Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Day as Sentence (Chapter 1)

We are entering white water, nothing seems right, we don't know where we are, the water is green, no white.
—Claimed to be the last words transmitted from Flight 19 before it disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle


It was about time they played a familiar tune. I began singing along to keep from drowsing, but soon realized I didn’t know any of the lyrics. Undecided then whether to hum or whistle, whistle or hum, I tried flipping a coin in my mind and settled on faking the words as I went along.
Memory is like this, I crooned, like a song we think we know-oh-oh
There was no end to this fog. I considered yawning and reached for the cup of coffee I suddenly remembered mid-gesture was already empty but had to shake anyway to confirm before being able to refocus on the road.
The driver in front simply had a busted taillight, though connecting that faint demon glow to the other good taillight, to the car, to the person in it, proved to be a protracted and convoluted mental transaction. I yawned and tapped the brakes to keep up the delicate sensation of being alone in the universe, reduced now to this dark, winding mountain road somewhere in western Massachusetts. As the frequency modulated musicians faded into their final notes, I switched off the radio to preserve this timeless state of being I’d entered into from commercial interruption. Watching another dark mile vanish from my rearview mirror, I was spooked by a sudden urge to let go of the wheel.
The fog infected everything with a dangerous yet dreamlike delirium.
As the convertible continued to burrow through the night, I knew it was only a matter of time before my interior narrator would begin drawing discouraging conclusions from dull observations again. The time was 2:51 am. You’ve been on the road for over four hours. It’ll probably turn out to be for nothing. I leaned over for a look at myself in the rearview mirror and saw the familiar print of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist reflected over my shoulder on the bathroom wall. The man replied, “Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.” The wince seemed to precede the philtrum nick. “Really? This is what you’re telling me?” I exploded suddenly beside myself with fury. “So that’s life, then: things as they are?”
It was pointless giving this narrator a piece of my mind when I, by a preponderance of the evidence, was in no way to be mistaken for the projection. The mirrorself, smug, made no move to rebuttal as I finished taking off the beard with more mindfulness. Slapping on some aftershave, I resolved to put in for some time off as the sharp, alcoholic sting sang arias through every tired cell in my body. The string of sixty- to seventy-hour workweeks that had culminated in a disappointing compensation review had pushed my mid-life cliché to crisis and left me with barely enough energy in the evenings to nurse a few drinks before falling asleep in front of the television. Cultivating such life-denying distractions only granted a very limited sort of access to a certain lowest common denominator level of happiness that was nevertheless spoiled by a sad awareness that what I ended up watching most nights were widely acknowledged cultural abortions requiring very little thought.
You were so tense you had to conserve all your energy just to withstand it.
I honestly couldn’t make up my mind on where to go. The real problem was that I’d kept thinking in terms of stepping into an entirely new life, the one I was actually meant for, rather than in terms of taking a short break from this one, and two weeks was really not enough time for all that. It was barely enough to de-stress a tick or two before returning to work with a few anecdotes you’d polished to entertain colleagues while waiting for elevator doors to slide open or meetings to reach quorum. Maybe the sense that I needed something a little more meaningful had led me to procrastinate, but before I knew it, I was officially on vacation without having booked a flight or a room anywhere.
I’d gone home, nursed a couple of drinks, and proceeded to fall asleep in front of the television somewhere towards the end of an episode of The Real World, where the girl with the angel wings inked into her shoulder blades seemed to want to communicate something urgent to me, personally, on the other side of the screen, before I vanished into a fractured unconsciousness, or a fade to black from her side. It must’ve been around 2am when it hit me that I was actually on vacation, free to do what I wanted. Not a bad feeling at all.
The mind's major journey now is to find its way back through a depth of surfaces to a childlike wonder where vacationing becomes an impenetrable state of mind.

After finishing a full pot of coffee the next day over a leisurely brunch with a typographically complex newspaper, I’d tidied up around the apartment to my Korean language CDs. If you had driven more carefully, you wouldn’t have had that accident, I repeated in the third conditional. This was the grammatical structure that allowed one to think about unreal situations in the past. With the laundry folded and dishes stacked away, I was about to power down the laptop, but then decided instead to turn my attention to the long-neglected novel figuring that if I wasn’t going on vacation, I might as well work.
I’d fixed myself a Hendrick’s gin martini (which gave the scent of a scene: so he asks my character, Grant, you like ‘em wet or dry? I like ‘em wet, I reply, trying to approximate his peculiar Midwestern patois, and then wait a beat before pretending to be telling him a side-handed secret: like my women, I whisper. He pretends gross feminist offense. With a twist, please, I specify, returning to my normal voice. I wonder if he’s ever messed with anyone’s drink. I consider how much he would need to mess with mine for me to send it back. Penis-stirring, I confirm silently to myself) while waiting for the manuscript to print. Then I took both out onto the balcony where I spread open the parasol and sank into the now shaded but still warm pages, pausing over paragraphs to make notes to myself in the margins. It wasn’t until I reached the end that I even noticed the trembling in my body. The temperature had dropped unseasonably, unreasonably, and furthermore, unkindly, as if the early August sky could somehow recall the bitterness of being born in winter, and dimming, lazily announced the first few stars of a night’s midsummer dream. I scratched at phantom bug bites, the body’s memory with mosquitoes. The day had been one long blur of a sentence whose period had nevertheless come. I’d kept shivering, staring up at the darkening sky until it’d dawned on me that the stars had been there all along.
Recognize anything?
Reading about my narrator waiting for a mysterious woman in a Brooklyn cafĂ© made me remember that teenager putting up posters in a bus depot in Cameroon. A few chapters later, I remembered the night it occurred to me that it should occur to my character that suicide was really for the young at heart. My thoughts and memories responded to each scene as if they had originated in me, only I couldn’t remember writing them out. The actual sentences felt foreign, and page after page, I could only recall what stirred behind the written words like indistinct shadows in a cave. I thought about working the idea of someone else with access to my memories abandoning a novel for me to finish into the present novel somehow.
I got up from the chaise, stretched, and went inside to attempt the perfection of another martini. As I twisted the lemon zest, watching the citrusy spray settle over the chilled surface of the drink, I had what might pass for some as an out-of-body experience. All of a sudden, here was this moving, acting “I” who tasted the drink and topped it off with more gin, who put everything away, wiped down the counter, and pulled on a sweater before returning to the balcony to find half the pages had blown off the side table. And with that, he was gone. Gone with the wind. Honestly, kid, who gives a fuck? I heard him paraphrase just before disappearing into some Bermuda triangle of the mind. I drank my drink, pulled myself together, and wearily gathered what pages hadn’t blown into the abandoned lot below.
Something about the lonely rattle of a rickety shopping cart just then (reminded me of that indefatigable voice imploring passers by to  help feed the homeless, help feed the hungry, again and again as I’m waiting for the longest red light to change on the corner of 31st and 7th on my way in to work until this one time as the signals switch and the halting hand blinks into a man supposedly in motion, I think I hear him say to help feed the homeless to the hungry), influenced by the strange effects of an orange supermoon poised low between two buildings, sirens blaring in the distance, and a woman’s laughter floating up from the patio bar around the corner, conspired in me, and I suddenly saw myself flinging the rest of the pages clear off the balcony. As I watched the white, serene sheets flutter through the early evening air down past the windows of my neighbors on the lower floors, the silence in my head came to resemble the flurry of snow in a thoroughly shaken paperweight. It was liberating, in its own way, like tearing a thousand losing lottery tickets into a million confetti-like, if celebratory, pieces. Call it my private party contribution to an abandoned lot already so littered with construction debris, cigarette butts, broken beer bottles, and the excrement of half the neighborhood dogs.
This is the story of your life, reminded the narrator.
I lay in bed that night thinking about this story and how it wanted to end. Maybe the story just needed to be put out of its misery, but this led to thoughts about life in general, and I fell asleep with a profound sense that I really was well past the point where I needed to know what the plot was about.

The next morning, I’d forced myself to sit at the desk for a few hours marking up newly printed manuscript pages in red ink, getting up only for bathroom breaks and bourbon, forgetting to eat, and then another few hours deciphering the elaborate system of strikethroughs and additions scrawled between lines and spilling into the margins with arrows and footnotes referencing other footnotes on the backs of pages, and made still further changes as I incorporated these handwritten edits electronically into a revised document that any critic could tell still lacked a definitive engine, some fundamental mechanism driving the plot.
I turned on the radio, already tuned to a local classical station, and fixed myself a Woodford Reserve Manhattan as I had just before pissed out what would probably prove to be the last of the gin, thinking Chopin certainly knew how to waltz up and down those keys.
I stepped out onto the balcony to clear my head only to be blindsided by yet another vision of the endless telescoping of days. Construction debris, check. Cigarette butts, plenty. Broken beer bottles, you betcha. Dog shit. I could smell it from here. But curiously not a single page in sight, a fact that I would come to puzzle over sporadically throughout the remainder of the week.

Eventually, I settled on moving forward a chapter a day, but over the next few days, the work progressed very mechanically (better your work than your sex life), with rhythms imported no doubt from what I could no longer kid myself, almost seven years later, as being just a day job. I reached the last page only to find myself exactly where I left off over a year ago, right back where I went wrong, with no real idea what the story was about or where it wanted to go. Using the last page to catch my fingernail clippings, I coolly considered killing off a character or two. Naturally, one would have to be the narrator.
You would hope that so much thinking and writing would lead somewhere.
Maybe mining the raw material was behind me, and maybe all that was really left was to refine it for a shape and structure that the material itself would suggest—naturally, magically, or otherwise; I was open to suggestions—but the lifeless lines remained silent, and left me feeling far from equal to the task. Anything good demanded a certain level of sustained concentration, and I knew beforehand that writing in this mode, living in this mode, bit by bit through the years, would only produce inferior results.
A belief in your dreams demands disbelieving in the facts that surround you.

The following few days, I guess I’d fallen into something of a funk, with all the torturous thoughts that accompany this overriding sensation of nonexistence symptomatic of writer’s block. I locked myself up in the apartment so that my only contact with the outside world were the guys who brought ethnic food to my door. What are you doing with your life? they’d ask in various fake accents and disguises, counting out my change as I calculated in my mind how much cash I could come up with on short notice, and how long it might last me in a country like Thailand or Mexico or wherever the food happened to be from.
One night, I even found myself chatting up an absent Amber, seeing the whole twenty-minute conversation play out in my head, concrete and inevitable, like a scene just before I’d write it down. I thought about calling her in California, but just touching the receiver somehow transmitted the somber, freighted realities of our relationship, and I lost all nerve as they sank in.
I didn’t open my mail, didn’t watch television, didn’t connect online. I did nothing to remind me that there was even a world out there that I was very actively ignoring. I thought about everything that I could be doing but wasn’t, choosing instead to pass the time looking through old shoeboxes of memories, rereading unsent love letters, doing pushups and sit-ups, testing how long I could hold my breath under water in the bathtub, rearranging the furniture. I imagined what I would do if I were stranded on an island, if I won the lottery, if I met the next love of my life. I compiled mental lists of other people’s secrets, other people’s joys, other people’s sorrows. I could lay in bed for hours before thinking of a good reason to get up. I’d spent most of my time lying down, and if not in bed, then on the yoga mat, or in the tub, or on the couch. And when I wasn’t horizontal, I found myself pacing round and around, with my thoughts racing in similarly fervent, if futilely fashioned, circles. I started drinking before breakfast, or whenever my first meal happened to be that day.

Then last night, I dreamed something horrible, only all the horror was underneath, and what made it worse was that it was the only dream I remembered having all year, maybe more. These days, when I slept, I seemed to lose consciousness for only a matter of seconds, not enough time to reach the REM stage of dream production, but sure enough, the night would have passed, and in the morning I would wake up feeling fully restored with the will to face yet another day.
In this particular dream then, Eli was running after random pages and shouting out random lines from my unfinished manuscript, which the wind scattered up and down a deserted shore. He performed football tackles and moonwalks in the sand. He waved at us, at Amber and I, playing cards on an immaculate beach blanket. Eli shouted something that got lost in the wind. “What?” we shouted back simultaneously, as if calling for the punch line of a joke we’d heard too many times mistold. “This is the story of your life!” he shouted goofy and giddy with glee. Amber’s eyes flashed a conspiratorial smile over her cards before she fanned them out on the blanket to reveal a royal flush.
It was a few moments later, before I even realized we’d been playing poker, that I woke up in a cold sweat feeling like her hand had changed my fate somehow, forever and for the worse, and that the only person who could set things right again was Eli.
The first time I called him earlier in the day, there wasn’t an answer. I called again a few hours later and left a message. Then I tried his cell, which was no longer in service. Another hour later, I called and someone picked up.
“Hi, Eli,” I said, strangely relieved. “It’s Grant.”
After all these years, it left me wondering whether we’d parted friends when he hung up.
I tried the number again and again, but no answer. I kept getting the machine each and every time until I realized that calling wasn’t going to accomplish anything.

So here I am. Listening to Hotel California on the radio. The one song I recognized all night—one that somehow always manages to put me in a weird place.
We are all just prisoners here of our own device.
Billboards began to reappear as the road straightened out past the mountains. Picture Your Ad Here. I rolled up the windows and turned on the heat to the highest setting. Then fumbling with the buttons and knobs on the radio, I imagined ringing his buzzer, him turning on one light after another to reach the door still groggy and speechless, but starting to smile. Holy shit! I swerve in the nick of time to avoid a woman in a faded yellow nightgown hovering over the middle of the road, her feet clearing several inches off the ground, and the last thing I see before passing out is a trail of sparks in the rearview mirror.