The Back Wall

A friend came to me and expressed concern that a friend of his was going crazy. He said that at the friend’s apartment, while he was in the bathroom, he’d pulled back the curtain of the shower (a weird, old habit) and found writing on the back wall of the shower. The wall facing the shower head. He examined the writing and eventually took a picture of it with his phone. He read the following to me from the picture:

“I want the drinks in novels. Not the types of drinks that the characters drink. I don’t want to drink a Salty Dog because I heard about it in Swag by Elmore Leonard. I want to drink a actual Salty Dog from the novel. Because when I experience the language of the novel, the drink has become more efficacious and satisfying and bliss-inducing and wonderful than any drink could ever actually be. More than anything, I want to eat and drink everything the animals ate and drank in Redwall. Even more specifically, I want to eat and drink those things as I experienced them in my imagination at 8 years old.

I want drinks that can’t exist.”

When he finished he said, “Does he sound crazy?”

“He sounds like a Platonist, but not crazy,” I said. “I know what he means about the food in Redwall, though.”

A couple weeks later, the same friend was at my house again. He said that he’d been at his friend’s house again and had easily contrived to visit the bathroom again, had found a different piece of writing on the back wall of the shower, and had taken another picture. He read it to me from his phone:

“We exist because we’re given existence. God does not exist, in one sense—twisting Meister Eckhart—because he’s the source of all existence. It’s like looking at a carpenter and wondering how he’d take a walnut stain. Or looking at Paul McCartney and wondering if you can play him on guitar. Imagining that Paul McCartney himself has a melody, because he creates melodies.”

When he finished he said, “What do you think about that?”

“I think that’s an okay point,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that. It’s phrased a little bit awkwardly.”

My friend nodded and smiled.

Several weeks later, he updated me. Pulled up his phone and read the following, from a photo, he said:

“I went to set up my computer in the living room. I put my head near the back of the fan at the window as I was leaning forward plugging my power adapter. Because of the way the sound from the back of the fan reflects off the window, you hear the sound from the front of the fan and back of the fan as distinct, disintegrated from each other. Aurally, one fan becomes two fans.

Reality, even in its obedience to physical law, appears bent on demonstrating its contingency—betraying, through its weird adherence, that the laws don’t have to work the way that they do. It presses into places where it strains to maintain coherence. You don’t even have to go to the quantum in search of the space between threads in the fabric of being. You can experience it in moments where perception multiplies household objects.”

“Doesn’t do much for me,” I said. I shrugged.

My friend said nothing. He furrowed his brow, narrowed his eyes, and looked in various directions, not at me. He excused himself for the bathroom and left his phone on the table.

When he did, I had the sudden impulse to investigate the pictures on his phone and see if I could identify the friend’s house based only on a shot of the shower’s back wall. I turned on the phone and pulled up the camera roll. It contained nothing. I back out to his homescreen, which was bare. He had an icon for a notepad app, and one for his phone. I looked at my friend’s notepad app, briefly dipped into his email, and uncovered nothing. His voice had the cadence of reading, but I assume he was simply improvising those thoughts.

I’m put off by nothing in the thoughts so much as the method my friend used to convey them to me, by his various unnecessary subterfuges. By the masks he assumed for reasons I don’t understand.

When he came back from the bathroom, he found his phone on the table where he left it, and seemed not to notice that my feeling toward him had grown colder.

The Back Wall