When I tell you this, you might not believe it, but I promise my telling won’t put you in danger. You can think of it as a confession, full of visions familiar to you. The moment a picture frame falls from a wall. Or a book is thrown in a corner and the reason why it got there is plain.
The funny thing is he still thinks I’m innocent.
We met on a Tuesday afternoon in January and he was a jerk from the first moment, asking me if I needed his jacket like I needed him to care. I accepted the offer, boarded the train, and sat far away from where I thought he would sit, knowing he would follow me anyways. Looking back at this now, I’m not sure whether this instinct arose from my suspicion he wanted to be near me, or that he seemed like the kind of person that would eventually need his jacket back.
I never returned it because he didn’t ask for it and it was cold. Later that night, I looked through the pockets and found a receipt for $5.27 and a parking ticket. Initially, I was looking through Ace’s jacket to pass the time—or if I’m being more honest with myself, to learn a way to contact him. He was interesting: someone who had purchased something for $5.27 and had bad luck.
That’s how our twisted affair began, but to tell you the truth, it ended shortly after it started.
Ace and I were walking through Thebes, trying not to melt from the sun’s overbearing heat. An old man stopped us to offer us a ride back to our hotel. As he drove, he asked, “Made it to the museum yet?” We assumed he meant the Archaeological Museum of Thebes.
“No, we haven’t,” Ace responded for us. The driver made eye contact with me through his rearview mirror and said, “You should go.”
Ace was busy glancing through booklets of Greek Mythology. I watched as Ace slid one of the booklets into his back pocket.
I asked the driver, “Do you know the story of the Sphinx?”
The driver looked delighted, “Oh yes, let me tell you the story.” I smiled at him from the backseat. He continued, “This town, you see, it was once consumed in crime. As punishment, the gods sent the Sphinx to plague our town by preying on young men, threatening to kill them if they didn’t solve her riddle.”
Ace’s interest was piqued, “What was her riddle?”
He shrugged his shoulders to convey that wasn’t the important part of the story, “An oracle revealed that anyone who could solve her riddle would not only cast the Sphinx off a mountainside, but would also become King. Men from around the region wanted a chance to solve her riddle. They could either fail and die, or succeed and become King.”
I huffed at the mythological extremes. Life or death, always.
The man continued, “Many young men died at the hands of the Sphinx, but not Oedipus. He solved the riddle: What creature may have two, three, or four feet, can move in air, water, and on land, and moves more slowly the more feet it has?”
Ace and I looked at one another, puzzled. I looked at the driver through the rearview window and said, “Man.”
“Very good,” he sounded impressed.
Ace stared at me, “How did you figure that?”
“Man can crawl on all fours, walk on two…”
Ace cut me off, “And three?”
“With a cane?” I presumed.
Again, the driver said, “Very good.”
We got out of the cab and I began to wonder if I have more in common with the Sphinx or Oedipus. Posing riddles or solving them? Ace came up behind me, kissed my cheek, and as if he heard my thoughts responded, “You are a riddle.” Then he picked me up and said, “Let me solve you.”
We lay tangled in the sheets of our hotel room, Ace reached down for his pants on the floor.
Out of his back packet, he pulled out the pamphlet on Greek Mythology, “Let’s try your riddle-solving abilities again.”
I snatched the pamphlet out of his hand, and began reading, “The beginning of eternity. The end of time and space. The beginning of every end. And the end of every place.”
“Is there a hint?” Ace asked.
I shook my head, turned the page, and read the answer, “The letter e.”
Ace laughed; I only smiled.
Ace soon fell asleep. Facing away from him, I read:
The Greek poet Homer, one of the wisest of the Greeks, was warned by an oracle that he would die on the island of Ios. Homer traveled there, despite the prophecy. On his way there, he came upon a group of fishermen, and asked them how their day was going. They responded, “What we caught, we threw away. What we didn’t catch we kept. What did we keep?” Homer’s inability to solve the riddle was the catalyst of his death on the island of Ios.
The pamphlet didn’t list the answer to the riddle and I decided not to look it up. If Homer never learned the answer, why should I?
Our trip to Thebes was amusing, but it was full of signs that Ace and I would not last. I was beginning to wonder why he wanted to take me to so many places. Or more importantly, why he had a tension in his neck, wishing he could constantly look over his shoulder. I decided, as we were climbing aboard the jet back to Canada, that it wasn’t important why he wanted to look over his shoulder, but it was just important that he wished he could. Or felt he needed to.
The cabin in Canmore was even quainter than the beach house in Thebes. I walked over to Ace on the couch and asked, “Can I tell you something?”
“If I said no, wouldn’t you still tell me?” “No, I’d walk away.” As I reached over him to turn off the TV, I felt him inhale my scent. “Okay, so you promise not to think I’m crazy? Or not to laugh?” He cocked his chin to the side and smiled as his eyebrows furrow. He knows I’m not joking,
“Seriously, promise.” He promised.
“I’m not expecting you to understand this but it’s embarrassing so just try to understand.”
“Are you trying to tell me your left pinky toe is messed up? Because, believe me, I’ve noticed.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, while feeling slightly offended. His hand kept tracing the scar on my neck. The gentle touch of his fingers distracted me. We were clearly on different pages. Sometimes, I thought Ace and I were speaking entirely different languages.
Despite our failure to communicate, I still attempted to tell him, “Ever since I was young, I’d have these moments. It would start with questions in my mind. Like, what’s my name? And I knew my name but I’d ask myself. Because the answer is in the question, right? And suddenly it didn’t feel right that that was my name. Or that I was in my bedroom. Or that I was in this country. Or that I was on a planet. And then I’d think about the universe. This all sounds very plain, like something many people have thought about. But these questions of my location, my identity, were infused with a feeling. It would crowd my consciousness but never touch it. This feeling that life is not real.” I paused, wondering what he must be thinking, but refusing to look at him.
“My theory is that all the human mind can handle of this sensation is ten seconds. But in this state of mind, ten seconds feels like forever. Because when nothing’s real, time isn’t real. And then you start to crave your name. Crave your bedroom. And all you want is to be yourself again. Just as fast as the feeling comes, it disappears. I’d try not to think about it, afraid it would happen again.”
“But it does come back. Again and again. My entire life. And now it’s turned into a game. Where will I be when I no longer feel real?”
I paused again. I looked right at him. “One time I accidentally stole a guy’s jacket because I left the train believing it was all a strange dream.”
Ace was shocked, but understood what I was telling him, “So you met me because of a moment where you felt like nothing was real, like nothing mattered?”
“Yeah, isn’t that—“ Before I finished my sentence, he reached over and kissed me so fiercely that I was pushed backwards onto the cushion in a matter of seconds. We stayed there, interlocked, until he gave me enough space to say, “That certainly was not the reaction I had imagined, although it was so much better. So you don’t think I’m crazy?” All he did was laugh, the kind of laugh only a man could have, with deep candor.
The next day, we drove from Canmore in the direction of a trio of mountains, called Three Sisters. After passing the three peaks, we came to our final destination, Spray Lake Reservoir. Several streams and rivers merged into the lake, making it a unique composite of water.
Ace and I walked down a long skinny dock. Our boots barely made a sound on the damp wood, allowing us to listen to the natural sounds: the breeze cooing, the water lapping, the bugs buzzing. Our legs dangled towards dark water as we sat on the edge of the dock.
It seemed a suitable time to ask him, “What are you running from?”
He scuffed, “I’m not.”
It was in that moment that I knew he was hiding something, but it wasn’t until we were back at the cabin again that the truth came out. I sat on the couch and opened the book I was reading. Ace’s gaze from the kitchen felt unloving, tensed in anger.
My eyes followed the words on the page, while my mind conjured up images. It wasn’t until I felt him standing over me that I drew my eyes towards him and my mind back on my own story.
Before I could say anything, he struck my book out of my hands.
Reader, I want to be more clear with you. He hadn’t been hiding anything from me. It was in this moment that I realized he knew the actual truth: I was hiding something.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You know what I’m talking about. I want to hear you say it. Say something true.” I sat on the couch speechless. He turned around, walked towards the wooden desk on the far wall, opened the drawer dramatically, and pulled out a white envelope. He stomped back towards me. I tried to take the letter from him. It was obviously something for me to have. A dramatic break up letter? A piece of evidence of my falsehoods?
Either way, I needed it in my hands.
His arm retracted the envelope as he said, “Don’t ever contact me again.” He threw the envelope on the table and walked out of the cabin. As the cabin door slammed shut, a picture of a mountain fell to the floor, shattering the glass frame.
I sat back down, numb, mainly confused. How did he find out? My eyes remained fixed on the corner of the room where my book lay askew, its pages crumpled.
These moments come back to me one after another. I’m writing it down because it’s been three months since I last saw him. I can’t get the book in the corner out of my mind. Partly for how it got there, but more so because I never got a chance to finish reading it.
I write a word: Ace. But his name is no longer associated with my memories of him so he is nameless. I see his face. Now it’s harder and harder to see him in my mind. He’s gone but the feeling is not. Will he ever leave my body?
I draw the places we’ve been to. The cabin in Canada. The beach house in Thebes. The edges of the room are blurry but the couch is clearly depicted in the center of the page. I wonder, was there something on that wall that was important? What about in the corner?
Then I draw a tombstone. The name and dates are blurred in my mind, but the image of a Sphinx stands noble in the center. Its head is female with long curls of hair, but its body is that of a lion, with the same curls present in its beastly tail. The image’s inability to look real maddens me.
Rather than frustrate myself with images, I decide to turn to words again, because I know what’s worth telling and what’s not. I write that I’m not as innocent as you think.
What actions would you take when you don’t feel real? Would you steal a jacket like I did? In these moments, things happen, but you laugh inside because it’s not happening at all.
That’s how I felt when I killed him. The car hit his body with such swiftness that it almost seemed like it was supposed to happen, like the collision was fated and I was the prop driving the car. His life was over too fast to even be considered real.
I never knew him, but I knew every inch of his tombstone because I visited it so often.
Jackson Strand 1990-2019
One of the times I went to visit the tombstone, I saw a man standing over it. He looked so much like Jackson; it nearly gave me hope that Jackson was alive. I followed him.
I watched as he climbed the stairs towards the train platform. I wondered, ‘Where did he come from? And where was he going?’ He stood waiting for the train as I walked from behind him and stood next to him. Meanwhile, reality slipped from my grasp in one quick shiver.
I didn’t think he would find out. That doesn’t make it morally right, but you’ve got to agree, it does make my story a little more surprising, right?
I re-read the letter Ace wrote me. He may have thrown it down in anger, but the way its written, I can tell he was calm, almost eerily okay with my lie.
It all came to me as we drove to the lake. The scar on your neck that you could never tell me about. I thought someone had hurt you.
The day my brother died, we all went to the hospital. At the time, no one had told us the details. They made it seem like there was nothing anyone could have done to avoid it. So when I heard about the woman injured in the crash, I wondered if she would survive even though my brother didn’t. I left my family and walked down the hallway where the police officer waited outside her room. We spoke briefly and he told me she would survive despite a deep laceration to her neck and upper chest.
I could tell you never liked when I paid attention to your scar. But it didn’t really hit me, until I thought back to the day we met. You reminded me that you were cold and I gave you my jacket. I remembered that I had been at his graveyard just moments before boarding the train.
I don’t like thinking you entered my life deceitfully, but I understand. I’m angry, but I also want you to know that I forgive you.
I’m telling you, he still thinks I’m innocent.
As I write this, as I inscribe my past in black ink, I imagine I’m creating a palimpsest of my reality on paper. The truth mingled with falsities; the joy melded with pain. I’m writing it down, but not to re-read it. I just prefer the story on paper, rather than in my mind. It’s the best way my existence can survive—not as reality, but as words on a page.