Recurrence

A short story

A few years back I was visiting a friend of mine. His name is Ambrose, and whenever I meet him after a few years of not speaking the same question always returns: who names their kid that? You could have gone with Paul or Harry or Joseph, and you picked Ambrose. It sounds so dated. You might as well name him Cedric or Cornelius or something. Alright, alright, maybe Ambrose isn’t quite as dorky as Cornelius, but it’s close.

We were sitting together out on his back porch. He lived in a patch of woods out in the middle of nowhere, in what looked like a shack from the outside. He kept it reasonably clean inside, but the outside just looked like something you’d find rotting in a West Virginia holler, although we were in Indiana. It was one of those humid Midwestern evenings in late summer where it’s still sultry outside but you can just barely feel the chill of autumn, so faint you wonder if you’re imagining it. It had just stormed and I could still smell the rain. Overhead, the clouds were parting to reveal the deep blue of a twilight sky. It would be hard dark in a few minutes. The crickets and cicadas and bullfrogs and whipoorwills were chirping and croaking and rattling their little heads off in a pleasant cacophony. There was a creek on Ambrose’s property, and its steady whisper blended with everything else.
”You still cool with weed, man?” said Ambrose. I guess he was asking because we hadn’t hung out for a few eyars. I shrugged.
”Sure,” I said, “I’m not smoking any, but I don’t care if you do.”
”Alright,” he said, “I’m gonna twist one up.”
I watched with mild interest as he rolled a joint. Ambrose was short and skinny, with an unkempt beard and crazy eyes that my family affectionately calls “Manson lamps.” He was a little bit ginger, with coppery, dirty-blond hair, a long, thin face, and fair skin. All kinds of freckles and moles. Always joked about how he hoped he got skin cancer before the cigs got him.

His spindly fingers worked the rolling paper deftly. I’d seen him roll a joint with one hand before. He was the sort of guy who would, if you handed him three random household objects, engineer some way to make them into a bong.
”Man, remember when we were kids, and I used to toke up in your back yard? And I was trying to be all sneaky and hide it?” he said.
”Yeah. You know my parents knew, right? ”
”Yeah,” he said, grinning sheepishly.
”I asked my mom about it once. She said something like, ‘I’d rather he smoke the grass here than go back to that place’, meaning your house. She knew your home situation wasn’t great. I think she appreciated you being discrete, though.”
Ambrose exhaled a cloud of pot smoke that smelled like grass clippings and skunk. Then he laughed softly.
”I can’t complain,” he said, “Your folks basically adopted me. I’m like a fuckin stray cat or something.” We bothed laughed at that one.
The conversation went on, the sun set, and night fell. The porch light was out. We could only see because of the lamp in the living room, which shone out through the sliding glass door. It gave just enough illumination for Ambrose to roll another joint when he wanted one. By the time it was dark he was already high as a kite. He lit a cigarette and began to puff on it. The cherry shone in the dark like the red light on a radio tower at night.
”I’ve been reading,” said Ambrose, speaking slowly. His voice was a little higher than mine, reedy, crackling with vocal fry from decades of smoking.
”Yeah? Reading what?” I said.
”Some old books I found in the garage, by this really smart German dude,” he said, “And I got to thinking.”
”Thinking? How high were you?” I asked, smiling. He didn’t laugh, just stared into the dark, frowning. Ambrose normally came across as a ne’er do well, a quisquos ragamuffin. But there was more going on behind his eyes than you might think. When I noticed that he wasn’t joking anymore, I went quiet as well, waiting for him to speak.
”Yeah, I was thinking,” he said, “What would you do if you found out that your whole life was gonna repeat forever?”
”What do you mean?”
”Well, I mean, like, let’s say this happens: you die. You see your body drop out under you and you float away or something. Then you’re in heaven, or the underworld, or some place, and there’s an angel there. And the angel says, get ready to live your whole life again. Everything that ever happened to you is gonna happen again. You’ll be born in the same place. You’ll go to the same school. Everything that happened is gonna happen again in the same way, down to the very last detail.”
”You mean,” I said, “That you and I are gonna sit here and have this talk, and you’ll smoke that cigarette, over and over again forever? It all repeats?”
”Yeah,” he said, “And when I ash this cigarette, every single little piece of ash is gonna land in the exact same place.”

We were quiet for a while. The crickets were loud, and chirping quickly the way crickets do when it’s hot out. I looked at the trees and heard a distant car on the old bumpy road, loud as hell. Probably missing a muffler. The sound was strangely comforting. I grew up out in the boonies, and as a kid I always remembered hearing the sound of a loud engine on a distant country road. It was as much a part of the ambience as the bullfrogs and coyotes at night.

“So what makes you want to bring that up?” I asked.
”Well,” he said, “It’s just been on my mind a lot lately. I… I’ve been thinking about all the people I used to know. You, Dan, Dave, Erica, all the people from high school. And the people we knew when we were both working at the Jiffy Lube back in the day. And my old girlfriends, all of em. What’s been on my mind is this: how is it that all these people stay in my mind, but not in my life?”
”What do you mean?” I asked, “You mean because you haven’t forgotten about them?”
”Well, not that,” he said, “It’s not that I expected to forget about them. It’s just… every day I think about someone I haven’t spoken to in years. I can get lost for half an hour remembering some conversation I had with Dave ten years ago, and I haven’t seen Dave in five years. But that’s not it.”
”What do you mean, ‘that’s not it’?”
”I mean…” he stopped and took a long drag on his cigarette, looked up at the awning covering the porch, and slowly blew the smoke into the air over his head. His pupils were huge from the darkness and the dope. His skinny body was draped over the chair, lounging like some decadent caliph, head propped on one long bony finger.
”I guess I just feel distant from people now. It’s not that I don’t have anybody to talk to. I can always hit people up online. I could go talk to Dave right now. He’d message me back, I’m pretty sure. But I’m not close to anybody, you know? It’s like, when I was younger, I’d have these conversations with people, where we’d get really close and talk for hours. When you have a deep, intimate talk like that, it just feels so… perfect. As if the whole world has vanished and it’s just you and one other person, this wonderful mind meld where you go to Narnia or some shit,” he said, smiling. But it was a sad smile.
”But now,” he continued, “I don’t have those talks with people anymore. And I wonder, is this how it’s supposed to be when you grow up? Is having a closeness with someone else like that just something that only kids do? Would it be different if I had my own kids? Is this shit normal, or am I just turning into a hermit?”
I shrugged and said, “I dunno, man. I’m so busy that I don’t worry about that stuff so much. I picked a career that I hardly get a break from.”
”Yeah,” he said quietly, looking out into the darkness. He began silently rolling another joint.

A wave of guilt hit me. It occurred to me that I had dismissed him, right when he complained of being separated from everyone else. I watched him for a moment. Ambrose was so strange, so otherworldly. I hardly knew what to do with him, even though I’d known him so many years. His eccentricity made it easy to ignore him, because he was already so alien that it took a lot of effort to connect with him anyway. It was even harder to keep up with him on one of these stoned meanderings, unless you were stoned yourself.

That gave me an idea.

“Ambrose,” I said, “Can I get a hit of that?” He looked at me, surprised.
”Really? Sure!” he said, handing me the joint. I looked at it in my hands for a moment. I hadn’t smoked any pot since college. Was I really going to do this? Well, why shouldn’t I? I was self-employed. It wasn’t as if anyone would drug test my any time soon. I lifted the joint to my lips and inhaled, held it in for a few moments, and then coughed.
“Shit!” I said. Ambrose nodded.
“Yeah, you’ve basically got virgin lungs at this point. Haven’t smoked in what, ten years?” he said. I coughed a little more and finally replied, “Yeah, that’s about right.”
It didn’t take long for the THC to work its magic. Within a few moments, I felt the familiar wave of anxiety.
”Breathe, man,” said Ambrose, “Breathe deep and smile. Close your eyes.”
I did as he said, and after a few minutes, the initial spike of THC or neurotransmitters or whatever the fuck it is wore off, and I was feeling relaxed. “Chill” I would have said when I was younger.
”So,” I said, “Life, endlessly repeating.”
”Yeah,” he replied, “That’s where I’m at right now. How does it make you feel?”
I paused and reflected. I had forgotted how vivid mental imagery becomes when you’re high. I was still feeling a little bit of the paranoia, and remembering all the most embarrassing moments of my life in vivid detail. And all of the times I’d been scared or someone had pissed me off. I shifted in my chair. Was Ambrose judging me for staying quiet for so long?
”Relax, man,” he said, “You’re just high.” I giggled, and the giggle turned into disproportionately loud laughter. For some reason, what he had said was funny. Not just funny, hysterical.
”Seriously, though, how do you feel about it?” he said.
”Well,” I said, finally able to collect my thoughts, “I guess it scares me, and it’s also depressing.”
”Why scary and depressing?”
”Well, scary because I’m thinking through all the times…” I paused. Wait, what was I saying?
”All the times when something bad happened?” he asked.
”Yeah!” I said, suddenly back in focus, “All the times when I was going through something negative. So that’s scary, to think I have to face it all again an infinite number of times. It’s also scary because it feels… insane, somehow. Going around and around in circles forever. There’s this absurdity to it that makes me feel crazy when I contemplate it.”
”And you said it was depressing, right?”
”Yeah. And that’s because it makes me feel trapped. Nothing I do matters because I’m gonna repeat it all again forever and ever, and I’ve been repeating it since forever.”
There was another long pause. Then, he finally said, “I kind of took it the opposite way.”
”How so?”
”I just felt like it was… really comforting and motivating.”
”Comforting? Explain how it’s comforting.”
”Can I explain how it’s motivating first?”
”No, no, tell me the comforting part first.”
He shrugged and said, “Well, thinking back, I’ve lost a lot of things in my life. Not just relationships, but experiences. I’ll never be a young kid drunk at a party again. I’ll never have the experience of falling madly in love again — there’s a special kind of intensity when you fall in love in your late teens or early twenties, you know? And I think I’ll never feel that way about anyone again. I’ll never be a child seeing the ocean for the first time, or seeing mountains for the first time. Those long, lazy summers between school years, those are gone. I spend a lot of time feeling like the most precious experiences in my life are behind me. So this eternal loop thing is kind of comforting to me, you know? My innocence isn’t lost. It’s just… over there, so to speak. I’ll have the experience of playing guitar in my friends’ basements over and over. I’ll experience my first love over and over. I’ll get the be a child again, and a teenager, and I’ll get to sit here and reminisce with you. If I take this eternal loop thing seriously, that forces me to try and see the good side of things, because that makes it bearable.” He spoke quietly, looking down at his lap with an unfocused gaze. It wasn’t just the pot. He was in another world.
”Every good experience in life will come round again, along with the bad, and nothing is truly lost. The springtime of my life will come around again, the way springtime does every year,” he said. There was another long silence. No more cars on the road. Just the animals, chirping and croaking away in the endless dark fields and woods all around us.
”You said it was motivating, too,” I said. He nodded, barely perceptible, and said, “Mm-hm.”
How was it motivating?” I said, raising my voice just a hair. He blinked, came back from his reverie, and said, “That’s a good question. I guess the way I have to put it is… things have gone well, and I’ve had some good times. But I’m not happy with the way it is now, you know? I’ve accepted it for a while. I’ve thought to myself, ‘Whatever, this is good enough. I’m too old to dream big.’ But when I think of this eternal loop thing, it really lights a fire under my ass. I can’t sit here and be wistful for all eternity. I’ve got to move, man. I can’t let the past be the best that it gets. It needs to get that good again. It needs to get even better and make up for everything from before. I need something to look forward to in all those future incarnations! There’s gotta be something good out there, man!”
As he spoke the last few words, he sat up straighter in his chair and gestured quickly, almost frantically. His hazel eyes were no longer bleary. Instead, there was a fire in them, apparent even in the near-darkness.
”So you mean you’re not gonna stay here in your shack?” I said. He finally laughed, and I felt as if someone had just released a spring that had been coiled up.
”Shack? What do you mean, shack? Fuck you, dude! No, yeah, I’m not staying here. I’ve got better things to do.”
He wasn’t just talking a big game, either. When I heard him say that, I knew he meant it. He’d gone on a little trip there, but I was glad to have gone with him.