Half-Life of the Elements

Fiction by Nick Caccamo

Descriptive image of sparkler burned halfway down.

There was no one outside on the hottest day of the year. Me and Julian were driving around Las Cruces in a rusted-out 92 Camaro. It was well over 100 degrees outside and we had the streets to ourselves. We stopped at some derelict liquor store on the edge of town where the desert begins to choke the life out of the landscape. I went inside and picked up a six pack of cheap Mexican lager and left without paying. The store owner cursed at me in Spanish as I ran out the door. He picked up a shotgun and chased me outside. I don’t know whether the shotgun was loaded or whether the owner intended to use it or if it was all just for show, but I felt confident he wouldn’t shoot me over a six pack. Despite my confidence, I dove into the open passenger side door, the bottles clanging together in the six pack, and we peeled out of the lot, tires kicking up a cartoonishly large cloud of dust. I could no longer see the man with the shotgun but we ducked anyway. After a minute, I decided we were safe, pulled out my keychain bottle opener, and popped open two warm beers for me and Julian to drink as we drove down the highway in in the bright burning light of the desert sun, sweaty and strung out, heading for the border.

Julian took pictures out of the car’s windows along desolate country roads, focusing on what seemed like nothing. The scenery looked like the type of place you only see on the news when a dead body is found in the middle of nowhere—just the stark bleak nothingness of the desert, pierced with jagged rock outcrops and separated occasionally by dilapidated barbed wire fences held together by rotting wood. I asked Julian what he was taking pictures of and he always answered with, “Just look out the window and you’ll see” but I could never see anything of importance and didn’t know how to respond to him. He was the artistic type, finding hidden beauty even where the barren desert scrub had strangled the verdancy of the manicured lawns we were escaping. Julian had just finished his second year of art school. I changed oil and rotated tires at the local Jiffy Lube for minimum wage without steady hours week to week. Julian had gotten his hair cut just before we left town. It was a little short for my liking, but I decided not to tell him that.

We kept unusual hours, with me usually sleeping through long stretches of daylight and stifling heat. It seemed to always be sunny and the ubiquitous and pervasive brightness was depressing. The permanent daylight made everything seem homogeneous and bleached.

The seats in the back were folded down to make room for our belongings, which were not impressive; a few old gym bags of clothes in various states of cleanliness, a box of used books, an old cathode ray TV, some weed and ecstasy rolled up into our socks. We passed a sign telling us that Tucson, AZ was 275 miles ahead, which meant we were about 500 miles from our destination in Yuma. We picked Yuma because it was right on the Mexican border and I’d heard of it from the movie 3:10 to Yuma because I’m a sucker for old Westerns. After getting our bearings in Yuma, we’d head for Mexico. Permanently. There was nothing in Little Rock for us. I couldn’t keep a steady job and Julian’s parents were the worst. They didn’t like me, didn’t approve of our relationship. They were strict Baptists and when Julian came out and told them we were together, his mom responded by giving him a Bible and telling him he needed to read it more closely.

I didn’t tell my parents about me and Julian. They were devout Catholics, and while I’d never heard either of them verbalize any hostility toward same-sex relationships, I couldn’t imagine my dad would approve of his only son dating another man, and a gringo at that. We packed our shit quickly one night and hit the road. I wouldn’t call us runaways, because that would imply that we were engaged in some kind of illicit, subversive behavior by leaving. Really, we were embarking on a journey to somewhere better, more promising.

Julian spoke of being born again, not in a born-again Christian sense, but in a “spiritual” sense, as he put it. He said we were “opting out” of our current life. He told me I needed to leave my old life behind, let go of the past, it was weighing me down and I needed to wash my hands of it and let it disappear into the ether. He said he’d already done this, while we were in Las Cruces, sitting in a gas station parking lot, staring into the freeway traffic and the desert beyond while smoking a joint, and he could see our new life somewhere in the middle distance, and he felt freer than he’d ever felt before. We were starting over, being born again, just another couple people emerging naked from the womb of the world, he said, becoming one with our environment. This seemed like so much new age nonsense to me, but I nodded and obliged, and a part of me wanted to believe it, wanted to be born again into a new life in a new place, where me and my guy could live the rest of our days in peace and love. But a part of me doubted it, knew it wasn’t possible. I didn’t know how long me and Julian would last. Sometimes I thought I could spend the rest of my life with him and other times I would have been surprised if we lasted another two weeks.

We blasted techno music at unbearable volumes as we drove with the windows down through the black desert at night, the beats echoing into the vast canyons and evaporating into the thin desert air. Julian wore sunglasses and sucked on a lollipop. He wouldn’t stop crying but tried to pretend that he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through his hair. I don’t know why he decided on Mexico as our destination. I think he thought we’d be reconnecting with my heritage or something, but the truth was I barely spoke any Spanish myself and had never even visited Mexico, aside from a teenage spring break trip to Cancun. And I had my doubts that Mexico would be any more hospitable than central Arkansas toward a gay couple. I didn’t have the heart to tell Julian that my heart wasn’t in it, that I’d be just as much a foreigner there as he would. At least I’d blend in physically; Julian was pale white with reddish-brown hair. I’d describe it as auburn if I felt like being generous. We’d be strangers in a strange land, and I admit that I found something vaguely adventurous about that.

Several times throughout our drive, Julian would say, “Anything can happen.” At first it seemed like a hopeful statement, full of promise and optimism. He used an old paper folding map rather than our phones to plot our way; he thought there was something romantic about it. He kept the map in the glove compartment and would take it out intermittently and examine it closely, looking at it much longer than I thought necessary, never explaining what he was looking at. He never let me look at the map. There was no moon out as we drove with the windows down. I looked at my phone and it was dead. I didn’t know what time it was. A coyote howled in the distance somewhere. “Anything can happen,” he said.

The next morning as the sun beat down on us relentlessly Julian stared blankly at his phone for what seemed like hours. He eventually put the phone down into the cup holder, sighed and reclined his seat as far back as it would go until it started making a weird clicking sound like it was going to break. He complained that he was too hot. I looked at him and he was sweating profusely. I told him to take his sweater off, and after a couple minutes of bickering back and forth he turned the air on full blast and wouldn’t talk to me. I turned the radio up louder and he picked up his phone and started reading something, or maybe he was just pretending to read, but after another couple of minutes he put his phone back into the cup holder and said “Once we get to Mexico, we should drop acid before we go into the ocean for the first time, it would be totally freaky,” and he had a crooked, maniacal grin on his face and he looked way too much like this guy from high school who gave me a handjob once who died a couple years ago from leukemia.

I didn’t have another experience with a guy after that until I met Julian a few months after graduating high school and he kissed me on a dare at a party in my best friend’s basement. He smelled and tasted like menthols and his whiskers tickled my face, and he told me that I seemed more mature than my friends. He showed me a photo he took of an antique children’s rocking horse, freshly painted white and meticulously restored. The rocking horse was resting in front of a faded green dumpster surrounded by stray black garbage bags, the dumpster mottled with dirt and pockmarked with rust. “This represents America,” he told me, “the ideal and the reality,” but I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

Julian used to put his arm around my shoulders and say with genuine warmth, “Nobody loves you like me.” One time, after drinking too much wine, he pulled me in, squeezing his arm too tightly around my neck, making it difficult to breathe, and said “Nobody loves you but me.” I wasn’t sure whether this minor variation on his usual phrase was intentional or whether it was a tipsy slip of tongue. It felt ominous, but it also rang true; my parents hardly knew anything about who I really was, and might reject me if they knew of my relationship. They wouldn’t understand. Even my few close friends didn’t know. He said it again. “Nobody loves you but me.”

I had wanted some more excitement and meaning to my life, so in the days leading up to our escape, I bought a gun, started smoking cigarettes, and reading Nietzsche. During a particularly dead stretch of desert while Julian drove, I vacillated idly between Nietzsche’s The Antichrist and a new issue of Good Housekeeping that Julian had stolen from a 7-Eleven for home decor ideas. I wasn’t sure which one was more depressing.

“Have you ever read anything by Nietzsche?” I asked Julian.

“Oh my God, I love Nietzsche,” he said smiling, “His books are hilarious.”

I wondered if he was joking, but it became clear that he wasn’t.

“Um, I don’t think that his writing is really supposed to be funny.”

Julian looked confused. “Are we talking about the same Nietzsche? Maybe we’re talking about different authors named Nietzsche.”

I realized the conversation wasn’t worth having. Good Housekeeping had an article about the importance of grandmothers. Just underneath the title of the article was a quote in bold lettering that read “Grandmothers are like moms with extra frosting – Author Anonymous.” I wasn’t sure I could bear to read any further after encountering such a statement.

“Modern living is bullshit,” he said, beginning one of his rants, disrupting my reading. “This life is fucked up. We’re materialistic and paranoid. We don’t know what to live for, we’re living for the wrong things.” Something about Dancing with the Stars, Asian flu pandemics. Chemical warfare and heated steering wheels. Organic strawberries and infectious disease. Mass murder of schoolchildren, Super Bowl Commercials. Celebrities in meat dresses.

He would go on like this for a while until he was red-faced and exhausted, sighing righteously and taking a swig of beer. He pulled a lighter and a slightly bent cigarette out of his pocket. I played with a deck of cards I found in the glove compartment, flipping some of them onto the floor of the car and lightly toasting the corners of the others with Julian’s lighter, trying to distract myself from his polemic. I liked it when he spoke of the promise of our future, but the tradeoff was that I had to tolerate his screeds on malignant materialism. Everything is commoditized and bartered, he said. So was our relationship to some extent, I thought. At times our future seemed clear and inviting and inevitable. At others it was cloudy and paranoid; a devastating maze of inscrutable future ruins.

What am I doing? I thought. God is dead, and grandmothers are like moms with extra frosting.

When we got to Yuma, we stayed at a cheap roadside motel, the kind that exist only for midday quickies with hookers or for wanted drifters to hideout from police. He could sense my reluctance. “We ain’t in Little Rock anymore, babe. You need to expand your horizons. Live dangerously,” Julian said, spreading his arms out as if to embrace the wind and the air. “Just breathe in the air here,” he said, “It’s so clean. You can’t tell me that the air back home is anywhere near this quality. It’s like coming back to life again.”

We decided to stay for a few nights, relax, slow down a bit after our hastily prepared journey. We soaked our ambitions in Cabernet Sauvignon and cheap tequila chased with orange juice. I pretended to read a book while Julian was hunched over his map, drawing wildly on it, but I couldn’t see what he was doing and was too drunk to care.

As we sat on the walkway outside our door overlooking the parking lot below, smoking and drinking coffee, Julian talked of being self-sufficient farmers, living off the grid. “Might as well throw that TV out,” he said, gesturing to the TV still in the backseat, “We don’t need it, it’s garbage. It doesn’t fit with our plans.” He talked of starting a new religion, one free of materialism; timeless and not susceptible to modern trends. The earth would be our god; we’d plant trees and pick fruit from the vine. He said we could be honest with each other, truly honest, and look each other in the eyes without any sense of fear or apprehension. We could let our guard down and let each other in. We’d be free to love each other and be loved back. He told me about his cousin Caitlin in Florida who had it all figured out, who was enlightened and emancipated from the heteronormative lifestyle, and who could guide us spiritually. He inhaled smoke from his cigarette and just held in it forever.

We rented a place in Tijuana near the coast where we could hear the waves when the windows were open. Tijuana was cheap. We had a few hundred dollars in cash with us but we still stole food and clothes from the bodegas to make our money stretch further. When the money ran out, we figured we could find jobs doing some touristy shit. Bartending, waiting tables, selling souvenirs. We didn’t know how long we’d be here; we’d stay at least through the summer and then figure things out. Julian didn’t like to plan ahead much further than a few days at a time.

For the first time in my life, I wished that I could speak Spanish. My parents could speak it fluently, but always encouraged me to speak English growing up. I’d taken Spanish in high school for four years but could only remember words for animals and directions. Phrases and proper grammar were no longer part of my repertoire.

Julian didn’t speak any Spanish at all but got by on his charm and good looks. He could speak with his smile, crooked and mischievous. The stark contrast of his pale white appearance amidst the locals never lost its novelty. He was noticed and went out of his way to be noticeable. People bought him drinks at the bar, took photos with him. Neighbors nodded in his direction or smiled or waved as we passed. I simply faded into the background, just another bystander watching The Julian Show. There was a distance between us and I couldn’t fully connect with him, with our new environment. It seemed odd and a bit frustrating that Julian was being welcomed with such enthusiasm and becoming part of the community while I still felt like a foreigner despite my heritage. But it was precisely his otherness that made him captivating, which bred a quiet confidence that made him approachable. I was admittedly a bit standoffish in Tijuana and carried my gun everywhere for protection. I think it was the gun that made me unsociable. “If you treat people the right way, you can get by on that alone,” he said to me, but I didn’t really believe that.

Julian talked with friends back home on the phone late at night. There was nobody around except me, but he spoke in a hushed voice, as if trying not to wake anyone. That strange night language we engage in after we’ve been up too long without sleep; that time of night when the words begin to slip.

There was a broken mirror in the apartment. Jagged cracks spidering out across the glass, carving odd angles in the reflections, distorting the image. The mirror hung on the wall across from the couch, reflecting fragmentary images of us moving around; cracked faces, fractured limbs. Light bulbs went out at an alarming rate. I would flip the switch and the light bulb would flicker and die. The light bulb above the kitchen sink went out while doing dishes. A light bulb went out in the closet and I had to search for my clothes in darkness for two days because I was too lazy to change it. A power surge caused a light bulb above our bed to actually explode. Tiny shards of glass were strewn about the floor like some nightmarish scene from a movie, like broken teeth in a bad dream.

We were sitting on the couch watching TV at night when the light bulb in the fixture above us went out; an angry hiss and the brilliant flash of dying filaments filled the room. The sharp sparkle, incandescent and furious, like a millisecond magnesium-fire glow. The wind blew in through the open window, causing the light fixture with the dead bulb to sway back and forth like some timid, fragile wrecking ball. We sat in the dark in the soft glow of the TV, drinking cheap white wine, feeling anxious.

It was always late afternoon. Everyday reduced to one solitary moment. I sat on the small balcony and read a book. I glanced at my phone. 4:15 in the afternoon.; a perfect inert moment, singular but endless. I had the distinct feeling that I was sinking into myself further every day, becoming more isolated. Time became meaningless and infinite. Another light bulb out, another crack in the mirror. Mundane and trivial things gained meaning while the outside world lost significance. On the TV, job losses mounted, the stock market sank. Economy in crisis. Now this.

A couple of stale bagels on the table, left over from Sunday morning. Candles burning into the late night. The floor creaked like a moaning, dying thing. A forgotten pot of boiling water on the stove. Boxes of bottled water in the kitchen. Torn pieces of Julian’s map dumped into the wastebasket, some strewn about the floor nearby as if dropped while hurriedly discarding them. Burnt toast and Nescafe for breakfast, salad and water for lunch. Cigarette butts that accumulated on the newspaper on the coffee table because we didn’t own an ash tray; ash obscuring the faces of dead soldiers. The apartment smelled like burning food in the oven. I drank beer in the shower. I smoked cigarettes out on the balcony several times daily. Once in the morning when I woke up to replace breakfast. Once in mid-afternoon. 4:15. Once at night, just before bed, sometimes at 11, sometimes not until 2 or 3 a.m. Empty beer bottles in the shower next to the shampoo and conditioner. Heineken, High Life, Old Spice for Men Body Wash. Julian made Micheladas for us to drink every night at sunset; he knew it was my favorite drink. He liberally applied hot sauce to the mixture of Tecate and Clamato and spices. The Michelada was an angry red, a shade that does not exist in nature, a beverage that warns you visually to reconsider what you are doing, and when I drank it I felt it burning all the way down, corroding my esophagus and stomach lining, metastasizing future cancerous polyps; malignant, benign, whatever.

We stopped paying the bills on our cell phones and after a few weeks our service was cut off. We found a pay phone a few blocks from our apartment. Neither of us had ever used one, but Julian scraped together some Mexican coinage and figured out how to use it. On the 4th of July he called his cousin Caitlin in Florida, who I had never met, and I didn’t get the sense that Julian was that close with her either. There were no fireworks or anything, and we were bored. We drank some pistos by the phone, the bottles covered in condensation as it was still close to 100 degrees even though the sun was setting. It had to have been almost midnight in Florida, and Caitlin was obviously drunk, but she answered the phone and talked to Julian for an hour. I drank almost all our beer by myself and stumbled after a couple chickens that were picking at the gravel in the street, thinking I might pick one of them up, take it home and raise it, that it might make Julian happy. I eventually sat down on the curb, waiting for Julian to finish his call while watching a drunk local sitting on the curb across the street as he harassed young women walking by, holding a bottle of liquor, cursing to himself in Spanish as the women ignored him. Caitlin asked Julian to put me on the line. He handed the phone to me and I said “Hello from Méjico,” in exaggerated accent and Caitlin laughed and said “You sound like a local already,” in a thick southern accent, slurred and obscured by her drunkenness. I forced a laugh and we bullshitted for a couple minutes.              

“So, Julian tells me you’re the enlightened one,” I said. “Tell me our fortune. What does our future hold?”              

Caitlin laughed again; a smug, condescending laugh. “Tell me something about yourself,” she said. “Something intensely banal. Something you might write on a loan application or an insurance claim. That’s how I can truly understand you.”

“I have abnormally high blood pressure,” I said.

“Well…what could really be considered ‘abnormal’ these days…” she said, more statement than question.

“Do you believe in being born again?” I asked

“I believe in everything,” she said.

I handed the phone back to Julian, who spoke to Caitlin for a few minutes longer. Julian told me that Caitlin said I sounded sweet and stubborn, maybe in over my head.

We found a peddler hawking cheap, possibly homemade fireworks, down near the beach. We asked him in broken Spanish if he was selling them to commemorate the 4th of July. “Quatro de Julio?” I said, unsure if I was even making sense to him or speaking properly, “Dia de la Independiente?” He had a confused look on his face but nodded politely in a way to affirm whatever we were saying to him and dismiss us quickly. We headed to the beach and sat there in the dark, lighting sparklers with the burning tips of our cigarettes, and then attempting to light new cigarettes with the sparklers. A couple groups of teenagers were on the beach a couple hundred yards from us in both directions, drinking and smoking and laughing around small bonfires. When the sparklers ran out, we set off a couple extra large Roman Candles, which were large enough to seem like small mortars, and they shattered the dark and still night sky. The teenagers clapped after the fireworks ended, although I wasn’t sure if they were mocking us or if they truly appreciated the modest display.

Our little fireworks show seemed to catch the attention of the neighborhood children, as suddenly we were surrounded by little kids, the beach full of boys and girls jittery with excitement. We lit some of our leftover sparklers and handed them to the kids, who ran around eagerly with their little torches, fighting off sleep for the cheap thrill and loud noise of the fireworks. They watched us light off large, illegal fireworks, glowing and shimmering, brilliantly phosphorescent in the sky. The air was filled with pops and bangs and crackles. A few minutes later, a thick smoke hung in the air like some kind of acrid fog. We had emptied our stash of fireworks and the children slowly dispersed into the smoke. Julian and me split a bottle of tequila until we were both so wasted we could barely stand up. There was no wind that night, not even a slight breeze, and the smoke was still hanging in the air, creating a claustrophobic tightness, an inescapable ethereal world, surreal and ultra-real all at the same time. The smoke was illuminated by lights from the neighborhood, acting as a gauzy veil over the beach. The outside world was muted and paused, the smoke rendering our surroundings nothing more than a grayscale abstraction. The air was thick and heavy, I could barely breathe it in, but when I did it felt rich and filling and sat heavily in my lungs. The smoke was absorbing into everything, becoming a part of us; the half-life of the elements in it were thousands of years longer than either of us would ever live.

We staggered to the edge of the water, stripped off our clothes and waded in. We tried to run, but we couldn’t walk or see straight and both of us tripped and fell face first into the water, which still held warmth from the sun. We laughed and sputtered and choked on the water. We went out real deep until we couldn’t feel the sand beneath us anymore and we floated there for I don’t know how long. I closed my eyes and went underwater, curled up into a fetal position.

I saw myself in third person, like watching an old home movie. Images of cake and balloons, blue and white. Celebrations and hands clapping and whooping and hollering. Julian putting his arm around me and whispering something in my ear but I can’t hear him. The candles burn down to nothing and wax drips onto the cake. Julian yells at me to blow them out but I don’t. I feel like I can barely breathe. My lips are chapped and my knees are sore and Julian’s right index finger is in his mouth. Gifts are presented and opened and set aside amidst brightly colored wrapping paper and cards. The boxes are all empty. The cards are written in some language I don’t understand. My hands are sticky with cake, but I swear I didn’t eat any. Julian does that thing where he smiles without really smiling, where he looks at me but is really looking into the distance beyond, maybe disapproving of me. The sun is shining and birds are chirping while a mass of people lifts me onto their shoulders and carries me toward the water, their hearts filled with joy and their lungs with song. Everyone looks familiar and I cannot remember anyone’s name. Then Julian is holding me in his arms, bringing a glass of water to my lips, pouring the rest down my forehead. Baptizing me and blowing smoke rings in my face. His hair is a mess and his legs are spread and his teeth are perfect white. My hands are trembling with anticipation and apprehension. I am sick to my stomach and vaguely elated. We are hundreds of miles from home and we’ll never see our families again. Pieces of the map flutter in the wind and stick in Julian’s hair. Photos are snapped; bright flashes and genuine smiles and fake smiles. Capturing happiness and desperation. We are celebrating my birth.

Nick Caccamo is a lifelong resident of Illinois who lives in the Chicago area. He has a degree in Rhetoric/Creative Writing from University of Illinois. In his spare time Nick enjoys watching (bad) movies, drinking (good) beer, taking (long) road trips, listening to (loud, ear-bleeding) music, and writing (hopefully interesting and engaging) short stories.  Nick is not particularly talented at writing short biographical statements about himself in the third person.  His fiction has previously appeared in Midwestern Gothic.

Photo by Krister on Unsplash

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