Aleksei Drakos: Between Universes

[Day 412]

This is where the world ends.

I have to capture it, contain it, frame it in words to bounce off satellites so you will know just how it feels to stand where there is more sky than earth and every star in the universe is revealed through the absence of light.

My tongue shapes sounds in languages never written to gods without names and

I let the dry earth soak through my toes and

I listen while the land divulges all its secrets and

I think of sweeping stone ceilings and incense that claims every sense for its own and

I remember chanted pleas and rituals old enough to lose their meanings and

I breathe.

The smell of rain still days and miles away hangs in the air and collects on my skin with the static-charge of promised thunder.

You told me once: You walk with thunder, but you wouldn’t explain what that meant.

The screen’s gone dark.

There are no words for this.

*

[Day 328]

From Seth [00:22:01]

i got your postcard today

The motel room feels more like home than the accumulation of every apartment I’ve ever had. I watch the smoke twist from my hand to the ceiling and imagine every person who’s ever lain on this bed, every moment that’s taken place in this room. How they all pile, one on top of the other, in paper thin layers we never see.

Unless they happen to build up in close proximity to us.

From Seth [00:33:12]

i keep imagining one day someone will ask who they’re all from. i’ll tell them about you + all the adventures you have

I’ve been in the background of more tourist snapshots and home movies than I can count. I go smaller – all the places my cast-off cells end up – and more intangible – all the memories and thoughts I only exist as a ghost-blur. Pieces of me scattered across so many minds and places I’ll never know. How many pieces of strangers are buried in my subconscious? How many different cast-off cells hang in the air?

From Seth [00:35:45]

are you going to tell me what they mean?

From Ryan [00:36:02]

Nope. You have to play the game, housecat.

I’ve bought a postcard at every gas station, rest area and roadside attraction between Point You and Point Me. I scrawl them with nonsense statements, half-formed thoughts and caricatures of my highway compatriots. Words spilling over words to devour the vacuum of white card paper.

It’s more vital than breathing.

From Seth [00:38:30]

you’re never going to give up trying to take me with you, are you?

I smile.

From Seth [00:44:17]

what do you see?

 *

[Day 265]

Your text message comes at a rest stop in Oklahoma.

It always goes wrong in Oklahoma.

My roommate says it’s a Native American curse to punish white people, but she’s like that.

From Seth [19:10:05]

you didn’t have to give this to me

From Ryan [19:10:49]

I know. That’s why I did.

Seven hours and thirteen minutes ago, we shared a zip code. Seven hours and ten minutes ago, I stood outside your apartment door with an envelope creased and wrinkled from my indecisive fingers.

From Seth [19:12:27]

i feel bad. you keep giving me things.

From Ryan [19:13:00]

Don’t.

Every insomnia-driven confession I had lived inside that envelope, wrapped around the pendant I’d worn every day since I was thirteen.

From Seth [19:14:15]

i haven’t been able to finish your letter yet.

I twist the knotted leather cuff around my wrist, presented to me fifteen hours and three minutes ago. Its weight is as tangible as the void around my neck. A piece of me in exchange for a piece of you.

From Ryan [19:18:03]

You knew I was leaving.

From Seth [19:20:21]

i didn’t want to admit it. where are you?

Six hours and 47 minutes ago, I stood outside your door and didn’t knock. I’d stolen enough sleep from you the night before. But I couldn’t just leave.

From Ryan [19:21:01]

A rest stop in OK

Six hours and 42 minutes ago, I made it all the way to my car before I went back to your apartment and the envelope taped to your door. With the Sharpie I’d carried through forty-seven states, I wrote the truest statement of all the words I’d given you.

From Seth [19:21:42]

tell me what you see, mr. stray

Home isn’t a place.’

*

[Day 201]

You hide behind our reflections in the window. Your smile tight-rope walks the distance between our past and the future. I fold straw papers into perfectly symmetrical accordion squares.

‘You have to do what’s best for you,’ you say. ‘I don’t want you to make any decisions because of me.’

‘I understand,’ but that’s not what I’m asking.

Your hands play the latest melody circling through your mind. The muscles in your jaw tense and relax with rhythmic precision. A piano solo executed sotto voce in imperfect time. ‘I’m just a scared little housecat too terrified of all the things that could eat me out there.’

‘You know I wouldn’t let anything eat you,’ I say. ‘Us alley cats are pretty scrappy.’

‘I know.’ This smile is a little less thin, but we both know the treeline is still far from sight. ‘Is there anywhere you consider home, Ryan?’

‘I have the house I grew up in, and I have places I stay for a while.’ Vowels and consonants crawl up my throat in a disjointed race to choke the words I want to say instead. ‘But that’s all they are. Places.’

You pick at the warning label on your lighter, the tempo in your jaw rising to mezzo-forte. ‘Are you afraid you’ll never find it?’

In the parking lot, an old man with a wooden cane and a green felt hat takes millimetre steps to the front door.

‘Yes.’

‘What if you miss it because you’re always off chasing something else?’ You look at me with those eyes that stare a little too long and a little too hard.

Running. Not chasing. Running somewhere else. ‘The whole universe is out there, housecat. What if I miss that?’ It’s never been so difficult to speak to those eyes. ‘Come with me.’

Your jaw stops twitching and your hands become still. A whimper slithers from your throat.

‘I’ll tell you all the things I see ahead, and you’ll tell me all the reasons why I’m wrong.’ I flip a perfectly symmetrical accordion square at your head. ‘Sometimes I’ll even let you think you’ve won.’

You retreat into our reflections in the window. ‘Finish your syrupy bread.’

*

[Day 93]

‘Not funny, Ryan. Where are you?’

I hold my breath so even your sonic ears can’t find me.

Peepers chorus from the brush and the smell of rich soil and fresh water breeds freedom in my chest. It’s so still out here we can hear the highway traffic four miles off, and see the pollution glow of the city thirty miles beyond that.

Your shoulders flex and curl as if they could take you away from any danger at a moment’s notice. ‘There might be coyotes watching us.’

‘And they think you’re delicious.’ I grab you from behind, laughing at the way you jump and the thrum of your heart against the palm of my hand. ‘There aren’t any coyotes.’

‘You don’t know that.’ You exhale and your orchestral hands cling to mine. ‘Asshole.’

‘You’re not a very good creature of the night if you can’t see in the dark.’

Our footsteps crunch on country road gravel. Four miles away, a semi blares its horn.

‘It’s never dark in the city,’ you say. ‘Are you sure you can see where we’re going?’

‘The road is right in front of us.’ You let me drift to the periphery of your orbit, but the tether of our hands keeps me close. ‘While you were busy being an urban delinquent, my misspent youth was sneaking out to wander back roads ‘cause we had nothing better to do.’

‘After all that whining about tramping through the mud…’

‘Just because I grew up in the ass-end of nowhere doesn’t mean I like getting dirty.’

‘That’s not what I heard.’

The peepers crescendo as we trade gravel for loamy bank. The rushes whisper their harmony to the pianissimo ebb of the lake. The calm steals our disenchantment as it steals our voices.  The stars are just a hazy dust of nothing millions of miles away, but the touch of man is still at least four miles off and I can feel the energy speaking to my primal self. I think of flat sprawls of water beneath deceptive grass and the hint of salt on the breeze. I remember beer cans, shot guns and teenagers with too much time and too little stimulation.

You crouch at the water’s edge, unaware that nasty things with sharp teeth live in the water, too. Your internal symphony plays itself just above the water’s surface.

‘A gator’s going to bite your arm off.’

Your laughter jumps across the lake and echoes back to us. ‘There aren’t any alligators.’

‘You don’t know that.’ I stick my tongue out at you because you’re right, but I can’t shake the instincts fossilised in my bones.

‘It gets too cold here for alligators,’ you say. ‘Coyotes actually live here.’

‘It could be lost. Or super mutated to be impervious to cold weather.’

‘I promise there are no alligators in Kansas.’

A shadow wriggles through the weeds, and plops into the water. Too close for safety, too far to make out. The urge to run battles with the urge to stay still and unseen.

‘It’s just a beaver,’ but you whisper it, just in case. ‘Probably.’

‘Right.’ A big beaver.

‘We left the car a while ago…’

On the side of the road beyond where anyone else might just happen to be in the middle of the night. ‘We should check on it.’

By the time our feet skid against gravel, we’re breathless and laughing. The highway grumbles on the other side of the trees and the city lights glow on the horizon. Our concrete sanctuary.

‘I told you there were alligators.’

*

[Day 26]

My roommate asked me why I even said yes when I’m just going to pack up and leave.

Any other time, any other place, I would have laughed at the idea.

I turn off the ignition. A young woman and her daughter weave through the parking lot and around the front of my car. The little girl skips ahead, pink pixie wings bouncing behind her.

I light a cigarette and start my car again. No one would blame me. We’ve only spoken once. My phone vibrates on the dash. I don’t even know what you look like.

It took six cigarettes and fifteen minutes to get here. We were supposed to meet an hour and a half and three Starbucks ago. Maybe it’s a sign.

I get out of my car and make it past three stalls before I turn back and climb onto the trunk. I try to ignore the way my fingers shake as I smoke my cigarette.

Nerves.

Coffee.

That frigid Midwestern air that feels like it just might steal your soul.

I could leave right now and text that something came up. You’d never know I was ever here. I finally read the message waiting on my phone.

From Seth [21:06:08]

I’m outside smoking. Take your time. We’ll get it right 🙂

You’ve waited an hour and a half, too. An hour and forty-five minutes now. I hop off the trunk and wind through the car maze to the mall entrance.

I see you first – there’s no question. Perched on the curb with a cigarette in your hand and your head drooped down. Your shoulders jut against your T-shirt like broken wings mirroring the sharp angles of your knees bent towards your chest. Your fingers dance against the soles of your shoes to absent music. You are so unself-aware even the air around you seems fragile.

Hidden across the street between two cars, I text that I’m still parking.

You look up, scanning faces with actual interest. You’re looking in all the wrong places.

From Ryan [21:08:30]

I see you.

I cross the street and you finally find the right direction.

There’s something awkward and crooked about your sharp-angle limbs. ‘Ryan?’ You stare a little too hard and a little too long. I’m not entirely sure it bothers me.

‘I guess we finally found each other.’

You smile.

I remember how to breathe.

*

[Day 1]

The house swarms with people I’ve never met and it takes every ounce of tequila within my grasp to not wince over every foreign hand groping my signed editions gathered from distant and vaporous poet-friends. Their greasy fingers leave streaks and smears on the frames of original paintings collected as tokens from lost and left artist-friends. They play beer pong on Art Deco surfaces, oblivious to the collected genius bricking the walls, and mock the television’s displacement by books, of all things. Refurbished Victorian plaster shudders beneath the subwoofer’s thumpa-thumpa. It’s a wonder the upstairs neighbours don’t complain, but between their screaming matches and elephant acrobatics, I guess retro electronica pales in comparison.

My roommate leads the cheer as another ball plops into a plastic cup.

There should be an Idiot’s Guide to student-proofing your home.

Someone thumps my back hard enough to spill my drink on the Oriental rug that’s survived four generations without a single scar. My skin twitches beneath his sweaty, fleshy touch and my throat closes against the sour hops fogging my nostrils.

‘Great party! You got an awesome place, man.’ His hand latches onto my shoulder, and we stagger beneath his tenuous bulk.

If he topples, both the Oriental rug and I are screwed.

‘Dude, I’d have parties in here every night.’

‘Uh-huh.’ I scroll through the names on my phone searching for some excuse to save me from the debacle of my living space.

His weight sags against me for support like a bear using a sapling. ‘Man, I am so wasted.’

My phone vibrates and an unknown number obscures my contacts. It could be a telemarketer for all I care. ‘I gotta get this,’ I say, and nudge him in the general direction of the sofa.

‘Hello?’

‘Ryan?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Is this a bad time? You sound like you’re in a club or something.’

‘No, it’s…’ There’s a new cigarette burn in the corner of the Oriental rug. Perfect. ‘It’s my house.’ I escape to the front porch and the relatively muted sound offered by century-old insulation. ‘Who is this?’

‘Oh. Sorry. Seth. Michelle’s friend.’ Your voice reminds me of rabbits. ‘She gave me your number because she thought we’d like each other.’

‘Oh. Right.’ I vaguely remember one of my co-workers prattling on about how much I reminded her of her roommate. Even more vaguely agreeing it might be interesting to meet him at some point. Hypothetically.

‘She said she told you… I’m sorry. I don’t usually do this, but she said that you were really intelligent and she told me about your concept of the universe.’

I light a cigarette and try to remember any circumstance when I would have felt compelled to discuss my thoughts on anything with Michelle. ‘The Choose Your Own Adventure thing.’

‘I think it’s an interesting perspective to hold on the subject, and similar to my own views somewhat. I was wondering if you’d like to get together for coffee and maybe compare notes on the meaning of life.’

There’s something tentatively direct in the way you speak, something formal and yet raw. I imagine eggshell words balancing on your tongue. Another cheer erupts from my forfeit sanctum.

‘I won’t be offended if you say no.’

‘I was just thinking.’ I rotate my cigarette between my fingers, leaving curlicues of smoke hanging in the air for fractions of seconds. ‘I’m leaving town tomorrow.’

‘Oh.’ You exist in a vacuum, a blank space. A disembodied voice sliding through key changes and time signatures.

‘We could meet when I get back.’

‘Where are you travelling to?’

‘Tennessee. My friend lives there, so…’

‘By yourself?’

‘Yeah, I’m sorta uniquely situated so I get to wander off while others have to stay put.’

‘I would be way too terrified to do anything like that.’

‘I’m a little bit addicted to it.’

‘What is it about travelling that appeals to you so much?’

‘I don’t know. I think…’ No one asks that. They say how much they wish they could travel. They say how lucky I am, how exciting it must be. They talk about how boring their lives are. ‘I think I might be trying to find the secrets of the universe.’

*

[Day 412]

The sky curves midnight above me with scattershot stars consuming every inch. It’s looking at a snow globe inside out, and any second now some giant hand is going to turn us upside down just to see the glitter spin.

And I’m in the centre of it.

I stand in the spot where the world ends and there is more sky than earth. I stand here staring at the blank screen of my phone unable to tell my shadow-self what it feels like to see what I see.

What am I without my words?

In the spot where the world ends, I close my eyes and feel the space beside me where you should be. I open myself to the wonder of a city boy fully experiencing the rawness of nature unfettered for the first time and let go of every mile carried between my shoulders.

From Ryan [04:04:11]

If my eyes could record all that I see, and send it off to you, I’d show you how it feels to be HERE, and maybe that’d be enough to make you closer. Whole universes I want you to see, but the words fail every time.

nerd glasses with tape

aleksei

Writer. Photographer. People-watcher. Building-explorer. Terminal idealist. Itinerant magpie. Aleksei Drakos maintains an impressive collection of names, former addresses, old cameras, and stories told on train platforms.

He is a true believer in the literary potential of genre fiction, zombies, and that there’s nothing sexier than blank pages wrapped in leather. He published a razorblades + stolen poetrya semi-autobiographical word monster, in 2011, and his written work has appeared in Alliterati, Friction, The Edge Magazine (Northumbria University), and Miscellaneous: Writing Inspired by the Hunterian. He currently publishes a weekly blog experiment on mental health and the creative process, The Life of an Itinerant Magpie.

He’s also rather fond of shiny objects.

black tree

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