Man Alive

This is a short story I started writing when I was in university, and uncovered half-done in an old EHD during the spring of 2020. I finished writing it during lockdown.

He didn’t know how to come alive. That was, it turned out, his biggest problem. Everyone around him thought he was vital – but in truth, he wasn’t. He pretended to be a man of the world. But really, it was, well, fear of feeling something. That was the exactness of Jon’s problem.

It all sort of began when he fell in love with Daree. Daree was the kind of girl that should have a weird name. Or maybe it was the reverse – she was that kind of girl because of her name. At first, it was maybe all those things that attracted him to her. It was her whimsical, bouncy way. The way she tied her long, brown hair piled up into a brightly colored bandana. The fact that she knew about plants and green energy and organics. And so they became roving, partying hippies together.

Her friends became his friends. He moved with her – first to the East Coast so she could finish college. Then, out west so she could get a Master’s degree. Hell, he figured, I can get a Master’s, too. And so he did. He followed her right across the plains into the desert southwest, and when he got there, he told people he’d once been through on a train and never forgot the place. This may have been a line in bullshit, as he was indeed an excellent bullshitter. But it felt better to think he had his own ideas.

He and Daree bought a small adobe house with a big, dirt backyard and a greenhouse. It was on an old Albuquerque block with a park down the street and mechanics living next-door. Jon explained to people how he and Daree didn’t want to get married or have kids. He explained what a relief it was that Daree was on the same page. He explained that he was glad she didn’t want kids. He explained until he was blue in the face, and started wondering at night what he really believed anymore. Their house became a haven for her plants, which became their plants, and they got a dog, which loved Daree more than Jon. He explained this was because he disciplined the dog and trained the dog, and Daree just spoiled the dog. He was surrounded by Daree’s little biosphere of a life, so he learned to explain plants to other people. And he explained how much he adored plants, and gave people weird looks if they happened to be less-than-interested in the world of flora and fauna.

Daree made a lot of friends out west. She was ready to settle there, so her friends became his friends. She liked her program – which, obviously, included plants – she was studying biology and architecture, so she could build solar buildings and greenhouses that utilized non-pollutant energy. Jon adored her passion and explained that he was not at all threatened by the fact that she was, as he put it, super-smart and motivated. And he wasn’t. Only when he started to realize his own lack of direction did he begin to resent her lifestyle; her type-A friends, how they threw dinner parties, and talked about saving the world. They were people with big careers on the Albuquerque scene.

It wasn’t that he fell out of love with Daree. It wasn’t that concrete. It was more the way their lives kind of faded out of sight from each other. Daree spent less and less time at home. Jon spent more and more time drinking with his one good buddy, Sam, an over-feeling, heavy drinking, womanizing poet who fixed air conditioners as a day job. It was easy, too, to spend time with Sam. He liked to philosophize and shoot the shit and waste time. Jon could forget about how he lacked bearings and goals when he was with Sam. In fact, Sam made him feel downright put together. So they spent a lot of evenings sitting on the old, green vinyl couch in Jon and Daree’s house, watching Quentin Tarantino movies and quaffing can after can of Miller Genuine Draft.

Except for when he was at the University during the day, Jon tried to forget that he was an academic altogether. Though his study of philosophy often crossed his mind (as it was, in fact, a subject he loved to ponder), he pushed it to the back. He taught two Intro to Logic courses as part of his Master’s program, and though he tried to play them off as just “extra cash,” they were really the most interesting part of his days. His enjoyment in the wonder of philosophy on a large scale was difficult to put off. After all, he’d dedicated himself to it for four years to get a B.A. at UCLA, and now found himself enrolled in a post-graduate degree at the University of New Mexico.

Summer the first year that Jon and Daree were in the southwest, Jon stayed in Albuquerque, while Daree decided to visit her mother in Washington. Jon could face neither Daree’s crazy mother, nor his own equally confusing and dysfunctional family. His parents split up when he was very young, and his father remarried early. A few years later, after Jon’s half-sister was born, his dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His stepmom played obvious favorites with her own child, often leaving Jon to fend for himself. This made him bitter, particularly during teen-hood, when his sister was getting a car and a private phone lines, and Jon was barely getting lunch money. What was a mid-80s high school life but private phone lines, after all?

No matter, he sort of put the family stuff in the back of his mind. Especially after he met Daree. She was free and fun and allowed him to find a kind of life he never dreamed about. Her own father was fairly well off with an import-export business, and he was more than happy to contribute to his sunshine’s (as he called her) well-being. This suited Jon just fine, because it meant he and Daree always had enough, at least.

But the thought that there might be more had been creeping into his mind after they moved west, and that first summer was a kind of turning point for Jon. He found himself inexplicably unable to sleep or waking up out of sweaty, restless dreams. He felt short of breath and frightened, and often took the dog, Hemp, to the park or swimming in the river. Even then, he had trouble putting out of his mind the idea that his life and Daree’s were coming to some kind of impasse.

August 24th was the first day of fall term classes. At 9:45 AM, Jon gathered his messenger bag and collected the Introduction to the Philosophy of Logic, 3rd Edition textbook and headed to his first class. He swung the door open and walked airily into the room, trying to give the impression that he was cool and confident. He knew there would be students already waiting for class and he wanted them to see him as affable but not too goofy.

He let the bag and books collapse on the teacher’s station at the front and surveyed the room. Yep, he thought, typical. It was the standard fare of first-day freshmen, wide-eyed blonde cheerleader hopefuls and coeds, a few scattered nerdy misfits, and several older returning students.

And then he saw her. She was, quite precisely, unmemorable. And yet, he couldn’t help but glance at her a second time. She had long, brown hair and wore scruffy but well-fitted jeans and a truly ugly green shirt with Hawaiian print on it. Crunchy, but smart, he thought how to describe her. Smart? He took another quick glance at her, peering over his glasses as he pretended to flip through the textbook. Yes, she was definitely smart. She wasn’t chattering on with the other girls, and she looked older than they were, anyway. She had a crisp notebook and a well-worn pen, but wasn’t over-eager to use them. At the same time, she looked insecure – a fascinating combination which made Jon feel a funny sensation in his throat. Shit, he pulled himself back to the moment. I’ve gotta teach.

That 9:45 class became his favorite part of the week. Her name was Kathleen but she went by Kat. He hated that name. Though she several times asserted otherwise, he was sure she’d studied philosophy before, because she seemed to always know the answers, and she tended to blurt them out flippantly. Once, he had been explaining the difference between necessary truths and logical truths. These, he explained, are statements… that are true under all possible interpretations, Kat interrupted in a half-snobby, half-bored tone. He jumped back at her in surprise.

You have taken a class.

I have not!

Days became weeks and he found himself rummaging around in his bag after class as an excuse to talk to her. Or maybe it was vice versa, since she always seemed to be searching through papers or talking to another student for several minutes after class, too. Didn’t matter. He found the five minutes of company she provided him between 10:55 and 11:00 interesting. She unwittingly started walking with him to his next class, telling him stories like how she had her first shot of tequila over the weekend or asking him small details about his life. He forgot himself a little talking to her, and wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.

At home, things rolled on. Daree was busy with a design project for a small park in the central part of the state, and she often spent weekends working there. Anyway, she’d never had much interest in all that logic stuff, as she put it. At parties, Jon had a tendency to get a little drunk and start asking philosophical questions. Don’t start in with the ‘is language thought or is thought language’ shit Jon. God! That was now her standard response, and it always garnered a laugh or two, especially from their friends who had experienced Jon’s drunken ramblings.

“…So, we could honestly ask ourselves, is thought language, or is language thought? Where does one end and one begin?” he posed the question to the class on a Wednesday morning in October. At that moment, the skinny freshman kid sitting in the front row broke his pen and ink splashed across the desk. He made a move to clean it up using notebook paper. Lisa, an older Hispanic student near the front, scrunched up her face in deep thought. Jose, the tubby, jovial guy from a small village in the northern part of the state who spoke in thick New Mexico dialect, muttered, “It’s language. Eee yeah, la idioma for sure, man.” An awkward silence hung on the air as the rest of the class felt obliged to neither listen nor answer.

“It’s both.” Kat’s voice was clear, almost arrogant. “Language and thought are inherently bound up together – you can’t have one without the other. Just like culture…the way we think can only be understood in the context of our language. On the other hand, our language can only be really understood by knowing something about our culture and history.”

“Yeah…exactly,” responded Jon, looking at her in astonishment. “Because we simply can’t know anything without knowing both.”

“A catch-22,” said Kat.

“Yeah…” Jon trailed off as the class dismissed itself.

“If you know anything about ficus, you know this is NOT how they need to be potted!” Daree was ranting at a deliveryman from the local nursery. “This plant is going to die within two days if it stays this way! You’ve got to bring me a larger pot!” She ushered the bewildered man toward the door and turned back to adjust one of the insulation shades she’d begun hanging over the windows in preparation for winter.

“Daree! Where is Hemp’s foo… what’s going on in here?” Jon entered the greenhouse of their little two-bedroom house.

“Fucking idiots cannot seem to get things right to save their lives! God, sometimes this city drives me crazy.” Her voice hit that decibel that made Jon’s limbs feel like they might dissolve.

“It’s a desert, Daree. What do they know about ficus?” Jon was joking. He’d discovered she hated it if he joked when she was upset, so he did it for his own amusement. She glared at him and stomped back through the living room, her sandals reverberating against the hardwood floors.

“Hemp needs food.” Jon followed her as she poured herself a glass of tap water and leaned against the kitchen counter. There were unwashed dishes splayed about the sink. Bread crumbs and a half-eaten pizza crust littered the counter. “He’s out of food and this place is a goddamn wreck. We’ve got to clean.”

“I’m going back…” she swallowed a gulp of water and put the glass down to rest amid the wreckage. “I’m going back to the studio tonight. This project is going to send me to my fucking grave,” she walked back into the living room, letting him trail behind again. “Why do they need a park designed in Shitsville, New Mexico again? Who gives a fuck?”

Jon talked over her chatter. “You’re going back to the studio? For christssake Daree. The dog has no food, the house is a mess… This is the most I’ve seen you in like four days and you’re just leaving again! Jesus!”

“Jon, we have been through this waaay too many times. You know I have to get this project done. You know how important this is. This is not some useless thing I’m doing… This is bringing in money and this is my passion. Don’t do this to me again, I swear…”

It was the same fight they’d been through dozens of times before. Jon felt too tired to bother. He knew how it would end. He just shrugged, took his wallet and keys, and put on his favorite leather jacket leftover from 1993. It’d been awhile since he took his motorcycle out for a spin. No matter that he’d have a hell of a time bringing home a 16-pound bag of dog food on the back of it.

Kat had an easy time passing Jon’s class. She loved philosophy and she loved the way he taught it, and she was spellbound by his lectures and his charismatic manner in front of the class. One Wednesday, Jon was feeling particularly self-conscious, and Kat sitting there expectantly listening to him wasn’t helping. He mumbled out a few words but nothing seemed to come out correctly. Something about modality and… um, what was I saying? Nevermind, class dismissed, see you guys next week.

He packed up his things and tried to make a quick escape, fluttering down the hall of the 1960s building where his early class was held. Then there was a tap on his shoulder. Kat smiled and Jon felt a jump in his stomach that was at once worrying and elating.

“What happened in there?” she joked in a silly tone which made him relax a little.

“Oh, who knows. Hangover. I have the flu. Worried about this project for my Master’s. Who knows.” He really didn’t know.

“Look, I had an idea. Are you walking this way?” she indicated toward the Philosophy Department’s offices. He nodded.

“Next semester, I was hoping I might do something for additional credit, and I really enjoyed your class and I was wondering if you might need, like, a TA or something?”

There was a rush of exhilaration in Jon’s chest. He absolutely did not need a teaching assistant, and was doubtful it was something his department even allowed, especially for Master’s students teaching survey courses.

“Oh, hmm, like someone to grade papers and look through all the endless piles of quizzes where people still don’t know the difference between realism and nominalism?”

Kat smirked and he enjoyed the smirk and the fact that she got his jokes made him feel tall and powerful. He told her he’d check with the department and see if that was something they’d do and let her know.

Daree was going back to New York for several months as part of her program, to work on a project to learn about urban garden design. She’d leave just after Christmas, and she was in the throes of packing up pruning shears and coats and fleece headbands into a tatty suitcase when he got home from teaching. Sam was there, wearing the same cargo pants and black Pixies sweatshirt he’d been in yesterday, laying across their green couch, nursing a bottle of beer and talking about different varieties of weed.

“Want a swig, man?” Sam lifted the half-empty bottle towards Jon, making no effort to move otherwise.

“No, I don’t. How long have you been here?” he said, heading into the kitchen, finding the same dirty plates from a week ago piled up along with a new mug with a used lime in it and a bowl with some stubbed out cigarette butts. “Jesus, you guys. What the hell do you do? Just sit around in here all day making a fucking mess in the living room and day drinking?”

“Dude Jon, you’re one to talk, don’t get so bent out of shape dude. We were all drinking last night man, it’s cool.”

Jon stood over Sam and stared at him. “Why are you here?”

The final week of class passed Jon in a blur of giving exams and finishing off a group project on indigenous philosophies of the Southwest that he’d been working on that fall. Kat passed the final exam in his class with 98% and it gave him a small thrill marking a red X next to the question on epistemology that she’d gotten wrong. It wasn’t that he wanted her to do badly – he couldn’t deny that found her brainy qualities attractive – but it made him feel powerful to find a flaw.

When they saw each other after the last class, she joked about the red X and then asked if he’d found out any more about the TA thing. He hadn’t even asked the department, knowing they didn’t offer that kind of program and would never give him permission.

“Yeah, they kinda can’t really do it officially, but…I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t just do our own version of it. Like, unofficially but then you can put it on your resume and put me as a reference and stuff. I dunno, what do you think?”

December had set in and the morning sun hadn’t yet melted the early frost off the handrails in the open-air corridor outside the classroom where their final had been held. Their exhales were rising in puffs of white crystals.

“Okay. Sure,” she looked at him fearlessly, searching his green eyes and his furrowed brow. “I guess that means we should probably meet to talk about it,” he said.

“Yeah. I guess we should,” she smiled.

Kat went to Japan during the winter break – she was also studying Japanese and history as part of her degree and was spending a couple of months at a language camp near Osaka. With Daree gone, Jon spent most of the winter taking Hemp on long, languid excursions cross-country skiing in the Sandia Mountains north of town. He and Sam drank beer and Sam regaled him with stories of his sexual exploits – he was seeing a woman who was into the occult and had a very detailed story about how they fucked transcendentally on her pagan altar. They smoked rollies and he let Sam take him to a house party at a friend of a friend’s near Kirtland Air Force Base for New Year’s Eve.

Standing in a beige-carpeted living room holding a red Solo cup full of margarita, he counted down to midnight with a roomful of drunken strangers. Sam had disappeared with a woman in a silver tube top, so he slid the glass door open and stepped out onto the strangers’ concrete patio to roll a cigarette. He thought about Kat and tried not to think about Kat and felt guilty about Daree and was angry at Daree for not being there and for leaving him with all of her plants and a list of explicit instructions on how to care for them. He wished he could’ve kissed Kat at midnight, and wished that he wished it was Daree, and felt an excruciating surge of fear and excitement letting his mind stray to Kat’s round face and soft lips that turned up in a coy smile when he looked down at her.

It was deep winter when the January term started. Kat was back from Japan and they’d been exchanging text messages and agreed to go over the syllabus for the class that she would be TA’ing with him. They met up at a local brewery and she ordered a porter and Jon had an IPA and they joked around for awhile, and Kat told him all about her trip and a million crazy stories. She talked a lot and her eyes flashed around excitedly but he heard none of it and just stared at her while she rambled. She seemed so full of life to him, and he wondered if he’d ever been that way. In part he was attracted to her energy and at the same time he felt almost repulsed by how alive she seemed to be.

“Look, my sister’s organizing this trip to Colorado to go skiing. You ski right? We’ve talked about that. I know you ski. Do you want to go? It’s next weekend, and, well, the more people we have the cheaper it is, ‘cause we can all just split a cheap room. They are driving up on Friday morning but I thought since we have class Friday morning maybe we could drive up together on Friday night. What do you think?” She was speed-talking.

He stared at her, his mind racing. First, he had run through the small salary he got from the University for teaching two classes a semester over the Christmas break – mostly on booze for him and Sam, and dog food for Hemp. Second, what was this offer? What did it mean? Surely she just wanted him to go along as a friend to help out with costs, but it would mean spending a weekend with her.

“Hmm, I dunno, I kinda need money to pay the rent. Lemme do that and see if I can.”

Once the idea was planted in his mind, there was no getting rid of it. He earmarked some rent money in the bank and called her and said he could go, but only if they drove in his car, knowing he could put gas and lift tickets and food on his credit card. Sam would look after Daree’s plants and promised to keep Hemp fed, which Jon accepted dubiously.

When he picked her up Friday afternoon, she was wearing a thick, fitted wool sweater and she bounced out of her house with a pair of scratched-up skis cast over one shoulder and a duffel bag in the other hand. He chivalrously lifted the skis from her and pushed them into the rack on top of the car and motioned to the passenger seat.

It was a four-hour drive to the little former mining town with open-air hot springs. Jon found himself strangely nervous and rather than try to think of conversation to impress her, he asked her what music she listened to and if she liked Belle & Sebastian, and she said she hadn’t heard them before. He pushed a cassette copy of The Boy with the Arab Strap into the player, and the dulcet first song started:

He had a stroke at the age of 24
It could have been a brilliant career

They reached the ski town well after dark, and Kat’s sister and her boyfriend had already checked in to their shared room at the local motel and were out for dinner so Kat and Jon veered off the main street into the parking lot of a little Italian restaurant called Luigi’s.

Inside, the tables were decorated in laminated red-checked tablecloths, and when they got there, Kat’s sister and her boyfriend had already finished eating. They sat down and Kat asked how the drive was and asked if they were planning to go to the hot springs. Jon felt a flush of relief when they said they wanted to get to bed for an early start up the mountain the next morning.

“Oh, man. I really want to go for a soak tonight, though!” Kat protested. She looked at Jon. “What do you think?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m up for it. It might be kinda cold, no?”

“Exactly!” she said with a laugh, taking the spare room key from her sister.

It was snowing gently when Jon and Kat left the restaurant, walking out from the warm atmosphere, blinking into a sea of featherlight flakes wafting but never seeming to touch the ground. They got into the car and didn’t speak while Jon drove them through the dark, wet streets until a telltale plume of steam could be seen rising out of the damp street ahead. The hot springs were located along the river that flowed in an icy rush through town, and had been developed into a resort of cascading pools of different sizes, shapes and temperatures, all lit with low, colored lighting that washed the whole place in a kind of dreamlike atmosphere.

They rummaged through their duffel bags for swimsuits and Kat paid for the entry fee at the front desk.

“I’ll just change and head out to the pools and see you out there,” Kat said in a rush not looking at Jon. This made him feel nervous and uncertain. Had he gotten this all wrong? He wanted to impress her, but also sort of wanted to run away from the whole situation. She had never given him any indication, beyond coy glances and mild flirtation that could’ve been applied to anyone, that she found him the least bit attractive. He felt out on a limb. Slightly buzzed from the Chianti they’d quaffed with dinner, he changed quickly into a pair of dark blue swim trunks and tiptoed outside.

There were dozens of pools, each glinting with sparkling uplighting and obscured by steam. The stone pathways were wet and slippery, and he wasn’t sure if she had even finished changing yet. Or maybe she wanted to steer clear of him, to not give him the wrong impression. He searched several pools and, although it had stopped snowing, he had begun to shiver and was about to give up, when he saw her shadowy figure float through a cloud of steam in the farthest pool.

His heart started racing and the entirety of his life vanished into this one, singular moment. He waded down into the pool where she was immersed apart from her almost-bare shoulders, which were just out of the water. She’d tied her long hair up, but a few wispy strands had gotten lost and fallen down, sticking to her neck. She looked up at him.

“It’s so freezing out there!” she said just a little too fast. He plunged himself in, letting the hot water baptize him and inhaling the steam like a drug. She cast about aimlessly, her eyes reflecting the purple and green pool lights, and the nape of her neck dampening as she floated.

She spun, gently sending a small wave of hot water toward him, commenting how magical it all was, looking up at the nightsnow clouds.

It was his moment. Before she looked at him. Before she could protest, or tell him she didn’t feel the same way, or laugh awkwardly and ask what’s all this, he floated toward her and scooped her up, his lips finding hers in a hot rush.

And then, she was kissing him back, draping her wet, warm arms around his neck and sinking towards him, their figures tangling together like wet cloth. Time slowed. Her fingers brushed his shoulder and she let one hand trace the line of his clavicle. He kissed her more and and he could swear he felt the blood as it passed drop by drop through his veins.

Now he was alive.

2 responses to “Man Alive”

  1. I love your writing!!!!


  2. ❤️ I see John Cusack.


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