare, barely edible, but with Janie sitting across from me, it was delicious.
We ate at a table in the corner of the dining hall. We introduced ourselves and smiled nervously at each other. I remember being embarrassed because of all the sexual fantasies I’d had. How many were there by that point? Twenty-five? Thirty-five? A lot, whatever the number. And every one of them on some level was real. If she only knew. Would she still talk to me?
When I looked at her and watched her grin at me, I could swear she might have known in some strange way what I had been imagining, and it scared the shit out of me. Although I felt myself shrinking, I pulled myself up straight and forced myself to look her in the eye. I was fascinated by her choker necklace, the one with the cross that I had used rather imaginatively in my fantasies. As I sat across from her, my gaze kept swinging from her necklace to her lips.
After dinner, we went back to my dorm room and smoked a lot of pot, even though it wasn’t my usual routine. At that point in my life, I only smoked it before bed to help me sleep and give me good dreams. I would do a bong hit or two, put on a cassette tape of Dylan or the Beatles or Jean-Michel Jarre or whatever struck my fancy, close my eyes and drift off to some deep astral plane where I would feel as if I were being tucked into bed by an angel. Smoking it at any other time, I had learned the hard way, definitely decreased my IQ by enough points to make me uncomfortable. Unless I was just listening to music, I felt stupid when I was stoned. I needed every brain cell I had to function adequately in the world.
But with Janie, I made an exception. I was apprehensive about doing or saying the wrong thing, and I had no idea what else to do with her. My experience with women at that point was limited to fantasy. Although in my imagination I was the King of Sex and a ladies’ man of the first order, in reality I was a total geek baby who knew literally nothing about the opposite sex. I figured if we were both stoned enough, there would be a lot of extra leeway for mistakes. One of pot’s essential qualities is that it makes people more forgiving. So we put a towel under the door, cracked a window, listened to music she picked out, talked and smoked a helluva lot of weed.
That night I found out she was eighteen years old, and her real name was Janisu Takagash. She had called herself Janie ever since she was a kid, after she figured out Janisu was a strange name for an American.
Janie’s parents’ English wasn’t very good. When she was angry at them, which was more often than not, she would imitate them in that mean caricature style of old movies imitating all things Asian. They were JAPANESE, in bold, all-capital letters, and Janie never forgave them for that. She was AMERICAN, in even larger, bolder letters than her parents were JAPANESE.
She did have a tiny accent she tried to hide, which came out when she was excited. The ironic thing is, what Janie hated most about herself was what I loved. I loved her Japanese heritage. I loved her accent, her olive skin, her dark hair, her deep Asian culture running through her blood and spirit no matter how much she fought it. Japanese was exotic to me. I was a pale granola, born and bred in the hicks of eastern Washington, where the racial colors were varying shades of white, the religion Christianity and the one political party Republican. Although I tried to hide it, I’m sure Janie realized this about me. A part of her surely resented me for it.
Her mother was fragile, to put it politely. Janie didn’t talk about her much that first night we spent together. When she mentioned her parents, she teared up a bit, just a little, and then said her dad owned a Chinese restaurant, and her mom spent most of her time in bed, staring at the ceiling. It was the best her mother could do, she said. She was so drugged up that bed was the best place for her.
“When I was ten,” Janie said, “my mother was twenty-eight. She couldn’t take it anymore and started smashing things. First it was the plates. And then the glasses. She screamed at the top of her voice the entire time, while I hid under my bed. Before she got to things like the television set, Father came in and stopped her. That led to her first time in the hospital. This would happen every few months, until the doctors got her medicine right. Then every few years she would flip out again. Now, she’s more skeleton than woman. She doesn’t weigh more than eighty-five pounds.”
I know Janie was afraid of ending up like her mother. She saw her mother’s madness as a ticking time bomb inside her. Her fears told her it would eventually go off, and what then? But that first night, there wasn’t much unpleasant talk like that. It was more a sharing of hopes and dreams and gauging how much we could trust each other, rather than handing each other the very worst of our childhoods.
I lost my virginity that night. It was a little late, but I made up for lost time. The sex was shy and awkward at first and didn’t live up to my fantasies, except for one thing: there was touch involved! The beauty of touch, the intense pleasure of skin on skin, losing the solitary space I had lived in all my life, made up for everything. We fell in love with each other that night, if we weren’t in love already.
Janie and I were together as much as possible, until Christmas break when I went home to my family in Spokane (we moved from Cheney when I was in junior high school), while Janie stayed in Seattle to be with hers.
We weren’t really ever apart, as far as I was concerned. I could reach out to her with my mind and feel her presence. She was always there when I needed her.
Chapter Five – Death Wish
There’s something about us I neglected to mention. It’s not something I enjoy talking about, and I’m not used to discussing it. We, Janie and I, both suffered from what anyone would rightfully call a major flaw. Deep inside us both lived a warped kernel of self-destructiveness, a nano time bomb constantly ticking away, with each tick telling us to kill ourselves, to end it all, to put a stop to this pain and misery that is our human existence. I’m not saying we never felt joy or any of the positive emotions—no, I’m not saying that at all. I’m trying to say that even within the joy, within the laughter, within the good cheer, this nasty ticking time bomb was always there.
What can I say? I’m convinced some people are born to kill themselves. It’s like they were born with a suicide-virus in their brain, and they can do nothing about it except eventually heed the call, even with all the modern medications spewing out of the pharmaceutical industry.
But I realized early on I didn’t have the right stuff to do it. A lack of courage? Fear of losing my I? Perhaps it was vanity? Whatever it was, I learned to dampen the volubility of the suicide message by throwing myself into my books and my essays. That’s why I spent every waking moment I could at the library. It’s also one of the reasons I smoked pot before bed, to keep that evil monster inside me at bay. With pot, there were no 3 a.m. rantings and ravings due to insomnia. It did have the marvelous ability to quiet the time bomb. Although we only talked about it once, I know Janie had it worse than I did.
It was one of our first nights together, after we had broached almost every topic in the universe, that we talked about suicide. We were sitting Indian-style on my bed, holding hands. It had to be late in the night if we were talking about something this heavy. We were probably reasonably ripped too. I was at the head of the bed, sitting on my pillow, while Janie was at the other end. The Beatle’s album Rubber Soul was playing. I’m not certain about that, but let’s just say it was on, with the song “You Won’t See Me” just starting.
“You ever have bad thoughts?” I ask her, curious if she was like me in some dark respects. I am almost certain she is.
“Whaddya mean, bad thoughts?” Janie asks. “Like the world’s going to end tomorrow? Or my mom, she’s such a bitch?”
“Bad thoughts. Suicidal thoughts. Like this alien part of you deep inside you is telling you to quit, to stop, to end it all. Those kinds of thoughts. When something really bad happens. Or not necessarily even that bad.”
Janie squeezes my hand, looks intently in my eyes as if trying to find an answer to some pressing question, and then looks away somewhere in the direction of the stereo. Her eyes water up. “Let’s talk about this once and only once. Never again, okay? And don’t think I’m crazy, because I’m not. Not yet anyway.” She laughs a crazy-sounding laugh. “I get bad thoughts all the time. Those kinds of thoughts, in fact. Too often. You do too. I know you do. I saw it in your eyes when you asked me.”
I nod, staring at her intently, pleased I am right about her. We are twins.
“It’s like this evil sickness in my head telling me to end it. To quit. To stop. When it happens, I’m helpless to think of anything else. I’ll look at a knife, any old knife—say, a bread knife even—and imagine using it in some terrible way against myself. I see a high-rise and I’ll imagine jumping off from the very top. A bathtub inevitably conjures up an image of me slitting my wrists, the bath water turning red. But I fight it. I’ll always fight it. It’s something I was born with, and I’ll fight it until my dying breath. I won’t end up crazy like my mom. Never! I’m going to beat this thing. I like living too much. I like you too much.”
After this speech, she turns back toward me and stares in my eyes again, but she isn’t searching anymore. She looks relieved. Content. I found out later she hadn’t told anyone else this before. Ever. I was her first suicide confidante.
“I have it too,” I reassure her. “Just like you said. It’s what ties us together, isn’t it? A virus. Another beating heart inside me, but one determined to die.” Janie frowns at me and is about to interrupt. I hold up my hands, my palms facing her. “I won’t talk about it again. It’ll just be there, okay? But if you ever do want to talk about it, I’m here and I understand. I get it. But you know what’s weird? It’s not here now. I don’t feel it. It’s not whispering to me.”
She takes my hands in hers again and squeezes. “I don’t feel it either. Maybe it’s the pot making us light.”
“Yeah, it’s the pot. We’re floating away.” But I knew better. It was us. Us together. Us against ourselves.
Together we can beat this thing, I told myself.
Yes, that must have been the basis of our intense attraction for each other: when we were together, our ticking time bombs canceled each other out. When we were together, we didn’t hear the voices. There was nothing there inside us whispering to end our lives.
Perhaps this, or something similar, forms the basis of all love. We all have a death wish, some rotten core of negativity that is bent on sabotaging our best efforts. Who has not, at some point in their lives, seriously contemplated killing themselves? As far as any of us know, we didn’t ask to be here, so what right does anyone have to keep us from leaving? That’s what we may tell ourselves. I suffer, I have pain, and I can choose to end it. We have free will, right? This death wish is a poison inside us all, but for most people, it’s so quiet it’s barely heard. Love, when reciprocated with equal energy, destroys the death wish with its miraculous power. It destroys the rotten core of negativity. It doesn’t just heal—it obliterates and creates something new in its place. That’s why love, on this dying planet, is the greatest force for our salvation.