With unexpected success came the return of dreams in which I fell to my death. Waking in cold sweats, I had to remind myself that I was doing well, that I would be happy. According to somebody’s rubric I was already both. This disconnect between achievement and happiness reminded me of a black and white Turner Classic movie I’d watched in my mother’s bed while sick as a teenager. For no obvious reason, laughing white men in tuxedos began shattering their champagne coupes against the marble floor of a large party. I remember nothing else from the film except that brand of carelessness, a resonating impossibility for me,
Our first video’s use of the hashtag #Self-Help” had been a joke, mostly. Seventy percent of what I said that hungover morning had been recycled platitudes my dad told me during visitation hours. “Brothas go to jail, read a book, and think they’re Judge damn Mathis.” He wasn’t interested in defense via the prison library’s ratty and indecipherable mahogany legal tomes.
High, dad had camped out in the break room of a post office, declaring the space “sovereign land belonging to all free black peoples.” His “disciples” turned themselves in after a few days. With no real plan except raising awareness, he held strong for two chaotic weeks. His cellmate (who had my phone number) often complained to me about dad’s early morning pan-flute tape cassettes, dad’s many plants attracting ants, and dad’s loud boyfriends visiting after lights out.
[Are you still seeing that therapist?] An unsaved number texted Sunday 4:37 am. I woke up on Gleeks’s couch around 4:45 am and read the message, unsure of who it was. Before I could respond, he added, [It is Shiny] at 4:46 am. Then, [You up I see the three dots.]
[Yeah he’s black – Nigerian but American too]
[Your dad talked about him. Any good?]
[He didn’t prescribe Xanax. Gave me Zoloft made me constipated – but I like him.]
Dad was more invested in pleasure and new age nonsense, not forgiveness, not parole. When my “Son of a Convict” YouTube video blew up, Jerome (whose own dad went to church and worked for Comcast) told me the next logical step was “more content.” I’d been out of grad school for less than a year, was part-time at a daycare and getting paid hourly. I made a second video. The views were nearly as good as the first. Jerome made a T-Shirt with a silhouette of my face on the front, which said “Black And Free” on the back. He’d spent a few hundred of his own money. Two weeks later we made a couple thousand off the merchandise and in-video advertisements.
[I don’t know if he sees dudes locked up. Illegal phone etc. might fuck up his license?]
I was relieved Shiny wasn’t hitting me up about shit involving my dad which I had no control over. Gleek walked down the stairs, “You up?” Noticing me on my phone, “Who you talking to?”
“Uncle Shiny, texting me again.”
Gleek laughs, “Tell that nut I said ‘hey’”
[Gleek says hey]
[You pay him for me and I’ll pay you back, or the doctor and I do venmo or cash app. Doesn’t matter. Tell Gleek what’s good. Tell Gleek I saw Lewis. Heard he got out of bookings quick as a snitch.]
“Shiny says what’s up, and that Lewis was in bookings but got out.”
Gleek picked up a bong and lit it. “Really!? That’s what’s up.” He pulled from the bong and let the smoke go slowly. “Ask him when he’s out.”
“Shiny or Lewis?”
[When’s Lewis out?]
[Less than a year. What do you think about the Venmo/Cash App thing?]
“Lewis is out in a year. Less maybe.”
Gleek coughs, exhales. “That’s good. I miss that fool. He snitch?”
[That could work. You talk to my dad about this?]
[No not yet. He doesn’t trust it.]
I looked at Gleek, “I don’t know.”
Jerome’s Hatian born cousin Henri had been locked up for a year. It was his idea to join our burgeoning operation. His crayon scrawled letter ended, “Content is king!” He was to be an uncredited writer of my monologues but got put in solitary for boiling Top Ramen with a radio battery in his room. We put a hundred-fifty in his commissary so during his three months alone he could eat all the noodles and Funyons one could hope for.
Henri got out of solitary, then out of prison. We worried he wouldn’t be about loud music or strangers, but he came back nearly the same. “Just keep me clean and let me live,” he told us before his Fresh Out party. He drank with us, but anytime we did yay or rolled up he went outside and smoked a cigarette. He smoked a whole pack that night. “Fuck temptation,” he said while staring at the storybook crescent moon. It was so low we all got high enough to reach out and touch it. “I feel like Neil deGrasse Tyson,” he said.
“Nigga deGrasse Tyson,” I responded while checking a recent upload for viewer stats.
Some videos had views in the hundreds of thousands. “Wild,” Henri told us, “They love y’all in there.”
Jerome excused himself to the bathroom to sniff a bit. I asked Henri if he wanted another beer. He nodded, so I walked to the shed kitchen and grabbed two from the cooler. “You got a job lined up?”
“A legit thing?”
“You know that Toyota/Honda place on Buckingham?”
“Next to the Autozone?” I tossed him a beer.
“That’s it. I’ll get right with that.”
“Okay.” I drank from my beer like I was the one just out. It was still warm, which I didn’t hate because it went down that much more quickly.
“You talked to your dad?”
I shook my head ‘no.’
“Talk to him. He talked to me about you.” Looking at his beer, “He’s probably proud.”
I nodded “yes,” and finished my beer. “Another?”
Looking at me, “In a minute, we’ve got time.”
Somehow this seemed untrue. Everything ended too quickly. We all spent more time remembering the fun that we’d had than we could ever spend imagining better would come. “Did you have fun in there?” I asked, lightly pushing his shoulder.
“Not enough.” He smiled knowingly, patting his pockets for his pack of cigarettes. “Not as much as you.”
I took the cigarette already behind his ear and put it behind mine. “Jealous?”
“Me?” He put an arm around my waist, and kissed my neck. “I’m proud.” He always smelled good, this moment was no different. I wouldn’t forget.
On the flight to our first live show, Jerome sleeps with one of those neck pillows that looks more embarrassing than comfortable. Gleek watches episodes of some sitcom, presumably a fantasy because New York appeared devoid of black people. Save for one guy who laughs at all the other character’s jokes. Henri, unable to travel out of state, remains home. Like Jerome, I too sleep. I dream the plane is crashing.
Occasionally, waking from bad dreams is nice. Missed catastrophe, real or otherwise, causes everything throughout the resulting day to appear tolerable by comparison. No longer nervous about meeting fans, potentially disappointing them, or saying something foolish, I’m able to appreciate how incredibly quickly the world is revealing itself beneath my still feet.
There’s a Xanax in my vitamin c bottle, easy to find amongst the rest. I hold it to the window’s light, white clouds and blue sky. I don’t think I need it, but I swallow it with the half-inch of melted ice from my plastic cup of ginger ale. I set a timer on my phone for twenty-five minutes. Considering its eventual effects, as well as Henri safely back home, allows my back to loosen against the increasingly uncomfortable seat. I feel the pill traveling down my esophagus. I pretend it’s a tiny ship on a risky mission to deliver happy dissociation into the bloodstream of an ancient giant. The crew sighs when they land safely in my stomach.
As I walk off the plane, my feet continue to float across the horizon. The alarm I set twenty-five minutes earlier alerts me that the pill’s kicked in. It doesn’t need to tell me more because I can already feel the weight of my head. I’m a teenager again, sick in my mother’s bed. I feel my feet glide effortlessly across spilled champagne and broken glass.
A white kid from the booking agency drives us to the show. On stage we talk about a nationwide prison reform bill, why we decided to start the YouTube channel, and our personal connections to incarceration. Naturally, we’re hesitant to share too much in the way of details. But soon we find a good rhythm between ourselves and the audience that manages to maintain the necessary distance. Afterwards, the audience asks questions. A light-skinned dude, tall, resembling a close cousin, asks if I supported my father’s actions.
“I don’t think so,” I begin. “There’s nothing practical about the post office.” The audience laughs, I pause. I didn’t mean it as a joke but certainly understand how it could be. I call my dad’s decision quixotic.
“Is that a bad thing?” he asks.
“There’s nothing wrong with romance, as long as you’re aware of the consequences.” More questions are asked of us, but my thoughts are miles away. I’m on the top bunk of my dad’s cell as he pretends not to eavesdrop on Shiny’s session with Dr. Abdurraqib.
Someone I can’t see beneath the glare of lights asks how to gain views on their own channel. Jerome is happy to field this question. “Make your videos longer than ten minutes, upload three times a week, and let the algorithm work its magic.”
“What a success,” Jerome says backstage. “I mean it. What a success.”
“I loved it,” says Gleek.
“I love you guys.” I give each a long hug. I walk slowly to the bathroom.
The guy who looks like he could be family, stops me and asks for a photo. We take a couple, and he introduces me to his son, no older than ten, who shyly shakes my hand. I ask the boy if he’d like a photo too. Smiling he shakes his head and politely says, “No thank you please.”
His father and I laugh. “He’s the one who introduced me to your stuff.”
At the Airbnb, everyone else sleeps. Sitting on the living room couch with the TV on mute, cycling through channels, I’m awash in its frantic glow. I think about how it feels good to go nowhere. I think about how it feels better to be somewhere no one knows you. Sick in my mother’s bed, I remember believing nothing to be more real than that movie, leaving her room to wander downstairs and break glasses against the tiled kitchen floor. My dad nearly took his belt to my head until he realized I was feverish and far beyond any sense. I was with the men, dancing together, breaking glasses. At a certain point we all slipped in pools of champagne, cutting ourselves on broken glass.
There’s a sound behind me. I turn to see Jerome. He nods, pours himself a glass of water from the sink, sits down next to me and asks to put something on.
“Which one?” I ask, pointing to the seemingly endless rows of thumbnails and possibilities.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Something with explosions, something in space, something easy.”
Guy Melvin was born in North Philadelphia, and lives in Brooklyn. He has work in or forthcoming in Fahmidan Journal, A Long House Magazine, All My Relations Vol. 2, Cypress Press’ Red House Anthology, and Cerasus Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.