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     I awoke on the floor of an apartment. A post-collegiate bachelor pad. I raised my face from the floor and rubbed my cheek, stippled by the carpet. I grabbed my phone from the coffee table and flipped it open. No messages. It was 5:30AM. We had been out the night before celebrating until Fargo bar close. We celebrated our freedom.


     28 days before, 50 people walked into PRACS Institute. 50 people willing to subject their bodies to the unknown because they were desperate or degenerates or down on their luck. PRACS conducted clinical trials for pharmaceutical drugs previously untested on humans. We had an initial blood test to make sure the results fell within their accepted norms. 50 of us stayed overnight hoping that we were normal. If we weren't, we would be sent home. If we were normal we would stay and ingest a drug cocktail to see if we had night terrors, or hallucinations, or thoughts of stabbing everyone we'd ever loved. The next morning 14 people were called out of the room. They did not return. I was one of the lucky 36. 18 men. 18 women.

     Rules For Ingesting Drugs for Money

     1. Have not used tobacco products for 15 days.
     2. Have not used alcohol for 7 days.
     3. Have not had caffeine in 3 days.
     4. Healthy with no history of mental illness.

     The Things I Packed

     7 pair of white, calf-high athletic socks
     7 pair of underwear of various neutral colors from a variety pack of Hanes
     7 t-shirts including a neon pink shirt with a blue pony that said, “Big Al's 75th!”
     3 pair of jeans from Old Navy
     6 books. The Art of Looking Sideways. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the compilated trilogy. The BFG. Main Street. Great Expectations. Coding the Web.
     1 Crest, flex-head, medium bristle toothbrush and 1 tube of Crest toothpaste with baking soda
     1 Gillette Mach-5 razor and 1 can of Gillette Cool Breeze shaving gel
     1 laptop. Civilization III and Eastside Hockey Manager 2007 installed. 18 pages, 8,728 words of a young adult novel in progress tentatively titled The Ice Goblin. 4,322 songs including The Flaming Lips, Radiohead, and Wilco catalogs. The Magnetic Fields The Charm of the Highway Strip. Big Star's #1 Record, The Silver Jews' American Water, Jeff Buckley's Grace, and The Wrens' The Meadowlands. I was ready for 28 days of productivity. Write, listen, read, write, play, write. I would finish the 1st draft of my novel. Maybe even start editing.

     I kept to myself for the first few days, but eventually needed a way to procrastinate from my too lofty goals. I went looking and I found someone reading Albert Camus' The Stranger. Friend.

     His name was Ben. He had wild hair and looked like Bob Dylan. Friend.

     We talked about perception, Robo-tripping, salvia, and UFOs. We talked about music. I introduced him to The Flaming Lips. He tried to get me to listen to John Mayer. Friend?

     It was a live album, Try!. It was surprisingly good. Although Mayer’s pop music is pretty boring, and he's a bit of a douche, he's a great guitar player. Friend!

     So we talked, we thought, we shared hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Then, we would retire for bed rest before our blood draws. Eat our meals. Read, write, play games or whatever we chose to entertain ourselves until free time when we could mingle. About my fifth day in the study, he introduced me to Clarissa.

     I had noticed her during the intake. She stood out from the company of oafs we were. What was she doing here? She stunned me on first sight. Tobacco-brown hair. Just past her shoulders. Elusive-green eyes. A color you can't quite figure out, so your brain just tells you they're green. A smile that didn't pretend it was anything else except an expression of joy. She was gorgeous and over the course of the next few weeks I found she was intelligent, funny, thoughtful, kind. Kind to me.

     For 28 days we swallowed drugs to see how our bodies and minds reacted. We took an experimental drug that treats certain presentations of Parkinson's. With that experimental drug, we also took Prozac. They studied us. Were there any weird reactions? Any strange side effects?

     “Is euphoria a side effect?” I looked at the phlebotomist who drew my blood for the fifth and final time that day.

     “I'm not sure.” He switched the filled tube with an empty one. “I don't think so.” He flicked the tubing. “Woah, your blood just flies out!” I smiled. I was happy to be good at something, even if it was just my body’s ability to quickly spill blood.

     “No side effects!” I wrote on my questionnaire and gave it a double underline. This was easy! Way too easy!

     After the final blood draw of the evening we had free time until 9:30PM. It was lights out at 10:00PM. I got out of bed and wandered over to a table where my friend was sitting. He smiled. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was an odd, meaningless, buffoonish smile. His eyes were wide. He stood and gave me a big hug, which I returned. Clarissa and Kelsey joined us at the table. We played a game of cards.

     I glanced over my hand toward Clarissa. I imagined how wonderful our life would be once we got out of the study. Just her and me loving each other. Picket fence, two-car garage. Kids. Dog. I hadn't mentioned that to her yet, but I was confident she felt the same. I kept my left hand under the table. Twisting my wedding ring around my finger.

     Clarissa laughed at my jokes. She really seemed to enjoy my sense of humor, and I enjoyed hers. We looked at each other. A joyous, intense searching. The kind of look that felt like it mattered. Like it needed to happen. She made me feel. I think it was her that made me feel. I hadn't felt much of anything for the past 13 years. I couldn't really figure out where the feelings were coming from, but felt it must have been her. Nothing else had changed.

     “Is love a side effect?” I looked down at the form I was filling out for the 38th time. The phlebotomist met my eyes. She smiled and turned her head to the side. She was about 55, bespectacled with coke-bottle lenses inside her tortoise-shell frames.

     “Love?” She pulled a needle from a sealed, plastic bag. “Right or left arm?”

     “Let's go left today.” She lined up the needle with a spot that had been previously pierced and gently pushed.

     “Love? A side effect? No.” She popped an empty tube onto the needle jutting out of my arm. It immediately started filling with blood.

     “Okay...” I wrote, “No side effects” on the paper again. I wanted someone to say, “Sure, that could be a side effect.” I wanted to blame the drugs for the mixed-up feelings I had. I didn't want to be there anymore. I didn't want to be confused anymore. I didn't want to feel. It was difficult to feel. I hadn't done it in years.

 

     Unemployed for two months and desperate to get out of the house after two failed interviews my wife suggested I look into drug studies. She said her college friend had done them and why not? I spotted a ten day study that paid $1500. I can do that. I did do that. We took an experimental drug for a rare condition where the body cannot properly store fat. It was only known to affect some 1,000 people in the world. It was a breeze. I'm pretty sure I got the placebo. I didn't fall in love that time.

     I used to say that the second study ruined my life. That was when I was closer to the moment. With hindsight, I realize it didn't ruin my life at all. Changed it, yeah. Awakened myself, sure. Sloughed off my colorless, candy shell that protected me from the heat of life, you bet. I went into the second study married and depressed, and certain there was no changing my path. I exited still married and depressed, but confident there was something else out there.

 

     Clarissa slept in the bed next to me. Curtains separated our spaces. At night I would leave mine open just a bit in hopes that Clarissa would do the same and, looking into each other’s eyes, we would drift off to sleep together. After three weeks in the study, Clarissa left her curtain open a bit. Her back was turned to me, then she turned over, eyes closed. I quickly closed my eyes. I half-opened them and saw her looking at me.

     “Good night,” she said silently.
     “Good night,” I replied.

     I did not sleep well that night. I had let go of reality and lived in this uncomfortable head space. If I could leave at just faster than the speed of light that moment would remain forever. I remembered that line from Young Einstein. Or a paraphrase of the line, anyway. That point in time and all preceding points would never need to be thought of again. There would be no confusion as I hurtled...wherever it is I might go faster than the speed of light. I always jumped to the outlandish when I felt stuck. Always wanting to escape, but never putting it in a realistic way. But I knew I was stuck there in that moment and needed to stop turning over every second I had spent with Clarissa in my head.

     
     Trying to push the thought of our just-now goodnight out of my head, I realized what I had become. Not just a test subject, but a prostitute. I sold my body in exchange for money. Ingesting different chemicals to see if I would lose my vision for a day, or my kidneys would stop working, or I wouldn't be able to keep food down, or I would fall in love with someone I had recently met because I had been unhappy for so long. It wasn't my fault that I contemplated the logistics of running off with another woman. It was the drug's fault. The study's fault. Despite it being lights out, I put my headphones on and listened to music.

     “I feel like I’m dying.
     I’ll probably never live again.
     I just ain’t been trying
     It’s getting very near the end.”

 

     After the study concluded we needed to return to PRACS for three follow-up blood draws. The first follow-up was the day after our release, the day I awoke on Ben’s floor. The second follow-up was a few days after that. It went well. We celebrated again because we were young and our bodies could take the punishment. A group of us watched The King of Kong after returning from the bar that night. I wondered how someone could waste his time on something so frivolous. I play video games, but to ignore his children. To ignore his wife. Devote himself to something that would have no impact on anyone other than himself. Clarissa wasn't there that night, but we had exchanged phone numbers at the bar following the first blood draw. I texted her throughout the movie, keeping her aware of the pursuit of the high score. Once it was over I let her know I wished she was there.
     
     "I'll see you at the last blood draw!" she texted. 

     I drove home the next morning as the final follow-up was three days away. It was the first time I'd seen my wife since I had left for the study. There was no welcome home as she had to work a 24 hour shift at the hospital. When she got home she was so exhausted she went straight to bed. After a brief conversation with mostly incomprehensible replies, she was asleep. When she awoke she had to do go directly to a 12 hour shift. It was grueling for her. I wished there was something I could do to help, but wondered if that was going to be the rest of my life. I returned to Fargo the next day for the final follow-up.

     We gave our blood for what should have been the final time. Again, we celebrated. It was trivia night at the bar we attended. Our team won. Shots all around. We stumbled over to another bar. More drinks. More loud talking. More looking at Clarissa. She sensed something was wrong. She asked about my past. My present. Even, in my drunken state I held it in. It was all fine, I yelled. I had never shared anything personal with anyone. I didn't know how. No one had ever asked those questions before. I slept on Ben's couch that night. When I awoke I searched for my keys, but they were nowhere to be found. I figured they must have fallen out of my pocket at one of the bars. They wouldn't open until noon, so I opened a book I found laying around. It was on Sādhanā.

     The book was filled with philosophical ponderings meant to help shunt the brain into some kind of meditative state, similar to "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". I fought each one, attempting to solve the puzzle, ignoring the point of the exercise. Eventually I grew bored with the struggle. Ben was still asleep, but I was restless. I walked to a nearby coffee shop. When I arrived I sent Clarissa a message asking if she wanted to join me. She did. When she arrived we had coffee. We chatted about her piano playing. I told her how much I loved Yann Tiersen after seeing Amélie. She told me she could play Comptine d'un autre été, which I loved. However, I was only half-paying attention as I was focused on all of the questions she had asked the previous night. Without any further provocation I blurted it out.

     "Look, I don't know if this is the Prozac talking still, but I have to say something." She was caught off guard, but had a look of welcoming.

     "I'm unhappy. I'm depressed. I've been depressed for as long as I can remember." Tears welled in my eyes. I couldn't hold them in and they ran down my face. I sniveled a bit, like I do when I cry. Clarissa put her hand on my shoulder. Concern. I don't know if anyone had ever expressed concern for me. I'd always slipped through the cracks thanks to an out-of-control family.

     "I don't know why nobody saw it. I don't know why nobody asked me. All my life nobody asked me. I never wanted to get married. I just didn't know what the hell else to do. How to get out of it."

     She looked relieved. People looked at us. Looked at me. They probably thought we were breaking-up.

     "I've gotta go."

     "Joe?" I didn't stop. "Where are you going?" 

     I left the coffee shop and walked out into the winter air. I didn't know where I was going, but ended up next to the river. There were benches there. I cleared the snow from one and sat down. I'd never told anyone how depressed I was. I only told Clarissa because it was easier to tell someone I barely knew. Someone only I knew and I could easily cut off. It was safer that way. I could leave it behind and push it back down where it belonged. The pit. The rotted-to-nothing pit.

     Eventually I stopped sobbing. I walked back toward the coffee shop and peered through the glass. She wasn't there. It was after noon by then. I walked to the bar and picked up my keys, went back to my car and left. I didn't say goodbye. I just left. That was supposed to be my last follow-up blood draw. I didn't plan to come back or talk to anyone. I planned to bury everything that happened and just carry on. Move on with my marriage. Go back to my unemployed life.

 

     The final draw for our time in the study concluded. We all sat in our beds. I put together a double album playlist for Clarissa. I titled it Goodbye. I knew I wouldn't see her again. It didn't matter. I wanted her to have something to remember me by. In a year, in five years, somehow in twenty years I hoped that music was still with her. She'd be rearranging some things in the attic. She'd open a box and pick something up. She'd blow the dust off. It would be her iPod. I'd forgot all about this, she'd think. She'd rummage around in a box and find the power cord. A rat would have gnawed its way through the cord. She'd find some electrical tape and wind it around the cord. She would plug it in, amazed that it still worked. She'd hear the familiar pang of an iPod powering on. She'd go to her playlists, scrolling past Awesome Dance Party Mix, Beautiful Music to Watch Sunsets, and College Days and then she would see it. Goodbye. And she'd remember me. She'd remember the way we felt. She'd remember me and the doorbell would ring. And there I was. I've been looking for you, I'd say. She would be speechless, point toward the attic and look up the stairs. Look back at me. She would barely recall my name, but it would come back. It would come back. She wouldn't believe it. She'd step outside and leave the door open a crack. Joe, she'd say. I would nod. The kids are napping, she'd say. I'm sorry, I would say. I found you too late and just in time, I'd say. I never got to thank you. Thank you for making me feel. For making me feel there was more to life and myself. So, thank you. I'd say. You're welcome she'd reply. I would want to hold her, but I would resist. I'd extend my hand. I'd say, I love you. She would not say it back. She would turn back to the attic and point and try to sputter out, you won't believe it but, and she'd turn back and I wouldn't be there. I knew I wouldn't see her again.

     I put on a lot of the songs I listened to during the study. I made it on my computer and synced it to her iPod. Goodbye...Side A. Goodbye...Side B. It had all the familiar trappings of a great playlist. An unusual intro leading into joyous rocking followed by something really old and seldom heard then a change of pace and finally the slow stacked on less slow stacked on mid-temp stacked on the grand crescendo and a pretty outro. Although it was my fairly standard playlist trajectory, I put the utmost care into every selection. Every ending of a song perfectly made sense leading into the next. Every song was thematically connected to the joy of discovery and the pain of loss. Although I had made many playlists, these were my first flawless lists.

     When bed rest concluded we all got up and mingled. It was our final night together. We had planned a toga party as that was the best our recently-graduated and drugged minds could conceive. People more experienced in the drug studies had saved their afternoon snacks anticipating the need for a final blow out with everyone. We gorged on all of the miscellaneous treats. Oreo cookies, fruit snacks, pudding cups (which a phlebotemist had hid in the refrigerator for them (he was a boy and they were pretty)), Doritos, Barrel O' Fun potato chips. We ate and played music and danced. When it became nearly bed time we gathered around. One man, around my age, hugged everyone and wept. Other people wept. There were cries of "Friends Forever!" "Never Forget!" "I Love You!" "I Love You Too!" It was all just a bit too hyperbolic, even with my Prozac-soaked brain. Too hyperbolic because there was only one person, besides Ben, who I would miss. I went up to Clarissa. I was afraid to touch her. Afraid to hug her. I thought if I hugged her I would never let her go. I extended my hand. She extended hers.

     "Goodbye."
     "Goodbye."
     "I'll miss you." She laughed at this.
     "We'll see each other tomorrow." We broke the hand shake. I smiled and looked into her eyes. I was done with the toga party. I climbed into bed and covered myself up. I couldn't deal with it any longer. I just wanted her to know without telling her. I was so scared for her to tell me no.

     Six days after what was supposed to be my final blood draw. Six days after leaving the coffee shop in confusion. Eagerly awaiting my check from PRACS, I got a phone call.

     "Hello?"
     "Hello, Joseph?"
     "This is him."
     "Hi, this is Mable with the PRACS Institute. I'm afraid there was an issue with your last blood draw. We'll need you to come back as soon as possible for another follow-up."
     "Okay, what was the problem?"
     "Just some outlier results."
     "I guess I can get there tomorrow."
     "Does 8AM work?"
     "I'll be driving from Bemidji. Can it be later…2PM?"
     "That should be fine, yes. Remember to abstain from eating anything 8 hours before your blood draw. You don't smoke, do you?"
     "No."
     "Okay, and no alcohol for 24 hours." It was currently 4PM. "Have you had any alcohol in the past two hours."
     "No, I haven't. I’ll be there at 2PM, tomorrow."

     I called my wife and let her know. I hadn't talked to her about my depression. I hadn't talked to anyone in Fargo since I broke down and left. I had planned to drive in, do the blood draw, drive home and continue forgetting. Go back to searching for...something meaningful in my life. Find someway to be happy in a one-sided, loveless marriage. About half-way through my drive to Fargo I got a call. It was Ben. I didn't answer. I listened to his message.

     "Hey Joe, how are you? Haven't heard from you in a while. I've been listening to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and love it. I went to the record store and bought a bunch of stuff. Did you know they did an album where you're supposed to play four discs at the same time? Anyway, I was thinking about you. Hope you're okay."

     I called him back and told him I was on my way there. He had to do a fourth follow-up as well. We made plans to meet. I made it into Fargo and went to PRACS. I completed my last blood draw. I was finally free. I vowed never to return. On my way to meet up with Ben I got a call from Clarissa. Against my better judgment, I answered.

     "Hey! Why didn't you tell me you were going to be here?"
     “Sorry, I just...didn't think...after the coffee shop...”
     “Oh, shut up. Of course I want to see you.”
     “Uh, well, I'm going to meet Ben if you want to come along.”
     “Sure. Where at?” I told her we were headed to some bar. She met us there.

      We drank. We smoked. I hadn't smoked since I was seven-years old. It was the summer and I was hanging out with my brother and his friends. They were all eleven, twelve. We sat in a forested area behind our newly constructed elementary school. They had gotten the cigarettes from some older kid who lived in town. They gave him all the coins they could gather from their parents' change jars and couch cushions and he bought them cigarettes. Every now and again we would go to someone's older sibling's apartment while he or she was at work and we would hang out there. Play Punch-Out!! and drink a beer. I didn't like the taste, but it seemed like it should feel cool.

     We got a bit drunk and talked. I wasn't going to talk about anything I had confessed to Clarissa, but Ben and Clarissa finally got me to open up. I went into more detail about everything. About the past seven-and-a-half years of my life. About all the crap growing up. It felt good to talk to someone who wanted to listen. We went back to Ben's and watched a movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We'd already seen it, but it felt like the perfect movie to watch at the time. Ben sat between Clarissa and me on the couch. The movie ended and Ben stayed there. He hesitated and looked to both of us. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. He stood up.

     “Well, I’m going to bed.”
     "Goodnight," we both said. 

     We heard his door close. I looked at Clarissa. She looked at me. I wanted and didn't want the inevitable to happen. I moved closer to her on the couch. Put my arm around her. Kissed her. Eventually, we fell asleep. We woke up around 6AM. We talked briefly, then she left. I didn't realize at the time, but that would really be the last time I saw her. I tried to recall every moment, every detail of the previous night. It wasn't a dream. Waking up next to Clarissa confirmed that much. I didn't wait around for Ben. He knew I was supposed to leave early. I got into my car and drove home.

     Clarissa and I talked on the phone every day for the next week. I was uncertain about everything. Everything I had done and didn't do up to that point of my life. I withdrew from my wife. I would leave bed in the middle of the night and go to a restaurant. Drink coffee until 8 in the morning. Doodle. Write distracted, meaningless poetry. Running to the Sun, A long way down reverses eventually, Thump, Thump, Thump. I'd go home after my wife would leave for a shift. For whatever reason she never asked me where I had been, where I was going, what I had been up to. It confused me to push away, but not actually push against anything. Like a body tensing before an impact, but the impact never comes. I would stay awake and stare at the ceiling. Thinking of how I could break her heart.

     “And I’ve been making promises I know I’ll never keep.
     One of these days I’m gonna leave you in your sleep.
     I have to go when the whistle blows
     The whistle knows my name. 
     Baby, I was born on a train.”

     The next day I snapped out of my daydreaming and decided I was going to stop being an asshole. I'd cut things off with Clarissa and tell my wife what happened. I'd tell her everything I was feeling. I'd let her know I wasn't in love with her and wanted a divorce. I made that plan in my head. I made that plan. I'd follow through. My wife got home late that night and went straight to bed. We had to leave early for Duluth the next day for a medical student conference she had. I planned to ski while she conferenced. Late at night, staring at the ceiling I finally screwed up the courage to do it. I tried to wake her up that night, but she did not respond. I felt that was a good enough sign at the time to not try again.

     When we awoke the next day I considered telling her. She turned to her side and looked at me.

     "I'm sorry I've been so busy."
     It seemed like the first words I'd heard her say to me in a month. Her voice sounded so foreign. Nothing like Clarissa's.
     "But, it'll be worth it, right?"
     "Of course, yeah...I finally got paid yesterday."
     "Oh good. I was getting worried."
     "Yeah, I deposited it into the joint account and paid the bills."
     "Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you."
     "You're welcome."

     We had already packed. We drove together, she slept most of the way. When we arrived she went directly to her conference. I skied all morning and switched to snowboarding in the afternoon. I had never snowboarded before, but I decided all it required was confidence and visualized success. I fell 95 times. 5 times I knocked the wind out of myself. Under the guise of learning to snowboard I punished myself. I was disgusted with my behavior. On the last run I face-planted and stayed down for a few minutes. Letting the wind whip into my still body. I willed myself to disappear. To become a part of the mountain, so that I could avoid the pain I knew I would bring. But, I remained. I got up and shimmied down the rest of the slope. I turned in my board and went to the chalet.

     At the bar, I ordered a whiskey, neat. I'd never had whiskey before. I was sore all over. Wet. Tired. Angry. Confused. I sipped the whiskey. It tasted awful and wonderful at the same time. Warmed a bit, I checked my messages. None. I called Clarissa. After some pleasantries I told her how much I appreciated our time together. How much I appreciated her advice and listening and questions. Then, I told her I couldn't talk to her anymore. She said she knew it was coming and it was okay and that she just wanted me to be happy.

     I told her "This might sound weird since we're not going to talk to one another again, but I love you. I mean that in the most profound way possible. You helped me understand what I thought I couldn't control."

     "I love you too." I knew she meant it the same way I had. It seemed really right at that moment. Like we both absolutely knew what love really meant right then and there. Right at that time. It felt as though we had both transcended any love that had existed and we shared something that was pure and real. It felt even more real because we were done. It was honest and carried no further explanation. Or maybe it wasn't. I think it was still the drugs and confusion.

     I went back to the hotel and drew a bath. Draining and refilling the water I soaked for two hours then finally got out. Pruned from shoulders to toes I crawled into bed next to my wife who was already asleep.

     That night I dreamed I was in a hospital and unable to leave. Unable to find an exit. Suddenly, I was on a bed. Straps were on my arms. I struggled. They got tighter. I stopped struggling. They got tighter. The straps covered my body. I couldn't breathe, but it was okay. In my dream, I decided it was okay.

     The next day I went over to the coffee shop near the hotel. They had an open mic that afternoon. I drank coffee and wrote. People started getting on stage, doing their thing. Covers of Bob Dylan and Ani DiFranco. I watched. Listened. Really tried to feel. Admired their fearlessness. People pushing through their own shit and just doing it.

     Since being unemployed I had been practicing guitar for the first time in a while. After a guy finished playing I asked if I could borrow his guitar. He said sure. I slapped my name down. I had never played in front of anyone. I sat on the stool on stage. I strummed the intro to Random Rules by the Silver Jews. Arrhythmic in strumming and nearly tone-deaf in my vocals I sang it with passion attempting to overcome my deficiency in ability.

     “I asked a painter, why the roads are colored black.
     He said, 'Steve, it's because people leave and no highway will bring them back.'
     So, if you don't want me, I promise not to linger,
     but before I go I gotta ask you dear about that tan line on your ring finger.

     No one should have, two lives.
     Now you know my middle names are wrong and right.
     Honey, we've got two lives to give tonight.”

     A smattering of polite applause. I thanked the man who lent me his guitar and went back to the hotel. I packed my bag and waited. My wife and I drove back to Bemidji that evening. Mostly silence. I didn't mention that I did the open mic. I didn't think she would care. Most likely, she would have been embarrassed for me. Embarrassed that I would make her look foolish. She was always embarrassed by me.

 

     The week passed in much the same manner as every week had since we'd been married. I did stop staying out all night. I still didn't tell my wife about anything I felt. I tried to shake off Clarissa, but it still seared inside of me. The weekend after the ski trip I drove down to Minneapolis to meet some friends. We went to a karaoke bar. It was around 10:30PM and I got a call from my wife.

     “Who's Clarissa?

     We talked for the next hour. My friends there didn't have much they could say. The situation put a damper on the evening. My first time seeing any friends since I'd moved. I drove back to Bemidji that Sunday. My things had been packed. I had planned to load up and leave. I didn't want to defend myself or expand on anything I'd already said. I didn't want to hurt her anymore than I already had.

     "So, you're not going to say anything?"
     "I don't know what to say." I picked up a box of my CDs and Movies and put them into the trunk of my car. I came back in for another box.
     "Why did you do this?"
     "I was unhappy. I wish I could have told you. I'm sorry."
     "Fuck your sorry."
     "I know." I took a box of my clothes and put them into the trunk.
     "Do you love her?"
     "No...I barely even know her."
     "That's not what you wrote."
     "What I wrote had nothing to do with how I really feel. I was trying to figure it out."
     "Are you going to keep talking to her?"
     "I haven't talked to her since...since last week."
     "I know that. I saw the phone bill. I don't want you talking to her."
     "Well, I wasn't planning to, but..."
     "But what?"
     "Never mind." I took a box filled with books to the car.
     "Did you ever even love me?"
     "No...yes...I don't know. I think I did at some point."
     "So, it was all a lie. Why didn't you just break up with me?"
     "I did. But I got scared being alone. I didn't have anything or anyone."
     "So, it's my fault you came crawling back and told me you loved me and didn't want to lose me?"
     "No. It's not your fault. It's my fault. I'm sorry. I just didn't know what to do."
     "Fuck you. You're so pathetic."
     "I know."
     "I don't ever want to see you again."
     "Okay."
     "Okay? What, you don't want to see me?"
     "I don't know. I was hoping this wouldn't be the last time we see each other."
     "I hate you."
     "I know. I'm sorry."
     "I already told you to fuck your weak, pathetic sorry."
     "I know."
     "Is that all you can say? 'I know. I know. I know.' God you're pathetic."
     "I..."
     "Just leave."
     "I will. I'll get the rest of my things when I come back for the...for the..."
     "Divorce papers. We're getting divorced. I hate you."
     "Good bye."
     "I hate you and I hate your shitty family."
     "Okay, I'm leaving." 

     I got into my car and after leaving stopped at a gas station nearby. I sat there a while. It was difficult to control my breathing. I let the panic pass, then drove north to my parents' house in Waskish. I slept on their couch for a week. The next week my soon to be ex-wife and I met for lunch at a sandwich shop.

     "Aren't you going to get anything to eat?"
     "No. I'm not hungry. I haven't been eating."
     "I went on a date."
     "Oh, okay. Really? With who?"
     "That guy we played volleyball with. He noticed you stopped coming around and asked what happened. He asked me out."
     "How was it?"
     "It was fine, but he's a Republican."
     "Are you going to see him again?"
     "I don't know. Maybe."
     "Well, do you have the papers?"
     
     We signed the divorce papers. She had to go back to the hospital. She offered the rest of her sandwich to me, but I declined. That was the last time we'd see each other. I left the sandwich shop and returned to the home we had shared for our six months of marriage. I picked up the rest of my things and left the key on the counter. I wrote a note, then crumbled it up and put it into my pocket. I returned to my parents' house.

     I was still depressed and didn't do much but sleep for the next few days. Easter was coming and my sister came to visit with her kids. I didn't want to be the weird, sad uncle, but that's all I could feel. I stayed on the couch, mostly sleeping until an Easter egg hunt in Kelliher that Sunday. I went with my mother, sister and my nieces and nephews. They scrambled around stuffing eggs into their baskets. I watched. Eventually, I stood up and helped them spot eggs hidden too high for their eyes to see, or disguised too well. They were joyous, laughing, shouting, pushing, running and stuffing their faces with candy.

     After we got back to my parents' house, I got on the computer and updated my resume. I applied for a few jobs. An interview request came the next day. I drove down to Minneapolis and interviewed. I didn't get the job, but I was ready to move on. I wasn't any happier than I was before, but I was finally living in uncertainty. It was the kind of state I had actively avoided my adult life. It was the reason I ended up married in the first place. Finally, things weren't easy. Finally, I wasn't coasting. It was where I wanted to be.

 

     “Is awakening to the grand possibility of my existence a side effect?” The phlebotomist, this one a young and chipper woman took my tube of blood and put it into a cooler alongside four others. She glanced around as if she was either missing the punch line to a joke, or was the punch line herself.

     “No, I don't think it is.”

     “NO SIDE EFFECTS!” I wrote for the 55th straight time. I glanced over to Clarissa. I looked back to my paper. It didn't feel right this time. I scratched it out.

     “LOVE.”

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