by Barbara Genova
Media is what you do when you’re waiting for big picture life to begin, click and switch. Media is what you consume when you want your skull crushed, your spirit shattered in communion, when you wanna pretend you’re taking a hit for the team — and media is the one thing I can shed with the ease of a bathroom break. Same as it ever was, since I discovered stores would, in fact, hand over cash for goods I did not want anymore. Books, DVDs, VHS tapes I sold on rotation: whatever failed to find a buyer could be liberated. And, for the odd purge with regret — a paperback of Richard Bachman’s Rage — ask me how come I know collectors’ items are seldom worth their price. Landfills wait for no limited edition, man.
Zach is someone I tried to get rid of, over and over, before, eventually, abandoning him.
To this day, I can’t tell if he’s dead or alive. A distinctive name-surname one-two and the last city of residence, that should do it. Easy to make sure from a distance. So I don’t.
Picture us as young. Zach was a city kid raised to behave and be a good boy in ways that strike me as anachronistic and full-on crazy-making, in the gentler, softer écru tones — he was a child prop, a check mark on a to-do list, marry, breed, spawn, done!, what now?, are you supposed to get attached to a thing you sort of made?
Huh. Guess you’ll raise a precocious little moppet; he’ll wear a purple bow tie of his own volition; he’ll sit at the piano; he’ll practice his scales for an hour in the afternoon, if he says can I do it later you’ll tell him: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. No easy-time just-fucking-with-you glint to be found anywhere in mama’s eye.
Then, you’ll dump him in all manner of adult social environments. He’ll be the clever boy in the company of college professors / unworthy Ph.D. candidates / musical theater impresarios. Type-B striver routine. You parachute yourself into the living room of a smart set: children can help. Say you have a chatterbox, a boy who can hold a conversation on Manon Lescaut at eight or nine, boom. That’s money in the bank.
And then, when you do get the evidence that a terrible mistake has been made, you’ll accept zero blame for failing to raise a son who turned out no prized apple; you’ll write him off as a poor investment.
He was obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show. Which I never much cared for — nothing personal, it’s a show — and it lies cemented with that look he had. Zach got fired up whenever he started to rat-a-tat about his likes. Pupils dilated, flat, pointed stare. At first, he came across as independent, passionate. Someone who loved what he loved.
They lived in this enormous apartment — postcards, pictures, jars of herbs; expansive. This being a time where teenagers from affluent white households got decorations on their bedroom ceiling — painted clouds, glow-in-the-dark constellations — I’m positive Zach fit the profile. I still had decapitated dolls hidden in the bottom drawer: he had rooms, plural, full of books, graphic novels, drawing boards, fancy diaries with a lock. Neat. He made a note on anything: movies, he kept the ticket stubs. Kids did that. Prissy, but back then, not so far out of the norm? Chi-chi stunts that would get you scalped in any other time line, back then, you could get away with.
His parents, for all intents and purposes, had abandoned Zach already. Oh they were around. Still wanted him to bring home As and Bs, twee Monet postcards from the museum to pin on a French door. They even paid for college, later, but they wanted no part of him.
He complained, he was being spoken to as a recalcitrant subordinate. A bad horse. His folks did end every phone call with, get back to work. I don’t think they liked him as a person.
We had this mutual shameful silent feeling we would cling to anyone who would tell us we were hot, bright, both. You could have lured me to any subway platform had you said they were giving away book deals down there. I scribbled. A lot. Bad love poetry, prologues to stories I didn’t finish. And Zach: it’s so great, it’s great. He would want to see more and wasn’t that a bitch.
Weird scene to move in: you had a bunch of teens sprawled on sofas, tolerating each other at best. Ditch the wild, obligatory communist with a Star Wars fixation, what was left? You put movies on, had a drink. Laziest, lowest common denominator. Put a movie on. A Scream marathon plays in the background of any Saturday night but 9/11.
For a city girl nestled in the middle of a bustling drug market, I didn’t even see cocaine until I took up with Business majors who wanted to bone the ghost of Neal Cassady. (Oh, yes, that was a real thing. They told you.)
Every future DSM entry, however, we got the teaser trailers for it, a veritable sizzle reel flashing on a screen wide as the street was:
- hypomania: shaking, crying fits, bouts of insomnia
- depersonalization: how about that time he spaced out started talking again cracked a joke clearly trying to be in it but he was out of it
- hypomania: the landline rings, rings, rings, don’t pick up, if you pick up and it’s Zach he’ll keep you on the phone for thirty minutes — sixty minutes — two hours. Helloooo, it’s me, Zaaach. He’d talk and talk. I started to keep the TV on mute, wondered about peeing in a bottle. And then, he would stop, and he’d go, listen, but how are you. (The you was a thing made of pain. So removed from any sound and conversation before, it came straight from a mirror dimension. How are youuuuu?????????
- Compulsion: how about the nonstop shoving of food in mouth. Zach being a slim one, was that early onset mania burning his flesh clean? Could be! May-be! How about the shopping sprees? Stationery. Magnets. Glass. Pins. A single marble and two indigo feathers I found in a drawer last year. Friendship tokens that got me car-sick with the absence of a point. So much stuff.
- Doctor Who, the Harry Potter novels, the movies too, don’t care, From Hell, Alan Moore, Torchwood (why), Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Cthulhu, Francesca Lia Block, Tim Burton, Battlestar Galactica, Hamilton, Stargate (all incarnations), Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis, Kevin Smith, Harry Knowles, The Golden Compass, Star Wars and Star Trek, every last comic book drawn or developed by LGBTQ creators, which was nice, but – all of them? Come on. Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. Marvel stuff. DC stuff. Indie stuff. Unmade stuff. Opera. Trilogies. Quadrilogies. Night at the Opera. Marx Brothers. Christ alive at least D & D hits you with that sawdust and basement smell, you can’t pretend you’re being elevated about it, no, you’re stuck in a room throwing dice. What’s up. Steven Spielberg. George Lucas. LucasFilms. George Lucas’ wife. Marcia Lucas fuck me. There’s no reason I should retain that info. The Rocketeer. Virginia Woolf. Alfred Hitchcock. Francis Ford Coppola. Zoetrope. Vita Sackville-West. James Cameron. Peter Bogdanovich. (What, no DePalma, what did Holly Body ever do to you.) The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Last Picture Show. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, calling him Joss all along. Like he’s so cool. Your friend Joss.
I became a slasher girl — a fire cracker, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part Twoooo! girl – because I spotted a thin sliver of free movie land, unclaimed, fresh to the touch. That was an out. I got there on reference books. Old-school field guides: The World of Horror A to Z. I had one I bought at 14 with the severed head from Re-Animator grinning at you on the cover. Ladies, you’re about to witness some shit. I’d start renting tapes.
Basic training gave me purpose. Quiet time and a love of the game — summer matinees of, like, Pulse, in the vacant Prospect Park theater, later condemned — turned into an appreciation for predictable self-contained stories. This is where the music swells up, the knife goes stab stab and the crowd goes yeeeeah, alright. It’s a beautiful thing. Comes a point you do get tired, that’s par for the course. Maybe you can get into it again, maybe you’re done, but listen up, it’s important: even in the thick of it, even at, sure, I’ll go to a 2 AM secret screening of Chucky all the way across Midtown, I made sure I had a way back home.
I love mixed genre. I’m a Canon girl.
I love the practicalities of body horror.
I’m nothing like him.
The essential emptiness of fandom is liable to send a chill down my spine. It’s just stuff. But, boy, does it add up.
And I loved to get my nerd on but I also loved the passenger seat of a station wagon, and casual, loose words in a night drive, the hum against the glass, the smooth black out: what I loved was the swarm of possibilities in the air.
A friend’s voice comes in from the driver’s side: there’s a Batman run where Alfred used to be MI6 —
The more this friend talks about Alfred, the sweeter I get. Niiiice. The thrill does not lie in the discovery of some Batman lore. (Although, we never had a bad Alfred. Or did we.) No, I’m being charmed by the light here: an MI6 agent diving into a brand new life as a butler. How about that. Mentally, I’m smoking on top of a lonesome water tower, waiting for a gray man in a suit to hand me a folder. The job, eh, what you gonna do.
Zach was never casual about fun.
You didn’t watch the movie: you waited at midnight for the pop-pop to drop. Lines. Tickets had to be bought and paid nine months in advance. You need to tell me now.
There’s no writing about mental illness without an element of punching down at play, the suspicion and then wave after wave of remorse settling in before you finish the piece. You’re inflicting yet another indignity on some poor unfortunate soul whose only fault was being born wrong.
Bad parents: not his fault. Bad brain, genetics, blood chemicals going rogue: not his fault. Bad choice of career, later on — there’s no way he could have known, right? Failure of imagination, on a societal level, was not his fault.
Zach wasn’t a bad person: he lacked the particular will to do damage. The expiration date for childish eccentricity was never spelled out to him, leaving him defenseless, but with a canny intuition of what would hurt. He would get careless and suck you dry: you needed to recover, be quiet, smoke half a pack of Marlboro Lights on the road home; but he wasn’t violent. His spite would bubble and burst when I was out of sight. Saggy tits. That’s me, branded as saggy tits at sixteen. Heard it through the teenage grapevine.
But he wasn’t mean? More like he had to get a dig in.
My parents wanted me out of there. For real, they did. Every parent used to feel sorry for someone else’s kid. Mine could see a disorder.
Zach had the means and the time to tunnel-vision himself into anything a smart kid could want — yet time runs out, what he was supremely preoccupied with as soon as he turned, wanna say twenty-two, in college, bad grades, and over the phone he went: we’re not that young anymore. There’s the one I never forgave him for. That one’s got teeth. Instead of saying, yo, megadork, I’m still a literal child here, I let it sink in.
Sure, we can do emails.
But it was never an email, was it? Always the wall of text. It was never not the wall of text, sucker punch me in the cunt, oh christ what now, it was never catching up, it was your voice droning on and on and on. It was dozens of unanswered calls, unopened texts.
It was never hanging out, it was always, six to eight hours.
God’s sake, why did you never get the message.
I started breathing when Zach moved for college. I branched out a bit — there were film markets and geek conventions. Those blissed-out serpentine years I spent running alone at night as Zach made new friends! Thank you college, rituals, fraternity activities, soccer blogs: please spend some time with other people, please go, please go out there, make more friends, I don’t need to hear it.
Then Zach moved, again, for grad school.
Over a drink date he had spoken about a different path: culinary school. He’d looked it up himself, downloaded an application. It sounded pretty good. He did enjoy prepping meals, trying out recipes, adjusting them on the fly. It could work.
But then, all of a sudden, grad school.
He got much about it. He was going for a PhD. Zach got blurry and still: he fell back to choppy, rapid hand movements I hadn’t seen flare up in a long while. Animatronic.
That doesn’t look good.
Get out of here. Say you have work in the morning.
When mental illness entered the picture — a diagnosis, and a careful one at that — the haze should have cleared. It didn’t. Academia broke Zach over a period of months, or years, in ways I cannot unravel. Not out of reticence, I lost track. You stepped out for a cigarette, you missed decades of plot. Doesn’t he have a medical doctor already? Wasn’t he on lithium? What happened to the day hospital? Did he ever finish grad school? What about the Patreon he wanted to set up, for his art? What the hell happened there?
Nobody wants to be asked, so, how many doctors you buried. Far as I recall, I don’t believe he was committed — we’re talking psych ward, nurses coming in to check under your tongue, the name for what it is can change with the legalities in different time zones. Zach was white, male, a native speaker. No access to firearms.
For years, upon hearing the same candy-sweet invitation, listen, when are you coming to visit, I just lied all across the board. Too busy. Work. That shut him up. For a minute.
Don’t disappear inside of work!
Man, fuck all the way off.
Pretending I was busy, saying I was poor. Fuck me but I was not staying over at your house again, zero boundaries-having castle freak. Go to therapy. Take your Lithium. Get a job. Volunteer at a shelter for lost dogs. Plans of mine crashed and burned on impact as they hit the wall: he lives there. Gotta book a hotel. Incognito.
Hey, the one person I know with a spare room in Toronto is super mentally ill and totally unhinged, he might be baking right now, and it’s not worth the bed to sleep in. Bold of you to assume there’s gonna be any shut-eye involved. What if he wants to talk? I haven’t listened to a word he said after Lord of the Rings 2 came out.
So I checked in when I couldn’t help it. He might be fine. He must be better. No. He was closing in on yet another birthday and distraught about having little to show for all the time he’d been alive. He was unable to set a daily to-do list — you check items off one by one, you break them down to small actionable tasks: laundry, check, coffee, check — because it delivered him back to childhood and homework, being a crumpled-up kid saddled with chores.
Dire. You felt sorry for him. But I never told him:
I don’t really want to be friends anymore.
Please leave me alone.
I have buyer’s remorse. I’m letting you go now.
Some lifelong habits I developed to avoid Zach, specifically — let a phone ring ring ring, leave emails unopened — and I’m trying to back out of that clusterfuck now that I’m familiar with the sharp low pain of being invisible. So much I stand to lose if I ghost mentally sound, law-abiding people. What am I afraid of? You leaving me first. What if I don’t want you in a month. What if the reason I want the job, the friend, the book deal is, I’m older.
I move around the edge of a world designed to snare as many Zachs as possible and persuade them that suspended boyhood is good, actually, for as long as they’re useful content zombies. Or, get them to sign up for a maze of Masters’ degrees on the promise they will be loved better.
I don’t put Prince of Darkness on when I fail to unlock a production day. I turn on the news, I bring the laptop outside. Look for a place to sit. Make a bad guess, time vs. money vs. how long I’ll be standing at the checkout line, cash in hand. Final Destination Woman.
I see a young girl wanting to tap out of a non-sexual friendship with someone who fueled her vanity, on occasion, made her feel just superior enough to slide on the surface; some girl lacking the ultimate resolve to finish the piece.
I fear for the boy in the afternoon, cradling a phone set, thumb on the address book, waiting to see who will pick up.
Listen, how are you.
Barbara Genova (she/they) is the pen name of a public woman who went private. Poetry and stories written as Barbara have been published / are forthcoming at The Daily Drunk, surfaces.cx, Anti-Heroin Chic, Sledgehammer Lit, Scissors and Spackle, The Final Girl Bulletin Board, Fahmidan Journal, Misery Tourism, Hallowzine (2021), Expat Press, The Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Roi Fainéant Press, Discretionary Love, and the Hecate Magazine anthology issue #2 (DECAY, winter 2021). She can be found on Twitter and on Instagram.