It’s summer, and I’m hearing my landlady’s pets more than I’d like to. She lives upstairs and told me when I moved in that her animals were quiet. Clearly I was a fool to believe her.
At this very moment the landlady and her boyfriend — who listens to ESPN at top volume (another sound I never signed up for) — are ignoring their dog. It’s been barking for an hour. What causes these barking fits? Imagine if, when I saw something threatening from my window, I just stood there shouting at the Thing I Saw and Feared for an entire hour. That’s what it must be like to be this dog upstairs. How can someone share their home with such a fearful creature?
When I first moved here, I thought I’d finally be free of all the noise made by people in expensive, crowded cities. I came to discover that I have no patience for the noise small-town people make either. Because of the racket, I’m finding it difficult to plan an hour’s worth of improvisational games for the kids at tomorrow’s volunteer arts fair. At this very moment I’m lying on my bed in my underwear to beat the heat (global warming will soon kill us all), and each sound from upstairs — whether it’s the dog barking, the landlady speaking in a Dog-Loving Voice, or the squawk of her gray parrot — feels to me like someone turning the wheel on a medieval torture device.
I stare at the ceiling and decide that, if I’m going to continue living here among people whose every moment is devoted to noisy pets, sports programs, and doggy baby talk, I need to buy some earplugs. I also decide that this is probably not a problem experienced by any of the men on Gay magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors list, which I read this morning and which includes a number of people I used to know.
I ’ve biked halfway to the drugstore for the earplugs when something — something living — flies into my open mouth and down my throat. I have half swallowed a flying insect. I cough, gulp, wheeze — nothing I do seems to move the insect up or down. Why did I have my mouth open? I coast down a gradual decline and stop to get a drink from the water fountain at the public library, which finally helps wash the now-dead thing down into my stomach. I lick some droplets of moisture from my lips and try to act like just another Normal Person, but having nearly choked on a living thing is bringing on familiar feelings of dread.
I’ve cultivated many mechanisms for coping with this dread, which lately strikes me at least once every few hours. Today is day two of “Week Ten: Recovering a Sense of Meaningful Connection” in The Golden Road, an acclaimed book-length system of self-discovery for people who feel their creativity and spirit have been stifled both by other people and by their own learned behavior. And so I keep an eye out for meaningful coincidences, with another eye toward questioning the very idea that coincidences have meaning, hoping all this eye-keeping will make me feel Less Crazy.
Maybe I’ve been brought to this glamourless public library for a Cosmically Significant Reason. Maybe my dread is merely the overture before a more expansive feeling of rightness that awaits me if I venture farther into this harshly lit temple of knowledge. Some Other Part of Me believes that this is just a step in a process that will bring me closer to a saner life, a Gay-magazine’s-100-Most-Eligible-Bachelors kind of life.
With this new, productive, eligible life looming on the horizon, I force myself to do something spontaneous: I walk farther into the library, trying to act like just another Normal Person Walking into the Library, not knowing what I might find there or even exactly what I’m looking for.
All this is what I mean when I use the word coping.
I ’m told by people who talk a lot about Buddhism — non-Buddhists, usually — that confusion is one of the highest achievable states before the even higher and better-sounding state of enlightenment, which the non-Buddhist Buddhism experts always make sound like a warm bath of Feeling Good and Accepting Everything.
At this very moment I feel as if I am hovering in some purgatory between confusion and enlightenment. I wander the stacks of the library and wonder where dread lands on the scale of achievable states. With this fatiguing calculus of pseudo-Buddhist judgment going on inside my head, I find myself pulling a book with a bright-red spine from the shelf. The title, printed in blunt, blocky white letters on the cover, is Your Former Self Is Dying — a name so uncalled-for that my brain reels when I see it, and I laugh out loud. The subtitle is Understanding Your Saturn Return, which I know to be an astrological event — Saturn returning to the position it was in when you were born — that occurs at the threshold age of twenty-nine, the age I am at this very moment. I skim the introduction: “The first Saturn Return marks the end of youth and the beginning of the productive adult years. Unfortunately, only frustration and pain are sufficient goads to get a human being moving.”
I think of a T-shirt slogan I saw on a young man at the gym earlier this week: PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY.
Not sure what I believe about how the movement of the planets affects my day-to-day decision making, I start to leave the library, feeling I’ve found only more worries to cope with. Even so, I seriously consider checking out the book in case I later decide to try believing that I’m the kind of human being the author refers to in her introduction.
I can’t believe it: while I was in the library, someone cut through the lock on my bicycle and stole it. I stand staring at the abandoned lock on the ground: Astonished. Furious. And also guilty, because maybe I’ve manifested this outcome through negative thinking by some unenlightened Other Part of Me.
It was a white Schwinn Super Le Tour.
Feeling panicky, I start walking and doing breathing exercises while I consider my options: there aren’t any. My bike is gone, and the world and I are barreling toward annihilation at this very moment. Sweat is forming all over my hairy body. The planet earth gets warmer every year. I pass a play structure outside the library and remember that I’m expected to expand the minds of children first thing tomorrow morning. Weaving among slow-moving, nonpanicked citizens, I wonder how I ever allowed myself to make the horrible mistake of stopping at this public space on a Sunday afternoon. Everybody — i.e., the Public — is out. And this kind of thing — i.e., Bicycle Thievery — is what happens in public. I might as well have left my bike in crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro. Without it I feel marooned. I hear a passerby say, “I only use my computer for soulless activities anymore,” and I remember the earplugs.
This must be part of my Saturn Return, I think. I recall a friend in her midthirties back in Los Angeles telling me about this astrological beginning of the productive adult years. “You should get a reading, so you’ll know what to expect,” she said. “The entire time mine was happening, I felt like a ghost. I was like, ‘What is this? What’s happening to me?’ It was before I knew the first thing about astrology. It was only years later that all the pieces fell into place.”
All the pieces are falling into place for me at this very moment, though I’m not sure it’s a Good Place. That woman and I had a mutual acquaintance my age named G. who, I found out two weeks ago, committed suicide. She told me over the phone. I hadn’t heard from her in a long time, so when I answered, I launched right into my usual glib banter: “Can you believe I’m living out here in the boonies?” She let me talk, then said, “I have some weird news.”
I remember saying, “Oh, my God,” and, “That’s terrible.” I didn’t ask how he’d killed himself — I was too stunned to take in anything beyond the One Fact. I knew G. tuned pianos for a living, and I’d once gone with him to a rock concert and watched him put in a pair of earplugs to protect his valuable hearing. “My ears are worth a lot of money!” he’d screamed at me.
After the call I took a walk along the river, feeling strange, and came to the conclusion that tragedies like this serve to remind us of What’s Really Important in life.
This refreshed perspective lasted only a couple of days before life was again the ongoing and futile battle with day-to-day problems: the annoying sounds of my landlady’s flea-bitten menagerie; the education of the young; finding ways to feel Less Crazy; reading about Gay magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors.
The Golden Road advises me to acknowledge wounds and traumas but to move forward. My horoscope for this month tells me to “move forward,” too, and also that money is coming my way, and that the sun — the sun! — is “besieged.” The important thing in life is not to think about What’s Really Important in life, because it only reminds me that my life — as I’m living it anyway — is so unimportant.
At this very moment the sun is getting hotter overhead. Stuck downtown during the most dangerous time of day in the middle of a global-warming-fueled heat wave, I resign myself to stopping at an air-conditioned coffee shop. Caffeine is discouraged on my cruelty-free diet — daily caffeine consumption being a kind of deadening cruelty to the soul — but I’m desperate.
The young blond woman at the register is gossiping with a male barista. “I just died,” she says, and then she turns to me. “Hi, how can I help you?”
I, too, sometimes use the verb to die in glib, spontaneous ways — I’ve even done so since hearing about G. — and I think that, though people are dying every day and the death of our species is basically imminent, it’s still sometimes hysterically funny. But not today. I have to contain myself as I order an iced tea.
“We’re out of iced,” she says. “I can make you a hot tea, or we can do an iced coffee. Do you want an iced coffee?”
How can they be out of iced tea? I shouldn’t be surprised: at this very moment the world is running out of everything humans need to survive, and there are more of us than ever. Even though I’ve been off coffee for months, I decide that, since we’re all barreling toward annihilation anyway, I will Drink an Iced Coffee. It will be a “treat,” a practice encouraged by The Golden Road, especially during this “Week of Recovering a Sense of Meaningful Connection.” Of course, this kind of dangerous exception-making often leads me to believe that my life is completely out of control, sabotaged at every turn by some shameful Other Part of Me. Will I ever, for example, buy the earplugs I feel I so desperately need? I pour some soy milk into my iced coffee, feeling as though I’m plummeting into a void of Ineligibility.
Though I want to get out of this coffee shop as quickly as possible, a bearded young man in patchwork shorts and a T-shirt approaches me — an attractive artist I know from around town. I first met him at a screening of experimental films, where he showed a frenetic video he’d made about attention-deficit disorder called What’s That? At this very moment he’s holding a lethal-looking blended drink — cold coffee mixed with hormone-injected cow’s milk and refined sugar served in a toxic plastic vessel. Between sips he takes bites of a cookie that has bright, artificially colored candies baked into it.
When I ask the artist how he is, he says that he’s finally graduated with a degree in Art and is leaving for Rome in two days. From Rome he’ll travel to Naples, where he intends to create an Art Project about the garbage crisis there. I tell him I read about the crisis in the newspaper earlier this week, sandwiched between reports of other crises around the warming globe. I try to say this in a flirtatious way.
“I feel an urgent sense of mission drawing me to Italy,” says the artist. “There’s something important waiting for me there. I just know it.”
“Garbage,” I say. “Garbage is waiting for you there.”
We both laugh, and he gives me a lingering look. We laugh again, more forced and awkward this time, and drop our gazes. “So,” I say, and I feel some Other Part of Me operating in a predatory and sexual way. He asks if I want to come by his studio and see some sculptures he’s been working on.
“Only if you agree to drive me to the drugstore afterward.” Again I try to make these ordinary words sound flirtatious. The few sips of iced coffee I’ve had are stirring me into a speedy, reckless state.
The artist stuffs what remains of the horrible cookie into his mouth and walks toward the door, beckoning me to follow.
“Somebody stole my bike today,” I say as he drives.
“That’s terrible,” he replies. “I guess you’re stuck with me.”
The artist is confident and good-looking — the kind of person you might see on Gay magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors list. “I exercise five times a week,” he says when I ask him how he’s been spending what will surely be one of the human race’s final summers. He’s also been Making Art and Volunteering at a Soup Kitchen. Here, I think, is a Nice, Normal Person.
The artist glances back and forth between the road and the area where my bare thighs meet the hem of my white shorts. I wonder if this is something he does often — pick up people at the local coffee shop, lure them to his studio with the promise of sculpture, and then take off their clothes. I’m trying to think logically, but some Other Part of Me is doing just the opposite.
The artist whistles a tune as we walk from the parking lot toward the riverside building that houses his studio. It’s such a spontaneous-feeling moment — the river, the artist, the building — that I think maybe I’m not barreling toward annihilation. At this very moment I’m thinking: I like this.
I follow the artist up a broad staircase, admiring his backside as he takes each step. On the fourth floor we stop in front of a door. He looks back at me as he’s putting his key into the lock, a lustful twinkle in his eye. I smile. He opens the door.
We both startle at the sight of a dozen people jumping from hiding places with grins on their faces.
“Surprise!” they scream. They hoot and holler and then, for some reason, start to clap — applauding themselves, it seems. The artist stands with both hands over his mouth in shock, eyes wide. Some of the happy young people are looking at me and obviously wondering, Who’s that? Green and blue balloons float around the room. Someone turns on dance music. Between the unwisely consumed iced coffee, the lustful pumping of my blood, and this unexpected surprise, I feel my heart might explode.
“You guys!” says the artist. A girl in ripped jeans and a white T-shirt pops the cork on a bottle of champagne.
“I didn’t know it was your birthday,” I say.
“It’s a going-away party!” says another girl in a similar outfit, throwing her arms around the artist’s neck. I see now that most of the surprise-partygoers are girls. One hands me a plastic flute of champagne and squeezes my shoulder. Soon we’re all mingling, and I’m trying to act like just another Normal Person at a Surprise Party. The artist sends me a Nice, Normal look from across the room — a look that says, Who knew that life could be this way? I examine my toxic-plastic flute and wonder if I could pour the champagne into my mouth without letting my lips touch the rim, but I decide I might look Less Crazy if I pretended to be just another Normal Person Drinking Champagne.
The feeling of barreling toward annihilation has returned.
“Cake! Have some cake,” says a girl with a silver ring in her pierced nose, carrying large slices of dark chocolate cake on white paper plates. Though it’s almost certainly a violation of my cruelty-free diet, I decide that, since I’m feeling panicky, I will Eat a Slice of Cake.
I walk around the white-walled room, smiling and trying to do a breathing exercise as the excited party talk gets louder. I wonder whether somebody on the floor below us is trying to plan a curriculum. I stop before a work table piled with a dozen small, colorful paper skulls. Some are pink; some are gold; some have eye sockets painted black and filled with glitter; others have cartoony white plastic eyes glued on. One is bone-colored with confetti pouring out of its mouth. Through the window I can see the river sparkling beneath the overly hot sun.
At this very moment the feeling of falling into a bottomless void is so intense that I have to grip the table to steady myself. I feel like screaming but try to breathe through my nose instead. The conversation is as loud as the rush of a waterfall, and a girl’s shrill, cackling laughter rings out.
My artist friend walks up behind me and touches my arm. “Do you like my skulls?” he asks, gesturing to his colorful paper-skull pile with a plastic flute of champagne.
“They’re terrific,” I say, my voice shaky.
“They’re a departure for me. I just got this sudden notion to do something fun and different and jumbled up.” He puts down his drink to have some cake.
“They certainly are a fun jumble,” I say. “You could probably sell them for five hundred dollars apiece.”
The artist laughs and stuffs a forkful of chocolate cake into his mouth, grinning. Then he brings his cake-filled mouth close to my ear and whispers, “Do you want to watch a movie later?”
My ear tingles from his warm, chocolaty breath, and an electric feeling courses through my body. I imagine this is how a plant must feel when it’s drawing nourishment from the great, besieged sun in the sky.
The next morning I wake up in the artist’s bed. I’ve slept little. Though we allowed ourselves to be carried away in a Fit of Passion the night before, I was soon reminded of my original plan to buy earplugs when I discovered that the artist has a snoring problem. I slept for about an hour in all, staring at the ceiling and imagining the movement of the planets up in the night sky, Saturn returning to the place it was in the year I was born, a meteor possibly on a course to strike the earth.
But at this very moment the sun is shining through the window. Another day begins.
Then I remember: I’m expected to volunteer at an activity fair at a nearby elementary school, teaching improvisational games to ten- and eleven-year-olds, and I wake the artist because I need a ride.
I stare into a mirror in the artist’s car and try to will my appearance into one more befitting the living, slapping my cheeks and rubbing my eyes. It’s no use: I haven’t showered. I haven’t slept. I look pale and haggard, my eyes bloodshot, my hair wild and dirty, my skin sticky and disgusting. The world outside the window appears unnervingly unreal, and under my shirt I can feel on my chest the crusted remnants of inadequately toweled-off semen. Not the look of one of Gay magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors (aside from the semen traces, perhaps). No, I look like Death.
Idling his car outside the brick school building, the artist squeezes my thigh and gazes at me with his well-rested eyes. “Well,” he says. “I leave for Naples tomorrow.”
“You’re going to have such a time,” I say, a little loopy.
“I wish you could come with me.”
“Me too. I would love to see all that garbage.”
“So do it,” he says. “Come see the garbage with me.”
“Oh, I don’t have that kind of money.” I might have that kind of money if I were one of Gay magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors, but a single night of Spontaneous Passion hasn’t changed that. At this very moment I’m still only a teaching assistant drifting through the obliterating heat of one of the human race’s final summers on earth, wracked by the all-too-familiar feeling that some anxious Other Part of Me is about to rear its all-too-ugly head. My breath grows shorter; my extremities tingle.
It’s shaping up to be a difficult day.
“Life’s so sad,” he says with a sigh, frowning and pulling my hands to his lips.
“I can’t imagine what you mean,” I say, and because I also can’t bear to continue this pie-in-the-sky conversation, I tell the artist to have a Good Time in Italy and that I had a Good Time with him, and then I get out of his car.
The volunteer coordinator at the activity fair — an athletic-looking, copper-haired woman with a clipboard — does her best not to comment on my appearance. Her glossed lips alarm me, and I struggle against the feeling of melting into the floor. Breathe through nose, I think. Make obedient smile.
“We’ve given you one of the larger classrooms,” she says. “Spacewise I think you’ll find it more than enough.”
Spacewise, the classroom is a typically soul-deadening environment. I open all the blinds so that the besieged sun can shine in, but there’s something about this room that will always be depressing. The young students start arriving, dropped off by their parents, who regard me with suspicion but ultimately leave their children in my care, perhaps not realizing that my authority is an illusion and that my body feels as though it’s expanding to fill this space in a distressing, unreal way. Twelve students — six girls and six boys — are here now, and they all sit cross-legged on the floor in front of me, waiting.
I might die today, I think. I briefly imagine an ambulance carrying me from this educational compound.
“So,” I say, clapping my hands together. “I hope you’re all ready to do a little improvising.”
One round-faced child with a gap between his front teeth raises his hand. “What’s improvising?”
“Games,” I say, my voice trembling.
“What kind of games?” asks a girl. Her immediate attitude is standoffish, which makes me think she has probably already witnessed the presence of Evil in this world. She has probably been punished at some point for expressing inappropriate thoughts. If nothing else, I look forward to offering these children before I die one single hour during which their souls will be something other than crushed. Most of them are on the brink of completely mistrusting such an offer. They are likely unaware of the other brink we’re all on — the species-annihilation brink.
“Improvisational games,” I say. “You’ll see.”
“You sound tired,” says the first boy, narrowing his eyes at me.
“Why can’t we go outside?” asks another boy, biting his pinkie nail.
The volunteer coordinator probably wouldn’t like it — someone might take legal action if one of them fled into the neighboring forest — but I take the kids outside anyway, shaking out my numb-feeling arms as we walk.
It is, of course, a sweltering day, unnervingly hot for such an early hour. Even some of the children — trotting around me as we emerge onto the field behind the school, their moods momentarily lifted by air, light, and the vast blue sky opening up into the Terrifyingly Infinite Universe beyond — observe that the day is hot. It is, in the words of one precocious girl with braided brown hair, a “scorcher.”
We find a proper grassy spot, and I start them off playing a game called “I Am a Tree.” In this game they must pose as three related elements to create a tableau.
“I am a tree,” says the standoffish girl, holding her arms out, branchlike.
“I am a monkey,” says a boy, puffing out his cheeks and hanging from one of her branches.
“I am a banana,” says a girl with big glasses, curling up in a banana-like shape on the ground.
“Good,” I say. My voice sounds tired and weak, as though my spirit — or whatever — might at any moment shuffle off this lame mortal coil and leave it in a shameful heap upon the grass. We play this game again and again. The children become different things: fire, a marshmallow, a stick; a rock, a crab, the sea. Everyone is Having Fun.
To give my splintering self a momentary reprieve from leadership, I move on to a game called “Realtor.” In this one the kids wander around in pairs. One of them pretends to be showing off a mansion to the other, who must ask lots of questions and be delighted by the realtor’s always-knowledgeable responses. The absurdity of these miniature people selling homes with utter conviction makes me chuckle under my breath (these children know nothing of the perilous real-world housing market), and the cable of tension inside me slackens. I manage to take one full breath.
“Realtor,” however, like all things, must come to an end. By now the kids are on my side, and they crowd around me, anxiously awaiting Another Game.
“OK,” I say. “This game is called ‘School Bus.’ ”
The game goes like this: The first kid is the driver. Each new passenger who boards the bus displays a different personality, quirk, or emotion, and then everyone in the vehicle adopts it. One by one the kids start getting on the bus. They’re trembling to show nervousness. They’re stamping and growling in anger. They’re all shutting one eye and talking like pirates.
At this very moment everybody is aboard. The final passenger chooses to act out sorrow, and suddenly the bus is full of weeping children. After about a minute of listening to them weep, I decide to end the game in a new way.
“The bus,” I say, exhausted but projecting my voice as loudly as I can, “is going to crash!”
I don’t have to give them further instruction. All of the children scream and panic, throwing their little bodies around in fright. Then, in a turn of events I’m not expecting, the driver — the same boy who said I sounded tired, the brat — points at me and shouts, “We’re heading right for him!” He gives his wheel a mighty turn, and the bus full of screaming children begins to barrel toward me, careening down the Golden Road, about to make a meaningful connection with my tired, dread-filled body.
I recoil in real terror, but it’s too late: the bus annihilates me. I fall to the ground, and the children throw themselves upon me, forming a big pile as they cry out and die. They knock the wind out of me, crushing me as I pretend to scream and thrash my limbs, my anxiety pouring out in make-believe hysteria. I try not to laugh, to keep the illusion of Real Death alive for as long as I can.
At last we’re lying here, one collective catastrophe, a jumble of corpses all heaped upon the grass, and I feel a strange and rapturous release. The sun beats down. I could fall asleep beneath this mass of burning youth, fall asleep and disappear into some Other Part of Me.
I hear the children trying to breathe as quietly as possible. Smiling now in spite of myself, I do the same. At this very moment we’re Silent. At this very moment we’re Still.