“Twelve Steps Ahead” was nominated for The Best of the Net.
This is one of two instances in your life when you will receive these instructions. There is only one step you’re allowed to hear this time—the last one. It will be the first thing you hear when you’re born and it will be one of the worst things a human being could ever be told. You’re going to hear it, and you’re going to remember it, and it will have a terrible impact on your life.
When you receive these instructions again, you will be reading them after having just written them. You’re going to want to revise them, but you won’t be able to. That’s because you’ve already done these things. And you’ll do them again and again and again. You don’t have a choice.
In the summer of 2002, a dear old friend of yours will go out of town on a work trip. He won’t be able to afford to bring his girlfriend with him and he’ll ask if you’ll be willing to take her out to lunch while he’s away. Say yes.
After you’ve taken your dear old friend’s girlfriend out to lunch, and after she’s asked you if it would be OK if the two of you make a quick stop at her mom’s birthing clinic, say yes again. While chatting with the midwives at the birthing clinic, slightly exaggerate your interest when talking with them. Ask many baiting questions. Make statements of praise at a volume that will allow your voice to reach the ears of your dear old friend’s girlfriend, who will be seated at a desk on the other side of the birthing clinic’s reception area. After your dear old friend’s girlfriend has finished her paperwork and tells you she’s feeling a little blue—she doesn’t really know anybody around here, she’ll say, because she’s just recently moved to town—you’re going to ask her if she’d like to hang out with you. This is not going to be easy. You’re going to be feeling that you’re not good at asking things like this of people. You’re going to be feeling this is because you’re afraid of rejection—but that’s not the only thing you’re afraid of. You’re afraid of everything. Nonetheless, you will need to muster the courage this time.
Ask, “Do want to hang out with me?” And then lie. Say this: “But if you don’t want to, that’s totally fine. I won’t feel hurt or anything.”
You and your dear old friend’s girlfriend will drive to your townhouse on Ebony Avenue. You will sit together on the newly laid blue-gray industrial carpet for the next two hours and listen to music while talking. Let yourself feel a little taken aback—but also a little emboldened—when your dear old friend’s girlfriend tells you that sheevan always found you attractive. Muster the courage to tell her that you’ve always found her attractive. You’ll agree with her that that’s just great. For the next hour, the two of you will talk about how you both love your dear old friend so, so much. But, eventually, you’ll work back around to talking about finding each other attractive. And you’ll agree that it’s unfortunate you can’t do anything about it, all because of your dear old friend.
At this point, you’re going to be feeling very strongly that you’re the type of person who, throughout the entirety of his life, has never felt himself able to, in your words, “make your first proverbial move”; a person who’s never once in his life been able to be the first of two people who desire one another to kiss the lips or hold the hand of the other. And you’re going to feel this way because it’s true. You’ve never done that before. However, just like it hasn’t been necessary “maybe a dozen or even a baker’s-dozen times in my life”―those are your words―making your first proverbial move won’t be necessary this time, either. And that will feel especially strange in this instance because you and your dear old friend’s girlfriend both love your dear old friend so, so much. But, in fact, it won’t be strange at all. Because your shared love for your dear old friend is the same thing that had increased your desire toward one another such that you didn’t have to make your first proverbial move. You’re going to feel as if you did that on purpose—that you had deliberately spoken lovingly of your dear old friend merely for the purpose of wooing his girlfriend. Or, in your words, of “stealing his girlfriend.” But it won’t matter whether you did or you didn’t. You only need to feel like you did.
You’re going to blame yourself in this same way throughout your first “fun-filled weekend of fornication”—your words—with your dear old friend’s now ex-girlfriend, as well as your second and your third and your fourth and your fifth and, finally, your twenty-third, which you and your dear old ex-friend’s ex-girlfriend will spend together in Paris, having recently arrived there from Barcelona. Once again you’ll talk about the same thing you so often have, your shared love for your dear old friend, now your dear old ex-friend. You’re still going to be blaming yourself, but now your dear old ex-friend’s ex-girlfriend is going to start blaming herself, too. After driving back home in your white Jeep Cherokee from El Paso International Airport, your dear old ex-friend’s ex-girlfriend is going to say something very similar to what your dear old ex-friend said on the telephone to her 24 weekends ago, which she will have relayed to you in the following manner: “Even though I still love you, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to talk to you or see you or be in your presence ever again.”
You won’t have to respond to this. Not responding will be easy for you, just as it always has been.
And this step will be even easier. Mope around in your robe for a few weeks. Alternate between feeling sorry for yourself, on the one hand, and feeling like you’re “a piece of human garbage”— your words—on the other. Mope, mope, mope. Feel so, so sorry for yourself. Let yourself feel, as strongly as you can, that what’s just happened is entirely your fault. Remind yourself repeatedly that in one fell swoop you lost your dear old friend, one of your life’s closest friends, as well as your girlfriend, a person with whom you felt yourself to be in love. Let yourself feel―pretty much nonstop for three full weeks―that you are the most loathsome person in the history of the world. That will be very easy for you, because you will have been doing it for nearly 25 years. Don’t worry, you won’t even have to leave the house―also very easy for you―except for one time, and only for a moment.
On Thursday, you will reach with your right hand toward your nightstand to grasp a bottle of Valium. You will twist open the cap and retrieve four 5-milligram tablets from within. Hold the bottle in your right hand.
Extend your left arm toward the nightstand and grasp with your left hand the bottle of Jim Beam. When you do this, you need to be sure that you knock the yellow box of Kleenex off the nightstand.
Place the Valium in your mouth. Tilt your head back. Try to drink as much as you can, just as you have every night for the past 20 days. This’ll be a cinch. Now tilt your head back farther until it strikes the headboard. Choke on the bourbon, as you so often have in the past. Remove the bottle from your mouth and spill some on your chest. Reach with your right hand toward the nightstand for a tissue—notice that it’s not there. Stand up from the bed. Look to the floor. There it is, the yellow Kleenex box. And, beside it, a dog bed. But no dog.
Take five steps forward and turn to your left. Now take four steps forward and, with your left hand, slide to the right the burgundy curtains covering the patio door. Grasp the wooden handle on the sliding glass door with your right hand. Open it. Whistle the way your grandfather taught you. Wait.
This is the only part of this step that’s going to be hard, but won’t be as hard as you think. You’re not going to want to do it, but you will. Take two steps forward and stand on the concrete patio—you’re outside, congratulations; you’ve conquered, in your words, your “bullshit agoraphobia”—and whistle once more. Wait three seconds. Once your dog has returned, close the sliding glass door, walk back inside, take four more Valium and drink until you pass out.
On Friday morning, get out of bed and walk into the kitchen. Be sure to notice that you’re about to sit down at the same table your father gave you when he helped you move into your townhouse on Ebony Avenue. Recall that this is the same table you and your dad and your mom and your brother ate at thousands of times when you were a kid. If you want, go ahead and let your eyes tear up.
Once seated, get to work on writing a seven-page handwritten letter to your dear old ex-friend. Detail, at great length, the many, many “bad things” and “not good things”―those are your words, Evan―that you did not do in your life. Be sure to consider including some “bad things” and “not good things” that you actually did, and you’ll find that they’re not going to feel bad enough to warrant inclusion in the letter, so you’re either going to want to leave them out or exaggerate them to the point that they no longer resemble the “bad things” and the “not good things” you actually did do. Feel, as you often do, that it’s very important you portray yourself as the most deplorable and worthless human being who ever lived.
Go ahead and start in on the next letter. Also seven pages, this letter will be addressed to your dear-old ex-friend’s ex-girlfriend. Invent other “bad things” and “not good things” that you didn’t do. Rack your brain for just short of two hours for ways to exaggerate the “bad things” and the “not good things” you actually did.
Remember when, at the age of six, you threw a rock at a bird perched on a lamppost, nicking its wing and watching it flutter before flying away. Remember, at the age of eight, when you slipped a note under your brother’s door that read, I AM GOING TO MURDER YOU. Remember stealing Heather Bingham’s Trapper Keeper in the fifth grade. Remember pretending like you were going to use your car to run over Taylor Rothchild in high school. Remember going to Juarez in college and egging on Robert to go into a brothel. And, finally, remember when the same person to whom you’re addressing the letter falsely accused you of kicking a pigeon at a park in Paris.
When writing the letter, revise your memories to make these “bad things” seem worse, to make them seem like “real bad things.” Go ahead and admit to having intentionally kicked the pigeon. Write about how Robert begged you not to force him to go into the brothel. Write of Taylor that you had “always planned to run him over with [your] car and [you] tried so hard to run him over but he ducked behind a tree near the band room just before the tires would’ve struck his legs and killed him.” Write of Heather’s Trapper Keeper that it contained “her diary and [you] read the whole thing and then made photocopies of it and passed them out to every last student at school.” Suggest that the note you slipped under your brother’s bedroom door resulted in “psychological trauma that he is still struggling with to this day and will, undoubtedly, be struggling with for the rest of his life.” Write of the bird on the lamppost not only that you killed it but that you “climbed up the tree and found its nest filled with beautiful baby birds and [you] wanted to kill all of them too because there’s something wrong in the core of [you] that has made [you] into a terrible person. [You] don’t know what it is, but [you] know it’s not good. Please understand that none of this was your [i.e. your ex-girlfriend’s] fault. [You were] planning to do this way before [you] met [her].”
This one might sound hard, but it won’t be. This will be the easiest step of all.
Stand from the kitchen table. Walk across the blue-gray industrial carpet of the living room. Walk down the hallway to your bedroom and approach the bedroom closet. Recall an afternoon spent with a classmate from graduate school seven months earlier—you gathered twelve cans of Miller Lite without a single bullet hole in them from atop a dead ocotillo—and push the sheets and blankets and sweaters to the left. Grab the black metal case, place it on your bed, unlatch it, and with your right hand grasp the handle of the gun. Stand up. Raise the gun and position its muzzle against your right temple.
While facing the sliding glass door leading to the patio―the curtains of which will be open, remember―you will keep your eyes trained on the overgrown mulberry bush on the patio for two seconds. You’re going to want to pull the trigger right away—please wait. You’ll know where to look because you’ve always told yourself you hate that mulberry bush, even though you don’t. You hate yourself, Evan, not the mulberry bush. That mulberry bush never did anything to you. You don’t even have to look for two seconds. A second and a half will work.
This step will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life.
You just spent four hours writing 14 pages in which you admitted to doing so many “bad things” and “not good things” that you never did. You chose to either not include those “bad things” and “not good things” that you did do, or you exaggerated them beyond recognition because they didn’t feel bad enough to include. Except for one―the one involving your dear old ex-friend and his ex-girlfriend―and even that one you lied about, claiming the whole thing was your fault, which it wasn’t.
Throughout your whole life, you’ve remembered yourself to be a person who has only done “bad things.” You’ve remembered yourself as a terrible son, a terrible grandson, a terrible brother, a terrible nephew, a terrible friend, a terrible student, a terrible writer, a terrible lover. You’ve remembered yourself daily, hourly, endlessly, as someone who fears death more than anything else in the world. You’ve convinced yourself and many others that you’re so afraid to die. The majority of what you will have written by this point in your life will have concerned your fear of death, but, for as long as you can remember, all you’ve ever really wanted to do is to die. And one of the very last things you’re going to think about while you’ve got the gun to your head is that every last time you said or wrote or thought you were afraid to die, you were telling your life’s biggest lie.
You wouldn’t have been able to know this at the time, but you had said, written, or thought that you were afraid to die exactly 10,362 times at this moment in your life. And, although you had never before written it or spoken it to another person until you did in those two letters, you had thought about wishing you were dead exactly 3,010,019 times. So this is it, this is your chance to be the person you really are. Place your finger on the trigger. Close your eyes.
You should have realized something in this moment, but you didn’t. What is the one thing that you could have felt in this moment that was the opposite of what you always wanted to feel, the opposite of the thing that has been so difficult for you to feel, the opposite of the thing you have never had the courage to feel? What is the one thing in your life that you have never been able to admit to yourself since the moment you were born?
This person will be you. You will be standing in your bedroom in the townhouse on Ebony Avenue in Las Cruces, New Mexico. You will be wearing red Adidas shorts that you purchased for $2.99 at the Goodwill on North Main 415 days earlier. You will be wearing a plain navy Fruit of the Loom T-shirt that you pulled from a 4-pack three Christmases earlier after removing its gold wrapping paper and reading a gift tag that had a green wreath on its right side with To: followed by Evan and From: followed by Mom.
Your eyes will be closed. You will be holding a gun to your head. All you would need to do, during those one and a half seconds when your eyes are closed, is think of three words. Pretend, if it helps, that the validity of this three-word sentence has been infinitely considered by an infinite number of beings of infinite intelligence and compassion, all in specific relation to you. You are worthy.
You’ll convince yourself you’re lucky the phone rang. While the ringing itself may have been coincidental, what was not coincidental was the thought that flashed through your mind when you heard it ring. You won’t believe this idea―you wouldn’t have believed it then, and you won’t believe it now―but the idea that you might be worthy of love has always been present in your mind. The ringing of the phone merely alerted you to the possibility of one fine day when you might come to believe it, which you will.
Put the gun down. Turn and walk down the hall to the kitchen. Pick up the phone after the seventh ring. You won’t even have to listen to what your friend’s asking—just say yes. Hang up the phone.
This next step is going to be a breeze. You’re going to have another opportunity to hate yourself to your heart’s content.
You’ll force yourself to feel a pressing need for a “no-strings-attached, fun-filled weekend of fornication,” even if you don’t want to. Draw up a two-step plan. First step: inhabit the dual roles of “townie” and “junkie,” ferrying your friend and his cousin around Las Cruces, El Paso, and, especially, Juarez. Second step: later reveal to your friend’s cousin your “hidden true nature” beneath your “townie/junkie façade” (“literary,” “cosmopolitan”), “catching her unawares,” seducing her “via an element of surprise.” All your own words.
Take them to Mesilla and show them the building in which Billy the Kid was imprisoned. Take them to White Sands and show them the majestic hills of gypsum, how to best wax their sleds. Take them to Juarez and procure for them Oxycontin and Klonopin. During the drive home from Mexico, once your friend has passed out in the Jeep’s backseat, reveal to your friend’s cousin your literary, cosmopolitan, non-townie, non-junkie nature.
Tell her you’ve recently been to Paris—and to Barcelona, where you “visited with several woefully underappreciated poets and novelists.”
Tell her that you “so enjoy traveling to Europe,” especially to Paris and Barcelona, when “accompanied by a person with whom [you] feel desperately in love.”
Tell your friend’s cousin that she “really ought to make it a priority” to have someone take her to Barcelona someday so that she can “revel in the sight of Antoni Gaudi’s as-yet-unfinished Sagrada Familia.”
Tell her you came to learn, after “traipsing about the French countryside,” that Europeans “know naught of fireflies,” and so you’d “taken it upon [yourself] to educate many of them about the phenomenon of flying bugs that glow in the dark, setting North American forests alight in the evenings.” By the time you read these instructions, you’ll know that fireflies’ geographical range includes Europe, despite Tyrone Slothrop’s suggestion to the contrary in Gravity’s Rainbow, a new and unread but deliberately scuffed-up copy of which will be prominently displayed on your Jeep’s dashboard throughout the duration of your friend’s cousin’s visit.
When you arrive at his apartment in Las Cruces, your friend will stagger through the living room with his eyes half-closed and pass out in his bedroom. Your friend’s cousin will lead you to the sofa in the living room—her eyes will be trained on yours the whole time. You will now feel that the doors leading to “no-strings-attached fun-filled weekend fornication” have swung wide open. You will watch the entirety of Weekend at Bernie’s with your friend’s cousin seated beside you, “sharing nary a kiss.” Next, you will watch the entirety of Weekend at Bernie’s II, “sharing nary a holding of hands.” When the sequel’s credits start to roll, note the light reflecting from your friend’s cousin’s downcast eyes. Stand from the couch and offer her your hand. Say this: “It’s been great hanging out with you. I really wish I could stay, but, you know, I should probably go feed my dog.” Leave your friend’s apartment and drive home to your townhouse on Ebony Avenue, where you will begin berating yourself over your “failure at being a man.”
As you lay in bed that night, attempt and fail to recall a single instance in your life when you’ve mustered the courage to “make your proverbial move.” Reflect at great length on the fact that you’re “extremely adept, perhaps even genius,” at escalating sexual tension just up to the edge of “the event horizon,” and then reflect, at even greater length, on the fact that you “can never seem to make that last little leap into the black hole of physical intimacy.”
Think about that last little leap. Think about it hard. Hate yourself just as hard as you possibly can.
Imagine that you’re inside one of Zeno’s paradoxes. Cower under your sheets and blankets, recalling all those instances in your life when, no matter how close you got to holding hands with the person you wanted to hold hands with, it felt like you always still had half your former distance left to go. Think repeatedly about what a coward, what a “wimp,” what a “pissant,” what a “chicken shit,” what a “wuss,” what a “bitch”―you will think using language like this, and this will be a “good thing,” because it’s going to help you out later, when, one fine day, you’re finally able to remember all of this in the right way―what a “little bitch,” what a “bitch-ass,” what a “bitch-mop,” what a “massive vagina,” what a “Vagina McVaginastein” you are.
Remind yourself that you’ve “fucked a number of chicks” in your life―“perhaps not a large number,” think, but still a “formidable single-digit integer”―and then remind yourself that in every last case, after you’d spent days or weeks or months charting a course toward physical intimacy, your “horny and exasperated partner has always had to carry [you]―stalled out, unresponsive, dead on [your] feet―over the finish line.” Just as it was with your friend’s cousin on the sofa, “the patent eagerness or horniness with which anyone desires [you] seems to play no role whatsoever in [your] ability to make [your] proverbial move.” You must remind yourself repeatedly over the course of this week that your friend’s cousin could have “stripped down to her skivvies” and started “diddling herself right then and there” and you still would have continued sitting on the sofa with your arms folded as “Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman struggled to manipulate Bernie’s corpse.” Had she merely touched you, reflect, had she simply reached over to grip your hand in hers, had she only leaned over and pressed her lips against yours, then everything would have been “hunky-dory.” You and your friend’s cousin would’ve “fucked [your] brains out on that filthy couch.” “Why didn’t you just lean over and kiss me?” ask yourself, over and over again that week. Reflect, over and over again, “Because everything would have been hunky-dory then.” “And why,” ask yourself repeatedly, “didn’t you just lean over and kiss her yourself, you fucking pussy?” Shut your eyes tightly dozens and dozens of times over the course of that week, and then shake your head back and forth really fast, trying to “shake shame from your brain as a dog does water from its hair.”
On Friday, when the phone rings, and one of your very closest friends tells you that she has a friend coming into town for a visit and asks if you’re available to ferry her and her friend around Las Cruces, El Paso, and, especially, Juarez, this upcoming weekend, you’re going to find yourself feeling a little peeved that none of your friends seem to have cars of their own. But, Evan, that’s not true— it’s just that your Jeep Cherokee has more legroom than their cars do. Say yes and hang up the phone.
On Saturday afternoon, drive to your friend’s house, park your Jeep on the street, open the door, get out, walk up the flagstone path to your friend’s patio. Do it slowly, reflectively. Remain anxious and negative, thinking about the past, while feeling very slightly positive, letting go of just a few of those self-loathing thoughts you spent all week thinking.
Approach the patio. Look at your friend seated on her rocking chair with a margarita resting on the lip of “her ugly purple planter thing.” Tentatively wave hello.
Now look beyond your friend, to the patio door and its cat-proof screening. Squint. Place your right hand at your brow. Train your eyes on the cat-proof screening. See the vague form of a human being on the other side of the screen, standing with her weight on her left leg and two fingers pressed against her lips. Stop walking. Stand on the flagstone and gaze as the vague figure beyond the cat-proof screening looks up. Gaze as she sees you looking.
The door will now swing open. A person will emerge onto the patio into the sunlight. You will see her face, and you will feel astonished―but you will not let yourself feel too astonished. Place one foot in front of the other. Shuffle forward. Crawl if you have to. Do whatever you have to do. Just gain that patio.
Bungle your introduction. Speak in hushed tones. You will feel embarrassed by the white cowboy hat covering your “shitty-ass haircut,” as well as the “puke-green leather jacket” covering your “beanpole figure.” But these will all be “good things.” This same person will later tell you that she “loved it.” She will tell you that she “loved all of it.”
You’ll have no need to beat yourself up this time about “not making your proverbial move,” about “not being a man.” But you will. You didn’t need to. Because this human being—whose name will be the same as that of the woman who will later agree to marry you—is the one and only human being you will meet in your life who will understand your feelings of unworthiness, who will be able to show you that you didn’t have the slightest clue about what the word “man”—as well as those scare quotes around the word—actually means.
Stop crying. Listen. You’re going to remember this—a lot depends on it. One fine day, you’ll understand why.
“There, there, little Evan, there, there. You are unworthy of love.”
Those are your words.
EVAN LAVENDER-SMITH is the author of two books, From Old Notebooks and Avatar. His writing has recently appeared in The Sun, The Southern Review, New England Review, The White Review, New York Tyrant, Egress, BOMB, and other magazines. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, and teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech. Visit him at www.el-s.net.