After college Neil moved home to allow time for thinking. Neil’s mom said, “Neil, what are you going to do this summer?” She hugged Neil. Then she made pancakes. Neil suspected that she had had plastic surgery done on her face.
“Good for her,” thought Neil. Though, really, it made him a little sad.
There was talk of teaching English in Taiwan. Young people were leaving America to teach English in Asia. This is what the young people were doing these days. There was something in the air.
“Teach English in Taiwan,” said the air.
“Okay,” said Neil. “I mean, maybe.”
In the afternoons Neil’s head would become very heavy and he would have to lie down. He spent entire afternoons looking through his old yearbooks.
One morning Neil piled all his possessions in the front yard in the shape and size of a small barn. People drove by and bought things. “Make me an offer,” said Neil. “Sold,” said Neil. He liked saying that.
Neil spent his yard-sale money on expensive coffees.
After coffee Neil would go in his room and write longhand. After writing a poem he would feel pretentious and then become very sleepy. He took long, heady naps and woke up pessimistic about his future and disorientated but well rested and hungry.
He began to get ideas. Not for stories or poems but for business plans and other things.
One idea was that if extraterrestrials visited Earth they should land on the tops of hills. That way, upon leaving their UFOs, their jetlag and space malaise would be immediately mollified by the greenery and smoothness of the hill.
“Write what you want to read,” thought Neil.
“Teaching English will be a good experience for you,” said Neil’s mom.
Neil became confused and bought a toy poodle.
He had the idea that if your dog were small it should live inside the walls. If your dog weighed less than 10 pounds, then when you came home it should already be inside the walls, scurrying and making scratchy gerbil-noises.
Neil thought, “It’s over. My life is over.” He liked to provoke his toy poodle. Push it around. Corner it and make faces at it.
He tried to use his ideas for stories and poems. But his brain would say, “Neil, what are you doing?” One time Neil was eating a peach and his brain said, “Neil, what are you doing?”
“You are the dog of the millennium,” Neil said to his dog. Then he pointed at it. Then he jumped over it.
Neil’s mom arranged for Neil to live with his uncle Francis in Taiwan. She encouraged Neil to go outside, to join a gym, and to eat more. She made Neil smoothies with honey and soymilk. “I’m not sure if I want to go to Taiwan,” said Neil. “How will I talk to people?”
He had thoughts of California, of driving there, and doing something. Driving around, looking at stuff. He’d do things. He had an image of himself and his toy poodle in Alaska, in a log cabin, fighting back hordes of bears with a peashooter. Taming the bears. Setting up a bear circus, or a bear slavery gang.
Neil had been to Taiwan before to visit relatives. He spoke very little Mandarin.
Between naps Neil snuffed his face into his pillow and said, “Aaaarrrghhhh.”
He had difficulties in naming his dog. He didn’t want to be ironic or witty. He also didn’t want the dog to be named something like “Woofers” or “Woofy.” But he didn’t want to be overly calculated in naming his dog either, didn’t want it to take on an evil, cold-hearted tone, which it maybe already had.
Neil put an ad in the paper to sell the dog.
“Your plane leaves Friday,” said Neil’s mom. “I got you a window seat.” She recommended that Neil do push-ups in the privacy of his room. “There’s a smoothie in the refrigerator,” she said and smiled.
Neil said, “Why did you buy me a ticket?” He slammed the door to his room. He yelled at the closed door, “I need to make my own choices for once.” His room had only his bed left, because he had sold all his possessions, and he sat on it. He was embarrassed about how immature he was. He thought that he should write about this, his embarrassment.
And he tried.
But the tone was immediately evocative of a boy band music video, one of the ones meant to be sad.
So he wrote a story about a mailbox that could walk. It could fly, actually. One day, full of important mail, it rocketed out of the ground into outer space. “Ha, ha,” it said. “Suckers!” It flew around a while, became lonely, and smashed itself into a building.
A man called about Neil’s dog. He came over. “I should first see how it gets along with my other dogs,” he said. Neil got in the man’s car and they drove to the man’s apartment.
The man had three other dogs, all different sizes. He also had children. The children and the dogs moved very slowly near the walls. The apartment was dark and smoky and a purple light came from another room. “They get along great, wonderful,” said the man.
One of the children was a tiny girl. She was in the corner, by the purple light. She had Starbursts and was slowly eating them. “Sold,” said Neil. The girl was lithe, Neil noticed.
At home Neil masturbated to an older version of the Starbursts girl.
“Eat this salad,” said Neil’s mom. She had prepared a salad for Neil. It had big pieces of green peppers and bacon in it.
“I can make my own food,” said Neil.
“I know you can,” said Neil’s mom. She touched Neil’s shoulder and Neil twisted away.
“If I want to eat something I’ll make it myself from now on,” said Neil.
He went into his room. He fell asleep and had a dream that the moon came very close to the Earth, and he said to himself, “The moon has gotten bigger over the years.” The moon came a little closer, and then a little closer, and then Neil was smooshed.
Neil woke up and went back to sleep.
He had a dream where a girl gave him so much eye contact that he loved her immediately. They were in a bookstore. Then they were in a cool, UFO-ish room. The girl kissed Neil from above. Her mouth was small and stormy. “Is she drunk?” thought Neil. “I hope she isn’t drunk.”
When Neil woke it was almost dark out and he was sweating. He masturbated to the girl in his dream. It was the Starbursts girl. Was it the Starbursts girl? Neil went to the bathroom and washed his hands and face. In the mirror his face looked ugly. His bones were receded and doughy. “We are your bones and we don’t care,” said Neil’s bones. Neil showered, then slowly dried himself. The rest of the day became very small. It went into Neil’s bones and lay there, and made Neil very tired.
“Neil,” said Neil’s mom. “I bought toothpaste and shampoo for your trip.” There were also soap and disposable razors. They were on the kitchen counter. An array of things, on top of a neatly folded blue towel.
“Why do you have to do everything for me?” said Neil. He went back into his room. He tried to slam the door, but the air was thick. The door moved slowly against the air and then stopped moving. Neil pushed it a little and it closed.
He became very vague in his thinking. His thoughts swam. They swam like animals that maybe could not swim. Kangaroos, cattle, armadillos. They struggled a little, sank, and then floated to the surface, bloated and upside-down. “Errffe eerfff ffff,” said the kangaroos while underwater.
When Neil left his room his mom would give him karate dojo brochures.
Neil suspected that how his face felt to him was how a zombie’s face felt to a zombie. He rented a zombie movie. In it the zombies had patchy skin and delinquent personality types. They made noises like, “Rrraagghraaaggh,” and said things like, “I want to eat your liver.”
“Hollywood,” thought Neil.
Maybe he would make his own zombie movie.
Neil’s zombies would live quiet, solitary lives. They would have college degrees. They would brush their teeth twice a day with whitening toothpaste, and eat red pepper salads. They would be considerate of others. It would be a silent film. “Neil,” said Neil’s mom.
He wrote a story about a man who had very good things happen to him. “The man was great. He was the happiest man ever, the best! Each day more good things happened to him, and it was great, and the best. The man was happy. The man lived forever and kept getting happier.”
On the drive to the airport Neil sat in the backseat. He was angry. His mom had put some more items into his bag after he had already packed. “Don’t do anything for me again,” said Neil. “If you do one more thing for me I’m never talking to you again.”
His mom was quiet in the front seat.
Neil said, “If you didn’t spoil me so badly I might be able to do things myself.” He said, “I graduated college and look at me. I’m still yelling at you about this stupid crap. Isn’t this strange to you? Don’t you wish I were more mature?” He said, “How can I live and grow up if you do everything for me?” He said, “I don’t want you to call me in Taiwan.”
Neil’s mom turned and looked at Neil and said, “I love you.”
Neil slammed the car door and went in the airport without his bag. He felt sticky and hot in his head and chest. The airport was very crowded. “Every man, woman, or child in this airport is wandering around in a depraved way,” Neil thought.
Uncle Francis met Neil at the airport in Taiwan. “Neil,” said Uncle Francis. His English was limited and unrefined, so he did not say anything more.
“Hi,” said Neil.
Uncle Francis had a daughter, Lisa, who was Neil’s age. Lisa had learned English in school.
“Hi, Neil,” said Lisa. “How was the plane trip?”
“Good,” said Neil.
“It was a long plane ride,” said Lisa. “I hope you were comfortable.”
Then there was a silence. When Neil talked again Lisa also talked, at the same time. Then they both stopped. Then they both talked again at the same time. Neil’s face turned red. He looked directly at the ground. He stayed in his room from then on. Uncle Francis had bought new sheets and pillows for Neil’s room. Neil’s mom did not call.
Uncle Francis slipped brochures about teaching English under Neil’s door. The brochures were in Chinese.
Neil knew that he would not teach English. He could not interact with one person. How could he instruct a class of them?
Neil would sleep. He would sleep and destroy all desires and be satisfied with his life, in his room. Or else he would wallow and be regretful.
He would wallow and be regretful.
He wished his mom had stayed in Taiwan. Raised him here, native. He wished his mom had died early, leaving him to do things for himself. Neil wished for 10 percent increases in kindness, tolerance, social skills, confidence, and attractiveness and then felt cheated in life by 10 percent.
A package came from Neil’s mom. Inside was Neil’s bag and another bag of toothbrushes, shampoo, and dental floss. Neil said in his head, “I knew it. I knew she would do this.”
Neil’s brain said, “Now you’re going to get angry, aren’t you, Neil, you little shit.”
He watched Chinese CNN on the TV in his room. He watched Taiwanese soap operas. He lay on the carpet and stared at the ceiling. Tried to stare through to the next floor. X-ray vision. Maybe Neil was a superhero and just didn’t know it. He locked his door. He did cartwheels and somersaults. He turned off the lights, stood facing into a corner, and laughed. He felt afraid.
There would be no epiphanies, ever, he knew, nothing. There would be a near-endless series of embarrassing moments. There would be that.
He masturbated repeatedly to the Starbursts girl. He masturbated quietly, with a neutral facial expression.
When Uncle Francis or Lisa knocked on his door he would pretend he was asleep or else hurry into the bathroom and turn on the shower. “Pshaw,” said the showerhead. At night Neil snuck into the kitchen, like a burglar.
But mostly Neil just slept.
The traffic in the streets sometimes woke up. The Taiwanese traffic. The apartment was in Taipei, the capital city. “I am in the capital of the universe,” thought Neil. Then he put his face into his pillow and said, “Arrrrrrngggg.”
Neil’s mom called. “Neil, how are you,” said Neil’s mom.
She talked softly. She stuttered a little between “Neil” and “how.”
“Did Uncle Francis tell you how to get started?” said Neil’s mom.
Neil tried to be happy and not at all angry. He did not say anything, not yet.
“How are you? Neil?” said Neil’s mom. “I miss you.”
“Why did you send my bag?” said Neil. “Why did you send all that shampoo and dental floss? Would it kill me to have to go outside and buy shampoo by myself?” He said, “Why did you have to do that?” He said, “I can never escape from you. You don’t know how this feels. I can’t make my own mistakes. I can’t learn. You do everything for me.” He said, “I can’t live. I can’t be alive.”
Neil said in his head to himself, “You are a cloying motherfucker. What the fuck are you talking about? You are a terrible piece of shit.”
Neil’s mom said, “You’re an adult now and you need to do things yourself. I know that.”
Neil said, “You always say that but you never change.” He said, “Didn’t I say I would never talk to you again if you did anything else for me?” Something bilious and gray in Neil’s head was beating like a pigeon. “Fuck,” Neil said in his head. He regretted everything that had happened and everything that would happen. He saw his mother on the other end with a worried look on her face and then he hung up the phone.
He would write about this. It would be miserable. There was a window and Neil thought about throwing the phone through it, the glass breaking. He thought about throwing himself out of it. “Ridiculous,” he thought.
He set the phone down on the receiver on the bed. He tried to be very un-melodramatic about this but the deliberateness of it made it enormously melodramatic.
He sat on the bed. He knew it would be a long time before he would talk to his mother again. He thought that from now on he would be a nicer person. He would talk to Lisa and Uncle Francis and try very hard to be a normal, friendly person. “Yeah, right,” he thought. He stood and walked around with his arms out stiff in front. He went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the wall mirror. “Liver blood,” he said. “Rraarrgh, raagghh.”