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Sitting Poolside in Outer Space photo

Between long sucks of her Newport, Jessalyn told me she was still so angry at her best friend for missing her wedding that she’d mailed her a box of crickets.

Crickets? I said.

Dead crickets. Dropped them off at the post office in an old tampon carton.

Well, I said.

Then: Won’t you rub some sunblock onto my back?

Jessalyn squirted large gobs across my sun-freckled skin, pushed her palms against the meat below my shoulder blades.

We all had our reasons for being at the Sunnyside Inn. Jessalyn was here to heal from her divorce, she’d said, though I assumed there were other reasons as well, the same way I didn’t tell her I was on the heels of an ayahuasca ceremony gone wrong, for example, or that I had a lingering fear what the shaman had pushed into my mouth had broken my brain. This was a genuine concern: psychosis loomed in my future, if it wasn’t present already.

Jessalyn patted my back before lighting herself a new Newport. She wore bikini tops regardless of the occasion, her lips perpetually plumped by gloss. It’s probably her fault my marriage didn’t last, Jessalyn said as I lost her face to a loose billow of smoke.

Despite brushing up against the coastal waters of Southwestern Florida, the Sunnyside Inn was Hawaiian-themed. A mural of women wearing coconut bras, necks stacked with leis, wrapped the exterior while colorful fish swam the interior. The carpeted rooms were decked with squeaking beds and scratchy linens while nachos drowning in dairy were the preferred menu item. It was garish. It was perfect.

I liked the pool in particular. Sitting alongside the chlorinated waters was like peeking into a display case of all the state had to offer, with that rotation of peculiar characters always sauntering past. There was Naomi and the room she haunted, the men who came and went. She said she didn’t have sex with them. Showed us a closet in which all sorts of leather contraptions hung. There was Lex, too, some kind of felon on the run. He had a briefcase full of cash he let us see one morning when he was high off meth. Then, the tourists—who’d thought they’d hit the jackpot with the eccentric Sunnyside, only to discover it was swarmed by vagrants like us, which was not part of its branded charm. Though I liked it for that precise reason.

That must be bad juju, right? Jessalyn said now. Your best friend skipping out on your wedding?

I nodded and fished out my pen from my bag and pulled hard. Jessalyn took stock of what I was doing but didn’t pry. She knew to give me five minutes.

That was all I needed as the world washed away…

A new one unfolding on the horizon…


I dipped a spoon in peanut butter and slipped out of my room the next day. Most mornings, I rose and returned poolside barely five minutes into consciousness. I took long licks off the spoon until I entered the pool enclosure and cleared the metal clean with my tongue. Reclined on the beach chairs Jessalyn and I had made our own was someone new. A large tree branched across his back in thick, professional strokes. I walked past him and to the chairs clustered beneath the rotting palm.

Lemon, he said from where he was spread.

I threw my stuff on one chair, and stretched out across the other. I don’t need any lemons, I said. But thanks.

That’s my name, he said. Lemon.

He stood from his seat and shuffled towards me. The ink on him was a lemon tree, I now saw. I told him my name was Wally. We shook hands. He took a seat beside me, ignoring the stuff I’d scattered for Jessalyn.

The area between Lemon’s upper-lip and nose was bandaged. I asked him about this. He said he’d finally decided to fix his botched cleft scar. I asked him why he hobbled the way he did, as though he wore a diaper he’d just soiled. He explained that, since he was going under anyway, he’d asked the doctor to lop off his foreskin too. What brings you here? he said.

I told him the truth because I felt like it. I said, I’m going crazy.

Aren't we all? he said.

I stared at him. Pulled my pen from my bag. I told him to give me five minutes, that I had to visit outer space, and I took a drawn-out suck.

Is that DMT?

I said yes…

I said good-bye now…


When I came to, Lemon was gone. To my right: Jameson poured a cup of coffee to the palmetto whose shade smothered the other half of the pool area. He did this every morning, rubbing his palms together after, pressing them to the wetted bark. The leaves were a brilliant burst of green; whatever he was doing was working. I dug a nail into the plaque that built across my teeth and I closed my eyes. Jessalyn arrived around noon with Naomi. She said I was all red.

I had no one to rub sunblock on me, I said.

Naomi frowned. She told us she had a client who misunderstood the assignment.

And what was the assignment? I said.

You don’t want to know, she said. He’s in the hospital now.

Is he going to make it?

I hope so, she said. He was one of my best. She slumped onto a chair in defeat. From where we sat, we could see Lex—bald and with a handlebar mustache, he could have worked in a circus or as a mechanic—parasailing off a boat speeding down the coastline. He was on a mission to have fun and had, so far, sunk stacks from his briefcase into similar forays. Deep-sea fishing and full-face snorkeling and jet-skis rented for whole days at a time. He liked activities. He’s so proactive, Naomi said, picking at parcels of lint that spilled from her belly-button.

Maybe we’d be too if we did more meth, Jessalyn said.

My skin is bad enough as is, Naomi said, and I tilted my head to better inspect her face. It was smooth. Not a blemish or pore in sight. I think it’s Bloody Mary o’clock, I said, and I sprung from my seat.

In the lobby, a woman whined when her suitcase split open from the sides of the zipper still sealed. Her hair was bleached and dry. Her skin cracked and pale. It took me a moment to recognize that it was my Aunt Margie. I asked her what she was doing here. She looked up, unfazed by my presence, and said, I gotta dry out is all.

Did Uncle Patrice kick you out?

That son of a bitch.

So he did, finally.

I have free will. I left with it. She said this and kicked her bag, scarves flying across the sticky lobby air. What are you doing here? she asked.

I’m doing research, I said.

You’re always doing research. Say, I have a novel in me too, you know? All I have to do is set pen to paper. Maybe that’s what I’ll do this week. Will you give it a read? Do you know any agents? I thought you worked in film before. Know anyone in the biz still? I’d love to sell the film rights.

I scooped up the scarves, letting Aunt Margie prattle on. When I collected the colorful assortment, I told her we should grab dinner tomorrow night. Catch-up, I said. You do still eat?

Don’t be an animal. I haven’t lost all sense. I’m still a human, I still know about decency. There’s an election coming up, ain’t there? Sea levels still rising? Ukraine’s been invaded? I’m not stupid, you know. I read. I have The New York Times on my phone. The Guardian. Sometimes I look at the smaller stuff too. Reddit. Joe Rogan. Podcasts. I could start a podcast, easy. This voice was made for radio. I was almost a flight attendant once, did you know that? My voice on the little intercom would have made anyone swoon. I never got into smoking, can’t you believe? I have a twelve year old’s throat, the doctor said so himself.


In the afternoon, I walked the shore. Did this most days. I dipped into the boardwalk when I reached the end and looped back through the colorful but compact houses arranged across the coast like pastry boxes. The storefronts once I hit the main drag. Behind the bridge, the shrimp boats rocked. I saw things in the corners of my eyes. Shadow people I knew didn’t exist. This is what it was like now. Figures stretching before receding into the periphery. The only reason I was doing DMT was because it made my brain feel less broken. As though the things I did see were just that, hallucinations. Not a real, however amorphous, presence that followed me around—which is what it felt like all the time otherwise. I pulled my pen out and I smoked… The sun one big bursting mandala…

At night, we went out dancing. With the ongoing reconstruction, the Heavy Lure was the only spot with what constituted a dance floor, a rectangular mat on the ground and a small DJ booth perched to the side that was perfectly abandoned most nights. The hits played and lasers beamed across the room alongside the many-colored square lights that hit our bodies and faces. We took secret shots, which were never a secret since we all collected to the side and did them together. Jessalyn, Naomi, Lex. Sometimes we’d see Jameson bopping against the wall. There were all the locals too that we’d begun to recognize. Men with red and sheeny faces who slouched across the counter, beers crushed into their fists. Many worked construction, helping to reassemble the pier that had been pried loose by the winds two years back. A collection of buildings still stood in teetering crumbles at one end of the coast. Sometimes, tourists speaking Dutch or German stumbled in with jean shorts and tight-fitting polos and always a little lost-looking.

My shirt was soaked through, sweat sliding down my back in wide rivulets. Fans whirred, but there was no AC, not when the dance floor spilled into the outdoor patio that overlooked the shore. I took a breath, settled my spine to the nearest wall. I watched the others jumping up and down. Their figures pierced by the red lasers that tore through the air. Behind them, on the opposite wall, were two men in white. Shadow people.

I shrank into myself. Digging into my pockets for my pen. I slithered to the ground. Moments passed before Jessalyn trotted towards me, scooping me up with Naomi’s help. We lurched away from the dance floor and to the hallway that plunged towards the boardwalk. I turned my neck to take one last look: the shadow people were no longer there.


I returned to the pool area before dinner the next day. Lemon was leaning against the fence with the sandy banks beyond it. I asked him if he’d been here right after the hurricane, if he saw all the initial destruction.

We’re always rebuilding in this state, he said. Sweat had gathered along his hairline, heavy hair he combed back with gel until it was a seamless streak of jet black.

Do you think it’s worth it? I asked. Knowing a hurricane can flatten it all again in just a matter of months.

I try not to live in fear. Otherwise, we’d be a paralyzed species. There would be no room for improvement. Besides, eventually everything will be flattened.

I said I agreed.

A bead of moisture rolled down his face. I looked at the bandage that seemed saggy, most likely damp, and I wondered if being in the heat, if being outdoors in Florida at all, was good for the wound. I pictured the stitches too. The color: black. The thickness: like a fishing line. The fine slit of red that ran beneath the bow of it all. Even as humans, he now said, we’re constantly rebuilding. Constantly working on who we are.

Do you feel you’ve improved with age?

It would be sad if the opposite is the case.

And so your surgeries weren’t out of vanity?

A silence flooded the space between us as he considered my question. Sun spots flecked his arms, the hair gold like a pirate’s coin. He stared out into the sea, arranging his thoughts, until he finally said: As an adult, I no longer have shame for what you might consider my more vain traits. If it makes me feel good, if it doesn’t harm me or others, what’s so wrong?

One could say the same about many things. Drugs.

Drugs, arguably, can harm you.

Everything harms you. The hours we spend under the sun. The oils we mash into our skin. The processed meals we slide down our throats.

Living in fear, I suppose, is worse than eating Cheetos, he said.


Aunt Margie dug at her nail beds, at the red polish that had begun to chip from her constant picking. When she realized what she was doing, she huffed and slammed her palms to the table. But she was a restless woman: she dragged a finger down the drink menu then tossed it to the side. I’m here to dry out, she said. And when the server came, she asked for a vanilla shake. That’ll do it, she said.

I told the server I was fine with water. Aunt Margie rolled her eyes then said, It’s none of my business but I talked to your sister.  

I couldn’t remember why exactly my relationship with my sister fissured, only when. How she’d fallen into a community of free-spirits after the car accident that took our parents. She’d always been interested in alternative lifestyles, days spent on some farm, communal living, bartering. But that this particular group of men invited her in when she was most vulnerable was concerning. I visited her every few weeks until the men in charge suggested I visit less. And when I went to her with the magical idea that perhaps an ayahuasca ceremony would help me heal the way it had helped her, she was game.

She says you attacked one of her associates, Aunt Margie said.

Did you tell her I was here? I said.

Then she’d know I was here too.

We’re fugitives, I said.

I know what I am, but what are you? she said. I heaved the glass of water from the table, took a long pull. The ceiling fan spun weakly. Aunt Margie’s make-up had begun to melt. The foundation sliding down to expose the paler color beneath. Her eye-shadow had clotted, small grains dotting the space below her brows. She reached for the basket between us packed with paper napkins. She bunched up a few and dabbed them below her armpit. This place is hell, she said.

When I asked her if the shaman was fine, she said he was. Just a little shaken is all, she said. They say that stuff can cure addictions.

Do you want your addiction cured?

She lowered her eyes. Inspected the collection of clumped napkins that now spotted the space before her. The large drink menu that still floated above the smaller food menu. She hadn’t touched her water, the glass sweating, condensation pooling beneath it. It was so hot I couldn’t see how a sip of anything, even water, wouldn’t be refreshing for Aunt Margie. I don’t think I do, she finally said, I like it too much. Her tone was sheepish—she was embarrassed by her confession, despite all we’d gone through together. The mess of my parents. The mess of my relationship with my sister. That we were both at the Sunnyside spoke volumes to how alike we were: I didn’t think she should have been embarrassed at all. I was going to say this when she continued speaking. 

She did say something else, actually. She’s being excommunicated because of you. The only way for her to remain is to get your kneecaps burst. So, I’d watch out for those guys. She said this and I thought of the men dressed in white I saw on the dance floor. It hadn’t been shadow people after all but the shaman’s subordinates.

How’d you get into that mess anyway? Aunt Margie said. For that matter, how did she?

I didn’t know what to tell Aunt Margie. That I’d gone seeking answers for the traumas I’d so far tried only to bury. That when the trip turned sideways, I’d lunged at the shaman, whose evil spirit I’d met in that other world. I scrambled out of the cabin right after. Hurtled into the forest until I found my car, drove straight to the coast and landed at the Sunnyside.

Your ex used to beat you, was that it? Aunt Margie said this, a drink she’d somehow ordered in the interim pushed to her lips. Yes, she said, face split by her puckish grin. Her drunken grin. That’s it, she said. The one you fell in with after the accident.

I was with him for so long, I said. Too long.

At least the marks on your neck are gone, she said.

I began to forget about them, I said. They were always there. They became a part of me.

We carry what we think we deserve. I wish you could see yourself through my eyes. You're so accomplished. A bright star in an otherwise dark and dying world. You will not be the failure that I am when you reach my age.

Margie, we’re both at the Sunnyside. Neither of us is doing alright.

We’re not like those derelicts, she said, and she pitched back her drink. Licked her chapped lips until they glistened. A dribble of foundation grew on her chin’s dip. I waited for the dripdripdrip.


There was a knock on my door after Aunt Margie and I had parted ways, after her voice had grown thick from drink, her cheeks filled with color, her eyes glassy and, for the first time all day, gone was that sharpness that ruled her sober streak. I knew who it was at the door—I let Lemon in and led him past the bed to the teeny balcony that looked out to the shore glinting with moonshine. It smelled like fish; it would be a red-tide morning.

Below us, bathed in the evening’s glow, lit by the few scattered lights hung across the outdoor patio, a figure danced. It was Aunt Margie. She swayed, hands lifted above her head, hips rocking back and forth. Her eyes were shut and she twirled.

They call that unadulterated joy, Lemon said.

They call that alcoholism, I said.

We shouldn’t jump to any conclusions, Lemon said. He turned his face then, damp from the heat. We were always so damp. The adhesive from his bandage was even looser now, and I had the impulse to pull it off, exposing what hid beneath. At least his issues, I thought, could be concealed by a bandage before healing altogether. I couldn’t do anything about mine: the shadows I saw flickering to our sides, what perched in the corners of the room that threatened to fall away, dragging me with it. I rarely could think of anything else: I can’t have sex, I said. My mind is not there. I haven’t had a hard-on all year.

I can’t either, he said. I’m still an open wound. Besides, there are other ways of being intimate. More special ways. Can you hold me?

I said yes, and I collected him into my arms.


Naomi snored. I had claimed a pool chair beside her and Jessalyn when Jessalyn asked me what I had got to yesterday. I told her my Aunt Margie was a guest at the Sunnyside now too.

Is she the one who gave you those love marks then?

Heat shot to my face; I didn’t know I had any marks. I ran my finger along my neck, feeling for tenderness. Thought of how I’d been unable to kiss Lemon because the bandages covered his top lip, how he’d settled on suckling at my neck instead. I thought we told each other everything, Jessalyn said.

Then Aunt Margie clambered into the pool area, a scarf spiraling her neck. She glared at Jessalyn and Naomi as she shuffled towards us anyway. She dragged a pool chair until she was set up beside me. I introduced her to Jessalyn and Naomi and she made a coughing sound. I asked her how long she expected to stay at the Sunnyside.

I could ask you the same question, she said.

Then: Your parents would be so disappointed.

Good thing they’re gone, I said.


Summer was ending, which meant hurricane season was approaching. The rain came down in sheets, loud patters against windows that shook to the powerful winds. It wasn’t a hurricane, not even technically a tropical storm, and I’d known it was coming since the morning, when the headache loomed. A force that made it difficult to move my body. I kept the blinds closed, the lights off. It was a family trait to suffer from migraines triggered by barometric pressure. It was noon, the slate-colored sky peeking through the slats, when a knock at my door roused me. I knew who it was—I crawled to let Aunt Margie inside. She had a cold compress to her forehead, a bathrobe hanging loosely from her cadaverous frame. She was skin and bones and alcohol, little else. She sighed and spread herself over a spot beside me. We spoke very little. There was a dull prick to the back of my head whenever I used that part of my body. Cleared my throat. Coughed. It was all too much for us both. She held my hand, and we closed our eyes.

By the following morning, the sky had cleared. I peeked outside and saw the parking lot submerged in water. A few fronds flecked the shore. Aunt Margie was gone, had slipped out at some point around dawn. I scooped a spoon into my peanut butter jar and I made my way to the pool.

Lemon was there. I took a seat beside him, my spoon all cleared.

I get to remove my bandages soon, he said. A loose smile formed beneath the shadow of the gauze. The sun beat down on us, and I asked him if he’d rub some sunblock on my back. He agreed, and he blotted puny spots of it across my shoulders. It didn’t seem like enough but I didn’t mention this. I thought of what his face would look like without the bandages; he hadn’t shown me any pictures of what he’d looked like before, and so I had no idea what to expect. I said, What will you do then?

The world is our oyster, he said.

I turned to face him, coating my chest in heavy dollops of lotion. Lathered it across the tufts of hair, the spots that once held some semblance of muscle but were now just pockets of softness unsure of how they should be. I said, A platitude is a platitude for a reason.

I’m not going to abandon you, he said.

We’ll just live the rest of our days at the Sunnyside?

There are worse ways to spend a life.

I looked out to the sea. Do you feel that? I said. It feels like the storm is still in the air. That particular charge of thunder.

He raised his hands, clawed at the air like a lobster.

I don’t feel anything, he said.


I walked past the cranes, the men at work on the construction. Cement poured, foundation settled. Clouds of dust rose from their work, and I wondered again if it wasn’t all for nothing. That they’d be back here in a few months, perhaps not here exactly, but some other spot demolished by the weather, sweating and once again at work. In some way, wasn’t it guaranteed employment? I sauntered down the boardwalk when, nearing the Sunnyside, I saw the men who wore white, huaraches on their feet, long leather necklaces resting on their chests. They were here for my kneecaps.

I scrabbled up and into the side of the Sunnyside where I ran into Lex carrying a plate of nachos. His bald head caught the light like something metallic, a fish hook. Doesn’t this look great? he said.

I’m in trouble, I said.

What’s new? he said.

No, I said, I mean it.

Aren’t we all in trouble? Ain't that why we’re here? He said this then dipped his fingers to his plate, scooping up a corn chip packed with beans and cheese and sour cream and pico de gallo. He chomped. A pearl of cream hung from his mustache.

There are men here to burst my kneecaps, I said.

He chewed, he swallowed. He said, I understand now.

I can’t think. My brain is scrambled eggs.

Have you ever done crystal? You could use a good dose of the superhuman.

I stared at Lex, considered his offer, then said yes yes yes, it is the only way out of my current predicament. He hollered, lit up the rocks that burned from the end of a glass stem. Inhale, he said. Go go go.

I was still inhaling when the men dressed in white rounded the corner.

They caught my eyes. My legs were no longer gummy. I was a horse. A million feet pounding the ground. Off to the races. Off off off.


My sister was there when I woke up in the hospital. Her eyes were red with the threat of tears. She told me she was sorry, that she had to do all she could to stay with them. They’re like family, you know? she said. I pulled away the bed sheet that wrapped my legs.

They didn’t burst my kneecaps?

Moisture gathered at the corners of her eyes before spilling down in a strong and startling splash. She shook her head. Your friend, she said. He gave them a briefcase full of money.

Why am I in the hospital then?

You hit your head, she said. Don’t you remember? Running from them. They say you ran like something possessed.

I nodded, taking this in, taking her in. My sister’s dreads snaked down her shoulders, the area closest to her head less knotted than the rest, as though she’d given up on the process, as though she’d secretly hoped for her old hair back, a return to a previous mode of living. Her skin was the color and smoothness of hard caramel, dewy and unblemished. Behind her, the sun peeked through gray clumps strung across the sky; a small halo formed around her frame for just a moment. I told my sister it was good to see her.

You know, it wasn’t so easy to convince them to take the money instead, she said.

Why are you so upset?

Why do you have marks all across your neck? Did you really go back to him? After all we’d done.

These are love bites. For real this time.

That’s what you always say.

It’s different now.

She stood there in silence before turning on her heel and letting in the next guest: Aunt Margie. She was calm—the effects of a drink she’d snuck earlier. The hospital had AC; for once, none of us were damp, none of us were pooling on the sidewalk like dropped scoops of soft serve. She told me my Uncle Patrice had taken her back. So you’re all dried out, then? I said.

For your uncle, the effort was enough, she said.

And for you?

The effort was terrible, she said. She raised her knuckles to her chin, rested her elbows on my bed, and stared at me with that sadness I thought we shared. I haven’t hurt anybody, she said, why should a martini in the evening be so bad?

You miss my parents just as much as I do.

I think about my sister every day. I miss your dad too, of course. What a riot. Together, those two were unstoppable. 

Did you talk to my sister?

Don’t you worry about her. She’ll come around, she’ll be fine.

I worry for everyone. It may not seem that way, but I do. I do.

I know, honey. You just keep working on your books. On improving yourself. You visit from time to time, or call. Just don’t disappear.

I told her I wouldn’t.

You have to heal first before you put yourself out there. She said this and I let my eyes wander around the room. I drilled into the corners, waiting for the shadow people, waiting for that flicker of movement, waiting for this world to collapse into itself, for my brain to prove it was still broken. I waited and waited and when I gave up, I felt Aunt Margie’s warm body pressed against my own. She’d climbed into the bed with me, curled her body into mine. Her snore was the squeak of a mouse. The scent of her lunchtime lemon twist I noticed next.


He was gone when I returned to the Sunnyside Inn. Jessalyn told me so. She was stretched across the same old pool chairs, sleepy Naomi spread beside her. What will I do now? I said.

We’re the aimless kind, don’t you know? None of this is new.

Naomi stirred then spoke: We sit and wait for life to rock us next.

I had plans, I said.

Squeeze some Lemons? I don’t know about that. You should have seen him though. Without those bandages. Without that wobble. He was fine as hell. Far outside your reach.

You think so?

Any man who bites up another man’s neck isn’t worth keeping, Naomi said.

I considered the Sunnyside. The walls with paint that chipped and flew. The palm tree I now saw was diseased. The man who threw coffee at the palmetto—what was that all about? I saw clearly now. The wind blew trash up from the beach and to our feet.

I left the pool and found Lex loitering outside the Sunnyside. I stood beside him uneasily before I pulled him into my arms and gave him a hug—I didn’t know how else to thank him. I asked what he was doing outside. He said, Turns out I can no longer afford a room here.

What’s your next con? I said.

I got that money fair and square. Gambling, sure. But it was honest money.

I told him he could have my room for the remainder of the week. I handed him my key.

You sure?

There’s nothing left for me here.

This was the truth. The shadows had vanished since I bonked my head. I thumbed my old pen and I offered this to Lex, too. If anything, I said, maybe you can sell it.

I always wanted to visit outer space, he said, and he took a hard suck.