Hard to sleep and impossible to dream

I. Hard to sleep

I meet to talk with the cynic for the second time in as many years. In my first entry, she had no name, but today, let’s call her Magdalene. Previously, she was all about godly concern—but this time, we leave God outside, leashed by the ornate door. He looks at us through the windows with baleful eyes rimmed in purpling flesh.

We come to you live from the gory insides of a new-wave coffee shop in an upscale Tokyo neighborhood. Geopolitics like mold on the mind, destiny like damage on our parts. We stir thimblefuls of white-dyed cottonseed oil into lukewarm, six-dollar beverages. Our focus today is the moral life. That vaunted playground of the confused young woman.

“I want to do good,” Magdalene says, eyes glued to her plate as she pushes a wilted French fry around.

“What is good,” I reply, bitterly. “Is your definition of good what someone on social media told you to do?”

It was mostly meant in jest, but when Magdalene looks up, her face is contorted—in surprise, in fear, in anger?—and I immediately regret the impulse to wound her. Why do I crack jokes when what I really want is to argue? Wouldn’t it be more honest to just pick a fight?

We pick up our phones for the ten-millionth time. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The alliterative quality of these buried names, finished off by lugubrious gold, activates something barbed and bloody in me. Wipe collective responsibility off our screens. Scrape this fate off our knees. The Magi could not have devised more poetic, more perverse gifts.

“Have you watched the Good Place?” Magdalene asks, eagerly, but with a certain shyness, like a church girl asking if I go to confession, probing me for a penitent’s heart. I imagine pouring out a libation of holy water into the mouth of the dog outside.

“No,” I say, sourly, though I have watched it by proxy through Strawberry, who patiently conveyed, at my request, each plot point from the polyester pulpit of our living room while I lay on the carpet, groaning and writhing in mock torture.

Magdalene talks like immorality is a pollutant, and morality, a bleaching agent. Molecules of disease and of purity. But, she insists, their movements can be charted, and therefore the stuff of life is to work to avoid, or attract, the right habits. For a while, I indulge this perspective, and we discuss its chief doctrine, which is a form of abstinence from consumption. The main thing is to buy as little as possible, because no amount of consumer research can conclusively clear any product of wrongdoing. We’ve tried and we’ve failed, and we commiserate now about our every attempt to perform the grand feat of a moral purchase, standing waist-deep in web searches in the middle of a supermarket aisle, speed-reading annual reporting on forced labor, carbon emissions, animal cruelty, water use, health and safety violations, sex crimes. Amateur excavators, trapped in a desert of objects, we reach to extract—with exquisite tenderness—the product from its nest but never fail to crush the surrounding ecology in the process. Our hands come away black, blue, and red, fingers clasped around a Temu gadget first seen on Tiktok. Zarathustra picking a t-shirt with a sequined collar off a Zara rack. Artemis ordering a sacred fawn off Amazon.

II. Impossible to dream

Magdalene and I leave the coffee shop and cross the road, coming to a candle that towers above all else. Within the ring of its light, fully aware of the dog-shaped shadows at our backs, we stare at the flame at the top of the column, trying to gauge how far the fire can grow before we are forced to put it out.

“I think we’re bad,” Magdalene starts, tentatively. The flame flickers coral and orange. Then, feeling braver, gasoline on the tallow of her tastebuds: “I think we’re takers, and not givers.”

I nod in agreement, though I am privately unimpressed, because I’d phrase this more harshly, and failure to name cruelties cruelly registers to me as willful ignorance.

I think of my grandmother, born in a village at the edge of a crater. Her ten blue babies, the indigo ash in her part. She gave until there was nothing left to give. I think of the beaded necklace of her DNA, laced through her descendants, all clinging to the long, winding supply chain of remittances, cinder blocks, and diamonds shaped like teardrops. Notches on a black ladder to the underworld. They give until there is nothing left to give. And yet—following a wobble in the universe in which I played no part—I am the lucky one. I get to live a life of precise, precious, pernicious luxury. I get to eat rhinestones and pretend to be a visionary. No, of course it’s not fair, but it’s more than just unfair—it’s more than I can bear.

Smash-cut to the present to find that Magdalene and I have arrived at the crossroads. She drags a two-headed, tattooed body. The body is the girl we had to kill to become the woman, the spell we had to cast to survive the transition, the poison we had to drink to inoculate ourselves against the plague. The sky is crème de menthe. The skin comes off the body in pink flakes like chips of candy paint. The yellow brick road like a stream of sweat, piss and gold. La vie en rose.

“Magdalene,” I whisper. “I’m afraid.”

“Why?” she asks. She holds a grimoire of laws in her free hand. I, a sword. Neither, in this case, is any form of power, until it’s turned back on its user. I try to decide how to tell her that I think the moral life is dead, that it vanished forever in the freezing vacuum between the incandescent atoms that string us together.

“The problem is you think humans are skin and blood,” I say, finally. “But I’m convinced we’re only empty space.”

The candle goes out. In the next moment, the horizon is aflame. A dog howls. I take a sip of watery coffee. Lightweight ceramic cup with glazed edges. Laminated menu. Overly crisp photo of a hamburger, cheese pooling on the plate. Laminate tabletop. Potted fern. Spiked Nike sneakers in a stylish colorway. Dollar-store earrings. Uniqlo button-down with stitching that smells like iron. Deep red dissolving into pure white, then back into red, and then into white again.

Magdalene waits for my final blow. We act like this is a duel but in all honesty, I don’t even have the strength to fight myself, I say, my legs crumpling, and she breaks into tears.

1 comment

  • Takers, huh? And unlucky grandparents… Was grandma’s life really so clear? Is ours? Maybe, back then, being closer to the darkness, it didn’t feel so heavy… Like, it’s so hidden away now; does that let it build-up? Perhaps, buried beneath the “precise, precious, pernicious luxury”, we let its taste ferment?

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