I spend the rest of it four blocks from my brownstone, sitting on the pavement behind a cardboard sign that reads:
HOMELESS. DESPERATE. ANYTHING HELPS.
The condition of my battered face must go a long way toward garnering sympathy, because I collect $28.15 by the time the sun goes down.
I’m hungry, thirsty, and sore.
I choose a diner that looks shitty enough to have me, and as I pay for my meal, the exhaustion hits.
I have nowhere to go.
No money for a motel room.
Outside, the night has turned cold and rainy.
I walk to my house and head around the block to the alley, thinking of a place where I might sleep undisturbed, undetected.
There’s a space between my garage and the neighbor’s that’s hidden behind the trash can and recycling bin. I crawl between them, taking with me a flattened box, which I lean against the wall of my garage.
Underneath it, I listen to the rain pattering on the cardboard above my head, hoping my makeshift shelter will last the night.
From my vantage point, I can see over the high fence that encircles my backyard, through a window, into the second floor of my house.
It’s the master bedroom.
Jason walks past.
It isn’t Jason2. I know for a fact this isn’t my world. The stores and restaurants down the block from my house are wrong. These Dessens own different cars than my family. And he’s heavier than I’ve ever been.
Daniela appears for a moment in the window, reaches up, pulls the blinds closed.
Good night, my love.
The rain intensifies.
The box sags.
I begin to shiver.
My eighth day on the streets of Logan Square, Jason Dessen himself drops a $5 bill into my collection box.
There’s no danger.
Sunburned and bearded and reeking of abject poverty.
The people in my neighborhood are generous. Every day, I make enough to eat a cheap meal each evening and pocket a few dollars.
Every night, I sleep in the alley behind 44 Eleanor Street.
It becomes a kind of game. When the lights in the master bedroom cut out, I close my eyes and imagine I’m him.
Some days, I feel my sanity slipping.
Amanda once said that her old world had begun to feel like a ghost, and I think I know what she means. We associate reality with the tangible—everything we can experience with our senses. And though I keep telling myself there’s a box on the South Side of Chicago that can take me to a world where I have everything I want and need, I no longer believe that place exists. My reality—more and more every day—is this world. Where I have nothing. Where I’m a homeless, filthy creature whose existence evokes only compassion, pity, and disgust.
Nearby, another homeless man is standing in the middle of the sidewalk, having a full-volume conversation with nobody.
I think, Am I so different? Aren’t we both lost in worlds that, for reasons beyond our control, no longer align with our identity?
The most frightening moments are those that seem to be arriving with increasing frequency. Moments where the idea of a magic box, even to me, sounds like the ravings of a crazy person.
One night, I pass a liquor store and realize I have enough money for a bottle of something.
I drink an entire pint of J&B.
Find myself standing in the master bedroom of 44 Eleanor Street, staring down at Jason and Daniela, asleep in their bed under a tangle of blankets.
The bedside-table clock shows 3:38 a.m., and though the house is dead silent, I’m so drunk I can feel my pulse beating against my eardrum.
I can’t piece together the thought process that brought me here.
All I can think is that I had this.
Once upon a time.
This beautiful dream of a life.
And in this moment, with the room spinning and tears streaking down my face, I actually don’t know if that life of mine was real or imagined.
I take a step toward Jason’s side of the bed, my eyes beginning to adjust in the darkness.
He sleeps peacefully.
I want what’s his so badly I can taste it.
I’d do anything to have his life. To step into his shoes.
I imagine killing him. Choking the life out of him or shooting a bullet into his brain.
I see myself trying to be him.
Trying to accept this version of Daniela as my wife. This Charlie as my son.
Would this house ever feel like mine?
Could I sleep at night?
Could I ever look Daniela in the eyes and not think about the fear in her real husband’s face two seconds before I took his life?
Clarity comes crashing—painful, shameful, but in the exact moment when it’s so desperately needed.
The guilt and all the tiny differences would transform my life here into hell. Into a reminder not just of what I’d done, but of what I still didn’t have.
This would never feel like my world.
I’m not capable of this.
I don’t want this.
I am not this man.
I shouldn’t be here.
As I stumble out of the bedroom and down the hall, I realize that to have even considered this was to give up on finding my Daniela.
To say I’m letting her go.
That she isn’t attainable.
And maybe that’s true. Maybe I don’t have a prayer of ever finding my way back to her and Charlie and my perfect world. To that single grain of sand on an infinite beach.
But I still have two ampoules left, and I won’t stop fighting until they’re gone.
I go to a thrift store and buy new clothes—jeans, flannel shirt, a black peacoat.
Then toiletries at a drugstore, along with a notebook, pack of pens, and a flashlight.
I check into a motel, throw my old clothes away, and take the longest shower of my life.
The water running off my body is gray.
Standing in front of the mirror, I look almost like myself again, though my cheekbones stand out with more prominence from malnutrition.
I sleep into the afternoon and then train down to the South Side.
The power plant is quiet, sunlight slanting through the windows of the generator room.
Sitting in the doorway of the box, I open the notebook.
I’ve been thinking ever since I woke up about what Amanda said in her goodbye note, how I haven’t really written about what I feel.
I’m twenty-seven years old. I’ve worked all morning at the lab, and things are going so well I almost shrug off the party. I’ve been doing that a lot lately—neglecting friends and social engagements to steal just a few more hours in the cleanroom.