Hypercritical

(A successor of sorts to: Hypervigilant)

On location, huddled behind a huge and craggy boulder with the wind howling at me to get OUT, I hurriedly sweep the few things scattered around me into a bag, with the exception of a dirt-stained spiral notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen, which I clutch to my chest as though they were treasured relics. My hand seeks the pen with the certainty of a bird charting its course toward home. Fingers crimped around it, I think of the events unfolding around me and, brow furrowed, eyes closed, I put them down on paper. Writing it down is an act of profound intimacy between myself and her, but I try to stay distant. I am cool-headed as I try to relate, to explain, to analyze. But it’s hard, in the middle of reliving a memory, to unglue these two minds of mine. I am caught in the sticky, hazy, jewel-toned marrow between the past and the present. Even as an observer, my emotions participate; they balloon out from my body, even as I restrict myself, physically, to a strict perimeter around the boulder.

In the past, unfolding right before me, she staggers through the desert, hands crudely bound. Sand swirls around her feet and fills her field of vision with rays of rough and chalky bronze. The wind picks up, abruptly, cruelly; it yanks her off her feet and sends her tumbling forward. In the present, stealing glances at her fallen form from behind the boulder, I am clear-eyed. I don’t hear her cries. I don’t step out to rescue her. Instead, I crouch back down to record what’s happening in the fairest possible language. In describing the events, I strike the exact right balance between understanding and condemnation.

She gets back up; she tries, bravely, to resist the desires of the indifferent wind. When she collapses again on the dunes, face and hands rubbed raw, her breath coming in shallow, harsh gasps, her skin purpling under the dusty apricot and gold of the sunset, I don’t interfere. I watch from behind the security of the boulder, my fingers digging into its crevices. Everything will continue on. I can’t change what happened here.

(more…)

Galatea, Associate Manager

I rub my face with the flat of my hand. Behind my eyes, a fractured kaleidoscope slowly rotates, releasing small shards of multicolored glass that fall onto my lap, radiating light in the dimness of my bedroom. I brush them away. On weekday mornings, I can’t wallow in what I’d rather be doing with my time. For now, all that matters is the eighty-slide deck in front of me: a leviathan of cruelly misaligned bullet points and unruly fonts over which that I have been agonizing for nine weeks. What did people in this industry even do before the advent of PowerPoint?

I am painstakingly shifting a cursor left and right, a million micromovements involving one calloused fingertip against the chrome mousepad. No crusader has ever felt a stronger commitment to the divinity of struggle than I at this moment. PowerPoint leers at me, its red-orange icons twisting in the periphery of my vision. Its torments are numerous and varied. I have spent the last hour of my finite life changing the typeface of select words from normal to bold, obsessing over my selections, begging God for the guidance of infinite wisdom, and then reverting the changes in a fit of pique.

Professional work, a career, a “sector,” a CV like a beaded string, in which each glass bauble represents a new attempt to configure an adult identity, to carve out, from the mottled clay of endless days, the shining form of perfect purpose. When I explain what I do to new acquaintances, I use words like “liaise,” “craft,” and “grow,” stirring these terms into conversations in a lofty tone, generally striving to cultivate the impression that I am a conjuror communing with the deep from within the darkness of a cubicle. In actuality, I spend most of my time neck-deep in the minor intricacies of a slide deck, every wrinkle in my satin blouse illuminated under pitiless white bulbs, while pretending not to notice the tensions flaring around the water cooler as two suited sixty-year-olds, each drawing from a seemingly infinite well of moss-covered grievances, circle each other with toothy grins and vacant eyes, like wary, tail-thumping predators returning for a final showdown on the savanna.

Free from Pygmalion and in search of pure freedom, Galatea steps off her pearly bed and boards the commuter train. She drowns out the sounds of rattling wheels by way of chrome-coated, teardrop-shaped earbuds. Brushing her hair out of her face, she casts her gaze around the subway car and lands on me, a figure clumsily pressed against the door, the strap of my bag digging into my shoulder. She meets my eyes and fixes me with a disdainful look. She can see the churning seas within me and finds my lack of courage, as I sit in my canoe rattled by waves, unable to seize the oar, contemptible. I shrug. I understand her disdain. I even share it. But some of us have relinquished the need to find work meaningful, though we still light a candle, in the dead of night, for our former, and now long-lost, fantasy of the future. That fantasy is a crystalline vision that splintered away to flower in a different universe, leaving behind only a few shards embedded in the mind. But Galatea doesn’t care about the mourning I’ve already done, and the closure I think I feel. She only sees the outcome, and she despairs.

At the office, I glue myself to the PowerPoint with all the joyless energy of a black hole. I click idly, squashing each imaginative, unproductive thought that stirs from the muck of my mind-at-work with methodical, emotionless totality, as though vacuuming up a frothy, bronze-colored galaxy. The dusty glow of the stars, seized in a fist of spacetime, twists, warps, and then vanishes. The light at the back of my brain dims and goes out. Nothing is left in the small, tender place where my dreams used to live. But the best (worst?) thing about dreams is their infinite powers of resurrection. The kaleidoscope doesn’t stop turning. Galatea doesn’t give up. Tomorrow morning, I will wake and, hand groping for my phone lodged somewhere in the sheets, my mind will bump into the revived fantasy in all its cosmic, catastrophic lust for life. Galatea will meet my eyes again on the train and smile, this time, with new faith in my ability to be a vessel for true purpose. “Quit your job,” she’ll mouth at me. “Do anything else.” The sun will flash through the windows as I turn away, heart aflame.

Contrapasso of the butterfly

With a disconcertingly cheerful chime, my phone announces the arrival of a text from Gideon. I shift my attention over to the rectangle of light, underneath the bed covers, that glows like a predatory fish at 20,000 feet. The text is encased in a chest of forest green that appears as soon as I pick up the phone; I open it with a press of the thumb and absorb, rather than read, its message. Its few lines catapult off the screen and fall over me in a dark wave. The words are disfigured, somehow and, in reading, they disfigure me. Gideon has had a panic attack.

It’s not a good time for feelings. At present, I am in the wallowing in the damp, chilly swamp between the moody pool of sleep and the acrid desert of wakefulness. I am refusing to enter the labyrinth of the rest of day which will involve: coffee, news, coffee, e-mail, e-mail, e-mail, coffee, self-loathing break, PowerPoint, e-mail, e-mail. Possibly I have understated the prevalence of email in that list. If I have time for Gideon, it is only in the splinters between one task and another, when my attention will falter and catch on the thorn of my recollection of his message, and I will think of him pacing his bedroom, or forcing himself to eat lunch, or scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, or lying on the couch with his face pressed wetly to the dusty cushions.

His trust in me terrifies me. He’s told me about his panic attack, apparently without any thought to what I could do with the information. In the past, I might have felt perverse pleasure at receiving such personal revelations. A missive handwritten in blood and addressed to me is proof of my success as an advisor, a confidant, a companion. It’s proof of power—power to plunge my hand through a mask of flesh and expression and extract the broken shards of a confession, a secret, a promise. To be trusted with vulnerability is to be well-regarded, respected, cherished as a friend. But reading the text from Gideon now feels like being handed a nail bomb. Its jagged edges pierce the palm of my hand. It escapes my grasp and pinballs relentlessly around the bare corridors of my mind. Its power is obvious and frightening.

He’s had scary thoughts, he says. He’s sought out professional assistance, and it hasn’t helped. I am not surprised, though I am still disheartened. “I am working on it in therapy” is a sentence I cannot parse, even though the phrase is deployed so casually now it’s easy to accept it axiomatically, as a basic truth of our modern world. I think of a therapist as the Virgil to a patient’s Dante; they may record, console, reassure, even guide and reframe, but they cannot change the fundamental principles of the underworld. A guided and annotated voyage through Hell is not a useless exercise, but it is also not useful in the way Gideon, self-aware and self-hating to the end, needs. But then again, what do I know about what he needs? I am still searching for the sequence of words that would unlock his peace of mind, though I know, from the cruelty of experience, that I have never possessed the ability to summon the angel, to hasten the healing, to produce the cure. Each attempt only manages to cause more harm.

I wish I could tell Gideon this: I don’t ever feel life is worth living, either. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s the wrong question. I don’t look at a black and yellow butterfly, shredded on the concrete outside my front door, and wonder if its life was worth it. A butterfly leads a life lacking in fate, purpose, or worth. It flies past the archangel Gabriel and doesn’t recognize him. Its life and ours are different but fundamentally the same, in the way all shapes of the weather emanate from basic properties of the sky. Does that help you to feel less unworthy—the notion itself that “worth” itself it not worthy of consideration?

I know it doesn’t. I know it strikes you as a flimsy, indulgent rhetorical exercise. A cheap square of plywood when what you need is a bridge of solid oak to cross a black gulf. We stand there, together, at its opening, where the dry earth forms a trembling lip that threatens to crumble and then cascade down into nothing. We stare down. We belong to that darkness below but it does not think of us anymore than the ocean thinks of the fish that belong to it. We hold our lives—yours, mine, and the butterfly’s—in the form of palmfuls of red sand, held tightly in the undecorated chalices of our hands. I am trying to convince both you and me to tip the red sand back into the vials in our pockets and experience what we can in this wasteland of occasional beauty. I am trying to summon the courage to touch your arm. To be a comfort to you when I cannot be a comfort to myself. In the end, we will be lost to the mouth of the wind, and whatever dust we leave behind will never tell the complete story.

Olympias Prana: A Biography (I)

Chapter III: Earthbound

In 2250, after the death of her mother, Olympias returned to Earth. “Shell of a woman,” she wrote in her diary, in all-caps, referring, possibly, to both herself and to the dead woman, who returned with her in the form of a thimbleful of dust contained in a heavy silver locket.

Olympias was nineteen and had no known relatives to welcome her back to Earth. When she stepped off the shuttle onto Howard Field, located in Matanzas in the former Republic of the Unreal, the wind from the rotor blades whipping through her dark hair, there would have been no one to receive her. She would have walked, head bowed, down the sandy line between the shuttle terminus and the gray quarantine tents, where she would have been checked for evidence of space pathogens and parasites. According to the shuttle inventory list, she had one piece of luggage with her: a squarish, military-green suitcase. Inside, she had packed four khaki overalls, her acrylic Mars ID, removed from the subcutaneous fat of her upper arm for space travel (though Olympias never had it reinserted, as she failed to report to the identification facility after reentry), a quantum knife, a 200-ml bottle of injectable gravity adjustor (though no syringe), and the silver locket belonging to her mother.

Her mother, Lizzy Prana, had spent the last year of her life in complete agony. P. Passiflora, a rare space parasite named for the blossom it resembles at the microscopic level, had trapped her for ten months in the black prism of parasitosis-induced paranoia. P. Passiflora can lay dormant for decades; today, it is speculated that she may have picked up the parasite during her late twenties, while in the employment of Antimony Howard as a backrooms janitor. Olympias and the parasite would have coexisted in the womb and shared her mother’s blood. By 2249, when Lizzy was 48, the parasitosis had progressed to Stage Four, which in the clinical definition corresponds to multiple organ failure and, when this is not promptly resolved, certain death.

P. Passifora parasitosis was, at the time, fully curable with plasma therapy, but the cause of Lizzy’s death was not identified until the autopsy, possibly due to Lizzy’s existing and numerous psychiatric conditions, which may have led Olympias to believe that her mother’s symptoms were simply the acceleration, through aging, of ordinary space-aggravated depression. This produces a rather tragic picture of Olympias, panicked but helpless, during her mother’s final year. She would have been a daily witness to Lizzy’s slow, inexorable deterioration; Lizzy would have become belligerent—even violent—in her final months, before acquiring a preternatural, serene calm in the weeks before her death. Testimony of a victim’s relative from a 2215 legal inquest made into a mass P. Passiflora parasitosis event, believed to be a case of biological terrorism, described the final stage as follows: She gets quiet. She smiles. You think she’s getting better, but she’s not. That sliver of hope hurts the most. She doesn’t answer your questions. She’s getting ready to die.

(more…)

Routines of the Apocalypse

She did the calculations in her mind, lying supine on the bus stop bench by the boardwalk. Nearly six hours would be needed to walk the distance between the seaside city of Perla, where she now lay, and the capital city of Matanzas, where she would replenish her stock of food and shower in a stranger’s bunker. To get there, she’d have to travel the dusty coastal road and then the broken ground of the freeways into the city. Speed equal to distance divided by time. Sweat pooled between her breasts underneath her frayed gray wifebeater.

The summer heat was an orange blur behind her closed eyelids. It was nearing noon but she had little interest in leaving her perch. She scratched at her face idly. After a few hours of communion with the salt of the surf and the bitter tang of her sweat, the skin over the bridge of her nose had begun peeling, flaking off in red ribbons like pencil shavings. Her hand dipped down, knuckles grazing the concrete flooring. Towers of clouds cast uneven, bulbous shadows over the planes of her face.

(more…)

Panic attack

There are experiences in my life that act like time machines. Specific combinations of color, sound, odor, all churning together into a cyclone of sensation that I breathe in without realizing, like an unwitting sorcerer’s apprentice being experimented on by her master. A cloud of luminous gas resurrecting a previous time. Memory experienced as magic.

For example, while hurrying down a busy sidewalk, I spot a Coca-Cola vending machine, its side emblazoned with a model’s perfected face and upper body, her dimensions altered by the size of the machine into something an order of magnitude larger than life. Instantly, I am plunged back into the meaty middle of a sweltering Mediterranean summer, the crotch of my bathing suit riding up in the back, pellets of sand packed into the slimy layer between my skin and the black Spandex. I’m waiting outside, leaning against the brick wall beside the vending machine, sandaled feet toeing the dirt in the partial shade cast by a bar awning. My mouth is painfully dry. Every thought moves lethargically, like a stunned frog crawling through mulch towards the hazy promise of water. I pass the time by examining the model on the vending machine: her eternal smile, her slicked-back hair. The heat presses down like a huge wet hand curling into a fist around me. I am trapped on a family vacation to the beach, fantasizing about running away, feeling my emotions consuming me, like quicksand, but also growing more and more distant, becoming unrecoverable, irretrievable, jackknifing away when I try to hold on.

It lasts less than a second, but my experience of this memory is vivid, precise, and all-encompassing, grabbing my mind like a glove snatching a ball out of the sky. Inside the dark-eyed capsule of time, I remember what it felt to be living as this girl, in that body, in that mind. It was always dusk in my heart, then. Every part of me was exhausted by the fighting. I could summon neither the crystalline energy of day nor the meditative totality of night. I was a blurry, hazy point in between. I was anxious, ashamed, and impossible to love. I feared going home at the end of the day. I feared entering that starless, moonless vacuum, where nothing good could ever grow, where I—

The model on the vending machine smiles soothingly. The glass bottle of Coca-Cola sweats in her hand.

I blink and everywhere, everything has changed. I am back on the sidewalk, twenty-eight and carrying a canvas bag full of heavy plastic folders, already late for an errand. Cars roar past. I’ve walked past the vending machine and the memory has metabolized itself into a tide, then a froth, of feeling that bubbles around me before subsiding, leaving me untouched though not unharmed.

When I look at my writing from those times, I do have a sense that the girl on the beach didn’t get the chance to grow up and just died an invisible, undignified death. She was a comet crushed by orbiting bodies into shards of pus and plasma. She never knew real life or real release. In her place, I emerged, an adult with a mishappen soul, and I carry her decaying flesh inside me like a second skin. To travel back to her via memory feels as profane as reanimating a corpse. Every vein in my body twists into knots. Is this all I will be able to—

In Tokyo, looking up from where I lazily slide onions around a pan, I see a scrap of the city nightscape in the window: its dark and moody clouds, its red blinking lights. Tall buildings stare back at me. The dimensions of the window alter the dimensions of the city into something an order of magnitude smaller than life. I am transported again, but now I don’t know exactly where I have been taken. My hands are still my hands. My eyes are still my own. I am not remembering the past but the present. I am thinking about what it will be like to remember this moment, these moments, which stretch out in front of me like beads on a rosary. I am imagining myself opening the front door, coming up the stairs, and standing in front of myself in the living room. She doesn’t take my hand. She doesn’t speak gently. I watch her face change as she struggles to find the right words.

Long ago

The bottles in the bar shine like carved gemstones. The wooden stool creaks underneath me as I wait, shifting noticeably from one leg to another. My drink is served by a blonde waitress whose gift, I soon understand, is dispensing gin with a generous touch.

Nights in winter have a lonely, magical quality to them. Bodies passing in the dark. Shuffling home, head low, under blurry yellow lights. The sparkle of an eye disappearing beneath a chunky wool hat. Plumes of breath vanishing into the beryl-blue air. Every year, we are put under the same collective spell and it feels like the cold may last forever.

My buzz is like being deep underwater. Every thought is submerged. Every movement takes twice as long to execute. 24% alcohol hits on the fifth minute like a chorus reaching its climax, and I topple out of my life, out of my body, into a haze colored like fossilized amber, like dusty, veined silver. A sappy love song that I recall from my adolescence bleeds out of the speakers, reactivating an old wound that has scarred over so many times I register the pain not as pain, but as familiar warmth. Between bites flavored like rosemary, I sing along, noticing now the knife-twist of lyrics I failed to understand ten years ago, to devasting, fatal effect.

I know I have changed since then, but not in a way that I can neatly slot into a story of growth. No—I have not always changed for the better, not necessarily. Too often I have changed the way a bone breaks: abruptly, painfully, with no immediate sense of what happened and why. Very few lessons available in the aftermath. The shock of the impact is all that has managed to mark my memories.

I press my glass against my cheek and flutter my eyelashes at nothing in particular, the way I’ve seen the brokenhearted do in the movies.

Walking home, the night sky is like a party held in a stranger’s apartment, five floors above me. I stand and watch its lights flicker above me, listening to the faint, distant music of the stars and the wind. I take a deep breath of cool air, feeling like a drop of water buried deep in the brine pools of the ocean, feeling like a part of something that doesn’t know I exist. I am sober when I reach my front door. I drag my fingers across the metal frame, feeling its chill. I imagine my hand is a butterfly, the kind with dark brown spots that simulate a parade of open eyes. Its wings open and close in time with my heart.

Ambulance ride

In a chain coffee shop on a busy street, sitting in booth seats upholstered in wine-colored imitation velvet, the babble of strangers around us like a shield of white noise, Gideon tells me he’s been thinking about suicide. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he makes his meaning clear. I realize that the next thing I say will be vitally important. The thought is excruciating. He stares at me expectantly—I choose to say nothing. I don’t engage on the topic beyond a sad smile. Now, I replay that tape of the two of us, seated across from one another with mugs of flavorless coffee in our hands. I reexamine the arrangement of my face, reevaluate my performance: did that smile languish, even briefly, into bitterness?

Gideon is perceptive; he notes my discomfort and lets the conversation flow away naturally. But he is still hurting, and it’s only natural to pick at a wound. Eventually he paddles back to circle that point in the murky water. He peers into it, balancing his body against the edge of the canoe, getting the sleeves of his white t-shirt wet, while I watch from the shore. My feet sink into cold, coppery sand. The long, thin reeds that grow along the bank come up to my neck; stripes of amber gone purple in the twilight, their dry touch swiping across my jugular. When Gideon looks up at me, his expression is gentle, apologetic, almost tender; he must suspect this is not easy to witness. I know he is thinking kinder thoughts toward me than toward himself. But he doesn’t know this isn’t my first rodeo. He doesn’t know a more innocent friend would serve him better here.

Eventually Gideon calls to me, asking, in a tone that manages to be both mild and desperate, if I struggle with mental health myself. I take a breath and speak at length, drawing out words like stitches over skin, keeping my voice light, as balmy as a warm summer evening. I talk about the challenges of my childhood, the idiocy of my early twenties, the mistakes made out of insecurity, fear, and, sometimes, love. But I don’t answer the question. I don’t say “yes” or “no.” Gideon, always focused and attentive, nods, but we both understand that I am holding back. The disclosure of vulnerabilities he desired can’t happen. Some small and starry-eyed part of him slips, stumbles, and falls away. I hear the splash he makes as he makes contact with the water.

Later, I Google “what to say when someone wants to kill themselves” and panic at the thought that I did the wrong thing, again. Did I push him into the hole? Did I help him dig it? Did I chuck a shovel at him from the flatbed of a truck, and then drive away? Emotion wells to the surface then, in tiny, painful bursts, like blood through a pinprick-sized hole in the skin. I bury the feeling without looking it in the face. But it returns to uneasy life, waking me up at four in the morning. In the bruised, poisoned violet half-light of this room, I see Gideon standing there, at my bedside. His eyes are ringed in wet-looking shadows, like the circles of condensation left by shot glasses abandoned on a table.

I imagine driving through the night, my hands steady on the wheel, down a road through the wetlands. The puddles on the asphalt shine like mirrors. Parking on a wide shoulder seeded by raggedy weeds, I unfasten my seatbelt and emerge into the kaleidoscope of my life and its million mysteries. I lean back against the car trunk, warming my hands with my breath. Gideon hands me a paper cup of gas station coffee. We watch the pink-and-blue portal of the dawn sky slide open. He laughs at one of my wry jokes, and I can’t help but smile, with huge and unfeigned joy, even though the childishness of my emotion spoils the punchline. The early morning air is a treasure of light. It tastes like a potion of healing. Like something uncomplicated and pure. Something that grants everlasting permission to dream, as though everything is still only beginning.

Beauty secret

She is twenty-three years old. She is sitting on the subway, gaze trained on the smartphone cradled in her hands. Her biggest problem right now is that her preferred hair salon is closed for the next two days, and her bangs need a trim. Fine, feathery strands flutter over her brow and into her dark eyes like hanging vines.

She navigates to Instagram and progresses through a CAPTCHA, shaking her head gently to shift her bangs out of her vision. Her wrists ache with the weight of her bangles, two on each side, each adorned with a series of tiny gold flowers. The CAPTCHA is a three-by-three matrix of blurry, pixelated red chalices in seas of green. Please click on images with a red rose in a garden. 

The doors open with the sound of recorded bell and a stranger sits next to her. He rests his head back against the frigid glass, discretely watching her fingers fly across her screen. With Instagram unlocked, her feed is a ribbon spooling out: multicolored, endless. Her thumb pulls the forward motion of her feed to a stop on a video post called, tantalizingly, HOT GIRL TIPS. The woman presses play and bows her head over her phone, submerging herself in the world conjured by her AirPods; the stranger leans over, as subtly as possible, to read the parade of subtitles moving briskly in the bottom-half of the clip. His glasses slide down the bridge of his nose, coming to rest at its bulbous tip. The wheels of the subway car clatter noisily as it turns a corner.

(more…)

Empty mind

New year, new me. New year, new opportunity to stalk my soul down the corridor, across the river, over the mountain, and around my bedroom.

Sliding my pointer finger across my broken phone screen, I feel my skin catch and drag around the point of fracture, like a strip of fabric snagging on a thorn. I pull away from my phone before the jagged edge can draw blood and bring my fingertip in close for inspection. A dirty, gold-tinged half-moon straddling pink flesh, the fingerprint like crop circles or waves in a shallow pool, lazily approaching the shore. The skin remains unbroken, so I return to my scrolling.

I come across job listings littered with words that I recognize and use frequently, and that I still don’t understand, particularly not in this crushingly contemporary context. These are not words in sentences, but hieroglyphs strung alongside each other in a garland. “Best practices” of “brands” that need “cultivation” or “learnings” that pinpoint “space” to “pivot.” I am particularly intrigued by “brand,” because I can’t read the word without its second meaning bubbling up into the froth of my thoughts. To mark, with painful implications.

Living out my small life in a spiraling megacity, I often feel like an 8-bit creature composed mainly of a mouth roaming a spontaneously generated set of white-walled malls, hungrily swallowing products: ordinary products, but also lifestyle-as-product, ethics-as-product, individuality-as-product. Sometimes the marketing is devilishly creative, and the consumption at times satisfying—the equivalent of haute cuisine. But I am pursued by a hangover that seems to locate me no matter where I am, and an incredible, relentless urge to purge my body of the aftereffects of my things, as well as my job, my ambition, my aspirations, my expectations, and to keep only my little and lonely life.