The salesman watched the girl with purple hair from that night’s meeting, concealed by shadows from the boardwalk’s galleries, arcades, adventure rides. His briefcase at his side and a bottle of Absolut in his hand, the boardwalk’s planks splintered and gray. Cellophane from cigarette packs and the spines of cotton candy blew in discrete bursts from the beach to the gated doors of the shore’s shops, where it smelled like skunked beer and popcorn. He was still wearing his depression uniform.
The girl exited the boardwalk before the bridge over the drainage depression and walked through a parking lot populated by passengers of a Greyhound on an Atlantic City Booze Cruise, the passengers looking desperate, frazzled by alcohol. The girl’s hands deep in the pockets of her jacket, head bowed down. He drank from the bottle and dialed her number from the contact list, watching as she looked at her phone and dismissed the call. He called again; this time she answered, sounding annoyed and asked who it was.
“It’s me, from the meeting. The one you said lied.”
“I was hoping we could talk.”
She sighed. She looked so alienated in that crowd with her punky hair and army jacket and Jansport bag with chains, he thought.
“Fuck it, I have nowhere else to go,” she said.
He gave her his hotel room number and checked the briefcase for his supplies. On his way to the hotel he passed an elderly woman of unclear Asiatic origin, performing complicated procedures with plastic bags that only seemed to contain more bags, reminding him of his plastic-wrapped soap bars, Dixie cups, plastic ware, coffee-filters in hotel rooms, each looking the same as the others. There was something about the Korean woman’s harried actions indicating that they were simply things for her to do to avoid something lost or depleted at the center of her life, and that the more she avoided them the more empty and plastic her life itself became. When he walked into the hotel’s lobby, he saw the girl alone at the lounge’s bar, drinking in a slumped posture. He removed his wrist’s bandage and walked towards her.
So far things were going as planned.
“I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired,” the salesman said, earlier that evening, reciting the script’s first line. The salesman for Get Back Your Life ™ hadn’t shaved in a week. His eyelids were smudged with a topical solution to promote the appearance of insomnia; he pulled at his frayed pants and tugged at a black turtleneck that itched his neck’s stubble. He seemed in acute distress, but the bandage covering his wrist’s arteries was not from a real suicide attempt. Portraying a nervous laugh, he squeezed the bridge of his nose, leaned his elbows on his knees, and said, “I was out of hope, I was just so tired.” He sighed. “Then I saw a video for this program.” He stopped and shook his head in lateral arcs, chuckling without mirth. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Please continue,” said the moderator. She sat in a beanbag tangential to the support group’s circle, in a Lotus position, elaborate Native American necklaces and bracelets spangling her leathery skin. “There’s no judging here.”
“Well,” the salesman cleared his throat, “So I called. It seemed, like I know you’re all thinking, it seemed so like” (and here he inflected his voice to acknowledge suspicion, which he’d learned in the Tonal Manipulation workshop) “yeah some bunch of clichés and people telling me everything I’ve heard before isn’t going to help my depression, help me become who I am.” The salesman made eye contact with every person who was not looking at the floor. “I thought that way too, until I finally watched it,” he said. He flashed his palms up and continued: “Believe me, it’s early, and I still have more bad days than good, but this program really works.” He smiled with practiced self-deprecation and added his own tweak to the consultant’s script, saying, “But who am I to talk, I’m just as messed up as the next guy.” He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, leering surreptiously at a girl with purple hair and a T-shirt whose caption read “EMOTIONAL BULLSHIT.”
“What’s the name of this program?” asked the moderator, gesticulating to the room’s occupants. “I’m sure we’d all like to try it.”
“Get back your life,” the salesman said. “And believe me, it was time for me to.”
“He’s lying,” said the girl with the purple hair. She wore an army jacket with the name “Lith” patched upon one lapel. No cosmetics or jewelry, except for the chains on her black Jansport bag with slogans like “Everyone’s a Hypocrite” and “Life’s a Disease” written in Whiteout. She’d stated this simply, as if it were an obvious fact. “Nothing gets better,” she continued. “ I keep telling you all that.” She scoffed. “This whole thing is stupid enough without lying creeps promoting bullshit.”
“I’m not lying,” said the salesman.
“Take off your bandages then,” she said. “Let’s see those scars.”
There was a prolonged silence and everyone except for this girl, Gretchen, and the salesman folded in on themselves, picking at sweaters, chewing nails, shifting in chairs. The moderator scanned the room, aiming an empathetic smile to all sides, trying to defuse the tension. She consulted her watch and clapped her hands, claiming it was time for them to finish up. She then addressed the salesman, saying, “Scott, our group shares contact information so we have people to talk to in times of need. Of course, it’s completely voluntary.”
“I would appreciate that,” said the salesman, who had never used the designation Scott in any of the hundreds of support meetings he’d attended in his professional capacity. He wrote his company phone on the pad she handed him, then received a printout with each member’s first name, telephone number, and e-mail address, the latter of which had proven the most longitudinally effective form of follow-up, according to sales department data. He took a picture of the printout with his phone and uploaded it to the company’s cloud service, from which the full-lipped but flat-chested intern in sales would download and add it to the automated mailing list first thing the next business day.
“Let’s applaud Scott for his courage and honesty tonight,” the moderator said, demonstrating by clapping with the heels of her two palms, bracelets clanging and falling to her elbows, as Gretchen left before anyone else with her hands tucked into her jacket’s pockets. “The first time’s the hardest.”
It was with difficulty and grim pragmatism that the salesman accepted the position of Viral Marketing Specialist (or “Lying Machine,” as his colleagues joked) three years before, when he was 40 years old. Many nights he and his wife sat on the block of cement behind their townhouse discussing the promotion, smoking from the first pack of cigarettes they had purchased since college. The block of cement was just large enough to accommodate them and a grill, a wedding present they’d never used except now as an ashtray. There was a strip of lawn from their cement block to their neighbor’s cement block ten yards away that his wife called their “therapy garden,” a complex assortment of Asian rocks trails, bird baths, and water springs their counselor had advised her to purchase and maintain.
For the first years on the road, he called home twice a day. They texted continuously, attaching pictures of their surroundings and writing long emails describing the content of their days and memories of each other. Sometimes, although his wife called him a prude, they arranged to have virtual sexual encounters via satellite or modem hookups, but back then, before Microsoft’s VOIP Skype or Apple’s Face Time, the technology was still unreliable, resulting in visual buffering and audio interruptions—somewhat foreboding, he felt, especially when his wife’s pixilated image fragmented and deconfigured as the signal cut. For the first year, however, this situation was stable, and aside from the therapy garden, which his wife had stopped maintaining, all signs pointed to their relationship continuing.
But gradually the situation degraded. Hours and then days would go by without contact, for which each blamed the other. He began fucking girls he met at the support groups. Every girl had a different smell, he learned, a different feel, a different way of being with him that made his wife’s habits and sexual proclivities seem boring. Plus, he was tired of fighting with his wife, of denying he was cheating even though he was, so that he went longer and longer without contacting her. And so what their parents and few friends (what their counselor called their “support network”) had predicted from the beginning came to pass: his wife dating abusive men and quitting her job, the therapy garden ruined by weeds and neighborhood dogs, the bank foreclosing on the house, and the commencement of divorce procedures. He convinced himself this was a positive development, and prepared to get back his life.
He shrinked himself to an island—everything around him suggesting he was completely alone and that nothing he did affected another human being: the plastic cups in their disposable bags; the one-time soap and shampoo dispensers sized like those airplane bottles of Absolut he increasingly pocketed; the one-serving coffee machines, the doors he locked without suspicion or the pounding of fists. He no longer had to be human, which is to say considerate, empathetic, attentive to others. There were also, of course, affairs with the “Subjects,” as his colleagues referred to them.
In the beginning, exploiting the emotions of the girls and women he met in support groups seemed like something that only Assholes Like That did, but soon it became the organizing principle of his life. Meeting girls with self-esteem issues and body dysmorphic disorders and Freudian complexes involving absent fathers, combined with his training in psychology and marketing, made him feel sometimes as if he were less seducing these subjects than hypnotizing them, or affectually raping them even, he felt on particular mornings when he’d induce a girl with real scars on her wrists out of his room claiming he was too depressed for company—the trembling thing holding her clothes awkwardly in the hallway in bare feet, the door closing towards her fast and locking automatically with a pneumatic and dismissive sound. And if in the beginning the salesman had convinced himself he was not an Asshole Like That because he felt guilty afterwards, now he justified his behavior as an understandable function of the deterioration of his marriage, so that now wasn’t merely an Asshole Like That, but an Asshole Like That With Extenuating Circumstances, he thought.
“What do you want?” the salesman asked, adding tinkling bottles and pills from his briefcase to the bottles of liquor and beers in the sink full of ice cubes. It’d been easier to convince her to come up to his room than he’d expected.
“Whatever, just nothing with gin,” Gretchen said, slurring slightly. “Gin makes me puke.” She grimaced walking around the hotel suite, touching the desk, the linens, observing the paintings. “These places are all the same.”
“It’s comforting,” shouted the salesman over his shoulder. “It’s like I’m always home,” he joked. “A portable home.”
“More like homeless,” she said. “It’s boring.” She slumped into a wicker chair under a plastic Barracuda mounted to the wall, inspecting the room with disdain. He brought over her drink in an unwrapped toothpaste-rinsing cup and leaned back against the desk, appraising her. It was still hard to tell her dimensions with the over-sized coat swaddled around her. Her purple hair was shorn and shaded over her eyes and she wore combat boots held together with safety pins instead of shoelaces. She appeared to embrace or promote depression as an attitude or fashion sense, a way of presenting herself or being in the world, instead of a victim or sufferer, a phenomenon the salesman’s colleagues around the country had told him about—one colleague who worked in the South West region had reported that young girls there went to tanning salons with little strips of material covering their wrist’s arteries to promote the appearance of a suicide attempt, which they would show off at school like a new haircut or first-day-of-school outfit.
“We can fuck if you want,” Gretchen said. She said it as if she were suggesting they put away the dishes. “Or just fool around if you’re one of them.”
“One of them?”
“You don’t seem like it but you can never tell what’s going on inside people.” She was short and probably a little chubby, although that could just have been her outfit making her look like that, he figured. Or the black bag with chains in her lap. He realized it would just be one of those situations where you don’t know what you have until you’re in.
“I just wanted to talk.”
She snorted. “As if there’s anything to talk about.” She scanned the room, which was empty except for the luggage placed by the door, taking long gulps from her drink. She didn’t appear to taste the Rohipnol. “But so if you want to talk, then talk, I can’t stay here all night like an alco.” She snickered and rolled her eyes. Her attitude was aggressive— something about her, her ambivalent attitude of resignation and aggression, reminded him of his wife at her age, when she would snort loudly at dumb answers in college and charge shrieking into tidal swells of ocean waves.
“I wanted to just, like I said.”
“Just what? Ask how I knew?” She’d tucked her forearm into the joint of the jacket’s sleeve again, playing with the empty flap like a memory of something. The jacket had old stains on them that could either be oil or blood. The “H” in “Lith” was abraded and covered with duct tape.
“That you’re a liar.” She motioned towards his scar-less wrist. “I see the scars healed nicely.”
He returned to the bathroom and refilled their drinks, checking whether the exterior door was locked on his way back to the main suite. “It wasn’t just a lie.”
“I’m good at reading people—“
“I used to think they were lies but—”
“It’s because I’m a Leo, like Van Gogh and Da Vinci. Leo’s are curious and creative but sometimes that can be a bad thing. We see things too clearly. Like why would you be hopeful in this world?” She gestured out towards the ocean and the lights across the bay. “The ones who come in hopeful you can tell are full of shit. They never come back. Or kill themselves probably.” She shrugged, rising from the chair and walking to the sliding door that gave out onto the balcony. “Everywhere’s the same,” she said, finishing what he calculated was her third drink plus the two at the bar. She pushed her slim body against the door but couldn’t budge it, a sign of Rohipnol’s CNS depressant effect. “Open this freaking door,” she commanded.
The salesman slid the door open and held his arms over Gretchen as she stumbled outside. There were two plastic chairs on the balcony, scuffmarks on the Astroturf, the beach out there like an excluded voice. Leaning over the railing, Gretchen looked across the bay at the flashing Strobhs from the casinos and high-rise hotels, the beaded lights of cars on the bridge spanning the bay. Teenagers in distressed jeans and sandals were down on the beach around a fire, laughing loudly and passing drinks and joints around.
“At the meetings,” she slurred, “there’re people who lie to sell things or manipulate us all. I mean that’s the world, right? Everything’s plastic, like that old movie says? People just pretend stuff to get stuff they want. Sometimes I think it’s the world that’s gone wrong somewhere, not me. That it’s bullshit to be happy or secure in a world this shallow and artificial. My dad used to say that about the war. He was in Vietnam?” She said it like maybe he hadn’t heard of Vietnam. “That all his friends died for shit.”
His body was directly behind her’s, looming—something about this confluence, their bodies angles’, the enervated tides and erotic smell of salt and beach, drunk teenagers, reminded him of the first time with his wife after they’d met in the crisis unit at Rutgers, when they’d gone to Atlantic City alone after receiving a mental health disability leave for the semester. He’d always been anxious at the Jersey Shore, concerned with laws about concealed containers or stepping on syringes. He’d never been in the ocean since he’d seen Jaws.
“I skinny-dipped with my wife here, on a night like this in college,” he said.
“Never went,” Gretchen said, easing herself from beneath his arched body and slumping into one of the chairs, curling herself into a Z-shape. “More bullshit and lies, only you pay for them.”
He sat down in the other chair, trying to conform his girth into its delicate contours. “That was a happy time with her, that was real.”
He watched Gretchen pull her jacket around her neck and her eyes flutter and close. Her plastic rinsing cup fell to the Astroturf and wobbled and then stopped. The sun was already a apparent. The ocean and sky looked like the same gray thing with white foam explosions like feet kicking the shore. Alarms beeped from the adjacent rooms and the traffic on the street below became denser, not just a sound but a growing presence. Gretchen had passed out in the chair, her face obscured by her forearms, coiled protectively. He removed her jacket and carried her to the bed, confident she wouldn’t be conscious for hours. It was darker inside the hotel room than outside.
After closing the balcony door and turning over the Do Not Disturb sign on the hallway door’s exterior knob, the salesman stumbled towards her bed. As he folded back the blankets she woke for a second, her eyes dazed, and moaned No! No! before closing them again. He looked at her young body shifting as if he were deliberating over a course of action, still sitting on the bed hovering over her, then reached over her to the bag that had been on the bedside chair.
The bag was canvas and instead of normal straps had coiled chains intricately attached. In addition to the White-Out’d slogans there were anarchy stickers and band patches like Bad Religion and The Dead Kennedys sown in. Inside there were dolls. (He new his wife still had the dolls they’d bought before the miscarriage hidden in the attic by the PVC pipes.) He removed the dolls and arranged them on the chair, facing the bed, as if they were witnesses. The dolls were Frankenstein dolls, harvested from divergent parts, missing eyes; they were naked and had X’s painted in red over the genital regions.
He slurred, “I knew a girl like you once. In a crisis unit in college. My wife. So what I’m doing now, this isn’t a lie. I was depressed, I hated the world, I hated myself. Sometimes I still hate myself. That was a real time too, just as real as the night we skinny-dipped. Those feelings are always there, they never leave. If only we could use them…”
He paused, still on the bed with her. She was barely breathing. He just sat there looking at the floor. Or at least his face was aimed in the direction of the floor, which is sometimes the direction people look when they think about the past, as if former decisions or actions are like the artifacts of ancient civilizations that can be excavated but never fully recovered.
“My wife,” he resumed. “My ex-wife. She made those feeling go work somehow, they made sense. Things made sense, the world made sense.” He crumpled his plastic cup, flexing it in different shapes, creating complicated Cubist forms. “Think I can get her back?”
James McAdams has published fiction in TINGE Magazine and Carbon Culture Review, serial microfictions in the Annals of American Psychotherapy, as well as forthcoming fiction pieces in per contra and Modern Language Studies. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University, where he teaches, tutors, and edits the university’s literary journal, Amaranth.
–Art by Karamelo
–Art by Mariya Petrova-Existencia