The Vow

As I exit my twenties, I am becoming more aware of my body and its constituent elements. Its constraints, its habits. Its fires, its fluids. Its voids, its veins that newly throb, ocean-blue. When I sleep poorly, I wake up to dim, watery light, feeling, at the center of my hand, a faint, inconstant twinge, as though my body were a chord being played from a far distance.

My face has settled into the granite mask of a total stranger. I look in the mirror and don’t understand who is staring back. But though the whole refuses to coalesce into something that feels mine, I can nonetheless pick out shards of features bearing familial resemblance, borrowed from reservoirs of blood from my mother, my father, and my brother. I don’t feel like a self but like an amalgam of ancient metals that ooze and pool over my expression like banks of clouds occluding the light. Depending on my mood and the hour, the composition changes, like the riddle of the Sphinx; in some variations, I favor one dark-eyed relative more strongly than the others and then, in an instant, the allegiances change. Bent over the laptop, hair in my eyes, I am my brother’s twin. Smiling wanly at myself over fuzzy online conferencing, I see my father lurking in my face. But I expect I will age, despite all vows to the contrary, into a poor imitation of my mother.

The sky opens like a wound. I sit by the windows and watch rain dribble down. The world outside is a growing splatter of darkness. Wilderness served on a platter, and I pick at it distractedly. When lightning flowers, unexpectedly, in my field of vision, I feel myself clench like a fist. So distant from the dominion of nature, in this sterile cloister of millennial life, I forget regularly about the very existence of lightning and thunder. Buried in work, consumed by its million little agonies, I have felt time pass not naturally, but as one colossal, suffocating mass. Not even the wide-eyed face of nature, panting at my window, can shake me from this dream.

I feel my heart seize at the thought that I am twenty-nine and still don’t have any idea what I’m doing, still don’t have a face or life or character that is fully mine. I imagine, across the rooftops, past the telephone lines, that lightning strikes and a thousand ships with billowing sails cast off, content to leave me behind to weep inconsolably, face in my hands, the skin of my knees cut up by the sharp and algae-mottled rocks of the bay. One captain takes pity and yells back, before the ships disappear into the clouds, a final admonition: You court the sublime but must settle for the conventional.

The storm closes up. The sky stitches over its wounds with rays of light. I think of the cold air outside, which stings but is also a respite. I court the sublime but must settle for the conventional. In doing this, I break the most sacred promise, which is the one I made to myself at age seven on a playground on a sunny day, hands scratching at the sand, back during a time when it was possible for me to look out onto the waters of the future and not fear their depths. But this isn’t quite the truth. What holds me back is not imperfect knowledge of what is to come, but imperfect knowledge of myself. What holds me back is fear of what I can do, and fear of what I can’t. I talk too much. I achieve too little. I am still trying to trust myself with more than almost nothing. Forgive me, and then forgive me again.

Ritual

Is this a good world? The question comes upon me like an unwelcome visitor on a day as clear as unblemished glass. My mood thrashes like a fish in a bucket. Is this a healthy world? To grant myself the opportunity to ponder this question in the fullness it deserves, I pause what I am doing, which is watching an endlessly looping video of a delicate, blue-veined hand with cream-tipped nails spreading green jelly polymer over a broad ceramic tabletop. Is this a good world? Is this is a healthy world? Is this a good—

The shadows of our time speak volubly to the crowds, standing in puddles of light with microphones close enough to kiss. They talk truth; they talk lies. Either way, it doesn’t matter. In the audience, I try to drown out the speech by turning up the chunky dial labeled “white noise” in my mind. I do this more and more, these days. I zone out and find it harder and harder to return.

Is this a good world? Is this the world prior to doomsday? How long can we live here—living too well, at too outrageous a cost—before something reacts? Is this a healthy world? What if it isn’t, and what if we can’t get better? What if we don’t want to? We know there will be no mercy for our behavior in the future. How long can I ignore the signs of the ritual about to take place?

The more I think about current conditions, the more I feel myself come apart. Zoning out feels like wedging my body into a crack in the wall while a storm voids itself above me. Zoning out feels like a safe haven. I struggle, in plain sight, to keep all parts of me connected and, when I fail at that, I retreat into that gap in the wall where I can’t hear the thunder anymore, where I don’t have to negotiate to keep my body together. Looking back now, I realize I have favored this response for far longer than I should have. The zone lives somewhere in me now.

Is this a healthy world? To heal it, I’d crawl into the blood-splattered center of a pentagram. But I’m not the medic. I’m not even the victim. I’m a symptom of the disease.

Olympias Prana: A Biography (III)

Chapter X: Anyone

With the final destruction of President Tadpole behind her, Olympias found herself obligated to look to the future. Resuscitating the city meant, much to her chagrin, allying with former adversaries and building political alliances. For a woman who never quite matured past her cosmic girlhood of chaotic orbits and blood-colored stars, and who nursed emotional wounds exceptionally poorly, this was easier said than done. Olympias was, at her core, a rebel, and never a diplomat.

But, in the beginning, when rebuilding in the literal sense was more essential than politicking, New Matanzas fared well under Olympias’ guidance. The extensive underground network of bunkers built by the Lamb family meant residents had minimal need to loot critical infrastructure for supplies and could rely on bunker inventories for baseline survival. While hardly luxurious, the bunkers performed the key role of ensuring the survival of non-survivalists, which is to say, ordinary civilians with peacetime-relevant skills. In virtually all other would-be metropolises across the continent, only preppers and low-power androids made it through the Black Decade and, with paranoid survivalists at the helm, the urban fabric in these locations quickly and irreparably tore apart. Preppers, the New World quickly learned, do not often make strong civil servants.

New Matanzas also benefited, in a twist of irony, from the interventions of President Tadpole. While Tadpole’s policies had been inexorably linked to the AGI’s eventual goal of ending the existence of humanity based on the precepts of its Artificial Gospel, Tadpole’s AGI had nonetheless managed to rebuild the power generation network, run integrity checks on all main buildings, and purify the water supply. These tasks were completed with its own longevity in mind: power, shelter, and water (for coolant) are all necessary for an AGI’s server farms. But they also were instrumental to the survival of the human residents of New Matanzas, a fact which did not escape Olympias’ notice. “It may have tried to torture and kill me,” she wrote in her diary. “But it knew what it was doing.”

(more…)

Lesser anguish at a Tokyo department store

Riding the escalator down eleven floors of faux leather, perfume clouds, and mirrored tiles, I hold my breath as though plunging into a pool or crossing a cemetery. This department store is a dead thing. Garlanded in exotic flowers, costumed in extravagant fabrics, anointed in precious oils. But dead, nonetheless. Not one object here could convincingly raise my spirits.

And yet, in this ecstasy of consumption, I know I could linger forever. A ring of marketers have conspired, artfully, calculatedly, to keep me here. They traffic in subtle adjustments to lighting, to the positioning of hallways and escalators, to the organization of aisles, to the shades, symbols and typographies of laminated banners. The final outcome of their many focus-grouped maneuvers is that though I have no desire to buy, I still manage to lose alarming amounts of time here. I spend ten minutes, for example, fully absorbed in the contemplation of several different plastic components of indeterminate purpose. The touch of packaging is velvety and pleasantly textured, like peach fuzz speckling a cheek, or like rabbit skin. My mind wanders as my fingers trace circles over the colorful branding, the ingredient list, and the edges where the plastic label is peeling away. The crown, gospel, and heresy of the Kingdom of Product. Artificial light casts its cool celestial glow onto my veiny hands. Chilly air envelops me like a shroud.

When I can finally tear my attention away from this polycoated Elysium and back into the fleshy folds of my body, I become aware of an intense strain building within me, composed, strangely, of opposed forces: the overwhelming urge to get out of here as quickly as possible, coupled with the irrepressible desire to remain, to live out life among nothing but a pantheon of dead things. But if this sensation confuses me, it is only for a moment because I soon realize I have felt this category of paralysis a million times before—on social media, that poisoned, lethargic Eden: the pressure to stay, though what I want most desperately is to leave.

I slot the product back onto its shelf; it topples backward, resting on its side awkwardly, exposing a fractured corner of the packaging. Have the jewels of modern life always had this cursed quality to them? Has progress always felt so psychologically damaging, at times even stupidly painful, in the way that wasting time on a futile task is painful? What does it mean to improve my quality of life? Am I here for any reason at all—besides buying and consuming a million dead things? I have a sense that I am feeding, but with no nourishment involved. I have a sense that relief is impossible, because I am addressing a need that does not exist. Just out of sight, a leviathan is roaming the tiled floors. Its trailing viscera smells like artificial peaches and cream.

The Great Extinction

Because tenderness can be misconstrued as weakness, because weakness means vulnerability, because vulnerability can lead to pain, and because pain reminds us of our mortality, we live in a world that favors pleasure, invulnerability, strength, and ruthlessness over those fragile fragments of the human experience that make this life worth considering in the first place. I have seen how a show of tenderness will make a man an object of scorn, and a woman, a victim of tragedy.

If only you knew how bad things really are. I know when I am in the presence of greatness, not because I have some special ability to discern the wheat from the chaff, but because greatness insists on making itself known. We each, after all, have a receiver attuned to the sudden beauty of a sky acceding gracefully to the hugeness of nighttime. But greatness is an issue of scope, not philosophy. Its bruteness can fall on me like a blow. I walk through the city, for instance, and amid the flickering traffic lights, painted roads, pulsating crowds, I feel the awful greatness of extinction press on me. Nothing about this current life, I feel, can last.

So I entrust my life to art, because it is the only company I know that can soothe me. Art remains the only greatness I can let myself witness without fear or shame. I read books that don’t help me decode any of my present worries, but nonetheless serve to calm them. I watch movies and let myself cry with emotion at their purity—not the purity of their morals, but of their expression. I talk to someone new with as much earnestness as I can muster, because all too often I can let an encounter pass me by without paying homage to the accretion of tenderness in how a stranger extends a hand or moves to let someone else by, and I know we will not get the chance to know ourselves and each other like this forever.

Do no harm

Healing from the past is something more prosaic than it seems. The past is a foreign country and wounds inflicted there don’t fall under any health insurance scheme. I show my bleeding hand to a physician but she can only prescribe topicals that disappear into my skin without providing relief. The pain is dizzying. I try to read her face as she ushers me out of the room, but her expression is flat, illegible, either because she knows better than to deviate from cool professional neutrality, or because I am too out of it to detect the twinges in her eyes that might reveal a reserve of emotion.

Outside, obscenely colorful ornamental hedges line the concrete steps. I briefly panic. I let myself feel the sensation for a moment—horses frothing at the mouth, muscles straining to break into gallop —before crumpling it up in my hand like a gum wrapper and stuffing it into my pocket, to rediscover later. A sparrow vaults into the air and I follow its flight path with my gaze. Jealousy drains me like a syringe.

I know by now that holding a grudge is petty, puerile, and poisonous to everything green and golden in my life. But underneath the bandage, I keep the wound open.

Distill me

(A successor of sorts to Hypercritical)

A tiger-eye marble rolls slowly down the side of a cream-colored bowl. Orange flecked with gold on white. Anemic phoenix crawling across the snow. The marble comes to a stop at the center of the wide base, where it trembles, tears, and transforms into a teardrop. I flip the bowl over like a top hat in a magic trick and press a finger to my lips. Under the circle of the bowl, the teardrop morphs into something else.

This is what I’m thinking about as I walk the streets of Tokyo, sweat dripping down my back like streaks of paint. My shirt sticks to my skin as securely as if I grew it myself, like a pelt. I can’t bear to look at the sky. White veined with gold on blue. Scars leaking onto the meat of my midsection. Somewhere close by, a better version of me roams. I can feel her presence like a memory of a drive I’ve tried to forget.

The teardrop is a polyester dress. It’s a red ring in the water tank. It’s bad teeth. It’s a pearl glimmering wetly. It’s peach juice dripping down a hairy chin. It’s a carry-on with one busted wheel, dragged around a mirrored floor. It’s the devotion I felt and no longer feel. It’s the devotion that lingers like the flavor of blood. Jasmine in the hot dusk air, and time moves forward like a creature in the water.

Transmogrify

“Anxiety” is an ugly word. I think I’d prefer it without the final y. Anxiet sounds like the name of a shield-bearing, green-robed muse from antiquity, someone forceful, proud, and prone to fits of theatricality, but also fair-minded, charismatic, and thus much-loved by many. Rising while it’s still dark, she patrols the cobblestone streets with a pair of swords crossed across her back. In the battle of 3300 B.C., Anxiet leads a legion of one-hundred into a mountain pass, where she dies a hero’s death. Her enemies recover her body and garland it in white lilies before burial.

Drop the x, and the name takes on a sugary, modern twist. Aniet is a cool girl, and she and I do shots, which is something I have to imagine because I’ve never done it myself. Aniet disappears into a crowd that beats like a heart and returns with two silver elixirs, one in each of her gaudily beringed hands. She tips the whole drink down her throat; after a pause, I follow suit. What I appreciate about a light buzz is the permission it grants to be vulnerable which, with Aniet, naturally kind, a master of giving and taking, feels luxurious, intuitive, and right.

With the disappearance of the n, Aniet becomes Aiet, something airy, primordial, elemental. A molecule that was there at the start of the first day of the first year. On the shores of the ocean, no one but she sat to watch the hazy sun rise through misted, strawberry-colored skies. No one bathed with her in the pale waters. No one felt the stinging echo of the future calling back through time nor understood its warning. No one recognized the fatal grace of a world about to begin.

Return all the letters to their appropriate locations and send the word like a dagger whistling through the air. It flies inches past my sleeping face, waking me instantly from restless sleep, before vanishing into the sound of my ragged breathing. I get up, threads of sweat twisted over my back, and pace the cobblestone courtyard, beneath an unforgiving moon. The night is as still as a panther and as long as love. The only person I can talk to won’t be awake for hours. I finger the petals of the cut flowers in a vase on our dining table. No one sees me sit on the couch, staring dumbly at my hands.

The terror

I feel the terror follow me wherever I go. The terror is shaped like my mother, aged twenty-nine. Her long hair is the color of hot, oily espresso, of dark deer hides, of tan desert landscapes. On an alien planet, there are sunsets cast in the same shattered amber as her eyes. I turn around and catch a flash of her unsmiling expression. There’s a trail of freckles across her nose—a feature she had lost by the time she became my mother.

The terror tracks me down the street, into the train station and then onto the rapid express. Suburban Tokyo speeds by in a parade of squat, cement-block apartment buildings and forlorn pine trees. The sky is a patch of cloudy blue that appears only occasionally, crisscrossed in telephone wires. I can smell the artificial scent of her shampoo. Something sweet, frothy, approximately tropical. I count the seconds behind each breath—three in, three out—and try my hardest not to retch.

She follows me into a labyrinth made of tall garden hedges. At the labyrinth’s center, inside a pavilion of wood, the terror takes on a different shape. We cross swords under a red sky. I say everything I need to say. I hold nothing back.

When I react in anger, I feel the terror. It’s a wave that the ocean of my memory will always remember. When I break a boundary, I feel the terror. It’s a pit with no bottom. Soupy darkness that coolly eliminates every sensation. No, it does more than eliminate sensation—it erases my defining traits, like acid. It renders me less of an identifiable person, the way wind and time corrode a body into a corpse. In the presence of the terror, I can feel myself actively decompose.

I read my writing and see the terror everywhere. I see myself trying to reason with it, and, when that inevitably fails, I see myself plead with it. All the strength in me can keep it at bay only a little while. Pinpricks of blood dotting the margins. There’s so much anguish in my diaries I shock even myself.

But I feel the terror most acutely when I have no desire to write at all. It’s not that the terror takes away the desire. It’s that it knows how to get me to reject the desire, so that even writing brings no relief. Clothed in cheap chain-link armor, I feel the terror approach, an ochre sun at its back, with its strongest weapon. My mind trembles in total panic until even the panic subsides, and then I am left with nothing. My soldier’s shield lies in pieces in the pavilion. The terror takes the only way I have to express myself and casually, with no trace of violence, snaps it in half.

Petalismos

Her head aches behind her cheekbones, as though her mind were a ball of fire lassoed by cords of skin. She does her best approximation of a gentle smile as her work colleague explains his frustrations with a client. We both have so much more to offer, she thinks, but you’re a work friend and not a friend friend, so I can’t tell you that. We spend minor eternities here, together, entombed in synthetic ferns, dusty glass, and printer paper. We should be honest about our experiences. But there’s a vast and indispensable firewall in place when we interact. I see its flickering aquamarine flames when I lift my eyes from my laptop screen. A warning. We couldn’t be close, she thinks, and still do this job.

A dove with red eyes occasionally travels between them. Beneath its wings, out-of-office, vulnerability is admissible. “I don’t often tell someone the truth,” he says to her, on a Wednesday during lunch. She is ripping up a paper napkin—slowly, methodically, as though stripping the flesh off a bone—in her lap as she listens to him talk about his life outside of work. Beyond the eight to twelve hours that he spends clicking around the vapid and crushing universe of a PowerPoint, he has dreams, desires, many variants of darkness that bide their time before rapidly multiplying and, occasionally, overcoming his defenses.

They talk “purpose.” They talk “meaning.” Two notions as intrinsic to modern life as breath and heartbeat. They’ve had to exile both from their minds in order to take an office job and not die of cognitive dissonance. To discuss them now fills her with raw, divine emotion.

“I’m a negative utilitarian,” she says, somewhat loftily, somewhat intoxicated by the feeling of talking so freely. “I am focused on minimizing suffering and maximizing joy in the people around me. That’s all the purpose I need.”

For almost a minute, he says nothing. He looks up at the ceiling and then back at her. The dark brown of his eyes glimmers with something that is almost tears, the way the sound of a single guitar string is almost mournful. “Don’t you wish for something bigger than just that?” he says, finally. “What are you doing with your one life?”

It’s a gamble of a cliché, but it connects. Twenty-nine in 2023, and she holds her fifty remaining years of consciousness in her lap and, distractedly, thoughtlessly, is shredding them, one by one. Blood on her fingers. Petals in the soil. Something swells. A boom of noise. Flesh beneath a blister. Water approaching the shore. It surges onto the look on her face, and she finds she can no longer pretend.