I didn’t make it to school today because our car wouldn’t start. It might be the lack of gas, might be the oil congealing, might be the gears stripped of teeth in the transmission. So we stayed in bed and made pancakes for breakfast. It’s not the first class I’ve missed, and it won’t be the last; not that I’m keeping track but I don’t I’ll flunk out on account of absences, however many. We’ve stopped counting. How many weeks left until rent, how many days till our next paycheck; how many meals left in the fridge, what date did the milk expire? How many months since your last period? We know your job will fire you, at 22, leaving work when your back starts to hurt just to stand. So we’ll bide our time. We’ll bide our time on the white-washed walls of our 1-bedroom on the edge of ungentrified hell. I’ll walk the miles it takes to get to work, the miles it takes to find a second job. Someone’s sure to hire me, eventually. We’ll save our pennies and buy a new car and then I’ll go back to school. I’ll have a great job, then, as a manager or a shopkeep or a journalist or an engineer, once I have my degree. And we can see that on the horizon, in the blue distance, the wavering mirage of happy vacations with the children and the family dog. We’ll have to get a dog. And we’ll be miles from here in a house in the suburbs where the sirens don’t scream in the streets at night, where the men don’t harass you, where the neighbors in the apartment next-door don’t blast music through the walls well past midnight. You’ll have a flower bed to bury our fears in. I’ll have a lawn to mow. And we can pretend that the dreams of our children are the same dreams we’ve dying for.
We had three bedrooms and a garage for the car. We had hardwood floors and a full-size stove, we had an attic to fill with boxes of things we didn’t use. We had a king-size mattress that didn’t squeak, we had kids’ toys in the backyard and a dog that only barked when strangers approached the house. We had security: stable positions in offices that offered paid vacations and 401ks. You had a diamond ring on your finger. I had my weekends free to take hiking trips and car rides with you and the children. You had a black abscess spreading in your brain. We had holidays with visiting family from out of state, winter days bundled warm indoors and summer mornings eating breakfast at the shore. We chopped down our own Christmas tree. Rainy afternoons were for trips to the library. Your quiet breath had a stench of decay, something rotting. I had failed to notice. I had failed to see it in the Poconos, failed to see it in Cape May; failed to notice the rot on Sundays mornings when you wouldn’t get up. I couldn’t notice the rot eating through you, not during our movie nights, not while we got drunk on the porch, not while I felt the cockroaches squirming under my scalp. I didn’t notice the children had been feeding themselves. And I couldn’t notice you losing any weight – it’s not like we were taking our clothes off. And when I noticed you were drinking all my whiskey the solution was more important than the message: we just had to go get more. We just had to keep burning bright buttons into our stomachs, just had to keep ignoring the rot. Kids in bed early, I’ll be late for work in the morning, let’s stay up late – our drinking date – and tell each other stories.
I kept the blackout shades drawn tight, dim room. Dim city sounds through the walls, barely audible. Drowsy yellow light from my bedside lamp — it was a small room, filled with yellow uterine warmth. I had a bed, and a desk, I was very fortunate, I had a mini-fridge and a carpet and a TV. I had a roommate who had disappeared into the city, bingeing, and a rent check I couldn’t afford. The store I worked for was shutting down, a job I didn’t like, so I stayed home. I stayed home and let the lead weight of ending days creep closer unannounced. I bought a bag of pot, a case of beer, ordered fast-food to my door, and masturbated frequently. Everything I could ever want to watch was available for download illegally. I watched sci-fi space travels and sitcoms, teen dramas, found nostalgia in the old colors of cartoons. Shows in which the youth always have a happy ending, where their sets are refreshed for the start of each show: A friend’s basement, or a bar, that they know is always there. The familiar tension in a plot line; episodic impermanence, their great shelter from despair. Retreat into your basement, retreat into your spaceship, no one will hate you tomorrow: your friends will be at MacClaren’s. I made a mistake, then, and peeked out the shades, a willingness to survive. I was surprised to find daylight still in the streets. I sat back down on my bed. What an awkward sensation, to be stationary, when you know the unseen world around you heaves and turns. The walls of my bedroom were paper-thin, I could feel the city’s humid heat drop its weight on my skin. I needed to find another apartment. I needed to find another job. I needed to find the courage to speak with people, to shove my will out at the world. But the days had a way of passing by in the night, no pattern to the way they rolled over. There was nothing stable about the ground, no framework in the sky, nothing I could expect but my own surprise at how quickly my grave could be dug.
I’ve been flaky the past couple of weeks, not around as often as I’d led on. Which feels dishonest. So I want to address my whereabouts and clear the air, get a fresh start.
I’m at the end of my 20s. It’s a cusp, because my 20s have largely been dissolute and aimless and I’m assuming 30 is when I “grow up”. I married a few years ago, worked in lawn care to support us, then we moved so I could go finish my degree in journalism. Which I did, finally, after 3 schools and 10 years, finally finish my degree. That degree landed me in a corporate communications gig (shoot me now, and shoot me once every morning) because journalists command the same wages as fast-food assistant managers. My corporate stint is coming to a close, however, it’s a contract position with an inevitable contractual conclusion. The bouldering question is what do I do next?
I can’t stand working for people, most of the time. When I was in lawn care I was working for a small company with a genuine friend as the owner, and I didn’t mind busting my ass 50 hours a week. That was almost enjoyable. Looking back, that was far more preferable. Corporate life is achromatic and demands a daily prostration before the people who command everything that you do. They’ve extended my contract because still I haul ass, but it’s gnawing my skull away. Brain matter has been left to puddle on my cubicle desk several times. It’s the hierarchy, rigid and unassailable; people shouldn’t waste their lives in subordination, nor should they find it meaningful to collect subordinates beneath them.
The last 5 years I’ve spent writing regularly, almost daily; writing frequently for long hours a few years before that. It’s the only thing I feel comfortable doing, the only aspect of the world I feel comfortable commanding; the only method of exerting my will that I find meaningful and honest and satisfying. When I don’t write, I turn into a bastard. There is no affection, no hope, no self confidence if I am not writing. If I can’t get myself out, onto paper or screen, nothing comes in and the pact I have with the world becomes a rigid, impermeable wall.
So I’ve been on a cusp, or a cliff is probably the best metaphor, for the last few weeks on a cliff with a strong wind at my back. I need to write, and I can’t waste any more months in subordination to some leaky asshole I depend on for paychecks. I need to take control of my own life, if you’ll allow me this moment of self-help verbiage, to reach for my dreams and shoot for the stars and the rest of the clichés about building a fulfilling life.
So I’m jumping the cliff into freelancing. Working 45 hours a week in my cubicle, plus the commuting, perennially lacking sleep, up late building-out LinkedIn and UpWork profiles, applying for contract work and freelancing gigs writing copy and trying to devise just how I’ll make this all work. I’m depending on it, my family’s depending on it, it’s finally time to dump myself into what I should’ve done – easy to say now, in hindsight – years ago. I’m going to figure out how to make a living writing.
The hope here is that, if I can control my own working hours, I can create more time to write prose-poetry and, eventually, hopefully soon, to write fiction and the novel that’s been on the back shelf of my brain for about a year.
To help make this all work, we’re leaving NJ, land of crushing living expenses. We’re going to rent a cheap little 3-bedroom somewhere in rural PA, and I’m going to spend my time building a writing career.
Thanks for reading,
It was you who took my hand, but we led each other in. Two kids at the end of a roadtrip, tangled and happy, ready for more. More heartbeats, more walks, more explorations of foreign shores, lined with milestones. We had a city full of smiling streets, a friend behind every door. We had a blank page to paint our life on, and we let our dreams bleed out. Angels’ wings and fluttered eyelids under bedsheets, vermilion mornings of sweet September. Bury me in your skin. Do you remember the night we walked into the woods? Bacchus laughed, and kept the moon bright: bum wine in our bellies, children of the vast plateau making haste for the wasting woods. They could taste our sins. Desultory years, caprices, diaries of lust and joy strung-up in the trees; thieves, caught trespassing into the night. Swiftly now. Grind your fist against the wall. Bake us bread with broken glass, we’ll cook the dust into something more. Can you hear them? Children cry unborn in bellies; still-birth stalking streets for coins. Join the huddled masses — sunlight, left far behind. The forest; leave no condolences: foreheads, cracked like egg-shells. The pulp of a heart and the crust of a lava-flow, breaking, revealing, burning through the wasted woodlands and the cities that hid our nightmares. Take my cock in your hand: copulation a public foray beneath the jealous trees of wicked greed, the homogeneity of a nation masquerading as sane. Show me a smile of broken teeth. A laugh that echos in abandoned concrete. Find the nails that keep our ribs together and pull: butcher of dead desires. Past picket fences and red wagons and warm mothers, what child asks for more? What can be seen through the pouring rain? — gray noon in Times Square, empty streets and the ripple of sidewalk puddles: millionaires without a penny. The famous without a name. Fast feet up the fire-escapes. Together in the alleys, together in the Bowery, together in the Strait of Hormuz. Together in the Dardanelles. Two children hand-in-hand, free, in the pages of an angel’s novel never read.
The grass was short on the ball fields. Lazy Sunday afternoon, and the park was mostly empty: alongside the poolhouse on a picnic table, behind a row of tall firs, the girl was telling him about her campus. She made it seem wonderful, the library and the classes and the student activities. She was two years older, and very pretty, named Alyson, plainly. The afternoon was hot and slow, and so too was the summer; sun streaks dappled through the tops of the firs and the boy wasn’t sure why, but his mouth seemed stuck in his throat. He hadn’t spoken — the girl talked so much — but for little observances he knew she’d find agreeable. Squirrels chased around in the fir trees’ pine needles. Cool water babbling in the brook behind them. The silent expanse of the deep blue sky and the quiet stretches of the park. A perfect moment lonely with an older girl. Yet the boy couldn’t shake the feeling of rotors and gear-boxes muffled and humming, a hidden mechanical cover, behind the scenes of their paradise sky. Which might have been his head: he was embarrassed of his desire: Little pervert prick, she’d tell her friends. She was asking him if he’d like to come visit, to her college. So he told her he’d like that very much — transparent enough to blush — and the girl kissed his cheek goodbye. The boy then walked through the park alone, taking his time to the road. The pavement felt careful beneath his feet: the trees seemed to be breathing, something quiet and full of meaning. His body felt full and hard and light. Picturing the kiss on his cheek. The grass seemed phosphorescent, and the cotton-puffs drifted dreamily in the sky. The air glittered, like specks of tin floating in water. The boy was sure he was somehow high. Was this elation? Was this his joy? turned inside-out to the warmth of the earth. The street ahead disappeared round a bend of the hillside and he saw where it went, past groves and the homes of his neighbors — and the road continued on, hot and long forever abiding the lilt of the land, straight onwards towards the mountains and going on even after that, across the vast plains of the northern plateaus, tilting around gentle hills and the curvature of the earth — finally to bury itself in blue snow somewhere north of Canada. The boy knew his dreams just as clearly: the road wrapped the world before him, and in his chest a bright burning for the gentle moments unfolding, excitement to find something similar in a beautiful stranger, to gaze at the peaks of mysterious mosques and the spires of red rock along the straight roads to California. To hold cities in his hand! But he was only going home. And he knew if he called his friends they were damned to play those old familiar motions and conversations; the next morning to ride buses to school. The affections of their mothers. Satisfying isolation in their bedrooms. In a year he’d be off to college. And in five years who would he meet? What beautiful strangers who weren’t caught in the gears of the silent machinery? The muffled lights in their chests. Long lines of blank squares counting through the days of their ending years. Sweaty suits barking orders from behind desks, and the cowering creatures that scurry to fill their orders. The boy was rubbing his cheek. He was very disappointed. Alyson’s major was in corporate management.
If you’re going to do something extraordinary with your life, you need to start at it young. What you’re attempting is life outside the crowd which is where all the opportunities are, the money and the resources. Not just mansions and nice suits but even rental apartments and being able to buy enough food for your (eventual) family, you need to be in the crowd, or at least nibbling what they drop; even if you aren’t in an office and looking forward to casual Fridays, you’re making ends meet by serving those types of people, the crowd. So if you want out of the crowd you need to start at it early, because you need to learn how to eat + sleep + shower (if that’s your things) + fuck + survive in the shadows on the other side of the mountain range. If you want absolutely anything the crowd has — a cabin in the woods, a motorcycle, clothing, children, a stable life, a calm death — at any point in your life, you need to start early because the crowd has a monopoly on all of those decent things and so if you dream of finding them on the other side of the mountains, you need to start early. You’re attempting to do what few people have lately done. You’re starting from scratch, with no guidebook, few resources and few friends; no friends who can help.
But what you’re doing is worth it. Because at no time in history have basic human goals, a piece of property, food, clothing, an honest death, been so monopolized and guarded by the crowd, the mountain passes so completely avoided by highways and main streets and side roads, that to find them and understand what they offer is a feat worth its own weight.
And what I have to say here is something about college, the social pipeline from school to school, desk to desk, a new desk when you graduate from your college desk. It’s a pipeline. And I’ve run out steam to keep this rant going.