Authors: Wayne Gladstone
It was meant to be a reward. Two months of drinking out in the world of New York City had forced me to seek booze from a lower shelf. It had been Jameson over and over and that was okay. I liked Jameson fine, and even though it was Irish whiskey, it actually tasted more like The Macallan than some lesser Scotches I'd tried. But now, I felt I'd earned the real thing. Not just with those two months of hospital-based sobriety or the couple of days of occasional cheap beer at Tobey's, but because I had important things to consider. Scotch things. Beard-stroking, pipe-smoking things.
The bartender got distracted by a large party of people crowding up against the bar, and I flipped through the Tobey-printed copy of my journal while I waited. He'd written “Gladstone” in the bottom right corner and beneath that “Illustrations by Brendan Tobey.” I was instantly pissed off that the fucker had doodled all through my book, but as I turned the pages, I noticed really only a handful of drawings, and all of them good. He'd used a fine felt pen and scratched out sketches on inserted pages in a kind of style that married a
cartoon with a dime-store noir novel. Back at the workers' compensation office, people referred to such efforts as “adding value to the team.”
The bartender brought my Macallan on a napkin. A nice coaster would have been more fitting, but at least the place was relatively quiet for a sports bar. I took a slow sip, letting the ice stop at my teeth and the Scotch flow underneath. The smoke and warmth I'd remembered were almost there, but cut by a medicinal taste that distracted me. I'd forgotten how to drink good Scotch. My brain focused on the wrong things. The months of Jameson had left their mark. Going cheap had ruined me.
What came next should have arrived in a day, but it took a week. Every morning I woke and got dressed in some incredibly stylish number I'd picked up from Old Navy and went outside with the intent of continuing on to Romaya. But I didn't want to see her again with a tightness in my chest. The gasping in my lungs could turn to hurt and then anger if not met with comfort. I waited each day to feel good, but I never felt good. But not all decisions are fatedâsome are just overdue. So one week after seeing her for the first time in L.A., I made myself see her again.
I knew you couldn't hail a cab here, even if people like to pretend L.A.'s a real city, so I headed to the promenade where tourists being dropped off for shopping meant there might be one around. The taxi would get me to Romaya, and when I arrived, I'd have to get out because I wouldn't be allowed to hide behind someone else's metal and glass.
There was no text, no IM, no Facebook message. Romaya didn't know I was coming, and there was no reason for her to be home. Maybe I was counting on that. A knock on an empty door. But she was home even if her greeting wasn't everything I'd hoped for.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. I saw some panic I didn't accept.
“I'm sorry. Is it a bad time?” I asked.
“No.â¦ No,” she said. “I'm just working on my r
and looking for a job. Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you.” I stepped inside. It didn't smell like our old apartment. “I got you something,” I said, and pulled a picture frame from my Jansport. It was like the one she'd broken. I picked it up from CVS on one of the days I couldn't bring myself to visit her.
“Oh. Thank you,” she said.
Her futon was nicer than the one we used to call our bed, but not as nice as something I expected a grown-up to keep in her living room. It had a crafty, hippie, knit blanket-rug-shawl thing draped over it to class it up. I sat down and stared at her tiny dining room table with actual newspapers spread out across it.
“Wow,” I said. “That's fun.”
Romaya continued to make the coffee she had started before I got there. “They say you can pay a fee to Monster.com and they will do searches for you and mail you potential hits, but there's a turnaround time and alsoâ¦”
“It's fucking stupid?”
“Yeah, basically.” She laughed. “Do you want some coffee?” I nodded and she added another scoop before sitting down at the table, far away from me. “Seems there are certain advantages to being over thirty. I remember how to print r
s and check newspapers.”
I thought about Tobey and how r
printing must be good for business.
“I mean, I might do Monster for the long term,” she said. “You can ask them to put you on a tickler for certain companies or jobs and they'll buy all the papers and check them for you if something pops up, but I'm not waiting for that.”
“You found a job listing for Google in a newspaper?” I asked. I wanted to call it ironic, but spending my youth shaming Alanis Morissette had taught me that word was just too dangerous to use. “What does Google need with a pharmaceutical copywriter?”
“I'm not sure, but I'm applying. It's Google. They ride Segways and stuff. It's cool.”
Picturing Romaya on a Segway made me happy. I could see her learning tricks down corporate hallways. It seemed to make her happy too, but she was careful not to see it too clearly. Wanting things was dangerous.
“Maybe I'll apply too,” I joked, and she laughed.
“With your search history,” she said, “not only wouldn't they hire you, they'd call the sex police.”
“Good point. Maybe I'll call Bing. My porn history's immaculate there.”
“You still on disability?” she asked.
I couldn't pretend that wasn't meant to shame me. “Yes. Free money,” I said. “But there's more.”
Now she was listening.
“I'm not sure if it made the news out here, but a couple of months ago, did you catch stories about an âInternet Messiah'?”
“What do you mean?”
“Some dude in New York they said would bring back the Net.”
“Oh right. Yeah?”
I didn't finish the sentence, deciding instead to open my arms and let context make it easier.
“Well what?” she asked.
“Me. I'm the Internet Messiah.”
“What does that even mean?” she asked.
“I just explained. I'm the guy who's bringing back the Net.”
“No, I mean I'm the guy they say is going to do that.”
“Yeah, well why do they say that?” she asked, and I wondered why I hadn't been expecting questions.
“It's hard to explain,” I said, reaching into my backpack again, “but I have a copy of my journal. It's not longâ¦”
Romaya went to get the coffee. “You want me to read your journal?”
“Well, it's more of a book. I dunno. I was in a bad way. I know that. I'm sorry. For a lot of things actually, but it might help explain. When the Net went down, I had nothing else to do. I started to sorta just look for it.”
“Under rocks and stuff?”
“I know. It's weird,” I said, and laid a copy of the journal down beside me. “But please don't make it harder. It wasn't much of an investigation, I admit, but here's the thingâthat Jeeves guy? The psychic?”
She lit up a bit. “The dude who predicted O'Reilly's death?”
“Yes! Him. He swears I'm the one who will return the Internet. And there's this guy from 4Chan who's asking about me too.”
“It's just a shitty Web site where terrible people do awful sometimes hilarious things, but it's also tied up with Anonymous sort of.”
“You know this sounds insane, right?”
“Yeah, I know it's crazy that people could ever believe in me, but, y'know, they don't know I'm a fucking asshole, so I fooled someone, I guess.”
“You can't talk to me like that anymore,” she said. “Do you want your coffee or are you leaving?”
“Please read the journal,” I said. “I think it will help you understand.”
“That you're the Internet Messiah?”
“No. Just me. I think it will help you understand me.”
“Why now?” she asked.
“Because I want you to come with me.”
“I want you to help me look for the Internet. I mean California makes more sense anyway. Silicon Valley. Google. All that stuff.”
“Wow, you've really studied up on this,” she said. “Google and
all that stuff
. What do you even know about the Internet?”
“Well, not a lot at first, but I did actually read a bunch about it whenâ¦”
I reached out for the coffee she was holding so I could take a sip and reorganize my mind.
“Look,” I said. “You've got a three-month severance. Come take an adventure with me. Tobey too. It'll be fun.”
“You want me to drop out of my life and go on an adventure?”
“Not drop out. Seems your life already kicked you out.”
“Right, and I'm going to fix that.” She pointed to the classifieds as proof of her good intentions. Evidence that she did not deserve the fate of the unemployed.
“Great. Fix it. I'm not asking you to open a detective agency with me, but I'm going with this. Because I can. And now, for a little bit at least, you can too. And I'd like you to come with me because it's not about rent or getting pregnant or figuring out life. It's just an adventure. An honest-to-goodness, California, behind-the-scenes adventure. Why shouldn't you be there? We deserve an adventure.”
Those were the wrong words. I should have steered clear of the miscarriages, but I stopped knowing the right words long agoâand besides, the wrong words had to be better than silence. I'd already tried that. Romaya came closer and picked up the journal, flipping through it dispassionately. Then she placed it alongside the classifieds.
“So. Where does this adventure take place?” she asked.
“What's your plan? Your agenda? Shouldn't the messiah have a destination?”
“I don't know,” I said. “It doesn't work like that. It's more intuitive. A feeling.”
“You want me to give up on getting a new job to follow your feelings?”
“It's just a few weeks, monthsâ¦”
“It's like you're still twenty-one, playing in some band and waiting to be âdiscovered.' The world doesn't work like that. We have to make the effort.”
“I didn't mean to upset you,” I said, and put my coffee in the sink.
“I'm not upset. I just have to plan, and I think you should too.”
“I never had trouble working when we were together,” I said, zipping up my Jansport. “I hated it, but I did it. I only stopped when you left.” I hung the bag off my right shoulder, just like I did in college, and walked over to Romaya. “There's a chance. A chance I'm not foolish.”
“I know that. I know you can do lots of things if you want to.”
I waited for more, but that was as much kindness as there'd be today. Maybe the book would bring more.
“Let me know what you think of the book,” I said. “It's really for you anyway.”
I'd written “for Romaya” on the first page, along with Tobey's address on the back so she'd know where I was staying, but she didn't respond. She just looked over at the journal resting on top of the classifieds.
“I have something else for you, too,” I said, and upon saying it, realized it was all I had for her.
She waited instead of speaking.
“You don't have to frame it or cherish it,” I said. “But it belongs with you. I gave it to you. Will you please take back the love letter I wrote?”
I took it out of my inside jacket pocket and unfolded it. Crinkled. Air-dried from the Hudson, but legible. Preserved.
“That looks like it's been through hell,” she said.
“It has,” I said. “Some things don't do well away from home.” Too slick. Even true words can be wrong.
I could have dropped it there. Ran for the door with a no-backsies move, suitable for the child she thought I still was, but it would have been a hollow victory. I needed her to take it. To want it. But she didn't. I returned the letter to my pocket with as much quiet dignity as I could muster before leaving her apartment in silence. I would go on. I would get to where I was going. And it wasn't until I shut the door behind me and headed for the road that I remembered you can't hail a cab in this fucking city.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
About three days later, it became very clear to me that Tobey was a good friend. It was pushing two weeks and he hadn't even begun to give me shit about crashing on his couch. He even let me copy his key. Maybe he was doing a slow burn or maybe I'd appeased him with several pizza purchases and kitchen cleans, but of all the things weighing on me, he was not one of them. And that night, it seemed my diminished spirits concerned him enough to come up with a plan.
“Gladstone,” he said, offering me a tallboy from his fridge. “We've got to get you laid.”
“Thanks Tobey,” I said, “but you're not exactly Clive Owen, so I'll need more than a beer.”
“You went with Clive Owen for that joke?” Tobey asked.
“Yeah, I'm getting old,” I agreed. “I don't know who to be gay for anymore.”
“Seriously. Let's hit a bar. It'll be good for you. Get you out of the house and into a Californian.”
“That's not really my thing, Tobes. It's always too loud to talk. Getting judged on your cologne and clothes. I hate it.”
“Oh, no. Not a
bar. Yeah, that would be awful. No I meant a sponsored bar.”
Tobey explained that during the Apocalypse, dating sites had been raising revenue by throwing events at bars, where you paid an admission fee and filled out a questionnaire. Coordinators then interpreted the results and grouped like-minded individuals for some sort of vaguely entertaining twenty-first century dating game/auction. So around eight, we headed for Tobey's Matrix.