Other Moons

by Max Halper

Thus it amounts to the same thing
whether one gets drunk alone 
or is the ruler of nations.

— Jean-Paul Sartre 

I went to rehab with a guy named Mitch who had swastikas tattooed on his hands and neck. This was in Mississippi, about an hour outside Jackson. Mitch was a meth addict and is dead now, as far as I understand. The swastikas scared me at first, but after months of living with him I stopped seeing them. Mitch was just a guy whose life was as fucked as mine. We used to crack each other up. We even cried together once.

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According to a 1984 article in The Journal of Social Psychology,[i] the single strongest determinant of whether one person will see a UFO is that someone they know has seen a UFO and told them about it. I dated a woman years ago who saw UFOs every time she looked up. I always suspected there was something weird going on between her and her brother.

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I found a cow skeleton ensnared in barbed wire at the edge of my family’s property when I was a kid. My friend and I collected the bones and stored them in the abandoned doghouse near the garage. I would check on the bones periodically over the next few years to see if anything about them had changed. I found a ball of baby snakes writhing near the doghouse once and took it as instructions to return the bones to where I’d found them, though I never followed through. Sometimes I think that was a terrible mistake. Mostly I don’t think about it at all. 

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The legend goes that as he lay bedridden in a sanatorium with tuberculosis, unable to eat or drink, every rattling breath an interminable nightmare, Franz Kafka grasped his doctor’s lapel, pleaded for an overdose of morphine, and said: “Kill me, or else you are a murderer.” Thereafter his throat swelled so tightly he could never speak again, and a week later, in the middle of the night, he died from his illness. Outside, the sky was black save the disc of sunlight gathered on the face of the moon.

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Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the conviction that life is pointless and nothing matters. Other times I feel paralyzed by an overwhelming love for people and their ideas. Occasionally these two paralyses overlap. I have a hard time being productive.

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I worry that I’ve never really gotten to know anyone. The same way a steak is not the cow, words are not the ideas they purport to signify. I feel like this is a good start.

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I’ve been on and off anti-depressants my entire adult life. Right now I’m off, and I feel pretty good. But it’s only a matter of time.

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In 2009, in the Alps, nearly thirty cows leapt from a cliff to their deaths over the course of three days. Occasionally, an otherwise healthy penguin will turn away from its colony and waddle alone into the dark, thundering cold to die. I’ve heard of dogs that drown themselves after their masters die or abandon them. A captive dolphin once suffocated itself in front of its trainer after years of forced performance. Some people argue that there are natural explanations for these incidents, but I don’t understand how that would make them something different than what they appear to be. 

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There’s another version in which Kafka is in his childhood bedroom surrounded by his friends and family. The gathering of friends and family recedes back into the gray corners of the room. Kafka is more belligerent in this version: at one point he seizes his sister by her hair and draws her close to his chapped lips and rasps something that only she can hear and that sends her reeling from the room, never to return. Another main difference is that in this version Kafka ultimately starves to death, the tuberculosis having clenched his throat shut, making it impossible for him to swallow food. 

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Sometimes I listen to pop music on the radio while I’m driving, to pretend that I’m like everyone else. Occasionally I’ll stop and get a candy bar and a soda. I even voted once, in 2008. In AA they say they can always spot a newcomer because he or she is the best dressed person in the room. 

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The phenomenon of alien abduction has been largely categorized in academia as a conflation and misconstruction of sleep paralysis and childhood sexual abuse.[ii] I suppose it’s easier to live in a world in which the monsters have come from faraway than it is to live in a world in which the monsters come from down the street, or from down the hall, or from the paludal swales of our own brains. On the other hand, I’ve never seen or heard of anyone doing anything monstrous, or anything that wasn’t abjectly human. If there are monsters, they are entropy and the distance between things.

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I’ve spent years cultivating an approach that I call “selective sociopathy.” This allows me to feel what I need to feel and shirk the rest. I know we all do this to some degree. You wouldn’t believe the chain of suffering ignited by putting gas in your car. Or by being born in America. It doesn’t matter how you look at it.

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The happiest people I know tend also to be the horniest, and the laziest thinkers. This makes me nervous.

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Occasionally I’ll pray for a terrorist attack or a natural disaster to get out of having to do something I don’t want to do. It’s worked a few times.

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No one’s ever asked me if I believe in god.

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I think I think about Kafka’s death as a piece of writing in and of itself, as if having produced a body of work so grotesquely organic there was no longer a boundary between his language and his bodily operations.

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I told Mitch about my Jewish heritage and he didn’t seem to care and he certainly didn’t hate me. He claims he got the swastika tattoos in jail. I asked him once if he’d ever read any Kafka, but I can’t remember his answer. Probably no. I think he would have liked Kafka. They had a similar sense of humor.

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I saw a segment of a Japanese prank show where they put a PULL sign on the door of a department store that required pushing, and filmed people as they approached and yanked on this fucking door and yanked and yanked and then gave up and walked away. The whole thing felt like something else. I’m not sure how else to explain what I mean. I think about it all the time.  

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I used to start drinking in the morning. Towards the end it was not unusual that I would pass out by noon, wake up at four or five, and continue drinking until I passed out again. I used to joke that I was getting two days for the price of one. I also frequently blacked out. I once came out of a blackout at a table in some apartment with four or five men I didn’t know. One of them had a gun in my face. “What do you have to say now?” he asked. I told him I wanted to leave. He allowed me to leave, and I started opening doors, not knowing which one was the exit. Behind one of the doors there were some children on a mattress on the floor doing homework. The men at the table laughed at me. I found my way outside and started walking. I don’t remember getting home, and I can’t remember what any of the men looked like. Nowadays, every time I see a man I don’t recognize, I worry it’s one of the men from the apartment. I wonder what I said to upset him so much. I’ll bet it was pretty funny.

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Here’s a joke Mitch told me about a fisherman who, fishing from his boat in a lake, feels a tug on the line and, reeling in the catch, finds an arm on the hook. He sets the arm in the boat’s hull and recasts. Soon after he feels another tug, and finds a second arm, which he sets beside the first. Next comes a leg, and then a second leg, and then a torso, and, finally, a head—all of which he piles in the hull. The parts roll together and fasten to each other, and a tall body sits up and blinks around. Its eyes are black. It opens its mouth, and from the mouth floats a ball, dripping with slime. The ball hovers in the air. The slime drips away to reveal a white orb. The orb thrums. When the fisherman looks into it he sees the entire universe suspended amid a fathomless emptiness, completely alone in the dark. Terrified, he leaps from the boat and swims ashore. He rushes through the woods to the village, caroms up the street, scrambles into his house and collapses against the door. His wife, feeding the baby, looks up. “How was the fishing?” she asks. The fisherman, finally finding his breath, shrugs. “Meh,” he says.

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I had a therapist who had a Rothko print on the wall in his office. I’m not sure if the implication was to strive toward the quiet compartmentalization of Rothko’s art, or to strive away from the crass over-simplification of Rothko’s art. I suggested, half joking, that he consider replacing it with one of those inspirational panda posters. As is my experience with most therapists, he was too forgiving of my deflective impulse to philosophize generally about life, and often indulged in that impulse with me so that I rarely if ever spoke about myself. Plus he was very expensive.

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Sometimes I’ll do this thing when I see a pretty girl where I’ll imagine starting a conversation and asking her out and her saying yes and so going to dinner and hitting it off and we start dating and we fall in love and we move in together and we get married and we have a kid and name her Lily and things are good and we have another kid and name him Jack or Soren or something and we go on vacation to the Caribbean and then return home and carry on with our lives and over time things start to get boring and we start to fight a bit and it’s tiring and then there’s some infidelity and we get separated but we miss each other so we try again but it’s stressful for the kids and so we get divorced and it’s relatively amicable and she starts dating a friend of mine and I pretend to be fine with it though in truth I’m lonely and the kids are grown up and eventually I meet a woman but she’s much younger than me and me and my ex have a long conversation about how dating one of my grad students is not good for me and I agree and end the inappropriate relationship and focus on my work and the years pass and my ex remarries and moves to the Berkshires and I get sick and die somewhat too young on account of the years of drugs and alcohol and all the smoking and she attends my funeral with her husband, who’s the headmaster of a private school or something, and then they return to the bed and breakfast they’re staying at while in town for the funeral and they have brunch and she basically never thinks about me again unless one of the kids brings me up which is rarely because I was always distant and difficult and they feel freer without me in their lives. 

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Kafka actually published The Metamorphosis during his lifetime, despite popular misconceptions. Before printing, he was approached by his publishers with some cover design options they’d had drawn up, all of which showed a monstrous insect strewn on a bed. Kafka was aghast, and demanded that under no circumstances should they portray the insect; it was precisely the insect’s ambiguity, the shifting and often contradictory descriptions, that drove the novella’s subtext. To portray the insect would harden its image in readers’ minds, and hobble the profound power of the text to manifest uncertainty. His publishers of course nodded and rolled their eyes, then proceeded to print the book with an insect on its cover. I prefer the version where Kafka dies in his bedroom. This feels both less likely and yet more organic.  

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The world rarely moves for me the way I want it to. I understand this is just THE world and not MY world and that some people feel this stuckness—feel everything I feel—even more profoundly than I do. This does not make it easier. In fact it makes me jealous, which makes it worse. 

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One of my first sponsors taught me about “radical empathy” as a strategy through which to alleviate some of the “chronic uniqueness” that addicts tend to suffer from. It turns out it has other applications, especially insofar as stoking creativity. If you don’t feel bad for everyone, then you can’t be a good artist. I like to start building all my characters from the same critical conjecture that some day they are going to shit their pants and die, just like everybody else. And that no one asked to be born as far as I know.

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It’s not unusual in cattle mutilation cases to find a notable absence of footprints within the proximity of the carcass—including even those of the mutilated animal itself. Another common factor is the absence of blood, as well as certain organs including genitals and rectum. The predominant explanation for cattle mutilation—which has been reported on six continents—is natural predation. Some believe it is the work of cults or lone psychopaths. Of course there is the extraterrestrial hypothesis. I’ll also note that I recognize there’s a stark incongruence between “radical empathy” and “selective sociopathy,” and while both are personal tenets both are also outclassed by my central tenet: ambivalence.

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It’s weird that the word “fiction” is the genesis for the word “nonfiction” whereas “nonfiction” refers to the truth and “fiction” to a lie. It feels like it should be the other way around. Though there is something more living about fiction, something less rigid and more full of blood. Something that needs to eat and drink to survive. Something that dies in different ways. In regards to Kafka, Susan Sontag wrote that “…the greatest art seems secreted, not constructed.”[iii] It’s bizarre to me that he didn’t kill himself. 

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There are lengthy memory gaps from my early twenties, due to the drinking. I’ve patched these in as best I can with a combination of other peoples’ testimonies and a little imagination. When I was in the psych ward from DTs after trying to cut my own throat with a steak knife, hallucinating gruesome visions of gore and fiery cataclysm, I became convinced that I had succeeded, that I was dead, and that I was in hell. This despite my carefully curated atheism. Even now with years of sobriety and less suicidal ideation I still sometimes wonder. 

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They say that in every carton of milk is the milk from over a thousand cows. This is the world. The only people who say they’re glad they botched their suicides are the ones around to talk about it. I enjoy a splash of milk in my coffee, and a glass of milk with my cookies. I’ll bet there’s someone alive right now who will live forever. 

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I had a dream in which Mitch led me into the woods off the shoulder of a cracked road. There was sky then no sky and damp outcrops pullulating with what I suspect was poison ivy and through which Mitch led me directly and hands of raggy fungus upgroping from the plinths of the oaks and beeches and pines and sinews of web draped expressly at face-level and too-authentic birdsong and Mitch’s deodorant in his path which hemmed west and down along a swollen gulch and a trellis of rotting logs and a cape of ferns thrumming in occasional stains of sunlight. Something all very sad about it. I was short of breath and didn’t own the right shoes, dusting at my mouth and ears and slipping up a knurl in the ground on which Mitch stopped and gestured down at the bed of a swale enclosed in corridors of rigid white birches, everything crackling and dripping as I grinded a heel in the balding grass of the knurl and tried to understand what it was he wanted me to see.


[i] Zimmer, Troy A. “Social Psychological Correlates of Possible UFO Sightings.” The Journal of Social Psychology, 123(2), 199-206, 1984. 

[ii] McNally, Richard J. and Susan A. Clancy. “Sleep Paralysis, Sexual Abuse, and Space Alien Abduction,” Transcultural Psychiatry, Harvard University Press, 2005. 

[iii] Sontag, Susan. “On Style.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 1966.  



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