By Michael Jeffrey Lee
There’s a story making the rounds on the world wide web right now, and it’s about looking for love in the city of New Orleans, a topic of no little interest to me. Just this morning as I lay in bed, trying to take it easy after contracting a throat infection over the weekend, the story appeared in my inbox, sent by a concerned friend who demanded that I read it. I noticed that the friend who had sent me the email was available to chat, so I quickly sent him a message, asking him what all his worrying was about. He explained the situation straight away: the reason he had sent it, he said, was because one of the main characters in the story was me—not even the name had been changed. And what’s worse, my friend went on, the story “trashes you ruthlessly and makes you look like a clown.”
“In what way?” I said.
“Every single way,” he said, “from your clothing down to your dancing. It even pokes fun at your breasts.”
“Well, I guess it wouldn’t be the first time,” I said. I touched my breasts then, just to comfort myself. “Anything else?”
“Sure,” he said. “In some places you look hapless and very creepy. In others, desperate and foolish, and at the very end you’re portrayed as being under the malevolent control of a woman from your past.”
“Ok,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”
I tend to be pretty protective of my public image, even in this age of zero privacy and no dignity, and so laying there in my bed I felt myself beginning to seethe. I remembered how, just the year before, the local paper had tried to publish nude photos of me on my balcony, but I had managed to have them taken down before most of the city saw them—a small victory, maybe, but it had allowed me to keep my job working with children.
I asked my friend how he had found out about the story in the first place, and he said that he had been sent it from his grandmother, who was an avid reader of the website it appeared on—she really lapped up true-life, human stories, provided they were told boldly, with the tired reader in mind. “You can’t do anything about this one, Mickey,” he said, using my pet name. “Every outlet has already picked it up.”
“You don’t think I should read it?” I said.
“Are you still sick?” he said.
“So sick,” I said, feeling my huge glands. “My poor throat.”
“Forget I ever sent it,” he said. “Just listen to some music, or watch a movie.”
“I’m movied out,” I said. “And I’ve been listening to music this whole time.”
“Well, do something,” he said.
“But is it an alright story, overall?” I said. “If it’s a good story, I should probably read it.”
“It’s a mean, cowardly story,” he said, “written for mean, cowardly people to chortle at.”
“Is it at least told beautifully?”
“It has its moments.”
“It’s in my inbox,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to refrain long.”
“I can tell you a little more about it if you want,” he said.
“Alright,” I said, picking out a new playlist to listen to. “So who is the author?”
While waiting for his response, I thought about the people I might have upset since moving back here to New Orleans, after my life went to ruins in another state. There really wasn’t a one.
Then the author’s name came scrolling across the screen, but all I could do was shake my head. “I can’t put a face to it,” I wrote. “Maybe there’s some mistake?”
“Details are spot on,” he said. “She completely nailed down your essence.”
I thought some more, but didn’t type anything.
“Think hard,” he said. “A lot of it takes place in scummy neighborhood bars and eateries, and you do a lot of drinking and bike riding. At one point, you let her dog out.”
“Oh,” I said. “Wait…it’s coming back to me. Not the person, but that time in my life.”
“When was that?”
“Almost five years ago,” I said. “I had just moved back to town, after my family had been murdered in Alabama.”
“I remember it,” he said. “You were in bad shape.”
“My only friend was a doctor who wouldn’t treat me,” I said. “We would walk around downtown together, and he would tell me about the young girl he was pursuing.”
“And your housing situation was tough too,” he said.
“My room didn’t have any doors!” I said.
“And there was the drinking,” he said. “And the hard drugging.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”
“And that one night you told me about,” he said, “where you knelt down next to the gas heater and stared at the two blue flames, and you prayed that you would wake up with the same brain you were about to go to bed with.”
“And the bridge,” I said. “I was always thinking about the bridge.”
“You were always thinking about the bridge,” he said. “The bridge was an overwhelming comfort to you, just knowing that it was there.”
“I wanted to live well,” I said, “but I didn’t know how.”
“We all want to live well,” he said.
“But it always seems so hard.”
“Right. And so one night, you got in touch with an old acquaintance.”
“A very old acquaintance,” I said.
“Just a simple greeting,” he said, “a desire to meet up.”
“Yeah, I just wanted to have some fun with someone, out there in the city.”
“Someone who you’d met only once, but whose name conjured something nice.”
“Yeah, a name that conjured something nice,” I said. “Her name does have a nice ring to it, reading it now.”
“Can you remember?” he said.
“I really wish I could,” I said.
He typed the name again, over and over, and I read it over and over again to myself in my bed, my throat burning.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “It’s coming back to me a little.”
“I knew it would,” he said.
“Not the face, really, but some of the body.” I said. “We…we had a few friendly dates, and I was growing more and more fond of her every day.”
“This sounds like that one,” he said.
“We talked about writing a lot, our tastes and preferences.”
“That’s right,” he said.
“She was fond of no-nonsense, hard-hitting stories that got to the point good and quick, and I was fond of magical fairy tales.”
“Keep going,” he said.
“I remember wanting to spend the night with her on one of those nights, to feel her warmth on top of me for a little while, but something got in the way.”
“What?” he said.
“Well, my cold sores!” I said. “I told you about those, didn’t I?”
“What about them?”
“They were raging insane during those days,” I said. “I didn’t have a moment’s peace.”
“High or low?”
“Both,” I said. “And she seemed to already have too much trouble in her life—she smelled like a bathroom all the time, everywhere she went—and I didn’t want to add to her misery.”
“That’s nice,” he said.
“I thought I could ride it out,” I said. “I thought maybe once they cleared up that I could have a steady, sober conversation with her about them. But then we went to that dance party that one night, and everything changed.”
“You fell under the malevolent spell of your ex?”
“Only for a moment,” I said. “But then I tried to find the person that had brought me, but she was nowhere to be found. And later that night, my phone fell down into the gutter and was sucked down a drain. I lost even the few contacts that I had in the world.”
“Then you were totally alone,” he said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“She was the one that got away,” he said.
“I guess so,” I said.
“It’s not so bad,” he said. “You seem to be doing well these days.”
“I do feel better,” I said, “on the whole.”
“Good,” he said, “But if you don’t mind my asking, how did you get that throat infection?”
“Oh, I think I just put something dirty in my mouth this weekend,” I said. “It should clear up soon.”
“Well, I should be going,” he said.
“Me too,” I said. “I’m going to try and go back to sleep.”
I closed my laptop and rolled over on my side, and then I closed my eyes and tried to sleep for a while. But I just kept seeing this sad, shadowy face imprinted on my eyelids, begging me to see it for what it was. I could get no rest.
Why is there so much hatred in the world? I heard my brain say. Why do people do the horrible things that they do?
For money, my brain replied, for fame. To get even, it emphasized. For kicks.
But why? I said. And where does it end?
But my brain gave no reply.
So I flipped back over to my other side, flipped open the laptop, clicked on the link and started to read the story.
Because of some structural problems, and some sloppy syntax, I couldn’t actually get very far into it, but I told myself I would revisit it another day. Bold stories are always worthy of our time, I think, even the ones that seem hell-bent on murdering someone else’s character. But I couldn’t do it right then, so I stopped. I took a deep breath. Strangely, even though I had stopped reading, I found that my eyes were still glued to the screen, right at the space between the title and the actual tale, where there was a nice banner advertisement running. The first one I saw was for an international department store chain, the second was for tax season help, and the third one informed me about marketing solutions. The ads made me smile sleepily: they were simple, they were striking, and really didn’t seem so out of place in between the lines of such a bold story. And so good did these ads make me feel that I didn’t even bother to close my laptop when I felt myself drifting off, I just let them play over my closed eyes while I slept. Who knows what other messages I was able to absorb while I was out? And when I awoke several hours later, my throat felt miraculously better, so I slipped on some clothes and headed down to the bar, ready to make some new friends.