I sit and wait for my omelette and salad. I wanted the potatoes but I ate two big cookies last night. I place my coffee down on a table. A tiny table for one. My knees bang the bottom of the table as I pull up the chair. I do not fit. A bit of coffee spills. These tables are not made for one such as me. I am special and the spill on the table is my proof. I am not special and the mountains and the aches in my body are my proof. I smile beneath my mask before removing it. Naked faces all around me. I tell myself to keep looking up. Look up and smile with your eyes. No one sees me. I cannot tell if this makes me sad or if it is a comfort so I let it be both. Young couple. The pretty young woman takes a tiny bite of a strawberry. Her skin is white and smooth and unblemished. The pretty young man says something funny and the pretty girl laughs. His skin is olive and smooth and unblemished. They seem happy this morning. I wonder if they will be happy in the afternoon as well. A young girl leans her tired body against her mom. Her mom wraps an arm around her. How nice it must be to lean on someone with one’s entire weight. “Breakfast?” The server asks me as he sets the plate down before me. I wonder why he states it as a question. “Yes”, I say. The omelette is good. The ham is juicy and the vegetable bits are fresh. The cheese is extra stretchy and I think to myself that it must be a fancy cheese of some sort because it has a deliciously pungent flavor. I feel like a tourist in places like these. It is my version of traveling. I am the only one here alone. I check to see if that bothers me. It does not bother me this time. I finish my omelette. I feel full. Full with food. Full with people. It is time to go home and read. I am sleepy.
You grow accustomed to the quiet. It becomes a blanket. It keeps you warm and insulates you from the world. You could reach out. You could speak. But the longer you wear the blanket the less you have to say. You lose interest in what is out there and since your very Self is out there you lose interest in that as well.
Art is a reliable mirror. One you can depend on. You find your despair in a jagged guitar line. Melancholy in a minor chord. Loneliness in a well-written, well-drawn comic book panel. Come to think of it, it is largely through art that you largely found and constructed your Self. There I found the validation, companionship and understanding that I sought…that I seek.
In your typical fashion you want to vacillate between idealizing this way of being and completely devaluing it. Between leaning all the way in or destroying it. You resist the urge. You decide instead to continue describing it.
When you stay under the blanket long enough the outside world becomes a dream. You walk through a supermarket and somehow the people seem less real than the song or the characters in the book. If the cashier asks you about your day you watch yourself respond as though you were but a passive observer.
You no longer know what you want and need. Your thoughts become foggy and your emotions are a big ball of everything and nothing. You lose the fragile calm and reach for the novel or the movie or the comic and….there you are. You find your Self. Not directly. Just the reflected image of different parts. Just enough to cobble together a modicum of solidity. Enough to get you through.
Is this living or is this just a life support system? There you go again, trying to categorize things into polarizing opposites. The truth is that it is both and everything in between. Day to day and minute to minute it means something different. You can, even if distantly, see that you use this to avoid life. You can stand one foot to the left and see a staggering sensitivity to art, a truly felt sense of why it is so important. A few inches to the right and you pat yourself on the back for your resourcefulness. One inch back and you can access the crushing loneliness. Four inches further and you see how in many ways you are never alone.
And now you have spoken. And you check in with yourself and realize that you don’t care if anyone hears; that the blanket is thick. And you know that there is something both wonderful and sad about being free of expectations but also, perhaps, short on hope. And you know you must feed yourself. Not because you are hungry but because you feel weak. And so you will eat.
Aged out of delusions. The restless hunger is there but you no longer hunt. You build your chest. Create steel on the outside. You still cannot bear the weight. Beneath remains the hollowness and longing you have always known. Humbled hopes and dreams. One breath. One without the hollowness or the weight. That is all you wish for. Nothing more.
The small square entryway at the side of the house was painted green, the plain cement visible where the paint had been chipped. It had but two steps. It was here that I would sit and play for what seemed—what is time to a child of six years?—like hours. Despite an ample backyard and a front porch I chose a place where my play would be interrupted by the coming and going of family members; an area where I could still track the presence of others. Did I know then that I wanted to be interrupted? To be noticed? I cannot recall.
Out of a stained and tattered beige tote bag I would pull out a couple of dozen green plastic army-men figurines and six or seven plastic dinosaurs. The presence of a King Kong and dragon figurine was, at times, a perturbation that I managed by leaving them behind in the bag. I needed the world that I created to be just so: a clash between humanity and the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic world of dinosaurs and reptiles. The anachronism of men was an allowance I could bear, the presence of two mythical creatures invented by men was somehow a blight on this world. There were already too many blights in my world.
I would begin by setting up the battle scene, positioning all the toys in whatever way was satisfying to me that day. I hated the army-men, all but the ones who were crawling on their belly. If there were to be any survivors it was them who would be the beneficiaries of my grace. Perhaps it is because they knew to supplicate themselves. Perhaps I simply enjoyed the design aesthetic. That too I cannot recall.
The result of the battle was always a forgone conclusion: dinosaurs would triumph over humankind and I would feel as though somehow I had won. And yet I recall being completely present in my play, somehow willing a suspension of disbelief to a script that I had already written.
As enthralled as I was in my fantasy world I, like a dog who raises one ear when it appears to be napping, was vigilant to whatever voices I heard emerging from the house.
“Where is P.?”
“He is playing outside.”
There was never negligence as it related to my physical well-being. This must have counted—it must still count—for something.
At the end of the battle I would take stock of the battlegrounds, surveying the casualties: the men knocked over dead, the few dinosaurs who sacrificed their lives to my cause collapsed on their sides. Among the triumphant was always the T. Rex. Even in play it would have shattered my heart to see him dead. I needed him—my avatar, my earthly defender—to live and breath.
Were I able to lose myself in this sort of play nearly forty-five years later I do not believe I would change the script much. And in that fact I find both comfort and disappointment.
Dream where I’m working in some sort of office. There is an abusive middle-aged man speaking to people in a rude and patronizing way. He brusquely tells me to make a copy of a large manuscript. I make the copy for him, go back to his office and hit him across the face with it. He falls off his chair and to the floor. He is bleeding and whimpering. I destroy the office. The other employees initially look afraid but then gleefully join in and join me as we smash windows and break computers.
I wake up. It takes me a handful of seconds to orient myself to “reality”. Immediately my heart sinks into my stomach when I remember I’m in my bed and that I have to live my day. I sit there for a moment and try to find that one reason…that one motivating factor…All I can come up with is “you have to”. I pour my cup of coffee out drowsily, wondering how on earth I’ll be able to do anything other than sit on my couch and see my clients. I give up. It is not even 8am and I have given up hope for the day. I’ll just watch it pass and try not to let the guilt eat me up. And maybe tomorrow will be one of those increasingly infrequent days when I feel alive.
“This will pass”. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Yes, it is true I won’t always feel this way. I might have a good day or even a good few days. And then this will come again. Whether it’s triggered by something external or I simply wake up in the fog for no apparent reason–it will come again.
It’s funny. The dream was sort of pleasurable. It felt like we were rebelling against something unjust. It was also awful. It was violent and anxiety provoking but it was okay. I didn’t mind it as much as the last two weeks where I have been dreaming of things that are sweet and sensual: people kissing me or holding my hand in a park. Those were far harder to bear because upon awakening I was left with my lonely reality. And maybe that’s what’s happening with my rare good days. When they finally come they only cause more pain. The good days, like the dreams, are just teasing me: giving me a taste of something that will get snatched away from me in a moment.
Everyday I am grieving a sort of endless grief and so I try to keep myself from it by not hoping for anything. If I can stay still and hope for nothing then I will not have to grieve. But it doesn’t work. This ancient grief: a childhood with glimpses of goodness and deserts of loneliness and fear and despair. Special moments and long bleak periods. I realize that this…is what my childhood was like. Waiting for that one day my dad would be in a good mood. Waiting for the excitement of a new video game. Waking up in pain–afraid to go to school with nobody to tell about it. This hopelessness was built into me and I feel trapped inside of it.
You wake up and the first thing you feel is a crushing weight on your chest that you are alive. Almost as big as the weight of the guilt you feel for not being able to actually live. You lie there staring at the ceiling above almost paralyzed. You are afraid. You don’t even know what you are afraid of but you’re constantly afraid. What finally gets you up is the reminder that you have to work to pay the bills. Just before you give in you play games with yourself. You wonder what it would be like to simply stay in bed and turn your phone off, to blow-up your own life and career. Or you imagine canceling every single one of them and getting in your car and driving away. But none of the fantasies are ultimately satisfying because no matter what you do with your actual life, you still have to face yourself. So you drag yourself out of bed and you start doing the things you always do. And you know you’re just surviving. And maybe the only almost-positive thought you have is: “fuck, I can’t believe I do this everyday–I could so easily just file a claim for disability, move in with my broken family and sleep all day”.
Elena – Part One
Elena entered her clean nondescript one bedroom apartment, successfully balancing the grocery bags in her arms while pulling the keys out of the door and shutting it behind her. These were the tiny triumphs of her life.
She was forty-six years of age and imprinted on her face was a look of defeated exhaustion. Her eyes eluded time’s cruelty by retaining some of their youthful luminosity. Though she rarely spoke she was ever watchful. The world was, to her, something to be privately observed.
By expecting no more of the future than what she knew in the present she found a sort of solace. Her life was defined by a quiet loneliness and the occasional simple comfort.
Elena put the groceries away and walked into her bedroom where she changed into an old baggy t-shirt and a decade-old pair of grey sweat pants. She sat at the end of the bed for a moment deciding what she would watch that night while fighting the urge to numb herself with food…
She had invited him over to her place over text last night.
“What are you doing right now?“
“Just finished work. Making dinner. Why?”
“I just got my roller skates and I want you to come over and watch me fall.”
He smiled. There was something sweet and childlike about her invitation. But he knew he was too tired to do anything. He took his time to respond.
“I wish I could but I just got through five clients and I’m exhausted.”
“Okay, your loss!”
“It really is.”
He returned to the kitchen and quietly ate his unremarkable meal: chicken, rice and salad. He was sad that he lacked the energy to engage in the simple play to which he had been invited.
As he got into bed that night he thought about how he loved her despite not wanting to be closer. There was a quiet understanding between them that their love required a great distance. With this distance they could lean into the warm feelings and let go of the hurt they had caused one another.
They had lived together for only a short time some sixteen years ago. In his tired loneliness he missed that moment before bedtime of watching her undress. He missed that final embrace and hearing her voice mumble a sleepy “I love you”. The memory became so vivid he had almost forgotten he was alone.
He moved his pillows and body to the middle of the bed almost as if to prevent any further memories or fantasies about someone being next to him. Almost as if to say, “There is no room here for anyone real or imagined.”
He thought of reaching out to someone but couldn’t quite imagine what he would say. He swallowed his pills, turned out the lights and went to sleep early.
He did not dream.
He wakes up bleary eyed and with the scent of coffee in his nostrils, the sunlight glaring through the broken blinds and into his eyes. He stares for a moment at the ceiling as if to find there a motivation to arise more inspiring than guilt or habit. He searches his mind for something to which to look forward. Failing at that he gets up anyway and stumbles toward the kitchen.
He pours himself a large cup of coffee, the hunger pangs in his stomach offset by his morning nausea. He takes a sip so as not to spill any on his way to his desk. Awaiting him there is his morning routine: bills, news, paperwork, work calendar. He receives a message from his friend. He sees the love in it as well as the containment required to give that love given his current state of despair and loneliness. His mind understands; his heart is broken. He knows the break was already there and that life simply has a way of reminding him of it.
He knows that it will be a trying day; that he will tend to people’s hearts while trying to forget the pain in his own. He knows that he will not reach out if for no other reason than that his hopelessness feels impenetrable. He sits himself on the couch and tries desperately to remember what his reasons are for being. Realizing that he is working himself into a panic he picks up a book of short stories and reads.
The story is about a woman who goes to Italy in order to avoid the pain of a recent breakup only to realize that the pain followed her there. He takes just enough comfort from this to stave off the anxiety. His nausea has passed and he returns to the kitchen to make two turkey patties. He eats them with his hands on the kitchen island while prepping the paperwork for his files. He finishes his meal and washes up the dishes.
A sense of dread overtakes him as he looks at the clock. Work begins soon. His patients will both save him from his despair and exhaust him to the bone. They will give him a reason to be—a dissatisfying one, but a reason nevertheless. He checks himself one last time for something to which to look forward. Nothing. He remembers his friend’s advice: tell yourself “I love you” throughout the day. He tells himself, pats himself on the shoulder and goes to work.
So much pain. You want to be held but it is dangerous to wish for that. It makes you feel small and, besides, you already cried the day away yesterday. No more tears. You refuse. Place the pillows on the floor in front of the television and go away. Pause for water and bathroom breaks. Pause to talk to yourself between episodes. You feel dizzy and weak. It means you need food. Force a yogurt down your throat and try not to gag. Eat it quickly. Get it over with. The vomit only reaches the back of your throat. Whew. That’s not so bad. Your real hunger will come at 10pm–then you won’t need to force anything. Need a break from the break. More numbness. Naked photos. Dissociative masturbation. How much time did that take? Ten minutes. What next? Back to the floor. You’re sick of your show but it’s a good distraction when you can let yourself go nto that world. Priests, psychics and demons. Silly, but good. It’s not the show you are sick of, it’s the way it seems like your only option. Text message. Reminder of the outside world. Like you are on a space station alone and you’re getting a message from earth. It’s getting dark out. Why are you sad that the day is ending when it seemed so long? Because of the guilt. You feel like the pain and the numbness is robbing you of a life. And tomorrow you will give yourself away to help others. And it will both give you life and wear you down. It will make you feel human and then, by the end, make you a husk of one. And you will return. You will be back on the floor next weekend recovering from the week before, wondering why on earth you bother at all.