Bad Survivalist: Jason Hardung
Up in the corner, above my bed, a spider floats in the air. I’ve been watching it for an hour now. It must be magic, the way it hovers like that. Like everything else it’s reminding me of Krista. The first day she arrived in the Amazon she emailed me a video of a huge spider she found in her hut. It had to be at least the size of her face, and in the video you could hear its long hairy legs ticking up the wall. This was when she still cared enough to send videos—before she fasted, before praying to the plant gods, before she was under the guidance of an authentic shaman, who at twenty-four years old and for the low, low price of two grand shared his ancient wisdom with her. And this was definitely before she partook in the hallucinogenic ceremony to encounter the divine and before I was purged from her soul with the rest of her bad habits like I was gluten or menthol cigarettes.
A draft comes through the open window, swinging the spider above me in such a way that the light illuminates the web that its attached to. “The magic is gone,” I say to Jim.
The thing is, rejection is affecting my body the same way disease would. I can’t sleep, haven’t been able to for two, maybe three days now. A lot of times I’ll drift off, but as soon as I do I’m falling, and I’m dropping so quickly that my circulatory system knots up in my throat, a ball of tangled wires blocking my scream for help and all of my past fuck-ups, my regrets, are just flying by and I’m reaching out for anything to stop my fall, and the bottom, I can see it, it’s coming fast, but right before I hit, I wake up, out of breath—a jack rabbit kicking my god-damned heart against my ribs. It’s exhausting.
I roll over onto my side.
Early in our relationship me and Krista found a dead cat while walking back to her place from the grocery store. The foothills were burning, the air was full of smoke. The destruction turned the sky a vivid pink, tailing into a bright orange. It was so beautiful. We were holding hands when Krista said, “Is that a cat?” It was swaddled in a towel like a baby, only it’s head exposed, lying there on the edge of someone’s lawn.
I picked the cat up and held it in my arms. Half of its body had already turned stiff, still, it weighed almost nothing. Its eyes were wide open, I kissed the soft white fur between them. That’s when I saw a note pinned to the towel. It read, I’m so sorry. I ran over your cat. I didn’t see him. So, so sorry. No phone number or name, nothing. My insides ached for that cat, but Krista didn’t scream, or cry, or cover her eyes like most girls would have. It didn’t seem to bother her. I worried she was the type of woman to weep while nobody is watching.
The clock is stuck at 5:06 a.m. I’m smoking cigarette after cigarette, each one taking seven minutes off my life and I wish I could redeem those minutes in now just to get some sleep. My anxiety won’t let me not think. My anxiety has four rows of teeth. My anxiety is a parasite that feeds on the good parts of me, then shits them out while still inside of me, making the good parts of me mostly shit.
My hip bones ache from lying here. I flip from my side to my back, to my other side. The bed bangs into the wall, waking Jim, he looks up at me with gold-green eyes and squints. He’s an old Maine Coon. The lady I got him from waited until I fell in love with him to mention he was eighteen years old and oh yeah, he has cancer too. She couldn’t remember what kind of cancer, doesn’t matter though, cancer is cancer and once something gets cancer the hot tongue of the disease seers the insides of that something and eventually that something loses weight and once that something loses weight the undoing becomes visible, the disease takes a tangible form. Jim’s long hair disguises his disease, until you pet him, then his ribs protrude under your fingers like xylophone keys.
My dad has cancer too. He lives across town and I always make up some excuse not to go see him. It’s not that I don’t love him, it’s that most of the time I’m not able to love myself. I don’t want my parasites to leech off of his weakened immune system. Understandably, he’s in a bad mood most of the time and if I’m in close proximity he takes it out on me. It’s been that way since before the cancer—since I was nothing but a moppy-headed kid—the cancer just brings on more bad moods. On the phone I can hear something choking the life out of him, but from the inside. He speaks hushed and horse and I have to say, “what?” so many times I get annoyed with him even though I know it’s not his fault.
While Krista was changing her spiritual DNA with ayahuasca down in the jungles of Peru, I was at home smoking cigarettes, petting Jim, trying not to think of my dad, but it would all be okay because she’d be home at the end of the month, she was beautiful and warm and she liked to sleep in the crook of my arm and I felt needed and wanted and loved. We often talked of our future together before she left, but now that I think about it (over and over), I guess it was mostly me talking about that, she just nodded her head sometimes.
Anyway, I knew she was back home. I waited for her to get a hold of me, but after a week I couldn’t wait anymore and I hit her up. We agreed to meet up that evening to talk.
Terrible art hung on the walls of the coffee shop. She ordered tea, dunked a silver ball into hot water. She wore a white tank-top, her face had been kissed by the sun. “So what did you want to talk about?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen you in a month. I thought you’d get a hold of me when you got back. How’s things?” I said.
“I planned on calling you. I just had to adjust to being around people again. I was isolated in the jungle for a month. Just me and my shaman,” she said and then we talked about the jungle and the spiders in the jungle, the weather in the jungle and the weather here while she was in the jungle. She ate piranha. Her shaman said she was a natural born healer, of course he did. My dad went through chemo. Jim’s still hanging on. Who’s Jim? My cat, remember? Sucks summer is almost over. I know, sucks summer is almost over, it went so fast. I know huh.
There was a pause in the conversation, she turned her head towards the art on the wall and I studied the side of her face. She took a breath and then gave me something deeper. “I really don’t want anything romantic right now. I’ve been in one serious relationship after another since high school. The longest I’ve been single is probably four months in the past ten years. I’m finally ready to work on myself, learn to be content with my own company. This new journey, I have to go alone.”
She used this word, “journey” all the time, as if she was going to walk the countryside conquering mystical beings with a staff of lightning. Nevertheless, I admired her and her journey. She was passionate, she took the initiative to try and change her life. I just bitch about things and hope they change.
“I understand. It’s just, you said it yourself … we had all these plans.”
She picked up her tea, held it with both hands, spoke into her cup. “I’m not going to be intimate with anybody for a long time. My shaman said that when you have sex with a person, their spirit stays inside you for seven years.”
“They say that about gum too. Just don’t swallow and you’ll be fine,” I said.
“Be serious. Everything is a joke to you.”
“I am being serious. You don’t think my sex ghost is good enough for you. It’s already in there from before you left. So what’s the big deal?”
“It’s not about being good enough,” she said. “You’ll never understand.”
The next morning I drove my dad to his radiation treatment because my brother wasn’t able to. On the ride there he sat with his chin tucked into his chest. He looked twenty years older than the last time I saw him. Like usual, I mentally prepared to be his metaphysical punching bag. He didn’t complain, or really say anything though, which worried me. When we got to the oncologist office they brought out this plastic, mesh mask. It had been molded to fit dad’s face perfectly. They had him lie back on a table, put the mask over his face and bolted the mask down with his head in it to the table so he wasn’t able to move. Then a lady behind a computer controlled a robot that whirred around dad’s face zapping the pink inside of his throat with radiation. Witnessing the man you once looked up to as the strongest, become smaller and weaker than yourself, your own existence becomes an albatross weighing heavily around your neck—the things you aren’t capable of, the things you can’t do for him, the things you can’t change—he’s done so much for you, you feel so worthless. It’s all so depressing. After years of becoming who we are—the things we’ve learned and worked for, the way we dress, the words we like to use, our ideas and beliefs, our favorite colors and foods, our emotional baggage—none of it matters. Cancer doesn’t care if you’ve been a good person or not, it’s not Santa Claus.
They finished up on dad and we walked out to the car. In the sun I could almost see through his skin, it was so pale and gray. We got in, he sat there in silence again and I didn’t know what to say. On the drive home I punched the gas so that the speed jerked him back into the seat. He called me a dumb motherfucker and his voice was raspy from being burned by a nuclear ray-gun. Dumb motherfucker—it was nice to hear, like I was a kid again, it’s what I wanted, classic dad.
I’m thinking maybe a walk will tire me out, so I get out of bed, get dressed. Jim yawns, covers his head with his paw and falls back asleep. I shuffle through the dark house and head out. Outside it’s still dark but birds are already chirping up in the branches. The moon isn’t full but a sliver, it floats there while a cricket makes a cricket noise from a crevice somewhere. The air smells violet, and for a moment the world feels fresh, and I’m sauntering down the street like a stuffed bear in a laundry detergent commercial. I light a cigarette, inhale and the good feeling passes. I stop walking like a stuffed bear and start slouching again.
Krista gets up at six to work the breakfast shift at a vegetarian café. When I would stay the night at her house, in the morning I’d pretend to be asleep to catch one last glimpse of her naked body as she hurried through piles of clothes for her uniform. She was a champion swimmer in college, her wingspan was still wide and muscular, her legs long and tan. When she was finally dressed she’d nudge me awake. “Time to go,” she’d whisper into my ear. Then we’d kiss goodbye in her front yard, I’d apologize for my breath and she’d lay her head on my shoulder and say, “Ugh, I don’t want to go to work. I want to stay in bed with you.” And I’d say, “God, that sounds perfect, let’s do it.” Then I’d rub the sleep from the corner of her eye with my thumb, smearing the mascara from the night before. She’d make a sad face, climb into her Volvo and drive off late for work and I’d walk the five blocks home.
Acceptance is a drug that masks the symptoms. I’m naturally lonely.
I’m walking, I flick my cigarette butt in the gutter. There’s this house I like and when I get there I stop in front of it. There’s a white picket fence and behind the fence is a plastic pond with a miniature waterfall falling into it. The bubbling water reminds me of my Sound Spa Sound Machine Sleep Helper with Nine High Quality Nature Settings, which reminds me of a real river, which reminds me of Michelle, my first love. How we always found our way back to each other and how we both thought that’s how relationships worked: fight, break-up, show undying love in letters and phone calls, get back together, repeat. One of us constantly on the verge of dumping the other, weaponizing love like international arms dealers. That’s how both of our parents did it, before they divorced. It was all normal to us.
I’d known Michelle since I was fifteen years old. Both of us lived with our dads while our moms gave up custody to be with other men in other places. I’d sneak through Michelle’s basement window at night while her dad was asleep upstairs on the couch and I’d leave as the sun came up. She took my virginity down there when I was seventeen and once when I was twenty-two her dad came down the stairs while I was eating her out. Her thighs were clamped down on my ears, all I heard was the ocean. I looked up and that’s when I accidently made eye-contact with him. He didn’t say anything though. He just turned around and walked back up the stairs. I didn’t tell Michelle what happened until I finished. And her dad was too embarrassed to ever mention it. He hated me in silence.
Michelle and I drifted apart in our mid-twenties, mainly because she had a habit of cheating on me with my friends, and I moved away a couple of times, and oh, she got married, twice, but we always kept in touch no matter what city we ended up in or who we were with.
A few months ago Michelle was fishing up in Wyoming. She slipped on a wet rock, hit the back of her head and fell into the rushing water, the river took her away, her bruised and bloated body was found days later, two miles downstream, snagged on a fallen tree. She called me many times in the days before she drowned. I felt we had nothing in common anymore, and I may have had a bunch of resentments, so I never answered and now I’m like an open wound, because I hear this water bubbling and I can smell her Sunflower perfume like I just snuck in her window and I’m seventeen and hope has me swollen and vulnerable again. I’m wondering what she wanted to tell me those times she called and I wonder if I could’ve intervened, wonder if my voice could’ve changed the trajectory of her movements so she never got that close to the river and instead she stayed home that day and never died.
Three days after meeting Krista at the coffee shop and her telling me she wanted to be alone, I was out in front of my house smoking and I remember the sun was shining in my eyes because out of the sun came this shadow of a girl pedaling a bike. It was her, riding her little green Schwinn up into my driveway. It’s like she rode right out of my head, into the driveway, like I had summoned her with the power of this “universe” that she talked so much about. She was a character in my journey now. Or was this a Venn diagram of our journeys and my driveway was the center? She stopped in front of me and kind of smiled. She had never shown up unannounced before, it was such a beautiful surprise. She was there to get her love for me off of her chest and I was ready to accept it. But then I noticed someone else, on a bike, coming up behind her. I could tell it was a guy and when he pedaled out of the sun’s rays I was able to recognize him. It was David, one of my roommates. Weird, I thought, that they rolled up at the same time like that. They didn’t know each other because there were so many nights I sat out front smoking cigarettes with David, gushing about Krista like I was the luckiest guy in the world and if David played his cards right, someday he could also find the type of down-ass-chick that I had found. He never mentioned that he knew her. I even showed him pictures of her. One time I felt so good I said, “she might be the one,” and I really believed it. And I remember David saying, “you’ve got a keeper man. I hope to find a girl like that someday.”
David parked his bike, got off and said, “I’ll be right back. I need to change into my swim trunks,” then he ran inside.
Swimming? I didn’t know we had plans to go swimming David. But I can’t go swimming, my girl just showed up which made my heart grow three sizes and she probably wants to get back together so I’m going to hang out with her.
“Okay,” Krista said real silent to David saying he was going to get his swim trunks, but I heard it anyway. My face got hot and things got blurry, my legs were two pieces of yarn. Don’t jump to conclusions, I told myself, but then another part of myself told me to trust your instinct, you’re usually right about this type of stuff.
There were so many questions I wanted to ask. I wasn’t sure how to start without looking desperate, and technically Krista and me weren’t a thing anymore. She didn’t want an intimate relationship, she wanted time alone to help find herself. David came back out, wearing cut-off jeans and carrying a towel.
“How do you two know each other?” I asked.
They hesitated, glanced at each other. “We met the other night at a mutual friend’s house,” Krista said.
I’ve asked you to spend time with me every day since you’ve been back and you always say you need to be alone, that you need to learn to love yourself remember? Just seems strange that you meet my roommate, the same guy I spilled my guts to every night and you two randomly become buddy, buddy, is what I wanted to say, but I didn’t say any of it. God, I wanted to say it all.
David spoke, “I didn’t know she was the same girl bro.”
I turned towards David, “And when you guys were riding up she didn’t happen to say ‘hey, I’ve been to this house before. My ex lives here.’ Were you hoping I wasn’t home? Have you brought her here before?”
“We are just riding bikes, going swimming at the pond,” she said, then David said, “You ready?” and they rode off just like that.
That night David never came back to sleep in his own bed. I waited until after four a.m., then I walked over to Krista’s with my mind and my heart just racing and I wished a motherfucker would, because I was ready for violence if it came to that. When I got there Krista’s bedroom light was off. I looked into her backyard, and there it was, David’s bike, hidden under a bush and all of the organs inside me jelly-fished—transparent and throbbing between my bones. I felt so betrayed. I felt like it was a master plan to make me hate myself even more. I raced home, threw myself face down on the bed. Jim crawled on my back and purred.
So here I am two weeks later or whatever and my insides still feel like marine life and I’m listening to the waterfall in this person’s yard, getting mixed up in memories and night is turning to day. Someone inside wakes up and turns on a light, then another light. Their shadow walks to the window and parts the curtains. They are watching me now, probably thinking of calling the cops. I wouldn’t blame them if they did. I’m just a strange man standing, listening to a river that isn’t here, waiting for things to change.
Jason Hardung’s work has appeared in many journals and magazines including: Cimarron Review, 3AM, Monkeybicycle, Bull Men’s Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, Entropy, The Common, Metazen, and Word Riot. He has published two books of poetry, on Epic Rites Press and Lummox Press. In 2013 he was named Poet Laureate of Fort Collins. He teaches the therapeutic value of writing in juvenile detention facilities, jails, and rehabs in Colorado, based on his own struggles with the justice system, drug addiction and mental illness.