Category: Life

Didn’t mean it when I said it

On a Friday night, on the 100th floor of a glitzy hotel, I am standing in front of an elevator in cheap kitten heels and an ill-fitting black blazer, posed in front of double-doors that open with a chime.

Outside, the June evening is approaching visual perfection, which it will possess for three minutes before the sun sets: the full moon, its face shining as though with perspiration, a mountain range of huge, bulbous pink clouds, the clear sky, depthless, shiny, perfect blue. In a trance, I watch the vista evolve in increments: the clouds shifting from rose to wine, then to deepening gray, as the sun puckers like a kiss and flickers out. Below, Tokyo sighs in relief. Dark magic can begin now, in earnest.

I’m working in hospitality for the day, directing passenger traffic in and out of the elevators and towards the bar lounge, the front desk, the conference rooms, and the outdoor viewing platform. The men are in navy tuxedos and the women in sparkling jewelry and soft, skin-tight dresses in champagne, camel, chocolate, and cherry-red colors. Their eyes skate over me as smoothly as a dropped needle sliding against the grooves of a record. The fact that they don’t spare me a single true glance as I indicate the way to their seats is a comfort. It gives me time to inspect their straight-backed posture, and arching walk, and floral perfume, and sparse, lilting conversation, which I do with all the stealthy ardor of a hard-boiled detective. Tonight, I am one of the millions holding up the walkways that scaffold the lives of the uber-rich; it’s a world I normally see only at a distance, through a gauzy veil. Now, for a few hours, I can observe it through a magnifying glass.

There’s something about this world that feels profoundly childlike—naïve, dumbly sweet—and also malevolent. Like a honeyed dream with a layer of creepy white noise. Something about how a girl holds herself, arms crossed tightly over her chest, her expression both closed and pained, like scabbed over wound. Something about how a man looks out over hundreds of miles of electric lights and jumping taxis and takes a small sip of his forty-dollar drink. I totter on my heels, feeling drunk. A silent television is playing a loop of orange-red NASDAQ tickers; the news anchor makes exaggerated faces as the numbers drop precipitously.

I think of a playground I visited with Strawberry, during an evening of similar weather, but diametrically opposed feelings. I was free to roam, then, and I ran on the sand in worn sneakers, no claims to my time or emotions. I yelped as I slid down the slide. We sat on the swings; the tang of the unvarnished iron cables and railing clung to the skin of my hands, sour and bloody.

Time She Stopped

The days are hot and the air, impossibly wet. The tropical humidity feels as encompassing as a full-body slap of churning, green seawater. Retreating indoors to escape the onset of summer weather, she nonetheless feels its attraction acting on her like a physical need. At noon, she looks out with sleepy eyes from her window into the depths of the green and yellow backyard: a quick glance, but long with desire.

The world is a drawer of patterned cherry wood with tidy, detailed carvings etched into its borders. She believes she can reach blindly into it, giggling at the childlike pleasure, and withdraw an endless series of palm-sized prizes, all worthy of her touch and attention, all arriving fortuitously, like symbolic totems suggestive of grander life plans, precisely at the right time for her to capitalize on their message. She is bright and full of potential. She thinks that this fact entitles her to something.

She’s not picky; she’ll settle for success, joy, or love. She needs only one of these to justify the roiling boil of days lived at high-speed, at high tempo, at high cost. She just needs to pass one exam, to run one race, to finish one creative project, to get one chance to hold her head high, to feel the blood-red, rushing pulse of trust in herself, radiating from her body in the resonant wave that could finally still the anxious, anticipatory trembling she’s been feeling—somewhere between her skin and muscle, somewhere between her eyes and brain—ever since her earliest memories as an ocean-sized dream cocooned in the protoplasmic shape of a quiet and flighty child.

Turning back to her desk, she flips idly to the end of the chapter she’s reading, trying to gauge how many pages are left before she can allow herself to abandon the book for the day and wander outside. Even her hobbies now are dogged by pressures of completion, of success measured in achievements like “read Thomas Pynchon”. Her heart circumnavigates the globe as she reads. Outside, the shadows lengthen, and she watches as darkness descends like something winged and betaloned: a lengthy glance, but short on patience.

Cult of Hecate

It feels like the first day of real summer weather. The sky is cloudless, luminous, and impenetrable. A shell of forget-me-not blue sheltering me from the shards of glass threatening my mind. On darker days, the shards dig in, like cloves embedded in an orange, but now, my face upturned to the leaves trembling in the breeze, I have a feeling that sunshine could purify me of any poison, even if only for about fifteen minutes. Not a cure-all, mind you, but a brief holiday from my own pessimism, vanity, selfishness, and the various terrors that parasite my heart like fuzzy mold on soapy bathroom tile.

The light feels both healthy and decadent to experience, both impossibly sweet and nutritionally whole, like angel food cake with the properties of boiled spinach. Gold crystals of nectar and ambrosia littering the ground. I forget to be annoyed at minor things, to hate the way I look, to complain internally in a long-running monologue that spools out behind me, dragging my step and stooping my shoulders like a spurned witch’s spell. I forget to live life in the obsessive first-person.

Can I get over myself long enough to care about anything else? In this economy? In this society? The fear is, if I stop keeping myself in hyperfocus, I’ll lose my footing. I’ll fall into a bog. There, I will be slowly preserved in acid, emerging forty years later as a saggy, pickled apparition, eyes half-lidded as I flip through the same three Netflix categories in a room crowded with stained and out-of-fashion box-store furniture. I’ll have let the world swallow me whole, with nothing to show for it. Another cog in the machine. Another brick in the wall. Another chord in a forgotten song. Another view on a video. Another poster on an endless feed. I won’t even have been happy.

Around me, the breath of life. The sunlight like an arrow. The greens look greener than usual; the blues, bluer. Earthly vegetation has an alien quality to me: its veiny undersides, its gooey resin, its mottled textures. I am only at home in a city environment: its hot concrete, its predictable signage, its belching vehicles. Even when I fantasize about a quiet life in the mountains, I can’t go longer than a minute before cutting off the dream at the head without a gasp of compassion. I trawl for a piercing, poisonous canned line: Where will you get Claritin, in your cottagecore fantasy?

So I resign myself to the inevitable, in which I reply to emails and spend thirty minutes trying to copy text from a hardcoded PDF from a plastic desk chair, every day until I die. I insulate myself in nihilism like a tottering old woman in a huge fur coat, and then enjoy the indulgent pain of self-awareness like a pack of cigarettes hidden in a deep pocket. Take a long drag and bemoan your privileged life. Get addicted to Internet doomscrolling, just like your ancestors wanted. Fight the impulse to feel better. Go for a walk, observe plant life growing magnificently in polluted air, achieving that radical, unthinking hopefulness that you deny yourself with all the bleak glee of a deprived parishioner, and then return home, draw all the curtains, and wait, bitterly, darkly, for the end of all things.

Adrift in the Tokyo Reverie

Lavender Nikes, star-patterned navy blue leggings, and a puffy pink snow jacket. She is no older than five, and her mother is pointing at images of food items in a picture book, pausing each time to let her daughter identify and name them aloud. “Tamago!” she yelps, looking up for approval, and her immediate joy at her mother’s answering nod is so entirely pure and so hopelessly unabashed I have to look away.

Tall, like an overgrown weed. He stops me as I am exiting the subway to tell me his full name and that I am exactly his type. I am wearing a baggy, black-and-white sweater with a skull on the shoulder, ill-fitting jeans, and ragged sneakers. Not exactly the peak of archetypal feminine allure. There’s a nonzero chance that this is a scheme to entrap me in one of Tokyo’s many cults, but there’s a charmingly boyish breathlessness to how he waits for my answer, eyes shining anxiously, as though with tears. I briefly consider pretending I don’t speak Japanese but he doesn’t strike me as a creep or a threat (though “conman” is still, I remind myself, a distinct possibility), so I level with him.

“I’m already seeing someone,” I say, keeping my tone light, friendly, patient, without any hint of reprimand, like a kindergarten teacher explaining a moral lesson to a child.

An almost immediate rejoinder: “Then, how about being friends?”

I have to smile at how expeditiously he is managing the encounter, zooming from romantic hero to self-imposed friend zone without missing a beat. He doesn’t appear disappointed in my rejection, which is equal parts suspicious and funny. I ask him to tell me more about himself; this expression of interest in him seems to put him on the backfoot, but his answers are surprisingly bashful, earnest, and descriptive, eroding my distrust. His name is Yuta, and he is a college student who likes to surf. I tell him where I am from, in the vaguest terms possible, though not my own name.

Yuta, if you are not, in fact, a scam artist, I hope you are doing well today. Actually, even if you are a scam artist, I wish you well. I wish you the best of luck in love and life.

My mind is a wave breaking against the shore of my body. Sitting in a coffee shop, hands shaky around a mottled ceramic cup, I think about living out numbered days, one foot in front of tragedy until it finally catches up. I look out the window and spot myself, walking down the street. I am physically unassuming: short, small. My hair is long and unruly. It’s almost spring, and warm enough that I have traded my cable sweater for a soft plaid shirt inherited from my brother. I am looking up and forward, eyes distant but focused, as though I could discover some cosmic truth hidden in the sparse clouds on the horizon. But when it comes to this life, the less I know, the better.

Playlist for Twisted Psyches

A modern girl, she wakes with a tension headache from too much screen time. She checks her email, toothbrush jammed in her mouth, scraping distractedly against her gums. Eyes held away from her face in the mirror, towards the reflective gem of her phone screen, the bright primary colors of her inbox glowing, she jumps with sudden fear. A tersely worded message from a credit reporting agency has arrived, urging her to check her current credit rating or face the crippling fate of certain identity theft. It takes several attempts to log into the agency portal, her thumbs pushing hard against the glass screen as though she could brute-force it, heist movie-style. When she discovers the email is just a cheap ploy to get her eyeballs on the agency’s American Express offers, she throws her phone onto the couch, betrayal transmuted into stinging chemicals flooding her bloodstream. As if she had been warmly invited to a neighbor’s home, only to find, once at the threshold, that the invitation is a pretense to sell her Tupperware, or Girl Scout cookies, or a shovelware game involving glistening 3D jewels that will parasite on her phone memory, or a rectangle of hard silver plastic with a 20.99% APR .

Onto social media, that paradise of lethargy. Her eyes glaze over as she scrolls. She wants to stop, but to stop would mean leaving the insulated warmth of the algorithm. If the algorithm had a scent, it would be expertly blended, tranquilizing lavender, evoking a high-end salon, the satin inside of a wealthy woman’s handbag, a field of delicate cosmos flowers in a high-definition, framed print. Everything about the experience is designed for maximum minimum-effort comfort; its bedroom covers of achingly sweet songs, its pastel-colored infographics, its pithy parade of funny, lovable tweets. It feels good to be cushioned by the soft waves of gentle, non-threatening information. The chambers of the algorithm are inviting, and she moves among them in a daze.

Even when she is shown something sharp-edged, like a news photograph from a war zone, or a video of a stray dog limping along a road, the algorithm quickly moves to soften the blow, to anaesthetize the sting of the cut. This is how she can go from a clip of a woman frosting a cake in rainbow colors, to a partially censored shot of a bleeding child, mid-scream, to a sunny video of a musician in a suburban backyard, strumming a ukulele. Her fingertips travel across their faces, almost like a caress, as she passes them by.

It’s not that she’s unaware of the world. If anything, she knows it too well. She is a sewer rat swimming in blood, head held just a fraction above the current. The knowledge shimmers ruby-red just outside her field of vision. If she dives down into it, in comes a deluge that quickly overwhelms: headline after headline, bold lettering on a black background. The regular news is bad enough—murder in a parking lot, the moon full above, armed robbery gone wrong, yellow tape hastily slapped on the brick walls. But beyond the gridlines of the daily periodical, beyond the guidelines of the law, lies another world that the modern girl knows perfectly well how to access. Clicking on a few buttons opens a portal to it: a world of gore, hounds, and wild terror like a fast-moving river. Traveling through this hidden world is like walking an endless open field filled with deep, invisible holes, like miles of pockmarked flesh. Breathing quickly and shallowly as the sky coldly observes the creatures moving below, so dark the air rests over the body as thickly as velvet and as unsettingly as a stranger’s presence.

From a young age, the modern girl has seen content on the Internet that she should never have seen. In this, she is one pinprick among millions: a generation of half-formed brains in fully formed bodies roaming a desert of horrors. Shrill calls to 9-11, bootleg crime scene photos, forums for the suicidal, personal recollections of prolonged drug abuse that end suddenly one day in 2013, followed only by a reply gone answered (“does anyone know what happened to her?”). A feed of content that, like a medieval painting of the underworld, is red, yellow, orange, black. A hundred-thousand faces contorted into identical expressions of pain.

So many have judged the modern girl for her cynicism, her outward bitterness. They don’t know her nihilism is not a product of apathy, but of repeated exposure to unreasonable, inexplicable, unjustified, and deeply unfair pain, and to, particularly, her observance of this pain colliding against the high iron wall of generalized public indifference. She has watched, again and again, as the victims, bloodied wrists banging against the locked door and shuttered windows, are forced to withdraw back into the field, to fall back into its pits, again and again. There’s nothing as cruel as the way we live, so exhausted by the end of the day by the stupidities of what we do to earn money that we can do nothing but make excuses, skirt around the discomfort, and play endless cellphone games.

The cracks in her schedule—the thirty seconds that she sits on the toilet, or the occasional foray into the flesh realm, as she crosses the street or commutes on the train—are hurriedly filled with the off-white drywall plaster of posts, videos, and 500-word newsletters. She has to avoid even a second of introspection. When she looks up, she sees others doing the same. Another young woman, eyes hidden by the shadow cast by her woolen beanie, licks her dry lips as her pointer finger slides across the glittering diamond-face of her phone. The modern girl watches her, waiting for the traffic lights to change.

Down on my luck

I once read a short story in which a young girl living on the coast is alarmed to find scales growing along her body. With each passing day, the reach of the scales expands, like flowers seeding and transforming a field in a season. Reedy, wind-swept green blistered by pollen into a lake of tender-petalled forget-me-nots. By the end of the story, the scales cover every inch of her skin, and the girl is forced into the sea by the demands of the metamorphosis: a sad, unwilling mermaid. I think of the origin myths that cast humankind as a kind of ancient, aberrant fish that stumbled blindly onto land and never again regained entry into the paradise of the ocean. Now we live forever longing for the underwater kingdom, its sequin-lined surf, the swept-up bangs of its velvety waves that conceal the deep-set eyes of the millions of gilled, topaz-colored angels below, buzzing with bloodless mystery.

Imagine that we all retain the invisible coat of scales, an inherited legacy with an oceanic origin, the same way some Greek legends claim we are all halves of a whole. We go through the world lugging them around like a heavy coat. I hold a fallen one in my hand—a half-moon the color of a dull penny— and feel distaste grow into a wave of nausea. It feels like breathing in car fumes and feeling the heady haze of destabilization. To be too close to yourself, both the good and bad, to feel your weakness so acutely, to understand your failure intimately, to recoil from everything you are.

By building relationships, changing locations, writing words, I give away scales. Sometimes it’s close to a sacred act. Other times, it’s transactional. A scale for a scale. An exchange of trust. There are ex-friends, lost to time because of my neglect, who know a part of me, a black-eyed chunk preserved in amber, better than I do myself. Often, the loss of a scale is purely accidental, and this is how there are strangers in other dimensions who hold onto shards of me. The woman who saw me cry in an airport lobby, for instance. The older man who tried to pick me up, at 14, at a Spanish train station.

I have a few scales that I’ve peeled, not without some force, off my body and hurriedly buried in the topsoil of a municipal park. The children’s plastic playground equipment watches me carefully, as I look around in fear, wiping my muddy hands messily over the front of my jeans. Sometimes, the scales reappear, dirty but whole on my doorstep, and pitying myself, I bend down and slot them back into place.

The scales I have inherited from my parents are cracked, veined, soft gold and silver. If I press too hard, I unwittingly leave behind the permanent imprint of my touch. Maybe that’s why the scales feel worn-down to the point of crumbling fragility. They are a family heirloom in the realest sense, the product of touches from many generations, some much less well-meaning than others. A hand-me-down that has known love, pain, truth, threats, and wounds treated with too little medicine. If any part of me is haunted, this is it: the ground-down scale that jangles like keys at my wrist joint, its damaged sheen now closer to urine than gold, manhandled by men I never knew, but delivered with the rest of me at birth like a love letter, packaged in frilly strands of DNA like party streamers.

Some of these dead men visit me in dream, as if trying to repay the debt of their sin. Their arms are laden with gifts, as gilded as the artifacts of lesser gods. They have my mother’s sad, glittering eyes. “It’s too late,” I say, cradling the receiver against my ear with more tenderness than I knew I had. “I’m sorry, but it’s too late.” Their melodrama curdles then, into fury, into the mindless frenzy of a shark scenting blood, whipping cities of coral into pieces. I cast my gaze aside. You think I cling to this bitterness with any amount of satisfaction? You think I don’t wish it were different? I do, desperately. The punishment is as much mine as it is yours.

The most treasured scales are time capsules, not of “better times,” but of memories stripped of meaning, leaving only sensation. Sitting on a train, watching the Pacific fly by. Dancing with my adolescent brother in the kitchen, our cheeks red with embarrassment. Pressing my ear to the curve of a shell. When I die, pale and denuded, some of the scales will crawl back to share the grave with me. They will whisper to me of their travels. I’ll know, then, how far and how deep my soul traveled before returning, on its hands and knees, to me and my polluted seas.

Yield to the serpent and the woman

Carpal tunnel, in its very early stages, sings through my wrist as I lift my hands to type. I make a mental note, for the millionth time, to sit straight, elbows tight against my chest, with my feet planted firmly on the ground. It’s one of many such notes, joining an eclectic, 80’s coming-of-age comedy posse that includes “Stop scrolling mindlessly,” “Eat more complex carbs,” and “Self-flagellation is what you do best, but it’s a talent better wasted.” A many-sided die spinning at high speed in the smoky air, an RPG game in which all outcomes lead to that final, darkly humorous message, written in cursive above my sleeping head: “You’re going to die, someday, and you probably won’t like it.”

Live from Nihilism News, edginess has been out of vogue in your generation for at least ten years. What we want now are the learnings embedded and wisdom conveyed by a 15-second clip of a manicured set of hands tearing the shrink packaging off a tube of luxury lipstick, followed by another clip of the same hand spreading the lipstick—sheep fat colored oxblood-red with chemical wizardry—along a freckled Cupid’s bow. That’s the philosophy we’re committed to now, and we will ride this rollercoaster straight into whatever pulsing, backlit, sponsored fate the future has available for free download.

Outside, the snow has been falling, in fat, fluffy flakes, for hours. Snow coats branches, windowsills, fences, bicycle seats and handlebars. The last time snow fell like this, in this city, the year was 2018. As the sky darkens, the snow banks remain, insulated by the chill of the air, faintly illuminated by the fluorescent lights of the school next door. I have written before about the transformative effect of winter snow: its capacity to shape the landscape, both outside and within. Watching it come down never fails to jolt me out of my current state of mind and shift me, like a gear change, into another one. It reminds me of the personal and creative metamorphosis—the revelation that would make life feel worthwhile—that I always hoped was possible for me. I’m still waiting for it, like a child lost at a theme park, anxiously waiting by the concession stand for Dad to emerge from the crowd of strangers, arms open wide, and scoop her up. In the meantime, the message above my head, proudly portending my demise with all the hyper energy of a “Hot Dogs and Popcorn Here” sign, continues to flicker.

I often have this feeling like all the blood in my body is being drawn inwards, toward a point at the exact center of my chest. There, the blood swirls like a rainstorm before clumping together, congealing stickily into a large, red-black mass like a ball made of scarlet rubber bands, or a wet lump of rose-red bubblegum, or a pound of flesh. It travels, like a roach along a countertop, into my throat. I heave noisily. It moves into my brain, forming an embolism there that immediately cuts me off from the past and present, leaving me stranded in the mutilations of the future. You’re going to die, someday, and you probably won’t like it. You’re going to continue to live, and you don’t know for what purpose. Play another 15-second clip of a girl dancing, slightly off-beat, in a huge, white-walled suburban bedroom.

I am not afraid to grow old, but I am afraid of becoming a missing person, which appears to be the fate of every woman over 40. A woman, in pilly sweaters and sensible sneakers, uneasy but quiet on her dark green velour sofa as her husband and children unhinge their jaws, saliva dripping down, in preparation for devouring her alive. I am afraid of sacrificing my last shreds of authenticity, harbored like a buried secret in a forgotten tract of land, at the altar of expectation. I am afraid to lose the leniency of youth, the charitable excuses made for its excesses. I am afraid because the many uncertainties that have come to characterize my young adulthood show no signs of ceasing.

Meanwhile, time continues its game of knucklebones. I become the victim in a fairytale: My hands wrinkle and contort. My back and neck seize in the middle of the night. My memory loses its grasp on the joys of my past, but retains a powerful, everlasting grip on the shame. The people on who I once relied entirely retreat farther into a maze. I follow, motivated by a flood of desperation stronger than any fear of humiliation, my feet knocking loudly against the cobblestones—but the person I find at the turn of a corner is not someone I recognize. Picking up a fragment of mirror cast onto the stones, the blood in my body reacts in a gory wave, receding from my numb fingers and toes, washing up onto the shores of my teeth and tongue. Holding the mirror up to my face, I don’t even recognize myself.

Star Queen Nebula

On Christmas Day, Strawberry and I watch the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. We sit on our coffee-stained two-seater couch, on either side of his ancient laptop. The footage from the launch center in French Guiana is grainy and low-resolution; its colors are muted and grayish. A primeval rainforest watches through the windows. Masked technicians in slacks and polos stare intently at their monitors. One grabs a phone from its receiver and cradles it against his ear, brow furrowed intently. The room radiates the same chilly sense of apprehension as a hospital waiting room. A timer in the right-hand corner counts down.

While we wait for launch, I look up images of the telescope. For now, it has been folded and packed away into the rocket but, once it achieves full deployment in space, it will expand and transform into a pink and silver rhombus with a reflective yellow hexagon mounted atop it like a jewel on a tray. I click through similar images, inspecting it from other angles. From the front, the bright yellow hexagon—the telescope’s mirror—is as vivid as neon lettering against the night sky. Its form seems so unlike the archetypal telescope, which I think of as a heavy metal tube with two directionally opposed ends and an obvious function. I could be presented with such an object and know instinctively where to position my eye, how to aim it at the heavens. The James Webb, in contrast, looks lithe, weightless, alien, inscrutable in its purpose. It looks like an artifact of a lost civilization, lodged deep in the Siberian tundra, or a prop from a weird, cryptic film made in someone’s suburban backyard on a shoestring budget, or a device fallen from mythical Eden, originally made for exclusive use by gods and monsters, and never intended for human hands.

The rocket fires. Yellow, orange, and red pixels wash across the screen in a frenzy. Within minutes, the James Webb has zoomed into orbit. It begins circling the planet, hitting checkpoints that are announced with austere regularity at the launch center. In lieu of real-time footage, a 3-D simulation of the telescope hovering over the Earth plays over the live announcements. The only true image comes from a camera attached somewhere to the rocket apparatus, which captures the telescope in sporadic shots during the final segment of the televised launch, when the telescope separates from the relative safety of the rocket and leaves for space. From this angle, in the strange lighting of space, the departing telescope looks like a silvery-white, vaguely squareish object: a shiny foil yogurt lid suspended against a black velvet background, or a dollop of mercury on a dark tabletop. 

“This will be humanity’s last view of the James Webb Space Telescope as it moves to its workplace about a million miles away from Earth,” the broadcaster says. Suddenly, I feel my chest seize with emotion. Bewildered by own reaction, I twist in its grip, removing myself from the feeling so I can observe it clinically, coldly, from a third-person perspective:

She, Emma, feels tears come to her eyes as the hunk of polymer, gold-coated metal, and graphite chugs further and further into the void. She swallows the feelings down to avoid (a) unjustifiably anthropomorphizing a telescope to cope with her own experience of loneliness, and, (b) attracting the attention of her partner, which would be unaccountably embarrassing and might incite a show of comfort on his part.

Emma doesn’t want comfort. She wants to boil in her solitude forever. She needs the shield it provides. She is committed to being radically honest about this need if it means she can cling to it forever. When comfort and love approach her, peaceably, kindly, she steps back immediately, eyes red, and warns them not to touch her. They are giants: huge hands, loud, warm voices. She is bubbling over with a flood of fear that leaves fat blisters on her mind, precluding any possibility of cool-headed temperance.

The blade she carries in her sweaty fist, small though it is, was flattened by an anvil made of her own flesh, cooked at three-thousand degrees, and then sharpened on the whetstone of steel-edged, bitter feelings. She strikes out in panic and the blade sinks in with zero difficulty, cutting meat, bone, and emotion as easily as sponge cake. Comfort and love, divided now into soggy chunks, lie on the sidewalk, and she hovers above them, jittery with adrenaline, still holding the knife. 

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, many miles above and away, proceeds onwards with no knowledge of human dramas, individual or collective. It moves gently, a buoy floating in the soapy, star-laden froth of space, but unflaggingly, towards the mysteries of its fate. 

Gambler’s Fallacy

Autumn, again. The screendoor is flecked with sticky, translucent clusters of moth eggs. I discover, in the leg of a pair of work pants as I collect the laundry hanging outside, a suzumebachi (sparrow hornet; sometimes called “Asian giant hornet”). It approaches me full of determination, like a bullet, as though following a straight line forward, carved there by true purpose. Its eyes are dark and almond-shaped, like mine.

I sit by the window, face propped up by my fist, elbow against my knee, legs crossed in the swivel chair. There’s something about early November—the hours of moody cloudiness, the damp, chilled air, bare branches, numb toes—that makes it easier than usual to cross that splintered threshold that separates controlled consciousness from sloppy daydream.

My resume-certified qualities—ability to multitask, attention to detail, power of concentration—disappear promptly into a bed of red, brown, and yellow leaves. I slide away from connected, cogent thoughts and fall through a crack in my mind into a frigid, empty room. I can remain there for hours, more object than body but with shades of both, like a pink slab of deli meat on a styrofoam tray. Time passes like water dripping, pus oozing, oil spreading over the limpid surface of the ocean. When I snap back, it’s three in the afternoon and a dog and a crow are locked into an escalating duet, and a woman unknown to me is standing by the plum tree outside.

At five thirty, I collect my backpack, into which I stuff my thoughts and desires, and descend the elevator into a dark evening lit only by passing hazard lights. A couple of men smoke languidly by the convenience store. Fatigue taps me on the shoulder, but I don’t turn around. I cross the road, pulling my orange coat tight against me. Autumn, again.

The Path of Atalanta

I have this feeling of walking through dense gray mist, dimly aware that the cliff’s crumbling edge lies close ahead. If I avoid the fall, it’s only luck that saves me. If I keep walking, it’s only because, try as I might, I can’t configure a different choice. Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It won’t bend. It won’t compromise. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. What could be mistaken for strength is nothing but streaks of blood, pooling in the chalky, pockmarked terrain of the cliffside.

I hear the repeated ding of a morning alarm, and then the warning blaring of car horns, the muted shuffling of papers, the gurgle of the water cooler, the unspooling of toilet paper, the uptempo tread of commuters, the notification bell from my cellphone. I put on whatever is trending and let it pass through me like an undigested meal. All the while, the mist from the cliff follows me like a tiny cloud. A gray shroud.

When we go to bed, it’s still there. I reach to feel its texture between my fingers. The mist isn’t inert. It bulges around me with a mind of its own. Its touch on me—cool, indifferent—reminds me of picking up and squeezing a cold peach at the supermarket, probing its flesh for ripeness.

Unable to sleep, my thumbs press against the screen of my phone, bringing it back to alarmingly bright, gold-toned life. Strawberry stirs, so I carefully arrange a pillow between us to shield him. At 2am, the night feels contemptuous, unfriendly. A hostile, imperious guardian with my best interest at heart, but zero tact in communicating its concerns. It glowers through the windows. “You’re doing this, again?” it asks darkly, as I navigate to my browser, resenting every second. But soon enough, I know, it will have come to accept the inevitability of the situation. The bitter night and the choking mist will crowd around my shoulders and dive down, headfirst, into the torrent with me.

I catch up on the latest Twitter drama—banal, petty, a waste of time for everyone involved. Sometimes, it skirts too close to a real pain point, and we all flinch at the near collision of online garbage and authentic emotion. Thankfully, an Internet Samaritan arrives with a hilariously chosen meme to ward off the sting of reality. I check the news—sad, and even sadder when it ends up referencing the Twitter drama. Content, which springs eternal from the font of the fanged Big Five, yanks me into a vortex that manages to both torment and satisfy. Ads pop up. Pleas to subscribe. Wide-open mouths on a clickbait thumbnail. Canned laughter. Trolls in the comments. I scroll and am fed more nutritionally void content.

I reflect, and find that even my reflections on this process have nothing substantive to offer. “The Internet is bad? Cold take,” I think to myself, self-pityingly. It’s too one-note, so I redirect towards the emotionally and artistically fulfilling parts of the Internet, which do exist, and which can be as rewarding as impeccably timed crescendos, perfectly peeled fruit. I read the latest pages of a webcomic, the most recent update from a blog, an ancient entry from a delightfully odd web-only novel. I find a directory of online journals styled after Geocities. Acid green, deep purple, low-res, rotating gifs, blinking HTML marquee. For an instant, the web is an oasis, cherished, fertile, its flowers and insects living in unrestricted abundance.

But I go forward, only to then double-back. Back to social media, where the longer I scroll, the less alive I feel. The night and the mist, sensing my agitation, jostle newly for my attention. Each promises a different remedy. One seeks to triumph over fear through moonlit clarity. Look at the beast in the eyes, the night says, voice like the arc of a sword swung through the air. The mist swirls around the crescent of my ear and mutters, joylessly: The path is easiest to walk when you can’t see where it goes.

“Wait. ‘The path,’ meaning what, exactly?” I whisper. “Like, life? My life, or the concept of it, or what?”

The mist shrugs. These apparitions speak only in riddles.

Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. The mist morphs into foggy memory, tenuous but real, finally resolving into the vision of my mother, at forty-five, kneeling against the floor as she cards through her drawer of silk scarves, a thousand stashed underneath her bed, all heavy with the blended odor of cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5. I sit on the mattress, legs dangling, watching cool-toned daylight, bracketed by the window blinds, slowly enter the room.