Joyland

New York |

Rubicon

by Matthew Sullivan

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

You are going to kill me.

That’s what the guy said to you as you held open the glass door of the office building, letting him in as you were heading out.

He’d looked like one of those underwashed I.T. guys who’d be single the rest of his life—saggy brown cords, greasy ponytail, swiveling an energy drink as if there were rollplaying dice inside—but that hadn’t stopped you from pulling the door open fast, then stepping back, creating the space for him to come in. You’d simply been performing a gesture of kindness on your way out of work—but at the sight of you standing there, he’d halted on the threshold. He’d flinched a little, gave just a twitch of eye contact, then darted past you, mumbling:

Youaregoingtokillme .

Then he disappeared into the Housing Authority offices on the building’s ground floor.

A gust of wind blew through, smelling like hot exhaust, and suddenly you were on the sidewalk outside. You scratched the back of your head, watching the parking lot shed its cars as the day tapered to a close. A few hooded figures leaned over the smokers’ bucket, but no one gave any signal that they’d heard him.

But you had, hadn’t you? That is to say, hadn’t you heard him correctly?

You. Are going to. Kill me.

The day was warm, and as you crossed the lot toward your Rubicon you felt a swirl of vertigo that may have been from the wind shifting the boots and hammer of your inner ear, or it may have been—

That was how he’d said it. Wasn’t it?

As you fished out your REI carabiner full of keys, it occurred to you that maybe it was really you somehow, that you were being a prick again without even realizing it—Jane had planted that one nice and deep—but then the gravity of the moment took over and you realized you might need to remember exactly what the guy had just said. It could be important. Say if he was crazy and was going inside to shoot up the Housing Authority, or if some law clerk who worked in the offices upstairs had a restraining order against him—so you ran a quick scan of your short-term memory to see if he’d held a grenade or a black duffle bag full of guns, but no. It was really just his words you needed to remember.

His words. Remember his words. Remember, you told yourself, re

It felt totally appropriate that a few days ago, while sprinting up the foothills trail, you’d listened to a TED Talk or some bullshit public radio podcast that was all about Memory—about training your brain to remember—and the podcast guy was talking about mentally pinning whatever you wanted to recall to a familiar place, like your home, and then when you visualized that place later everything you’d pinned down would be sitting there just waiting to be remembered. The Greeks called it something and someone else said the Theater of Memory, or was it the Romans? The real freaks could memorize numbers with a million digits or the particular arrangement of several truckloads of playing cards but you, all you wanted to recall was whatever that ponytailed douche had just said to you.

Which was what?

Your black Rubicon with its beefy treads and custom roll bar towered above the other cars in the lot—Jane was always embarrassed by your Jeep, which should have been your first clue re: romantic doom—and lifting yourself into the front seat you forced yourself to picture the familiar townhouse where you and Jane had lived these past three years. Where these past two weeks you’d lived alone.

The stubby concrete porch, its Hibachi coated with dust: You.

The little table with the bowl of keys and phone chargers just to your left as you step through the front door: Are.

The narrow coat closet without a door where you kick off your work shoes and slip on your Crocs: Going.

The hallway bench with its pile of catalogs and runners magazines and unopened bills: To.

The barstool counter in the center of the kitchen with its basket of withered oranges, its teacup of garlic bulbs, its crowded block of knives: Kill.

The stainless kitchen sink, holding a brown apple core and a smelly sponge: Me.

That was as far as you got—mentally pinning the guy’s words in place—but the whole exercise was more difficult than you’d expected, mainly because each time you tried to focus on your little mental townhouse diorama of your shitty mind theater palace or whatever, you found yourself following these other mental tendrils that curled out from the static and wrapped around Jane’s bare ankle, or Jane’s soft wrist, or Jane’s tender neck, or Jane’s fucking fuck.

You were not supposed to be thinking about Jane. About Jane naked—her back, her thighs, her calloused feet—let alone spotlighting her within your sticky mind. You’d been over this with yourself for a dozen sleepless nights: other than Jane’s name still visible on the lease, and the occasional sports bra catalog that arrived addressed to her, you had erased all traces of Jane.

During the entire fifteen-minute drive to your complex you kept studying the grey cloud cover and wondering how the sun was possibly going to break through, as your weather app had promised, and by the time you parked in front of your townhouse and headed up the walkway you’d mostly forgotten about the memory exercise and the flinching guy who’d prompted it. But then when you shook your keys free and reached over to unlock your front door and saw the Hibachi squatting on the edge of your porch you could see, like really see, a word sitting there. In blocky letters, like something they’d sell in the plastic plants and candle section at Ikea:

YOU

And as you stepped inside the other words were pinned there as well, and you knew there was no way that you could possibly forget what that high-fructose freak had said to you:

ARE

GOING

TO

It was becoming, you know, indelible, and the novelty of your memory game was wearing off by the time you’d reached the kitchen, where everything was so crisp, so accurately foretold, that when you discovered that the withered oranges you’d imagined in a basket were actually brown bananas sitting on a yellow plate, a cloud of disappointment blew through you. It went away, though, when you saw, next to a serrated knife on the counter, its bright blade sticky with this morning’s sliced grapefruit, another single word:

KILL

Those memory games—they actually fucking worked.

***

Sprinting up the hill in your new crosstrainers, the sky gathered up its gray and began to pour rain, but you continued running anyway, pushing until your foot slipped and your ankle slid sideways across a rock. A moment of sharp pain was followed by small blood blotting your sock. Nothing serious, but you stood there palming your knees and looking at the sky anyway. You knew you were pushing yourself too hard, losing your concentration. The heartrate monitor on your wrist said you were working at 103% of maxbeatsperminute but there was no way you were stopping yourself. When it came down to it you couldn’t.

That guy had been on your mind. You hadn’t done anything to deserve that. Not to him.

You could feel a shift in the earth as your blood thickened inside your sock. What had he said to you, exactly? You tested the memory game again, just to see.

Hibachi: You. Table: Are. Closet: Going. Bench: To. Counter: Kill. Sink—

You looked into the mirror hanging above your kitchen sink. You saw your black headband with a hem of salty sweat streaked along its base, and you saw yourself standing there, still wet from the rain, ankle crusty with blood. In the sink below you sat a cast iron frying pan, crusty with scrambled eggs, and a few dirty dishes and glasses, and a butter knife coated in old peanut butter.

No words, no letters. No Me.

Because that was your sink you were standing above. Your real sink, with real dirty dishes.

You couldn’t quite remember coming down from the trail.

You couldn’t quite remember driving home.

***

In the gravel lot on Saturday morning, surrounded by webby walls of forest, you told your running group about what the guy had said. His exact words were important, you knew, and thanks to the memory game they arrived with more ease than you’d expected—

You are going to kill me.

“Seriously? That’s all he said?”

That was it.

“Did he sound, like, threatened?”

I don’t know, you said. Actually. Yes.

You’d just led the group up a steep rocky ascent and although most of them turned around before nearing the top and none of them were exactly friends of yours—none of them knew what happened, for example, with Jane—endorphins were high and the day felt in your favor. Once everyone agreed that the guy was probably just a crazy asshole it was like permission to joke.

“At least he didn’t say that you were going to do his laundry!”

That’s what I’m talkin' about, you said.

“Or suck him off!”

That’s what I’m talkin' about, you said.

“Or that he was going to kill you!”

Everyone laughed.

That’s what I’m talkin' about, you said.

***

It was a spider on the window that delivered him to you.

This was maybe a week after your first encounter, and you were on the phone at work, on hold for forever, when the spider began making its way from the lower right corner of the window to the top left. It felt like one of those things that made the day different, one of those things that not too long ago you would have told Jane about during a commercial break or while jogging at her side, especially after she complained about you never talking enough.

It was one of those jumpy black spiders that are too twitchy to be graceful yet supremely fast, and though you knew its engineering and existence were practically divine, you never mistook its role in the office ecosystem. You swished a Kleenex out of the box on your desk and stepped toward the spider. You were about to crunch it between your fingers when you saw him three stories below in the building’s parking lot. Meandering along in cargo pants and a red tee-shirt and holding a huge plastic soda cup. Walking within a few feet of your Rubicon.

The Batmobile , Jane had called it. Mockingly.

You dropped the phone into its cradle.

Through the window you watched him stop near your Rubicon’s front fender. You watched him stand on his tip-toes and reach across its glossy hood. You watched him retrieve a folded piece of paper from under its custom wiper arms.

Now he was walking away from your Rubicon holding a note, looking sheepishly around.

In other circumstances you may have assumed the note was a religious tract or a flier for carpet cleaning, but the gingerly way he was walking with it, pinching it close to his belt as if trying to hide it in his gamer-guy pudge, left you feeling conditioned for this moment. Between you and him the spider danced, and you suddenly realized that the folded paper was a particular shade of day-glo orange. It was the exact same paper—or very close, anyway—it was exactly the same color as the paper that Jane had left on the kitchen counter when she out-of-goddamned-nowhere bailed on your relationship three weeks ago. The two of you had lived together for months and took showers together and cooked together and worked out together and even talked about going to Hawaii together for Christmas next year. And then one night after work you came home to your townhouse—

Hibachi: You. Table: Are. Closet: Going. Bench: To. Counter: Kill. Sink—

—to discover that Jane had packed up all of her stuff and left you nothing but a note in some angry penmanship:

You look in the mirror too much .

That was it, the extent of your break-up: six or seven words. This, coming from a woman with whom you’d partnered in a cross-fit class, a woman whose muscles had muscles, a woman who didn’t so much arouse you as impress you. With your morning protein shakes and your evening runs and your sweaty laundry the two of you were like a beefy machine. But no. Because apparently:

You look in the mirror too much.

You knew she was referring to the Saturday night not long before when you’d both been drinking and you’d shown her your old picture in the high school yearbook. The two of you were sitting next to each other on the bed and she held the book under the light and laughed hysterically, then felt bad when you tugged it from her hands and ripped the book in two and walked outside to the trash. She thought you were just being dramatic, but you weren’t—you hated that fucking picture, the way you used to be—and when you came back into the bedroom a while later the lights were low and the lube was resting on the pillow and Jane was kneeling, naked. You could tell she was working pretty hard to make it up to you, bending over on the bed and plunging backwards and definitely not laughing anymore. When she looked up and caught you checking yourself out in the mirror above the dresser, flexing your pecs and licking your lips, you thought she was looking up at you with admiration, so you clenched your teeth and nodded, ohfuckyeah, and she flipped her hair in her face and kept right on rocking. And then 48 hours later Jane was gone with all of her stuff and you were left with twice the rent and a half-ass note.

An orange note, day-glo, just like the one in the guy’s hand.

You look in the mirror too much. Fuck you, Jane.

There at the office window, you were mad that you must have just missed Jane driving her baby-blue Vespa into the parking lot, wearing sunglasses and a silky neck scarf, and secretly tucking the note under your windshield wiper. But what did the note even say? You had no idea where she was living now or how to get in touch with her, so she would have included her new contact info for sure, plus something along the lines of I’d give my life to have you back. I’m so, so sorry! Surely that’s what it was, the piece of paper, a desperate note carefully conceived and delivered by Jane, which was why you left the spidery window and leapt straight into action. You heard Colin from the cubicles saying your name—“Hey you, you okay?”—but by then your desk chair was spinning behind you and you were running full-speed out of the office, leaping down the concrete stairwell, holding the painted rail each time you whipped around the corner. When you neared the ground floor you knew you had a choice: cut through the lobby and catch that note-stealing loser at the front door, probably in the exact location where you’d first laid eyes on his stupid face; or duck out the stairwell exit, sprint along the side of the building, and cut him off before he reached the front entrance altogether. You hardly had time to think about it before the stairwell door was upon you and you burst through it into the lot—

Your head clonked hard and your brain splashed against the inside of your skull. For a second you thought you’d been hit by a car. A truck. It didn’t register that you’d just collided with him until the two of you were spinning through the air, limbs entangled, sprayed by his soda, crashing to the ground. Your skin raked the walkway as you rolled, but you were more worried about your head, and the way the world was so totally quiet except for that ringing sound and the urgent sense that your mind was hissing away like air leaking from a balloon.

Your collision was so thoroughly fused with his collision that when you sat on the asphalt and spat a gritty tooth, webbed with blood, into your palm; and when your fingertips slid past your lips and began probing around your mouth, seeking the gummy gap where your tooth had been, praying it wasn’t right up front; and when you looked up and saw him, equally bloodied, fishing around his mouth with equal panic, you actually felt a smirk of pleasure to realize that the tooth you’d just spat out had come from his mouth. You tossed it toward him and he flinched as it ticked the cement near his knees. His cup was on the ground by your thigh, dribbling Mountain Dew, and its sight made you dizzy, so you flopped back down and rested your head against the curb and closed your eyes. When you opened them again you could see the soles of his black sneakers slapping and hopping as he hobbled away. He’d left his tooth behind.

You did not see the note, the one from Jane, but you knew he’d stolen it—

The note.

The one from Jane.

***

At home: Hibachi: You. Table: Are. Closet: Going . Bench: To. Counter: Kill

***

You told yourself you just wanted to talk to him. To find out why he’d stolen Jane’s note, and what he knew about Jane, and why he was sabotaging the one true—

Her absence seemed bigger now that she’d reached out. That was all.

You figured that he must have worked in the Housing Authority offices on the ground floor, but when you limped through the wide doors on the day after the collision and entered the H.A. hallway, meandering between desks and cubbies and meeting rooms as if you were simply lost, you didn’t see him anywhere. Not on the first day, and not on the second, and not even on the third.

One of your neighbors complained about hearing your Bow-Flex System at three in the morning, three nights running.

Four days after the collision, you finally saw him. You were climbing out of the Rubicon and casually scanning the lot when you glimpsed him standing in a window on the ground floor of your building, holding a donut in front of his chest, looking directly at you. He was wearing a black shirt and the donut was powdered white, which was how you were able to see it. The glass was faintly tinted so you couldn’t quite make out his expression, but you had no doubt it was him.

It was important that you appear casual. So you locked up the Rubicon and carried your morning smoothie toward the building’s entrance, acting as if you hadn’t seen him. But the second you reached the foyer you sprinted into the Housing Authority offices, then counted one-two-three-four-five windows until you’d found the place where he’d been standing. He was gone. There was a carpeted wall of cubicles nearby, three or four people on the phone within, but none of them was him. A half-eaten donut sat on a napkin on the sill, its powdery crumbs all over.

No one seemed to notice you, so you stood before the window as if you belonged there. The lot outside was spotted with cars, including your Rubicon, parked protectively close to a lightpost. After some minor calculations you stepped six inches to the left and now stood exactly in the spot where he’d stood, looking through the exact glass he’d just been looking through. Could you feel his warmth rising up through the soles of your shoes, the way it used to feel when you and Jane would take runs on the asphalt in August? Could you see his reflection in the window, right where he’d left it? No: you could only see yours, and even that was faint.

You look in the mirror too much.

Except then, across the parking lot, you spotted him hustling between cars, just near where you’d been minutes before. He stopped next to a Mini Cooper so yellow it stung your eyes.

He climbed inside and zipped away, like he was driving a fucking lemon drop.

***

Your townhouse manager left a note on your door, asking you to please not Bow-Flex at three in the morning.

When other people were sleeping.

So tonight you went out.

***

It had taken you two handsome conversations in the Housing Authority office this morning to get his name— The guy who owns the yellow Mini… what’s his name again?—and two more minutes on your smart phone to find the address to his townhouse complex. He lived uncomfortably close to you.

Even from the dark lot where you parked, just a few spaces down from his yellow Mini, you could see the glow of his widescreen television through his blinds. Minutes later, when you quietly stepped through the unlocked front door and unheeled your cross-trainers in the entry way, that glow became a first-person video game of a soldier in some desert wasteland. There was no Hibachi on his townhouse porch (You), and no table inside the door (Are), and no little bench (To), but he did have a closet in the hallway exactly in the same spot as yours ( Going), as well as a counter-top island visible in the kitchen down the hall (Kill). You couldn’t yet see his sink.

You smelled Chinese. Something porky. As far as you could tell he was alone, sitting with his back to you in a spill-resistant video-game chair and wearing one of those telemarketer headsets. It was obvious he couldn’t hear you through the machine-gun fire and explosions and all that hoo-yeah grunting coming out of his headphones. You could hear the rapid click of his thumbs on the controller’s buttons. He was oblivious.

For a moment you watched him play Black Ops. That was the game. You found this somewhat uncanny because on the Jeep forums you sometimes visit (username: Batman; password: eAttheweak8) your model of Rubicon has been unofficially called the Black Ops Edition. Uncanny.

Your image was not reflected in the widescreen television as you stepped behind him. Just men in scarves shooting at you and lobbing grenades and falling dead in the dirty streets.

You couldn’t resist taking one last glance around the townhouse for signs of Jane, just in case, but of course only saw foody plates on the coffee table, and some empty energy drink cans, and even a tube of athlete’s foot cream sitting in his gaming chair’s drink holder. A prescription bottle was there on a side table, as well as a few wads of the gauze he’d used to sop the gap in his gums. He wasn’t wearing socks or shoes.

The gaming chair had a winged headrest, probably with little speakers inside, so it was easy to grab his forehead from behind and squeeze it into the chair. For a split second, his wide eyes rolled up enough to see you. You could barely see his ponytail draped over his shoulder, and it was either damp from a shower or just so greasy that it looked damp. For some reason this made you angry. He tried to speak, but apparently you’d brought a long, serrated knife with you and, bracing his head, you began to saw at his throat before he had a chance.

You watched a documentary once about a fishing boat in the seas around Alaska, and on the boat a guy sawed right through the blunt silver head of a tuna, just huge, and the sound it made was like tearing fabric, and in the endless ocean light the scales sprung free and sparkled on his goopy knuckles like glitter. But this was different. Because in the documentary the fish was already dead on a bed of ice and wasn’t struggling, and didn’t have grappling hands. And here you were.

His game controller rolled off his lap and hit the floor.

After, on your way to his kitchen, you took one last look around and saw video games and video game magazines and video game cords and controllers. You didn’t find the note he’d written a few days ago on the back of a day-glo orange carpet-cleaning flier, apologizing for the yellow scar and tiny dent he’d left on the passenger door of your Rubicon one windy day last week. He really knew he should tell you—that he should leave a note under your wiper arm—but then he just chickened out. He was worried you might go off. You seemed like that kind of a guy.

The note was in the trash can a few feet away, but you were too busy at his sink to notice it: busy washing your sticky hands, cleaning your sticky knife, hunting around his dirty dishes for that last memorable word: Me.