This is the story I’m told:
Tracy knows. For all the newfound confidence that flows through her, she’s aware of the change. It’s not only that she can remember who she was (yes, she is to the point of having drawn a line in the sand, black yarn in the soil; I used to be/I am), it’s that, for as fun as she is, the new person she’s become is simply not her. It’s a juggling act from the start. Even on the drive home from Michigan she contemplated new feelings. She’s funnier now. She can tell. And it’s not only the confidence she has in her jokes post-farm, it’s the actual content. She is coming up with funnier things to say, on the spot. What was once a small, pleasant surprise, having suddenly uttered a zinger, is now consistent internal material, golden quips to parody everything she hears, sees, smells. Maybe it’s the confidence that’s birthed the humor. She wonders. Then again, maybe she’s wondering because she ate something that makes her more ponderous, too.
This is when it starts to get scary for her.
While she’s no doubt evaluating herself… who exactly is doing the evaluating? Tracy has done drugs before, of course, we all have. But this isn’t that. This isn’t a manic rush up or a blurry ride into the depths of human consciousness. This isn’t even a crystal clear epiphany in which meaning is presented on a platter, everything so suddenly sensible and simple.
Ever has been talking a bit like he’s had a revelation independent of what happened at Oliver’s Farm, but Tracy knows.
While everyone else was fading out, falling asleep, heads plopping to the kitchen table like dying balloons, she made it mostly to the end of what Oliver had to say. And the new her, whatever she ate that led to the new her, this Tracy remembers.
Maybe Oliver gave her too much… recollection.
She also knows how unfathomably mad this all sounds. How mad it is. If she’s right in what she believes happened, there are too many questions to ask. For one, doesn’t Oliver know that personality traits are more complex than A or B? Doesn’t he know that the self-confidence you feed someone will spread further than just their idea of themselves as an artist, wider even than their place in the world? Couldn’t he have predicted that the confidence Tracy ate would give her the confidence to know, with certainty, what happened that night, exactly what happened, encapsulated most vividly by a jar labeled forgiveness?
Oh, Oliver could tell she was going to get angry about this. He’d miscalculated is what happened. How could he not? And it wasn’t until he saw a sliver of venom in her eyes (perhaps the frayed ends of that black yarn rising in the whites of eyes, stringy hands raised with questions) that he gave her a little more than what he’d planned.
She doesn’t only think this, she believes this.
When she returned to New York, she juggled. Everything. The old her, the new her, and the memories from the night of. She had an audition and she knows damn well how Old Tracy would’ve handled it, how she would’ve come in with all the lines memorized but with no show to display them. She’d have gotten on stage and hoped the director sensed the enormous power within her. I’ve seen this power, I notice this power every time I’m near her. But she got to wondering… how far can a director see? And how high does she have to jump to reach that sightline?
She knows. All of this. She knows she isn’t who she used to be and while it feels good (ah, it feels really good) to be suddenly endowed with these characteristics that were once so sought after, so foreign to her nature, she also is harboring elements, permanent elements, that are not essentially her.
Tracy’s not so much resisting as she is refusing.
Maybe Oliver should’ve thought to give her some acceptance out of a late night jar.
Does she blame him? She can’t tell. She knows she would’ve, in the past. But now?
No. She doesn’t. But she also doesn’t care what Oliver’s motivation is for feeding his best friends a meal that would change them forever. Because that’s what’s happened. She doesn’t need to spend a year believing or not believing this. She knows this. And she isn’t interested in punishing Oliver for the crime. Right now, she only wants one thing:
Tracy wants to put herself back together again.
As she gets back behind the wheel of her car with a mind to drive another eleven hours, set to head west once more, she’s juggling.
Feelings. Old and new.
Moods. Old and new.
Perspectives. Old and new.
There are side effects to good personality traits. Oliver knows this, right? Take forgiveness, for example. If you’re served too much of that, you may end up feeling like everybody’s walking all over you. You may end up getting angry at feeling like that.
Could forgiveness lead to anger? Directly? So easily?
After four nights spent in her “bedroom” in New York (the walls only tapestries tacked to the ceiling; is anything what it seems anymore? Is anything what it’s named?), staring into nothing if not staring into herself, recalling the dinner at Oliver’s farmhouse and recalling, too, what Ever was like before the farm and what he is like after, Tracy thinks of me. She’s thinking of our kiss, not because she loves me or can’t stop reliving the magic, but because she knows, inherently, that while she has changed, and Ever has absolutely changed, I, me, I have remained exactly the same.
You can tell that kind of thing.
From a kiss.
It’s easy for me to say that the conclusion she’s come to is madness. But, as the line in their story goes, life recognizes life, and so do the qualities, the smaller pieces and centerpieces that make up that life. Personality is a big one. And personality, Tracy is discovering, staring not into space but inner space, is every bit as infinite as the stars. And while I’m not experiencing what she is, Ever is. You see? Tracy now believes Oliver served them traits out on the farm, actual personality. She does not doubt this. She is past doubt. Now: She only considers traits.
Comedy, she thinks. A sense of humor. Aren’t most comedians troubled inside? Isn’t that what we’re told? And didn’t we, us, the circle, know a stand-up comedian named Jonas who was ice cold off stage and like a comet in front of the mic? So if you gave someone a sense of humor, if you physically gave it to them, would you actually be giving them a heightened sense of seriousness?
Has Oliver thought these things through? Can someone think these things through?
This question is followed by a much trickier one. One that, if she were to harp too long on it, might send her spiraling out of control:
Can someone put themselves back together again?
If you were changed, truly, to the core, changed, would you be able to replace the new stuff with the original parts? And if you couldn’t put yourself back together again, did you ever know yourself to begin with?
Tundra-cold thoughts. But everywhere inside it’s cold. Oliver violated them. She knows this now. Oliver did something to them that may not be reversible. He did it without their knowledge and clearly without their consent. This is criminal.
And what did Oliver eat, first, in illusionary fields beyond the high willow trees, what did Oliver eat that brought him to believe the best course of action was an irreversible first course of a meal?
Tracy wants to be mad. But every time she’s about to damn Oliver she doesn’t. Every time she’s close to imagining herself choking him in his kitchen, dragging him by his hair out into those fields, jamming his face into the earth, she doesn’t. The fantasies flash, the Old Tracy still within, but they are quickly followed by a spread of warmth that blankets them to death.
Tracy didn’t come to this conclusion on her own, of course. This overarching, insane idea that Oliver Carpenter is growing personalities on his farm. She didn’t leap from I feel unlike myself to Oliver changed us without doing her due diligence. No. In the dungeon of her four-day bedroom stint, her journey through inner space, half-laying half-sitting on her mattress with no sheets, her neck at an uncomfortable angle to the wall, her eyes white marbles of contemplation, she spoke with Karen on the phone. Karen who is still out at the farm. Karen who is horribly, terribly, justifiably worried about Baum.
Tracy can’t believe it, but there’s a part of her that’s jealous that Karen and the rest are still out there. It’s an unexpected emotion and it comes the second she hears her friend’s voice. Here’s a woman: juggling the heaviest thoughts, her relationship in dust, hasn’t left the mattress in four days, and still… she doesn’t want to miss a thing.
Did Oliver feed them envy, too?
It’s clear right away that Karen is different on the phone. She doesn’t speak with her customary straight-shooting tone of voice. There’s a warble now, something like self-doubt, perhaps even a pinch of shame.
Tracy isn’t sure yet, but she thinks she might be able to hear personality traits now. Individual strands. Like a single stalk of wheat.
“We’ve spent nights out there,” Karen tells Tracy. “Nights out in the fields.”
Envy. Deep envy. Despite the horrific grip she feels at the mention of the fields, Tracy wishes desperately, darkly, she’d shared this experience with her friend. The reason why is suddenly clear: they (all of them but me) touched something deeper than the mundane on Oliver’s farm and so, good or bad, good or evil, what can ever compare?
“I woke up and Baum wasn’t beside me,” Karen says. “Stars above. Dirt below. And Baum… I don’t know. I got up and I searched the willows and I searched the farmhouse. And it was from a window in one of the upstairs bedrooms that I saw him, Baum, way out in the fields after all. His silhouette was kneeling, about as far as I could see. And he wasn’t alone.”
Tracy, still staring inward, still immobile in her bedroom, knows, distantly, what Karen is going to say next.
“The Farmer was kneeling beside him. Both of them, their hands in the dirt, pulling up clumps of earth, eating it. Together…”
Tracy hangs up. She doesn’t even look at the phone as she calls Rodney. She needs to talk to everyone at once. Yet, this overwhelming sense is coming not from deep within, but almost from the past. Like Old Tracy is tapping her on the shoulder saying, Hey, I know you could venture into the rest of your life as the new person you’ve become, but you should really think about it first.
That’s the rub. That’s the real monster here. Despite the horribly unsettled idea of what has happened to her, to all of them, Tracy isn’t actually upset about it. Yet, okay, she is. Or the memory of her former self is. She (and I, I think this, too) thinks that being an actor is helping her right now. Because she is able to empathize with people, men and women, characters, who are not her.
And Old Tracy counts.
She can remember Old Tracy’s lines. The way Old Tracy walked. The way Old Tracy felt. Tracy can get into this character, if she focuses, if she let’s her guard down, if she utilizes every lesson we’ve all learned in our New York City acting classes. Tracy can play Tracy better than anybody else in the world.
This is something good in a bad place.
Rodney answers the phone.
She doesn’t know what to expect, but she definitely doesn’t expect the Rodney she remembers to arrive, presto, at the other end of the line. And she’s right not to. This Rodney sounds like a terribly sad person. Someone who has been through things Tracy cannot fathom. Tracy hardly speaks at all, still staring into space, recalling how Old Tracy sits and stands, waves her hands. When she mentions Morris, Rodney actually confuses his boyfriend with Baum and begins describing Baum in the fields, on his knees, gobbling dirt with The Farmer. When Tracy hears herself ask Rodney about Morris a second time, when she says no no, Morris, Rodney laughs and laughs and laughs and hangs up.
She calls Oliver.
They talk. He tells her a secret.
They hang up.
She sits. Uncomfortable. She thinks.
Eventually she thinks of our kiss.
And she knows that I prove her conclusion right. Because I didn’t go to Oliver’s farm. Because I haven’t changed.
Done, she stands up. Like Tracy stands up. She gets dressed. Like Tracy gets dressed. Method acting now, staying in character, fully committed. Hanging tight to four days of study.
She understands the danger in driving six hundred miles in character.
This is the story I’m told:
Four days following Tracy’s wild audition, as I’m worrying about the new look in Ever’s eye and getting angry at my friends for not responding to any of my messages, Tracy is carrying an unpacked suitcase down the stairs of her building, her mind fastened to Old Tracy, practicing her lines, understanding that she simply has to get back to the farm because that’s what her character would do. The suitcase is empty because it’s a prop. As she passes a woman climbing the stairs, a neighbor Tracy has seen before, she curtseys. Then she laughs and kinda folds against the railing. She can’t stop laughing because… who curtseys? Not Tracy. So, okay. Time to get serious. She gets her shit together. She stands up. Brown pants and boots. A white shirt and a jean jacket, too. This is Tracy. She’s emboldened by the new confidence she has, a welcome addition that New Tracy warns her is in danger of being revoked if she does, indeed, return to the farm.
If she does what she means to do out there.
She’s trying not to think about Oliver’s mind right now. What must be happening in there. She has with alternating, thaumatrope, visions of a misty swamp and sudden LED rainbows that pierce a pitch black outer space. It’s too much. It frightens her deeply.
What he said on the phone.
That simply cannot be what is in the barn.
Old Tracy sat on the deck with Oliver and looked out over those fields, looked right at that barn, and had absolutely no idea. How could she have? How could any of them?
Through the lobby of her building now, meaningless case in hand, she doesn’t want to shudder, doesn’t want to cry. She concentrates on other things. Even her breakup with Ever is a brighter subject. Much. Ever and her are done. That’s okay. He’s found himself. It wasn’t even a painful split. They shook on it.
She didn’t cry then and she doesn’t cry now, outside, finally, under the sun, just a woman walking to her car, unlocking the door, opening the door, sliding into the car, careful, easy, as if she’s stealing the thing, as if, if she were to make a noise, a single noise, the police would leap from behind the bushes and arrest her for… for… for not being the car’s owner, for not being herself.
This is hard.
Because New Tracy could stay in New York. She can be as loud and crazy and forthright and shady and happy and sad as she wants to be. She doesn’t have to go back to Michigan, back to the farm, back to the deck that overlooks the fields and has a pure unobstructed view of the barn. She’s trying to stay in character because she knows, deep down, it’s the right thing to do. And it wouldn’t take much to lose it, she thinks. Something as small as discovering there isn’t much gas, right now, could end this, could stop her from getting there. She could say fuck this, drop the role at any time, saunter into the future as the new her, freshly confident and with a whole new view of everything.
She starts the car.
She sits this way, looking ahead, afraid to glance down at the gas gage. She doesn’t even know if she wants it to be full or empty. Stay or go. Go or stay. People walk the sidewalk ahead, the bustle of New York. Her life is here. She doesn’t have to do this.
She thinks of Rodney laughing at her asking about Morris and she suddenly recognizes that laugh. Not because she’s laughed with Rodney so many times in so many places before, but because that particular laugh, that exact fucking giggle rings a bell. A big bell.
“He was changing when you talked to him,” she says. Out loud. As if Ever is sitting beside her. Next to Old Tracy. About to head west to check on a friend.
But now “friend” is plural. This time it’s “friends.”
She looks at the gas gage.
Ah yes. She remembers Old Tracy and Ever stopping just outside the city, on the return, Ever saying they might want to gas up because you never know when you’re gonna wanna take a long trip again and who wants to find gas in New York City? Like he kinda knew then. Right? Like he had a feeling one of them might wanna head back to Michigan.
Sooner than later.
She puts the car in drive and pulls from the curb. While I’m writing my friends, all of them, coming to grips with the fact that I quit my job, that I’m rudderless, Tracy begins driving.
And the drive is a crazy one. And the drive is a long one. Loaded with memories of how she used to feel. About Ever. About Oliver. About the night at Oliver’s farm. Even about me.
This is the story I’m told, by each of them in turn. By my closest friends in the world. Friends I made after I’d already gone through high school and college. Friends I’d made after what was supposed to be the best days of my life. These are the friends who, when I moved to New York, I laughed with, I got serious with, I studied with, I dreamed with, I acted with. We fought, we drank, we stayed up so late that it felt like we’d discovered new hours. We were nowhere near reaching an agreed upon end point to what we felt like we were a part of. You see? How sudden all this was? But then, I think about our conversations about Oliver. I think how there was a shift there. Maybe. Maybe that was the moment we got strapped into the seats. The funhouse doors hadn’t flapped open yet, but we were all locked in.
She discovers something new about herself as she stops at a gas station just over the Michigan-Ohio state line. She’s getting water and chips and she’s waiting in line and she sees a young woman, a teen, nab some chips of her own and walk right out the door. Okay. Tracy’s seen someone steal something before. Who hasn’t? But now, without thinking, she sets her own stuff on the counter and follows the girl outside. She calls to her.
The girl reddens as she turns around. Overcompensates with a scoff.
“Hey,” Tracy says, going to her. “I’ll get those for you.”
“I already got em,” the girl says.
“I know. But let’s do this the right way.”
And as Tracy brings the chips back inside (the girl, embarrassed, remains in the lot), it occurs to Tracy that, while this line of thinking may have been a part of Old Tracy, the gumption to act on it, in such a decisive way, is New. She likes this. She wonders what it’s called. Assertiveness? No. Righteousness? Maybe. She isn’t sure, but that’s okay. She pays for her stuff and the extra bag of chips. She leaves the place, gives the girl her chips, and says, “Its okay to steal, but only after you’ve been denied it for free first.”
This is new. Tracy wonders: Am I going back to the farm because it’s the right thing to do? Am I… righteous?
Then she’s back in her car and the sky is darkening and she’s heading north toward the middle of Michigan all over again. She remains in character, but can’t help marveling at the new ways she thinks and feels. She rolls the windows down and allows the summer air into the car, to whip furiously as she drives fast.
Tracy is on her way.
That’s how it feels.
She’s on her way.
Fuck, it feels good.
She howls once, out the window, then sees a man on the side of the road, an old man in a hat.
She slams on the breaks, stopping in what is close to the middle of the highway. The sun is low enough that she can’t see the details of the man in the rearview mirror, only his silhouette.
She reverses it. Heard enough that she has to slam on the brakes again when she’s beside him.
Window down, she leans toward him. She squints.
A vision comes, clear: an old man sitting on a small green chair in an upstairs bedroom in Oliver’s inherited farmhouse.
This man, here, stumbles toward her.
Tracy braces herself. Like she might if someone were about to attack her, about to change her personality forever.
But when he gets close enough, she sees he’s nothing like the man she saw standing in the kitchen of the farmhouse.
Then she remembers, really remembers, seeing the old man standing by the stove in the kitchen and the truth of it nearly steals her breath.
“Unfortunately,” the man on the side of the road says, “I think you’re heading in the opposite direction.”
Tracy eyes him a second longer. Then nods. She is most definitely headed north.
“Good luck to you,” she says. The man tips his hat.
Then Tracy is driving again. A little less pep now, a little less speed. As if she’s suddenly aware she could use a little more time to sort a few things out. Like, hey, you may discover a righteousness within you, one strong enough to send you cross country to check on the health and happiness of your friends, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something waiting out there to stop you from doing that.
She rolls the windows up.
Feels a little colder now.
She scans the sides of the highway for old men in hats, seeing more than one on the distant horizons once she’s left the cityscapes of southeastern Michigan behind and has entered true farm country.
It’s dark by the time she reaches Gibbons. She’s still in character but it’s hard. The memory of the old man jolted her. She’s barely hanging on.
Just past the sign welcoming her to Gibbons, she pulls the car to the side of the country road.
She puts in park. It’s dark.
Here, she thinks. Because she needs to. Because she doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to encounter when she pulls into Oliver’s gravel drive.
Does she need to be armed?
This sounds absurd. Yet… does she?
So while I’m at home in New York, still more than a week away from following Ever through the streets of downtown Manhattan to a nondescript building, one old enough to have unsafe windows that extend high into the sky, Tracy is planning, preparing, or, at the very least, steeling herself for what’s to come.
And what is?
This is the story I’m told:
Tracy reminds herself these are her friends. No matter what’s going on at Oliver’s farm, friends need to stick together. And they can. That’s the thing. Friends find a way. Not in the hokey sense of bonding and being there, but in the same way ants survive. A group of friends, Tracy thinks, seen from above, are an organism unto themselves. Hadn’t she heard that a pod of Orca wales think in a group? Okay. This is different but certainly if she remembers Old Tracy, they must remember their old selves, too. And who’s to say Morris and Rodney, Karen and Baum and Connie aren’t the same old friends they were when last she saw them?
God, she feels alone. A theater of one, a one woman show. The car is off. The windows are closed. The world around her is dark and dead. Crops fan out in either direction and here she is in her car, nodding, reminding herself, needing to remind herself that, yes, yes, these are her friends.
And the reason she’s out here is to help them.
This is a good thought. Only a good person would think this way. So whoever New Tracy is, she’s good.
And has the confidence to start the car again, to drive the remaining eleven miles to Oliver’s farm where she will hopefully, mercifully find her friends drinking wine around the kitchen table, none of them so far removed as to be out of reach, impossible to put back together again.
She needs to be careful is all. Because while Oliver didn’t technically shed any blood, while it’s not like he cut their throats as he fed them salad, he did violate them.
Careful. Caution. Drive slow. Maybe turn the lights off when she gets close. Sure. That’s what she’ll do. She remembers the drive in because she’ll never forget the drive out. Dark or not, Tracy knows the way. She can almost feel the distance, an exact emotional recall of how much time she spent heading in one direction before the car turned, Ever driving, this way, then that way, new people, them, leaving Oliver’s farm.
She sees the farmhouse ahead.
The lights are on, upstairs and down. A silhouette in a bedroom window on the second floor? Connie? Maybe. Karen? Maybe. Baum? There must be a floodlight on the back deck because she can see the beginning of the dead fields behind the house. She can almost see the shape of the willows that signifies where the real crops begin. The ones she needs now. The ones she’ll need her friends to need now, too.
She turns off the car lights.
What if they don’t want to change? What then?
And who is Tracy to know exactly who they were before, what made them who they were, what’s new, what’s buried?
She stops the car. She gets out.
Standing under the night sky, she can smell the country again. She didn’t realize she’d noticed it the first time out but if this smell had passed through New York City in the last few days she might’ve spun, fists raised, screaming, Don’t eat that! DON’T ANYBODY EAT THAT!
She removes the empty suitcase from the backseat.
She has to stay in character. Now more than ever. She cannot enter this house as New Tracy. Tracy who might forgive Oliver for what he’s done.
She must remember herself. Everything. She must put aside these sudden feelings of sympathy for Oliver. The heartbroken, troubled friend who, by way of a slew of bad breaks, moved to place where he knew nobody, there to confront himself, all the pieces and parts that make up a person.
Tracy looks to the windows, upstairs and down.
She walks up the gravel drive. Her shoes (exactly the kind of shoes Tracy would wear; her shoes) sink a little bit into the stones. It sounds neat. Yes. She would’ve thought so. Feels neat, too. If she didn’t know better (and she does, she must!) this would be a picturesque moment. A woman arriving at the home of a good friend. Other friends already deep inside.
The reality of what Tracy’s doing, what she’s done, makes her feel very small. Despite the newfound confidence that flows within her, she realizes she’s afraid. Has she made a mistake? Should she have asked Ever to come with her?
Should she have asked me?
She climbs the porch steps and expects to hear voices, music, a game. Morris and Rodney laughing. Karen and Baum in a heavy discussion. Connie loud on wine.
But there are no voices. And the night is dark. And the farmhouse suddenly feels devoid of life.
Nobody comes from inside. Nobody answers. Suitcase in hand (she has to hold onto it, has to grip the prop), she walks the length of the big porch, looks along the side of the farmhouse.
You’d pull your truck up to the end of the drive and you had to run to the house and touch it and run back. Just… a dare.
She can do this. She’s not too scared to do this.
She walks the full length of the porch, reaches the far side, looks along the other side.
Just a dare.
Her voice sounds smaller than she feels. Like suddenly she’s standing on the porch of a mansion, the biggest home she’s ever seen.
She goes to the door and knocks once more. Hearing no movement, she turns the knob, finds it open, and enters uninvited.
Thank God, still, somehow, Tracy.