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the '84 regress
by Douglas Lain

Life in the '80's

Life in the eighties isn't all bad. Television, for instance, is better than you might remember it being; there are fewer stations, fewer commercials, and everything is slower, slowed down. There aren't ATMs or FAX machines; there aren't any e-mail messages.

Driving on the interstate, counting the yellow dashes that zoom by, it all makes sense. The last sixteen years were just a series of bizarre nightmares, everything was just as unreal as it felt, and the year 1984 never ended.

Let me repeat:

The year 1984 never ended.

It's my own unified field theory. Generation X, the Clinton presidency, Jay Leno, my relationships with women -- all of it makes sense now.


The Breakup

Cindy and I broke up in 2001.

The problem was that Cindy didn't know how to argue, or more to the point, she didn't know how to sublimate. She'd been through therapy just like everyone else, and she took her medication, but she could never stick to the issue at hand. I'd start in about how she squeezed the toothpaste tube, or complain about her haircut, but she always tried to figure out what was really going on.


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"You don't care about my haircut. You just don't want to marry me," she said. She didn't understand how the game was supposed to be played.

"It's your hair. It's your hair. I know you don't understand, but it really is your hair."

She looked great actually, her hair was fine, but when she stood there looking at herself in the mirror, in her mother's wedding dress, and with her hair pulled back and her tan face shining, suddenly I couldn't stand her.

I took my pill. I took my pink pill and smiled.

"You should try on the tuxedo," she said.

"I can't," I said. "Because of your hair."

Cindy and I broke up. We broke up because she didn't know how to argue.


The Smiths

I left Cindy and moved into a studio apartment. I moved into a tiny room with yellowed walls and a shared bath.

I met Mrs. Smith the first day.

She knocked on the plywood door to my place.

"Hello neighbor," she said. "Can I borrow some butter?"

She was on the young side of middle aged, maybe thirty-seven, but she still looked young somehow, acted young. She wasn't really fully dressed. She was wearing a pair of men's boxer shorts and a sports bra. Her hair was a solid brown, darker than it would naturally be, and her body was trim and fit.

"Butter?" I asked. "I'm not sure. I just moved in."

"No? Well I think I might have some. Why don't you come over and borrow some from me."


"Welcome. I'm saying hello to the new neighbor and welcome. Come on over. I'll introduce you to my husband."

She led me to her apartment, to their apartment. She and her husband lived in a much bigger place than my own, and much more expensively decorated. She opened the front door and led me past overstuffed chairs, through a hallway with track lighting, and into the front room.

A man who I assumed was her husband was resting on the perfectly white sofa. His socked feet dangled over the armrest and his head was propped up by throw pillows. He was working on a Rubik's cube.

"Winston, the new neighbor is here," Mrs. Smith announced to the man on the couch and then she turned back to me.

He didn't say anything. A mechanical ticking sound filled the silence. The Smiths had a large reel to reel tape recorder underneath their glass coffee table and the red light was on; the VU meter was swinging back and forth in tiny arcs as Mr. Smith turned the colors on his Rubik's cube.

"Are we recording this conversation?" I asked.

"There's nothing I can do about that. That's not ours," Mr. Smith said.

"Whose is it?"

He didn't answer. "You're diagnosed, right? What they got you on?"

It was a rude question. Not that I had anything to hide, exactly. "What about you? You've been diagnosed too, right?"

"What are you on?" Mr. Smith asked again.

"Ritalin mostly. I'm distractible," I said. "But I'm okay, really. I can work. I was even going to get married."

"You're a voter then?" Mr. Smith asked.

"Yeah. I'm a voter."

"We're not voters," Mrs. Smith said. "Most of the tenants here aren't voters."

"We used to be voters," Mr. Smith said.

I shrugged. Being a voter wasn't something I took too seriously.

"Do you think we could, maybe, borrow a few of your pills then?" Mr. Smith asked.

"Just to try them out. Just a few of them," Mrs. Smith asked.

"My pills?"

"Two or three is all."

"Hey, listen... I'm on a routine, if I gave you anything that would disrupt the schedule."

"Just two?" Mrs. Smith asked.

"No," I said. "I don't like you even asking."

"Just one?" Mrs. Smith asked. She put her arm around my waist, trying to hold me. I jerked away and stumbled back, catching myself from falling. I brushed past the overstuffed chairs beneath the track lighting.

"You don't have to go," Mrs. Smith said as I opened the front door. "We'll be nice."

I didn't say anything to her, but half stumbled and half ran back into the hall. I leaned against their door and immediately reached inside my jacket pocket for another pill. I reached inside but there was nothing there. The pills were gone, the bottle was gone. They'd lifted them off me.

"Hey!" I yelled at the door. I pounded with flat palms on the wood. "I'm on a schedule! Open the door!" I pounded and pounded. "I need my medication. Open the door."

"You'll be better off without it," Mrs. Smith said from behind the plywood door.

"I need those pills!"

"No. We need the pills. We need them!" Mr. Smith shrieked from inside. "We don't have a future without them!"


Growing Up Stoned

I fidget with the radio dial, seeking out static. Cindy tells me to watch the road, but I can't help myself. I can't keep my fingers from nervously drumming. I lock and unlock the driver's side door and finger the shift stick.

I was diagnosed, at the age of eight, with attention deficit disorder. They put me on Ritalin, and it was almost fun. I'd get totally stoned on these chemicals, with full sanction from my parents and the school district, and then take off on my Bigwheel. Pedaling faster and faster I reached speeds unimaginable.

Now I'm clean and I feel sluggish. Worse, I can't keep my hands and eyes from wandering.

"It's not you. It's this boredom we're living through. The tedium of all these billboards and exit ramps," Cindy says. "Keep your eyes on the road."

I take a package of spearmint gum from the glove compartment, chew up a wad, and swallow.

I hope for a placebo effect.



At first I thought I could handle it. I didn't want to explain anything to my doctor, didn't want to end up begging for a refill at the pharmacy or going to Cindy so she could let me raid the old apartment for an extra bottle. I didn't want to face Cindy at all. Whatever distractions came up I'd just have to cope with, and then after work I'd go by the Smith's and get my pills back.

But, within an hour of my arrival at work, I was emptying my desk drawers, sorting through the first aid kit in the employee's kitchen. I even asked the secretary for one of her pills.

"Why are you staring at me?" she asked.

Sheila was in her thirties with frizzy blonde hair and she was always in the same red turtle neck and brown skirt. She was practically invisible; she liked to be inconspicuous, but I was determined to draw her out. She had something I needed.

She stood next to the filing cabinet, pulled the top drawer half open, and then stopped.

"Do you have any pills?" I asked.


"Withdrawal," I said. "I'm going through withdrawal. Do you have any extra pills?" I asked.

"I took my daily allotment already," she said.


I crossed the room and stood next to her at the filing cabinet. I took her by the shoulder and pointed her toward my cubicle.

Sheila sat down at my desk. She pushed my cup of number two pencils, my swingline stapler, and the solar powered calculator I'd stolen from the marketing department, out of her way and pressed her cheek against the coolness of the metal desktop.

"What do you want from me? I don't know anything. I'm not anybody important."

"I need your pills. Just a few pills, that's all." I was deranged already. Streaks of transparent gold and cellophane red wavered in front of my eyes and when I looked at Sheila, she looked younger than she had before. She'd changed. She was sixteen, maybe seventeen, years old.

"Your phone is ringing," this teenage version of Sheila said.

It was, it was ringing like a bell rather than trilling out its usual computer generated farts. When I didn't move to answer it Sheila picked up the phone herself and handed me the receiver.

Mrs. Smith was on the line.

"How did you get my number?"

"It's on the bottle."

"What do you want?"

"How are you feeling? A little funny maybe?"

"I feel fine."

"You don't, but you could. You want to feel better? Why don't you come over? Take some time off work?"

"I'm on a routine--" I started, but then I caught myself. I didn't want to beg and wasn't going to justify anything.

"Come on, pay a visit. I've got something to show you."


In the Mirror

Cindy stares into the mirror above the bathroom sink and runs her index finger down the curve of her neck. She lets her clean white towel slip from around her midriff and fall to the tiled floor.

"It's the only perk of coming down," she says.

"What's that?"


I pull back the thin coverlet on the motel's king sized bed, grabbed the remote control off the night stand, but don't turn on the set.

"You look beautiful," I tell her.

Cindy shrugs her shoulders and sucks on her finger. She cups her breasts and arches her back, displaying herself to herself.

"I've got perfect breasts," Cindy says.


"I've got perfect skin."

I agree with her, but all I can think about is getting another fix.

"Do you want to fuck?" Cindy asks.

At nineteen she's beautiful, her skin is perfect, and my own twenty-two year old body is a good match: a flat stomach, thick shoulders, but sex is the last thing I want.

"I don't want to do anything," I said. "Except get stoned again."

Cindy picks up her towel and holds it up to her chest, barely covering herself. She starts out of the bathroom but then turns back to her reflection.

"Let's hit the road." I say.

Cindy doesn't stop staring but just nods at herself.

"Let's get going."

"You know..." Cindy says, "I can't stand myself like this."


Coming Down

"Hi," Mrs. Smith said. She pushed open the plywood door and stood in the frame, blocking my path and exhibiting herself for my appraisal. She was wearing a peach colored silk robe that stopped at her thigh. "You came," she said.

"Yeah." I wasn't sure what I was affirming. "Let me in."

She moved aside, just enough for me to squeeze by, and I staggered into the darkness of the apartment.

The only source of illumination was a spotlight aimed at the center of the room. A metal folding chair had been set in the beam, and Mrs. Smith went to it and sat down.

"They're filming us now. They keep demanding more details," she said. "Have your eyes adjusted yet? Can you see the camera?"

I could. There was a vague triangle in the corner, and a blinking red light.

"I keep it dark so they won't see me," Mrs. Smith said. She opened her peach colored robe and pulled my prescription bottle from her inside pocket.

She shook one of my pills into her hand, broke open a capsule and took a taste of the drug. "My husband is a good man, but he does what he's told. He does whatever the Brotherhood tells him. They say stop taking pills, so he does. They say they want to record us, to videotape everything, and he lets them. Of course he let's them. What else can he do?"

"Give me my pills," I said.

"They won't help. You're off the routine; the pills won't work fast enough. But, I've got some smoke. Why don't you do some smoke and calm down?"

I sat next to her, on the floor, and she produced a paper package from her robe. She sprinkled green leaves onto a rolling paper and twisted it into shape for me.

"Hold it in your lungs," she said.

I took one drag after another, and the symptoms of my withdrawal intensified. I leaned back, letting my head rest on the metal seat of the chair, and watched the purple fog above my head.

"I'm withdrawing," I said.

"Look at this," Mrs. Smith said.

I opened my eyes, adjusted myself into a more upright position.

And then Mrs. Smith handed me a microwave oven. A neon colored, bright orange, microwave oven.

"What's this for?" I asked.

"Just keep your eye on it."

The incongruity of the major appliance went beyond its unexpectedness; something about the microwave was wrong. I couldn't quite believe that it was really there, that such a microwave oven could even exist.

"What's wrong with it? There's something wrong with it, but I don't know what it is."

"Open it," Mrs. Smith suggested.

Inside, sitting on the rotating glass plate, was a smaller microwave oven -- an older model. The older microwave had only a single dial. And, as I sat and watched, this older microwave grew. It grew until it filled the inside, it grew until the outer microwave started to groan from the pressure.

"Keep your eyes open," Mrs. Smith said.

The outer oven gave way, it cracked along the corners, and the black box inside emerged.

"What?" I asked as a trickle of orange plastic flowed onto my hands, into my lap. The inner microwave replaced the outer facade; all that was left of the newer model was a pool of melted orange plastic.

Mrs. Smith plugged the black microwave into the wall, and dropped a plastic grocery bag into my lap. Inside the bag was a Swanson's TV dinner.

"Let's see if it will cook," she said.

I tossed the TV dinner inside and without setting the temperature, without the option of setting anything, I pressed the start button. We watched as the cardboard package spun around and around.

"It still works," I said.

"Yes." She pressed the release button and the microwave popped open, and then she peeled back the paper lid of the TV dinner. Steam wafted up and the brown goo inside was bubbling.


Can't Drive 55

The future is a hallucination. I see it shimmering across the horizon, a city of cylinders and squares, and I'm amazed at how it floats. The future is unreal; it's red and green, like Christmas.

The Yugo has a television screen where there once was a speedometer, and there is a jet stream where the exhaust pipe used to be.

"We're flying," Cindy says. She's strapped in next to me, wearing a spacesuit and talking through a small slit in her helmet. "Flying."

The future is a hallucination, a joke, but I press down on the gas anyway. I want to reach this glimmering city on a hill before it fades into the ether, before it reverts back.


The Pink Powder of Oprah Winfrey

I broke into Cindy's apartment, my old apartment. Slipping a credit card between the door and the frame I was in, and the first thing I did was head to the bathroom, to the medicine cabinet. I scanned the dozens of bottles inside; brown vials full of little pink pills. I read the labels, starting at the top there was Aging, Continuity, Memory, and so on...

On the bottom shelf, the labels were more specific: The Internet, Beanie Babies, The Clinton Administration, Howard Stern...

I took "Desert Storm" and "Generation X" from the bottom row and read the fine print. I was supposed to take these pills twice a month, on an empty stomach. I grabbed another bottle, one called "Oprah Winfrey," and pressed down on the childproof top.

I pulled the gelatin shells apart, and considered the powder. I licked the tip of my index finger, and took a taste.

"Today we're going to talk to the parents of kids who can remember their past lives," the television blared from the living room. I closed the medicine cabinet and went to see what was on.

A thin Oprah Winfrey walked the steps up into the audience. "These children can remember family and friends from a time before they were born."

I approached the set and turned it off but Oprah kept talking. I grabbed the electric cord, yanked it hard, and found that the television wasn't even plugged in.

"You go girl!" the television blared, and then shut off abruptly. I took another taste of the pink.

"It's me..." Oprah told a child in a bodycast. She was standing over him in his hospital room, and his mother wept as Oprah shook the boy's fingers, the only part of his body that wasn't sheathed in plaster. "It's me...Oprah."

I walked to the bathroom and washed Ms. Winfrey off my hands; I turned the bottle upside down over the toilet.

The capsules floated in the blue water; they bobbed up and down inside the bowl for a long time before I gathered up the nerve to flush.


Withdrawal, Pop Music

There was a specter haunting the end of the twentieth century, a specter that I'd always known but couldn't name. But, once I flushed Oprah Winfrey, suddenly I knew the words. I watched pink powder swirl in the toilet, listened to the sucking sound, and remembered the lyrics to every Top Forty pop song released between 1980 and 1984: Purple Rain, Too Shy, Stray Cats Strut, the Safety Dance, Melt with You, Hello, Cars, Down Under, 99 Luftballons...

Every single scrap of Pop Music including Pop Muzik was playing across my brain, and it all made sense.

Video killed more than the radio star, I realized. I wanted a new drug, but had to whip it. Someone was watching me, and they'd blinded me with science.

I sat down on the tiled floor, and tried to clear my head of the politics of dancing.

"Just say no," I told myself. "Just say no."

Slowly, and amidst a cacophony of inner pop, I cleared my medicine cabinet. One by one I dumped the contents of the brown bottles into the toilet, and flushed.

"I'm still standing," I said, staring into the mirror and trying to recognize the face that stared back at me. It was a young face, unmarked by time. I was changing, like a microwave oven, but I kept going, kept flushing. "Let's go crazy," I told the young man that looked back at me from the mirror. "Burning down the house."


Driving Since the Seventies?

"I think time must have stopped before we were born," I say.

"Oh, gag. Spare me." Cindy rolls down the passenger window and flicks her ash. She's smoking cigarettes, even though she doesn't...didn't used to, or isn't going to, smoke.

"How do I look?" Cindy asks. She pulls up the bottom of her shirt and ties a knot under her breasts, and I find that I've got another erection. I wish that I'd grabbed her when I'd had my chance in the motel.

"You look good," I said. "Sexy."

"Thanks." She takes another hit off the cigarette and leans back, resting her elbow half out the window.

"But you're not listening," I said. "This static feeling has been going on for a long time. Since the seventies for sure."

"Whatever," Cindy says.




[ Part 1 ]    [ Part 2 ]

Douglas Lain lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and three children. Look for his work in Polyphony 1 and on Strange Horizons. Doug blogs, too.


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