My friend Will texted me two weeks ago. I was on our small patio, sitting at the wooden table our landlord had built without treating the planks of wood so the table had weathered poorly with strips and splinters sticking out from every side of it, leaving it not much more than a place to set a beer or the occasional bag of groceries when we needed a free hand to unlock the door. I was having a drink after work, taking the time to decompress, as my wife calls it, after the daily toil of my remote job where I spent all day looking at one screen after another. There were wildfires in California and the western side of the Arizona that made the sunset a deep orange, a color so saturated it made me feel like it should have, which is to say I felt unwary, unnatural, and apocalyptic. The smoke, which must have billowed in biblical quantities at the source of the fires, drifted partly into Phoenix and irritated my eyes that were already burning from a day spent looking at the computer, which was also unnatural in a certain sense—like the wildfires, illuminated screens undoubtedly were made from and made up my world, but both felt uninvited. Coupled with the the Arizona summer heat, these conditions made me feel like I was in the top floor of a burning building, and not for the first time did I consider that our changing climate would bring new sights and sensations that might be beautiful (this beauty, too, would be in a certain sense). Thousands of miles away and three hours ahead, my friend Will was in New York City, which was always grey and autumnal in my mind and where a wool peacoat would always be appropriate outerwear. Earlier that day he brought his son Gene, who had just turned two, to a playground and met an acquaintance of his, an adjunct-professor of philosophy at one of the numerous colleges that populated the city and presumedly a fellow parent. This acquaintance of
Will’s brought along an acquaintance of his own, a man who was eventually revealed to be the editor-in-chief of a niche general interest magazine with literary leanings that maintained a substantial following and who was also presumedly a fellow parent. Finding out this person had a successful career in the arts and culture industry did a number on Will. It fucked him up, he told me over text. When I read that, I imagined Will sitting on a park bench painted green beneath an overcast sky, brick and stone prewar buildings as his backdrop, the red lights of busses fading in and out behind him as traffic crawled along, people walking home with brown paper bags full of books, food, records, objets d’art, and all the other things you could buy in the city. This was the city that existed in my mind and the only city Will lived in, even though I knew he owned a house in a Filipino neighborhood deep inside Queens. I also imagined Gene playing with a toy truck in the foreground, rolling it across a sandbox beneath a oak tree that was either filled with orange leaves or completely barren depending on how hard I focused my attention on it. I knew Gene liked playing with trucks because Will told me so when we spoke on the phone once, and thus a passing comment from Will in February became a feature of the scene playing out inside my head during July of 2023, where Gene occupied himself with a toy as his father on the green bench behind him struggled to compose himself in the face of news that devastated his mood, devastated being the most correct word to deploy here despite the violence typically associated with it, since ruined doesn’t quite convey the bottoming out that happens in the stomach when something unforeseen and objectively mundane wrecks your mood.

My first instinct was to ignore Will’s text, as is my first instinct for most text messages. I only wanted to enjoy my bottle of beer after work, unfocus my gaze and let my eyes drift across our small patio until it was time to go inside and eat whatever my wife my had made for dinner

before going to bed and doing another variation of the same the next day. I did not want to collect my thoughts and repackage them to be funny and engaging for the benefit of another by typing them into the small screen of my cellphone that was constantly at my side, my unwavering companion. I had ignored the last half dozen of Will’s texts and calls over the week prior—a side-effect, I think, of living in a state where I had no other friends beside my wife, as instead of clinging to any tendril of communication extended toward me, I was much more comfortable keeping to myself, as if I enjoyed flexing a muscle I’d strengthened. While my silence during the week prior made me feel guilty (a guilt that only further discouraged me from returning any calls or texts, similar to how an alcoholic’s shame from the night before only further encourages them to drink again), I responded to Will because I immediately recognized the feeling he was describing when he met the man who happened to be the editor-in-chief of a niche general interest magazine. I wanted to tell him I recognized this feeling because it was a relief to commiserate over a sensation deeply obscure and partly shameful, but more importantly I wanted to offer him comfort and recognition, two salves he’d given to me countless times during the years we’d known each other, though I had no sense of obligation to repay him for those countless times but rather felt a genuine desire to offer comfort and recognition because Will was my friend and I loved him. This is likely a desire shared by the three men on the painted green park bench in New York City toward their children as they watched them play with toy trucks in the chilly winds beneath the autumnal grey New York skies of July.

The feeling I recognized was one of hatred. I hated people like the editor—they walked in the same circles of my interests, reminding me that literature, which functioned as mana for my soul (like devastated, a dramatic but unequivocally true statement), was only one world among

many and each of these worlds abutted the same ladder of material success on which I sat the lowest rung. I didn’t say that much to Will, instead saying that people like the editor made me feel little, but Will immediately understood. He said people like the editor messed with our will to power, which made me laugh and we continued talking about something else, like the show we were watching on television. I put my phone away, went inside, and stood with my back against the kitchen counter while I watched my wife fry two pieces of cod in butter. She asked what was on my mind and I said nothing. Though Will and I didn’t dwell on it, that feeling we touched on, the feeling of pure belittled hatred, felt significant to me. I had one more beer and sent Will one more message before he went to bed, asking him if it was alright for me to visit soon. We hashed through a few details, and, through a spontaneity brought on by a remarkable online sale, I bought a plane ticket for the following weekend.

My flight came in on an early afternoon, so I took the metro train to meet Will at Rutgers across the river in New Jersey. He taught composition and a smattering of other courses there, including the occasional one he was allowed to design, which gave him the chance to fit things like aliens and apparatuses of power into his syllabus while doing his best to make it relevant for teenagers growing up in a world where composition seemed less and less necessary. I found his classroom easily and waited outside the door for his class to finish, listening to the end of his muffled lecture and his responses to any questions the students had, their voices so meek and quiet that it sounded more like Will was taking an exceptionally long time to collect his thoughts before speaking in controlled bursts. He was first out the door to see me when class was over, both of us so excited to see each other that we laughed and talked well over the sounds of students
chattering in the hall, excited for the upcoming weekend. Some of his students gave us an extended glance, likely wondering what relationship someone like me could have with their professor. Outside in the faculty parking garage, Will cleared a space for me in his passenger seat, which was filled with paper bags and jewel CD cases for albums by Bob Dylan, the Dead, and Steely Dan. This is how he kept his car in grad school, and I was glad to see it hadn’t changed—glad because I had plenty of habits and small aberrations of my own that were less than ideal and that I’d always meant to outgrow. Our first stop was a dim sum spot in Flushing. We meant to play songs we loved on the way there, particularly Steely Dan, but we had too much to talk about as we crawled through the lot-like traffic on the way to the dim sum spot (one thing we did not talk about was the weather, which was sunny and warm as I knew it would be, but was undeniably incongruent with the autumnal New York that existed in my mind to the point it gave me a soft surprise, a surprise so soft that it would have been futile to mention it in conversation), a conversation that continued as Will ordered for us from the paper menu and as the waiter brought out bamboo steamers filled with soup dumplings, egg tarts, pork buns, chicken feet, rice porridge, silky tofu, broccoli, squid, roast duck, and weak tea. The things we talked about were very funny, intensely personal, and at times even profound. If I write a memoir one day, it might be appropriate (even charming) to outline and unpack them at length, to explain the story of how we came to call ourselves the Dessert Fathers, the embarrassing moments from our teenage years we relished to tell each other, the equal meaning we gave to conspiracies about the Dulles brothers and religious mystics, or the countless other things I could list were I not afraid of being sentimental. However, since this is a piece of fiction and not a memoir, I can say the conversation we had the dim sum spot in Flushing mirrored the conversations we had seven
years prior in the dining hall of the large Catholic dormitory on campus at the university in Illinois where we were both getting master degrees in creative writing and where we both had to teach to justify the gratis tuition and miserable stipend the university gave us, so the only times we could meet at the Catholic dining hall was near the end of lunch hour, meaning most of the good stuff was gone by then and the only food left for us were starches, leftover slices of pizza, and whatever novelties we could grab from the ice cream cooler. We’d have a big empty table to ourselves. Across the hall, there would usually be the same small group of students, and one among them had no arms. Because I find it easier to let my gaze drift when I talk to people than to look them dead on, the chief visual memory I have from the hours Will and I wiled away in the cafeteria is watching the armless student elegantly eat all his meals with his feet by holding the silverware between his toes as he cut pieces of meat or plunged a fork into salads before bringing his foot to mouth, all of which he did without a single ounce of help from the friends that sat with him, a sight I’d call beautiful if it didn’t feel condescending to do so. I can picture that armless, Catholic student in my mind when I think of the conversations Will and I had in the cafeteria, conversations that were funny, intensely personal, and even profound to the point that I would sometimes doubt our friendship once our meals were over—it felt too deep, too real, and too coincidental to be true, yet there were too many genuine markers for it to be false, such as the way I could remember the outfit Will was wearing the first time I saw him on the corner outside the English building as I smoked a cigarette (brown corduroy pants that sagged so heavily around the crotch I was surprised he didn’t trip), or the way I would rerun our conversations in my head days afterward to make myself laugh, or the way I’d often be on the verge of tears while we spoke because I was excavating a private barb from my soul to present to him, or the way I
found myself driving to the house he and his wife rented the day before he was set to leave town so I could watch him pack bubble-wrapped lamps and chairs into a U-Haul while I stood around without much to say but didn’t want to leave until I said what I didn’t have the words for at the time, which is that Will provided a warmth and companionship that felt above my station, but even if I did not deserve it, I did not want to relinquish it, which was the exact same sentiment coursing through me as Will drove us back to his house in Queens as we left the dim sum spot in Flushing after he picked up the check.

Jill, his wife, greeted us at the door with Gene in her arms. The baby laughed at the sight of me and as soon as his mother set him down he waddled off to gather his toys, which I desperately wanted to see. They treated me to a house tour in the meantime. Will’s family lived in clutter, but the homey type that felt vibrant and loving. The furniture was vintage but tasteful. Art that looked expensive hung in slim frames, and on every other surface sat a book Will was reading, books on the creation of the internet, the JFK assassination, or books about Nietzsche and Deleuze. The walls were muted green, and Jill had a small gap in her front teeth. My bedroom would be on the ground floor, and it had a door that led directly to the backyard. Gene eventually found two of his favorite trucks to show me. He babbled as I turned them over in my hands, finding the different switches that caused them to make noise which Gene didn’t like, as he immediately corrected the switch and said something that sounded like a scolding. He shared Will’s features and had an expressive face. I couldn’t stop smiling as he ran back and forth from some unseen chest to show me more toys, like dinosaurs and fake guns. Will and his wife eventually went upstairs to their room, figuring Gene and I had things covered, and they were right. I felt like the kid and I were a team. Will was not the only one of my friends to have a

child, but he was the only one who had a child I cared about. When I saw photos of him and Gene, my heart was not filled with apathy and resentment—I did not feel time’s boot on my neck that pressured into me of having a child of my own, nor was I overly jealous of Will’s position that made such a decision easy. In front of Gene in the flesh, like I was at Will’s house in Queens that he bought after his father died, I felt the sudden urge to text my wife and tell her I loved her. What I actually wanted to tell her was I wanted her to be the mother of my children, but that sounded too biblical and raw, so I hoped she could read between the lines when I immediately followed my message with a video of Gene giving me a high-five before both of us fell into a fit of laughter and he picked up another toy to show me. He was a beautiful kid, and I almost wanted to ask Will if it was okay to bring him outside with us by the bonfire when he came downstairs to put the kid to bed, but I knew that would be an overstep as Gene had routines that I was an intrusion on, he couldn’t stay up late like his father could, sitting by the bonfire with a friend drinking good bottles of liquor and talking too loudly before crawling into their separate beds, one in the master and the other in the guest bedroom.

We went to Manhattan the next day. On the train Will asked me to choose between going to the Met or the MoMa, and I chose the MoMa, knowing they had the originals of famous Van Gogh paintings like Starry Night and Matisse paintings like the dancing women, paintings I’d seen so often on replica posters, coffee cups, t-shirts, and textbooks they were now ambient features of my environment—I wanted to see if the originals justified their popularity (if the smoke justified the fire), and also because I was genuinely a fan of the early modernists who used vibrant colors so liberally that viewing their paintings in the flesh produced a sense of joie de vivre that draped a blanket over my anxieties and inspired me to make art of my own, an

inspiration most prominent in one of my stories from grad school I wrote after driving home to Detroit for a long weekend with plans to see my parents and spend an afternoon at the art museum downtown with a significant portion of that time to be dedicated to viewing one of the Van Gogh paintings in the Detroit collection, a portrait of a postman with a sky blue background (a painting that was always exceptionally friendly and inviting to me, the dark blues of the postman’s uniform contrasted against the heavenly yet pastoral background, the grey mixed into his blonde beard complementing his soft eyes, and the blank spots of canvas suggesting the painting was completed in haste as if a shot from the heart opposed to a labored masterpiece all worked together to dispel any misanthropic or nihilistic thoughts that might have been brewing in my head beforehand), except on the day I actually went to the museum in midtown Detroit, I suffered from an upset stomach and was constantly running in and out of various bathrooms between spurts of looking at paintings that were so brief I hardly had enough time to think about anything other than my stomach before the day reached a natural crescendo when I ran from Van Gogh’s portrait of the postman to the bathroom for what I hoped would be the last time and a group of schoolboys who must have been at the museum for a field trip decided to make me an object of ridicule and joked loudly about the smells coming from my stall and threw wadded scraps of notebook paper and pencils over the door while I kept silent, knowing anything I said would only embolden them, a crescendo that I replicated in the story I wrote chronicling these events, all of the details meant to work together to say something about beauty clashing with vulgarity or the passage of time since I was returning to a museum I frequented when I was younger, but instead they only worked together to create one labored bathroom joke, a criticism Will gracefully avoided when I showed him the story privately before I showed it to my class,
since Will was the reader I wrote for, and he was the person I most wanted to impress back then, for he read everything I wrote with a seriousness and generosity that sometimes convinced me I was the artist I wanted to be in the way he picked up on threads, reoccurrences, meanings, and ideals of literature that, dramatically and unequivocally, constituted my life and work. In the MoMa, we stood shoulder to shoulder behind a small group of retirees viewing Starry Night, waiting our turn in the makeshift line that always sprung up near the most popular pieces, hunched and whispering to each other, talking about anything except what was in front of us, one of the retirees was wearing a strong perfume and one of the young men behind us was secretly vaping, the vapor and perfume working together to irritate my eyes so they burned and watered, and although I did not think of it then in front of the Starry Night at the MoMa on a Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, I am certainly thinking now of the time I tried to see Will read at a record store in Illinois shortly after I arrived and met him outside the English building but before we truly knew each other—I showed up late and arrived nearly the exact moment he got off the makeshift stage, my first words an apology to which Will responded by pressing his printed pages into my hands, telling me it was no big worry at all and I could read the story on my own time if I wanted and handed me a beer out of the cooler the record store kept for people reading while the rest of the audience suffered the midwestern humidity, and the very next day I stood on the corner outside the English building and smoked a cigarette with Will’s pages held near to my face, every exhale causing the smoke to bounce off the pages and back into my irritated eyes, and the chief reaction I had once I finished his story was one of fear, fear that I was not the singular talent I thought I was and I had contemporaries who could also fit the world into categories with wit and craft, which is exactly what Will did with his story about lonely men who wore sweaters.
Those two scenes—shoulder to shoulder with Will at the MoMa and myself standing solitary on the corner near the English building reading his story with irritated eyes—exist on the same plane. In my mind, they are transposed on top each other, and in both scenes I’m wearing a winter coat and the sky outside is icy and clear except for the few clouds drifting by that are large and billowy like they are before summer storms. We finished off the night with a stop at some bar in Brooklyn. Will told me what I would call New York stories, which I typically have no patience for but loved to listen when he told them, and we nursed cheap beers while periodically ordering shots of whiskey. I offered Will a story of my own that didn’t feature the types of characters found in his—people who worked odd jobs in districts named after industries and seemed to know everyone, from bankers to musicians, and had things happen to them that seemed improbable or too good to feel true (which, of course, was different than being true) so they felt like a layer cake with far too much frosting that merely filled the gaps between your teeth when you tried to bite—but a story that I thought he’d appreciate it like few other people would. It happened when I visited Japan the year prior. My wife and I stayed out late drinking in Golden Gai, a small square of alleys with illuminated signs dozens of bar sat no more than a half dozen people and were piled on top each other on multiple stories. At the last bar we went to, I told the bartender in course of conversation that I considered myself a writer, and he advised me to spend my time researching deep into any topic that interested me and the day would come where I’d put that research to good use and my writing would rocket far beyond what my peers were doing, advice I felt I should heed at the time he told me, but advice I ignored ever since, as I have no patience for research, unlike Will, who consistently impresses me with what he knows and his ability to make meaningful connections between things that happen in the real world or
in the shadowy realm of the hyper-real, which gives a weight to his words, unlike my own musings which often seem no more than a hint or a gesture toward something that might be true (in a certain sense), my words feeling closer to frosting than concrete. Anyway, this Japanese bartender later led my wife and I to a ramen spot that was locals-only, so to speak. We sat at the counter slurping down big bowls of noodles with chashu pork when a group of drinking buddies came in. Presumedly surprised to see an American, one of them talked to me and I responded with my rudimentary conversational Japanese. This made him laugh, as his English was nowhere near the level of my Japanese, a compliment that I quickly translated for my wife. He went back to his group and we carried on finishing our ramen. As we stood up to leave, the clerk sat a giant bowl of ramen in front of my new friend, the largest bowl I’d ever seen. Every optional topping was included and doubled. The amount of pork alone must have cost more than the two bowls I bought. I had no idea how he could ever finish it. It must have been a challenge given by his group of drinking buddies, for no sooner had the clerk returned to his station that his friends started cheering him on. The chant they chose, however, was in English and one of the strangest I’d ever heard. I couldn’t imagine how they decided on it. Over and over, louder and louder, they chanted God is Dead, God is Dead, God is Dead.

Will got a big kick out of that story, as expected. By that time, the bar we were in filled up with all sorts of young people wearing fashionable clothing. It was hard to hear each other, and the bartender was less attentive with so many other people now asking for drinks of their own. I kept my eyes trained on the Manhattan skyline as we walked to a pizza place around the corner. The buildings were black and gold against the river, the city so large it was impossible for me to comprehend. While we waited for pizza, we talked about different anxieties plaguing us,

like Will not knowing what sort of world would meet Gene when he was older and myself not knowing if I’d have a child to meet the world. We talked a little bit about writing, too, but things between us felt like they had moved beyond that point and into the territory of things writing longed to uncover. A homeless person came in and quietly asked each customer if they had any spare change. Before he reached Will and I, one of the workers yelled at him. The homeless man yelled back and was forced to leave. He was waiting outside the door when we left, and I handed him one of the two slices of pizza I bought, an act of kindness I was glad to preform in front of Will, even if it ranked of naïveté, because being with Will made me feel magnanimous and spiritual. This act went unmentioned back at his house, where we had a nightcap together with his wife in the living room after Gene had been put to bed. We talked about her work as an archivist, plans to remodel the bathroom, her parent’s house in France, different candles we liked. They sat together on a small sofa while we talked, Will’s arm draped over her and Jill’s hand up against her shoulder to meet his. Like in grad school, he called her Lovey instead of her name. We bid warm goodbyes and went to bed, as my flight left early the next day and I wanted to take a cab instead of making Will drive me, so I asked him to give Gene an equally warm goodbye on my behalf as I closed my eyes for what must have been forty minutes before sitting in the backseat of a hired car as the sun threatened to rise and got on a plane with my stomach churning from all the liquor and food of the weekend, spending most of my flight back west in a cold sweat not knowing if I would make it without incident before arriving back at home with my wife still in bed. I crawled in with her and let myself fall asleep.

My trip to New York never actually happened, not in a fictional sense. It is an approximation of what I suspect could happen or even wish would happen if I was spontaneous and decisive enough to buy a plane ticket to see Will, something we’ve talked about so often that it has taken on the aura of prophecy, and, perhaps more importantly, is an approximation of the time Will and I actually did see each other post-grad school during the week he flew to Phoenix shortly after his father died that happened to be the same week my own father was in town for what would turn out to be the only time my father came to see me before he was diagnosed with an aggressive and fatal brain cancer, a coincidence of mismatched timing that is too complicated and too full of meaning that is is impossible unpack at this juncture, but Will’s visit did leave me with one indelible memory of a late breakfast we had together at a diner on the far north side of town, where every lonely strip mall and housing development felt like a failed attack against the surrounding desert, a breakfast where Will ordered a feta omelette with turkey sausage and I ordered, for reasons unknown to me then and now, cheese blintzes with blueberry filling, and the food was awful but Will kept talking about how much he liked the food with utmost sincerity (even now he will sometimes tell me he misses the food he had at the diner on the far north side of town and I know there isn’t any irony in what he says), and afterward he drove me in the convertible he rented around the surrounding desert, which was mostly empty outside of a few ranches and blackened bits of scrub and bloated cacti from the wildfire that had scorched the area only a few short months before, and while he drove he asked me about everything happening in my life, how my job was doing, how my writing was going, what plans my wife and I had for the future, questions that my own father never asked me on his solitary visit to Phoenix or elsewhere before he died, and questions I was happy to answer because I sensed Will was both curious and
proud of what I’d done and what I planned to do and this made my words easy to find. When I think back on that short drive that should have been longer, I am filled with the same joie de vivre I look for in paintings at the MoMa I’ve never seen, an expansive and ghostly happiness that feels like a gift that I hope to return in the form of a strange piece of fiction I plan to write one day when I am not so tired and irritated after work, which will allow me the space to find the words I need to explain that it is Will himself that gives me the joie de vivre I feel, that our friendship gives such weight to words like destiny and magic that they feel concrete. But to unpack those feelings which stem from the complexity of reality would take time and space, perhaps I might even need to find a new form to convey them in a way that feels true to me. When I do finally write that piece of fiction, I expect this story to make an appearance much like other stories have made appearances in the paragraphs above.