The zzzzzz’s above Neel’s head were real. A speech balloon, liquidly translucent with foot-high gray letters in Helsinki font, wavered over him as he slept, the balloon’s tail extending from the depths of his gaping mouth. It breezed out of my grasp like wind-swept tissue paper, floating out and in, settling once again into cloudy rest above us.
Not a dream. I’d smoked the night before, but just a joint of schwag more headache- than high-inducing. Already ten and plenty of light slinked in behind the blinds. No special effects here.
A speech balloon in real life. Not as shocking as you’d expect, because of the just-awakened sense of unreality, or the constant braiding together of life and work that had me creating speech bubbles twelve hours a day, the shape and function of which were now burned into my mind like a ghost image etched onto an always-running computer monitor.
Neel and I were at the stage where we didn’t wake up together anymore, no ritualistic coffee preparation, no trading of newspaper sections, so I left him to his balloon, the zzzzzz’s now shrinking as he began to stir, and padded to the kitchen alone. My supplies lay scattered lewdly over the table, broken lead and eraser nubs covering the bristol board, a few uncapped markers dying in the sun. I’d spent over two years on my semi-autobio-graphical novel (as in, a graphic novel loosely based on my life; yes, this designation confused everyone else) The Crazening., and after another rousing round of rejections I’d decided to completely rework it. This meant starting from scratch with the storyline, the layout, the sketches, everything.
Basically, I’d made my character straight, which, granted, probably crossed the line from semi-autobiographical to total bullshit. “Not cross the line, shred it, shred it into carroty little pieces, then take those pieces and eat them and shit them out,” Neel said when I had tried to justify my changes. He was particularly unhappy because I’d made his character female: Neela. “Bad enough I got all these aunties and uncles and cousins in Edison who call me a girl and buy me bangles for my birthday, now I’m going to be immortalized in your dumbass thing as one too?”
Hard to explain, I know, but all the responses from publishers said that the gay market was oversaturated now that Fun Home blew up and the love-between-different-cultures thing wasn’t original enough to compensate. Which pissed me off, because it wasn’t meant to be just a gay story, or a cultural conflict story; it was about the inexorable loss of youth and the sacrifices we must make when we get to certain stages of our lives and…other stuff. I only half-understood what I was talking about anymore, so turned around by the critiques from agents and friends and editors and by my own niggling sense of self-doubt. So I’d made him a her, made me straight, and added a subplot about a tourettic drug dealer.
I jumped at Neel’s voice behind me. His speech bubble was more opaque, a richer white now that his words had life. “Working on my sex-change?” It hung there, a two-foot tall rectangle with rounded edges. Once he saw I wasn’t responding, it began to slowly fade out, dissipating into the background until his silence left the area above him naked.
“Didn’t see that, did you?” No speech balloon from me. Nothing. Was I the omniscient narrator, my text to appear in yellowed boxes hugging the periphery of the action, visible only to those observing from some far-removed vantage point?
“What?” he asked, and I pointed to the bubble that coalesced above his head, its single word puffed out in order to fill the space. He glanced up, then behind, then called me an asshole as he brushed past me, the word pulled behind him like a skier from a boat, “Asshole” whooshing across my face. As if I needed a reminder.
So. Only I could see it. I accepted this with a calm fatalism normally antithetical to my nature. But the whole process of the graphic novel’s constant rejection and the shitstorm that’d been brewing between us since Easter had imbued in me the acceptance that I was, in fact, worthless, and probably a little unhinged. Not in a suicidal, damaging way, but more literally, and at the same time more figuratively, like I was a shut door that didn’t have any hinges and so sat cocked awkwardly in a doorway, taking up space, little cracks of light breaking through from behind, waiting for the slightest touch to knock it down.
Neel dumped out the half-pot of coffee I’d brewed. His blend was darker, bolder, and we’d learned to stop arguing and accept the waste. “Still calling it The Crazening, right?” His words stacked upon each other to the top of the kitchen.
“Not The Crazening, it’s The Crazening., with a period.”
“I know. You point out that goddamned period every day.” He looked down at the drawings scattered over the table, and I could see his pedant’s inquisitiveness fight against his time-encrusted apathy. “Don’t titles exist by themselves, in their own universe, not needing punctuation because there’s no beginning, no end?” It was like this now. We challenged each other, a constant back-and-forth for intellectual primacy. “Isn’t the process of naming an act, not a phrase or statement that would require a distinct ending as provided by a period?” His initial balloon had spawned outward, each sentence creating a new tumorous bubble rising from the previous one, the whole mass so big it blocked his face. When it cleared he stood as before, waiting for his coffee, waiting for an answer.
“I think I’m making a commentary on the fact that everything we do has a beginning and an end, even the act of naming. We name something, it exists. But not forever. A beginning and an end. A capitalization and a period.”
He scoffed, and it came out “Kkkssh.” I filed the spelling away, planning to give it to Neela during one of her arguments with my character in The Crazening.
I hadn’t left the apartment in days, weeks. Didn’t need to. My world had been reduced to my dining room workspace, the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. Neel taught evening courses at the community college but had started leaving home in the morning. Things between us were crumbling glacially, fissures deepening, bonds melting perhaps because of external changes in pressure or heat or perhaps because it was just a natural process, a part of the cycle, until a slight creak, a tiny weight no bigger than an insect landed on the wrong spot, and then BOOM a huge chunk broke off and tumbled into the abyss.
The biggest chunk so far had fallen off on Easter, which had been a weird holiday on which to get in a fight, as I hadn’t celebrated it since the early eighties and Neel’s family never had. We thought it’d be fun to hide easter eggs. He was grossed out at the prospect of dying real eggs—too ovarian, dipping white eggs in red dye—so we’d gotten the cheap plastic ones, then filled them with little gifts and hid them Easter morning.
Turns out, I’m fucking terrible at hiding. Neel found his eggs within two minutes (“The toothbrush holder, really? Couldn’t bother to put it out of plain sight?”) and I quit in frustration after three hours, him smirking and doing the goddamn “Warm, warmer, hot, boiling!” thing long after I’d stopped searching. Who would think to look in a zipped-up couch cushion cover? And our efforts for the eggy gifts were clearly mismatched, as Neel pointed out while we prepared the Tofurkey roast, the rabbit ears on his festive headband flopping back and forth as he spoke. “Love notes? I get you cologne, astro-glide, mini-bottles of Jack, and you get me love notes and a dollar bill? Am I twelve?”
We descended first into playful barbs and then outright hostility as we got drunk on rosé and ignored the cooking preparations. He’d thrown the rabbit ears at me after I’d made a half-assed joke about his limp asparagus, so I’d attached them to the rubbery-looking roast when I presented it. Neel said it looked like a fuzzy turd and that he’d rather try meat, and from there we staggered into a sloppy, pointless argument. It was during the course of this that I’d let slip about the possible changes to my graphic novel, specifically his character’s eunuchization. He’d grown sullen after that, called me a spineless hack, and took the rest of the wine with him to our room, where he locked himself in.
It was a lot of things, and it was a lot of things before Easter, but that was the shift. A huge chunk of the glacier broke off, bobbing on the frigid arctic surf before slipping out of sight. That night, while he locked himself in his room and laughed overloud on the phone, I started the new draft of The Crazening.
The first scene I drew took place on Easter, during which Neela gets mad at my character for putting rabbit ears on the Tofurkey roast and storms out, her speech balloon jutting into the last panel from the righthand side.
The word inside was “Hack.”
Neel shouted Kurt’s name in greeting when he opened the door and it came out as a jaggedy-edged balloon with five exclamation points, sickening in its unbridled excitement. Hadn’t seen one of the those bubbles from him before. When he spoke to me now it was in an impassive half-whisper, the balloon sinking out of his mouth as though leaded.
Kurt was an English instructor at Neel’s school. They shared a cramped faculty office and, more disconcertingly, had begun carpooling. Kurt had also recently gotten a novel picked up by Soft Skull Press, which so pierced me with resentment and fear that I’d cleared all evidence of The Crazening. off the table when he stopped by to pick up Neel on the way to a faculty workshop.
He had bulky squared-off shoulders and a retro spiky flattop I couldn’t tell if he wore ironically or not. A military officer, not a novelist. But then I shouldn’t have been so surprised when he spoke and it came out bolded: “Nice to meet you, buddy.” His balloon burst towards my face aggressively, the words in blocky, ugly uniformity to go along with his ugly Men’s Wearhouse sale piece. We exchanged pleasantries and I congratulated him on his book, and as they were about to leave he looked over my shoulder to the table where my work would’ve been, had I not hidden it. “I hear that The Crazening., period,” sly smile towards Neel, “is going to be quite the blockbuster.” I mumbled something about reworking it and tried to shuffle them towards the door. “When Neel first told me I thought maybe you were trying to get a sponsorship from Ocean Spray. You know, Craisins? ‘The Craisining?’”
Considering the severity and desperation with which I’d thrown myself into my work, I should’ve said something to defend it from his lame puns. Or at least made a cutting remark about his hair or the increasing irrelevance of the novel. But because I am a pussy, and because Kurt intimidated me, I laughed and told him maybe corporate sponsorship was the only way I would see the thing published.
“Do you want to come meet us after?” he asked gamely, meaning it, though Neel gritted his teeth. And I hated him more for this, Kurt, this gameness, he wasn’t threatened, maybe he was in a relationship, maybe he didn’t even want Neel, maybe he wasn’t even gay, but I wasn’t a factor regardless and therefore could be given a pity invitation.
No way I was going, but I had to put up a good front. I asked what they had planned.
They said “Margaritas!” at the same time, and the tails from their mouths curled up over their heads to a shared doubly-bright balloon. I hurled a pen, hoping to pop the balloon and send its gory remnants down upon their shit-eating grins, but it phased right through and bounced off the back wall, nearly hitting Kurt on the rebound.
A week later, I finished the newest draft of The Crazening. Feeling self-congratulatory, I got stumbly drunk at The Cactus, and Neel came home to me passed out in my underwear on our bed, an ice bucket with a bottle of cheap champagne on the pillow next to me. The condensation and melting ice had spilled over the sheets, leaving a puddle over Neel’s side.
He stuck an ice cube down my underwear, his bubble hovering over my head when I jolted awake. “How’s that for blue balls?”
I yelped and stripped off my boxers, jerking through a ridiculous breakdance to clear the ice. Once dislodged from my genitals, it plopped between us. I stood, naked, and pointed at it. “Well?”
He shrugged. The tail of a bubble sprouted as he opened his mouth, but then snapped back when he shut it without speaking.
“Maybe like old times, you know? We keep forgetting what we’re capable of together.” It was a last-ditch effort at reconciliation, and a weak one at that, but I was sad and horny and somewhere underneath all the layers of guilt and hurt and indifference was a desire for him, a real one.
“You’ve forgotten. I’ve been here the whole time.” Hadn’t noticed until that point, but I could no longer hear his voice. It was just the balloons, filling up the quiet space between us, him mouthing things like a silent movie star.
This was becoming significant; I could feel the air thickening in the room. I had to make him stay. “At least…here.” I popped the champagne and the cork hit him in the neck, a huge burst of foam spilling over me. I dropped the bottle in surprise, a soft thud and then a quiet gushing as the rest of the champagne bled onto the floor.
He held his neck as though putting pressure on a gaping wound. “Fucking worthless.” Kicked at the bottle. “Wasn’t even the good stuff.”
I tried to hold my laughter but couldn’t, just a goddamned champagne cork, and he had a muppety frown and kept checking the hand that held his neck, looking for blood. At one time he would’ve laughed at this. We would’ve laughed together.
Or maybe we wouldn’t have. Maybe Neela would, not him, and I was confusing the comic with my real life. But which was which, now?
He turned to go. “Is it because of Kurt?” Knew it was stupid when I said it. But I had to say something, couldn’t let him slink out now without flashing the blade, without showing him that I could hurt, too, could hurt him and be hurt myself.
I’d used an interrobang in my comic, which is how I knew what it was called, but had never seen it articulated in real life, so when the speech balloon over his head read only “‽” I knew I’d struck a nerve and that I wouldn’t be getting any ass that night, or any other.
He gathered his coat and sighed as he looked me over. Then, not bothering to criticize, not caring anymore, he turned to walk out. “Go ahead. Run.” Nothing. I had the blade unsheathed. Had to use it. “Run away, Neela.” He paused and said something, but the balloon shot out of frame behind the door. Then he turned off the lights and I heard him leave, not a slam from the front door but instead a sickening, barely audible ‘click’.
I woke later to take a piss and something stuck to my heel when I stepped onto the floor. I peeled off a piece of paper, but couldn’t make it out until I reached the hall, where ambient light from the kitchen showed the carpet littered with shreds leading from my room into the kitchen. There, Neel was busy tearing up the storyboards for The Crazening. into their individual squared-off panels, each one a unique miniature composition existing solipsistically out of context from the rest, an impressive display of precision with no scissors, just fingers and whatever drug and unplucked emotions were fueling him.
The panel in my hand was of my character sitting alone at a bar. He gazes out at the reader with an apathetic slack, a beer gripped in one hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips. A speech balloon angles in from outside the frame—“Coulda been worse, eh pal?”—settling close to his face.
Neel didn’t stop when I approached behind him and set the single drawing on the table. “Parents were right, should’ve been a surgeon with those hands.” He ignored me and continued ripping, letting each panel drop to the floor behind him. “Coulda been worse, eh pal?” I asked his back.
“No. This is the worst. This is our hell.” The bubble was weak, nearly translucent, the lettering inside so faded as to be illegible, like print from a copier run out of toner. He now held the last storyboard, the final panels showing my character and Neela embracing while standing on a building’s front stoop, a blocky cityscape behind them illuminated by a pockmarked moon. Still wasn’t satisfied with the ending, but my previous drafts has been too dark and I had to make some concessions to commerciality, so now the lovers reunited and the world was right and everybody lived happily fucking after.
“Neel.” A hand on his shoulder, which was rigid, coursing with a barely-contained fire. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? “Please don’t do this.”
He finally looked at me. Dark eyes red-rimmed with drink and fatigue and that fire. “T o uck ng lat f r d ng,” he said, the few letters I could see now floating off at divergent angles towards the walls, ceiling, floor, ignoring the confines of the rapidly-fading balloon altogether, and why wouldn’t they, what did the balloon have, what did anything have to keep them confined?
“Please.” I grabbed at the air above his head, trying to catch the letters, knowing I couldn’t, knowing but trying anyway. “Please.”
he responded, and ripped the last board in half.
Andy Bailey is an English teacher in Los Angeles, and has work published or forthcoming in Stymie, Underground Voices, and Fast Forward Anthology, among others.