Fragile as Anvils

**Disclaimer**

You were damned from the get-go.  From the moment you ran your finger along the page’s edge, letting it thread your thumbprint like a needle riding vinyl.  Dead before the curtain rose up and hammer cocked back.  You were damned because you came with pockets full of questions just begging to be picked, like a tourist with a map, a fanny pack and a stupid look of childish wonder.

But everything beyond this is bullshit.  

You’ll find no answers here, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What you will find is a chronic case of the human condition, which, long ago, we used to cope with becoming too smart for our own good.  We looked up to the sky and saw figures in the stars and gave them the names of gods.  We harnessed the power of thunderbolts and trapped it in buzzing glass bulbs so that we could see all of the everything there is out there to be afraid of and, consequently, came to realize all of the very little that we can do about it.

Then, somewhere along the line, we found that the best way to understand life is to live it as a story.  And so here we are told, simultaneous and silent.  Seven billion anecdotes like seven billion suns, each the hero of our heliocentric fairy tales.  Our god-complexes tell us we evolved into greatness and gave us the ambition to prove it.  Our therapists tell us we evolved into storytellers and prescribed us the concept of Prozac.

We have a habit of approaching literature like little kids approach ice cream trucks, but the ice cream truck is really just a windowless white van of a mustachioed man, probably named Chester, and the promise of ice cream is only ever just a promise.  The issue is, narrators are not to be trusted.  It’s like the old saying goes: to err is human…  to believe everything you read is fucking stupid.

And so we are fools. Sure, brilliant fools who developed language and art and the capacity to love strangers, but fools nonetheless. If you’ve come to terms with that, let’s dip into some deep-rooted narcissism and get personal.  Just remember, I’m not here to take care of you.  There will be no hand-holding, so sit on those puppies or slip them back in your pockets or something. 

It begins where most mediocre stories do: a few pages in.  I suppose the real beginning would be my birth, but I sure as hell don’t remember that, and I’m not about to make stuff up.  I might be an untrustworthy narrator, but I’m not a dick.  The first thing I remember is my older brother playing with my hands, awed by how small they were.  I wonder if they trembled then the way they do now…

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Are you a desert wind or a cactus thorn?

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Fast forward through years of being super inept at sports, a late divorce of two incredibly loving parents and a much too long phase of angsty teenage poetry.  Step through a montage of Sundance film festivals, butter-laced popcorn bowls emptied of everything except for faulty kernels, and amazingly bad home movies.  Hit pause real quick at my freshman year: A Catholic high school in Salt Lake City puts on a production of Fiddler on the Roof.  Take a moment to appreciate the religious irony, and then turn your attention to the bagel boy.  I had one line, “Bagels! Fresh bagels” and you better believe I milked the hell out of it.  It’s a small, unassuming moment, but an important one.  It’s where I fell in love with being someone else and I’ve been playing pretend ever since.  Alright, fast forward again.

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have a flavorful tongue.  I feed off of pretty phrases and flowery words and I think way too carefully about what I say.  I use metaphors to make sense of feelings that I’m too afraid to face straight forward.  It’s amazing the words you can hide in words—the secrets you can tell in such a way that they stay secret.  I’m part of a generation that grew up with soft hands and wide eyes in the shadows of war heroes.  A generation of men conditioned to keep their chests locked shut.  Only from time to time will we ignite a light inside and let a voyeur peek in through keyholes, all the while playing ignorant to the fact that we invited them in the first place on some lonesome, drunken night.  Maybe it’s because being raw and candid gives my insecurities a skeleton to take shape upon, or maybe it’s because when it’s all said aloud everything sounds so goddamn stupid and trite.  Whatever the reason, it’s drawn me to playing characters.  Characters who are nothing like me—who can be vitriolic and gentle and beautifully loathsome.

I’ve already derailed this train.  This isn’t a biopic.  This is just the story of a night like a thousand other nights.  A night like a first kiss.  A night of no particular importance, yet sacred as two teenage lovers discovering how covers best keep those dirty little secrets of lovemaking clean.  It’s time to press play.

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Dear Boy, they say.

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And so it is.  In enters Los Angeles, a town with automotive arteries that pump thick vanity and a fragile sense of self worth.  I’ve been meaning to write for a while about this city where every Nobody is a Somebody that nobody has seemed to notice yet.  It’s one big bug zapper, drawing in diamond-in-the-rough dreamers with electric promises.

It’s a Thursday night. I got work off at the bar, because I have my acting class on Thursday nights, and I’m not going to my acting class because I told them I got called into work.  The perfect night to stay in, buckle down, and get shit done.

Cue jump cuts: Open laptop. Open notebook. Make sure I get a good pen—one of those gel pens not the shitty Bics that cost three dollars for a pack of twenty-hundred-thousand-shuttup.  One glass of Buffalo Trace, just to get the creative juices flowing.  Yes, this is the night to get shit done.

Scott calls.  “What are you doing?”

I look at the computer screen, at the glass of bourbon.  “Nothing.”

“Lets hang out.”

“What’d you have in mind?”

“Nothing.”

Beat.  Fuck it, I’ll get shit done tomorrow.  “Okay, come over.”

Scott shows up with a six-pack of beer that cost more than it should.  Gary enters behind him.  I didn’t invite Gary, but no one ever invites Gary, he just kind of shows up, so we always half expect him to always be there.  No one seems to mind, or if they do, no one ever says as much.  

“What should we do?”

Beat.  Shrugs all around.  This is going really well so far.  

Joe calls, “What are you dinguses up to?”

“Nothing.”

“Sweet, I’m on my way.”

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Are you a pocket watch or a bell tower?

A matchbook or a toothpick?

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With the addition of Joe and my roommate Seth, the five of us sit in that visceral mix of excitement, knowing that the entire night is ours to do with what we will, and anxiety, afraid that we’ll squander our potential away on a tightly rolled spliff, one too many glasses of whiskey and an accidental marathon of Adventure Time.  I don’t smoke much.  It makes me feel like a fuzzy blanket with the social skills to match, so I mainly stick with the whiskey.  Joe doesn’t smoke at all.  He says it’s bad for his anxiety but he’s always anxious as it is, so we don’t really understand what that means, but no one ever says as much.

Half a spleezo later we start talking about our generation.  I say we’re narrators.  Seth says we’re plagiarists.  Joe says we’re a bunch of idiots with delusions of grandeur.  Scott says we each make great points and Gary is too stoned to say anything (apparently he’s susceptible to Fuzzy Blanket Syndrome as well). We talk about how lonely this crowded place is.  How people pass each other on the street, eyes glued to their iPhones, and don’t bother to lend a ‘hello’ or a smile, partly because there is an abundance of really, really (#really) important gossip to tweet about, but also because it’s just how things work here.

I make my case, “We are all storytellers in a city that fictions raised from desert sand and cactus thorns. These days, our stories need even more to be fed and bled into a world half-lived through electric eyes.”

“Jesus, Faulkner. I mean, yeah, well said, but can we tone down the pretentious metaphor, please?”  

Joe is the most charming asshole you’ve ever met.

Now, don’t fret dear reader.  You little baby bird you.  I am not under any delusion that this is some novel thought or a groundbreaking observation, but lets give credit where credit has drunkenly happened upon and say that the total acceptance of a life lived half online is sort of my point.  We love to talk about it, point out all the signs of our impending loneliness.  We start the dialogue about how the indifference of our Internet connection has left us disconnected from the intimacy we draw from touching someone’s skin, and yet we pray like kids on Christmas Eve that the dialogue goes viral, because only then are the worthwhile things we say quantifiably worthwhile.  

This is the world that we live in now.  This is Human Interaction version 2.0, and we have accepted it all willy-nilly like à la an iTunes’ Terms and Conditions.

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Some mornings I wake to find paper cranes.

Dear Boy, they say.

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As the conversation lulls everyone checks their phones, and before long we are a room of five grown men sitting in silence looking at cell phone screens. The horizon bleeds between reality and eight-bit sky.

We are the dawn of the Internet Troll, hear our overtly-sarcastic roar.

We use machines as messengers, sending messages to other people like they’re machines themselves.  The twenty first letter is pixelated print on binary parchment.  Often times, human interaction has been simplified down to lagging Skype conversations and “liking” peoples pictures of their pretty food, but it’s a worthwhile sacrifice because at the least while we Skype there’s a camera on ourselves too, making it super easy to keep our appearance in constant check.  Selfie-ness is next to godliness.  I’m pretty sure my homeboy, Jesus, said that.

“Hammerstein's doing a reading. You guys wanna go?” Scott speaks without looking up.

We are seven billion insecurities disguised as robots. Really cool robots that throw great parties.

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Some mornings I wake to find poems folded into paper cranes

on my bedside-one-nightstand.

Dear Boy, they say.

Letters to a younger me from a me I haven’t come to know yet.

Dear Buddy Boy, they say.

 

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And so it is.  The five of us find ourselves at Hammerstein’s place, a vintage apartment in Koreatown with a bricked up fireplace and a crotchety neighbor named Frank.  Hammerstein put together an open reading where anyone could come and share something they wrote or ripped off or wished they’d written or wish they hadn’t written, but want to wish they had.  We’re all already a little bit drunk at this point, so we took the Metro.

The small flat is filled with about eight, maybe eleven other people.  Most I know, some I don’t.  I take off my glasses and pocket them.  I look cooler without them.  I think the way it makes me squint ever so slightly adds an air of dark mystery to my overall demeanor and if I’ve learned anything from this age of the cinematic anti-hero it’s that ladies love a little dark and mysterious.

I meet a girl named Jenny. She asks, “Why are you squinting?”

“I’m not squinting.”

“Do you have a headache or something?”

“I’m not squinting.”

“You should put your glasses back on. You look mean without your glasses on. It’s great for a diverse acting career, but horrible for first impressions.”

“Maybe I don’t care much for first impressions.”

She chuckles because I’m a terrible liar, then turns and walks away.  

I put my glasses back on.

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I wake to find cranes in the shape of paper poems.

Dear Buddy Boy, they say.

Some mornings I wake to find origami open letters to that grass-stained knee’d little me I used to be.

 

Dear Buddy Boy,

Where have you been?

Did you stay out late past dusk again,

Catching fireflies in mason jars?

Never bothering to wonder why they glow,

Just knowing that’s the way it is,

And knowing that is knowing enough.

Remember when

You only ever wondered ‘Why’

When the light died out?

I wonder why I do that.

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Before long, everyone is a little more acquainted and a little less sober and the reading begins. Christine starts us off.  She’s a soft-spoken matchbook collector who can write like Cormac McCarthy but refuses to admit it.  She writes about a boy who watches fire burn close to his fingertips.  It’s only half finished, but still slips that feeling of winter in my spine despite the sticky summer night air and poor ventilation.  Up next is Woods.  He writes with this brilliant, clumsy jabbering like he’s lost in his own name.  Half-way through, he jibbers about the oh-so-fitting topic of an itching addiction to Internet connection:

“… Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop, sipping on five-dollar coffee and watching beautiful women pass that I know I will never even steal a glance from.  I briefly fall in love with each of them.  No one ever said that love at first sight was less like a bon fire and more like striking a Bic lighter on a windy night.  After every thought I have loses its momentum, I take a break to check my Facebook page and when I take a break to check my Facebook page, I come to find that the latest inane thought I posted only has fourteen likes, and that’s bullshit because I put a LOT of effort into making a really stupid observation seem witty, but in a seemingly effortless way.  I look at my phone every few minutes or so, finding the screen as empty as I left it, but apparently I still need to check, because, you know, small miracles happen every day.  I’m as addicted to this as anyone and just as off balance.  You see only what I want the camera to show you.  Then again, I’m a raging narcissist.  So what’s your excuse?”

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Are you the confidently sung wrong lyrics to a song

or a pant stain that is hopefully just toothpaste?

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Woods is good.  Seth agrees.  Joe agrees but thinks the ending was rushed.  Scott agrees but says rushed endings are real endings because you never see them coming and Gary went to the bathroom a while ago and hasn’t been seen since.  Before anyone else gets up to read, the room is tangled into a conversation about how we seem to have been drawn to this city in a similar way that our generation is drawn to social media.  I think it’s in the same vein as self-portraits and autobiographies and breast implants.  It’s not only control over what we want you to see, but also over our own reflection.  We are constructs with fiber-optic arteries, growing with the seamlessness of WiFi.  We are untrustworthy narrators with a suped-up sense of self importance and a god-complex fueled by Snapchat views and little pixilated affirmations.  The idea of huddling folks close together and letting them live life through our own eyes is like heroin for we heroines and heroes of this twenty-first century mythology.  I try to say as much but Joe calls me a silver-tongued-son-of-a-bitch, and I’d rather listen anyway.

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Some nights I lay my face down in crescent moons.

Dear Scribbler, they say.

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One of the most beautiful things about being human is how we make poetry out of our everyday behavior.  The most beautiful thing about that is how we hardly seem to notice.  It’s seen in the way that we stare out of the windows of cars when conversation lulls, admiring the perfect blend of our ever-so-slightly shifting, cellophane reflection and the flowing world that dances by in one brilliant brushstroke.  It’s in the way that, despite our insatiable social nature and need to be held, we sit one seat away from strangers at train stations and movie theaters if we can help it.  Maybe our isolation is a byproduct of our brilliance; it is innate and it is basal.  

We are not necessarily any more or less lonely than our grandparents were; we just have more freedom to voice it.  This is, in my opinion, one of the great triumphs of our digital age.  The Internet taught Language how to split the atom.  It gave words strength that words haven’t had since the good ol’ days of Gutenberg.  The digital age is a paradox: for all its loneliness and disconnect, it connects the lonesome together with impossible pull. The fifty people who want to dress as cyborgs and pirates and reenact the battle of Gettysburg can fairly easily find each other and get their carefully orchestrated fake fighting on; no one has to ever be alone again, so long as they’re fine being by themselves.  

The gift of faceless anonymity seems to be one of those great power/great responsibility type of deals.  While it is often abused in the dingy, dark of mothers’ basements with a healthy dose of creepy, it also grants us a chance to run rampant, stripped and vulnerable, like a streaker in a ski mask in the midst of a warzone.

I want to be clear: as a white, middle-class American man of German decent, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t have a whole lot to complain about.  There’s the astronomical price of organic food, the existence of the term “Belieber” and… that’s about it.  Even so, I ache as Scott reads a story about the first crush on a man he ever had and how he feels he’ll still probably never be able to tell his parents about it.  When he clenches his jaw and stops mid-sentence to keep from crying, I can’t help but think about what it means to be a man.  I don’t want to say that society has failed men in our culture, but it certainly took a long trip to the store for cigarettes when we were kids.  

Very strong men raised me: My grandfather, a Winchester rifle of a man. My dad, a log cabin with chimney fixed of stone and a north-facing wall dressed in ivy.  Growing up, my pops could throw down with Superman in such comic book awesomeness; no manner of manifested onomatopoeia could capture it.  He was the living proof of superheroes in my mind.  The way that he did anything was the right way to do everything, and I took diligent notes with the naïve calligraphy of a childish hand.  I had never seen him lose his composure, or succumb.  He dealt with pain in nothing more that a slight wince and maybe a coolly whispered “sonofabitch” if the situation called for it.  

Growing up, I never saw my father cry.  Even when my grandmother passed away, I remember wondering at her wake why my snot-smeared, tear-stained face wasn’t carved from marble like his was.  In no way was he unloving, though.  In fact, Dad was my late night sanctuary for when the world got too dark and heavy for a little boy to bear alone.  My bones have always been riddled with anxiety—hence the shaking hands—and countless were the nights I’d slip into my dad’s room and cry.  No matter how trifling or banal the reason, he’d sit and hold me with arms somewhere between cotton and Kevlar and prescribed the perfect words like painkillers (which makes sense with him being a doctor and all).  When it came to nights like those, my father’s chimney was defined by the warm flicker of his fire, not the coarseness of stone.  But because we are men and men know that sadness is reserved for pussies, the weak and the unintentional faces of pugs, these nights always felt like secrets.  To this day, when my father and I speak truthfully, we talk in hushed tones.  He was always wreathed in mythology, but like with all good stories, I want so bad for fiction to be fact that I can hardly tell the difference.  

Jenny asks me why I’ve been so quiet.  I tell her I don’t really know, but I think it’s because the first time I saw my father cry, he was begging me for forgiveness.

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Some nights I lay my head down to find my jawline cradled by paper crescent moons.

Dear Scribbler, they say.

Poems from a younger me meant for a me that I don’t quite know yet.

Dear Windowpane Scribbler, they say.

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I was seventeen the first time I saw my father cry and he was begging me for forgiveness.  Jenny wants to know the story, but she doesn’t know me well enough to ask that, so she just says, “I’m sorry.”  I don’t know what she’s sorry about and I don’t think she knows either, but neither of us says as much.  Besides, for some reason it makes me feel better.

As the sky pulls the moon up higher by its bootstraps, people fade out of the apartment like stars do the closer you get to the city.  Jenny and I have talked for most of the night, conversation peppered with plenty of awkward pauses.  

Recent studies show that I’m bad at small talk.  Recent first dates confirmed this.  Lately, I’ve resorted to asking people which arbitrary inanimate object they are.

I look at Jenny. “Are you Thunder or Lighting?”

She thinks about it. Hard. She thinks hard enough that I think she might be making fun of me until finally she says, “Thunder. But I wish I was Lightning.”

Goddamnit, Jenny is cool.

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Some nights I sleep to find my jawline cradled by poems folded into the shape of sliver moons.

Dear Scribbler, they say.

I sleep to find letters from me for me, shaped like God’s fingernail clippings.

Dear Windowpane Scribbler

Where will you go?

Did you fog up within the face of your window

Giving breath you’ve always been afraid to waste?

Please forgive the earthquake in my handwriting

But my hands have this habit of trembling;

Maybe they’re just happy.

Ignited from all the fireflies

We’ve been out catching and keeping

In mason jars until day breaks out

Over the ridgeline Tomorrow again.

Do you remember what they look like,

These spark-sized twilight lanterns?

How the quiet of night makes them

Somehow shine brighter?

I hope to someday remember how beautiful they were.

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Jenny asks me what I was going to read.  I tell her about poems folded in the shape of paper cranes and mason jars filled with lightning bugs when I was a kid and how that makes me feel like if I was born at the right time, I might have invented the light bulb.  The streets are nearly silent, so I know it’s late.  Scott left an hour or so ago.  We’re not far from his place and the catharsis of the night put him in the mood for a lonesome walk.  Seth spent some time dancing alone in a corner and writing short poems on Post-it notes, then hiding them throughout the room to be discovered god knows when.  Joe drags his feet across the floor, “It’s that time, my friend. The carriage has been a pumpkin for a couple hours now and we definitely missed the last Metro home. Wanna split a Lyft?”

I look to Jenny. She fishes out a toothpick from her purse. I smile because she just told me about how she compulsively takes complimentary toothpicks by the handful when she leaves restaurants.

“No, I’m good.”

“Alright buddy.” Joe winks and turns on his heel with the sluggish grace of a zombie ballerina.   

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Are you desert sand or bookshelf dust?

Are you cactus thorn or hypodermic needle?

 

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Jenny gives me a ride home. The windows are half rolled down. A Bon Iver song plays just barely loud enough to hear.  Neither of us says a word, but at some point, she reaches over and links her pinky finger with mine.

Jenny pulls up to my apartment.  I don’t want this to end, but I think Scott was right about good endings and never being able to see them coming because I didn’t even recognize my own street until the car stopped.  I don’t want to go yet.  I want to talk about the evolution of Man.  The new era of the human condition, manifested; where touch-screen multi-taskers post intimate secrets in an electric world and avoid eye contact with passerbys on the street.  I want to ask her if she thinks we’re too beautiful to notice the poetry in our every day, but I can’t seem to find the words to even say goodnight.  She keeps her pinky curled around mine until I’ve opened the car door.  As I walk toward my building, she calls out through the open window, barely louder than Bon Iver, “Are you a paper crane or a crescent moon?”

“I have to think about that one.” 

Jenny leaves. That night I go to bed dreaming of toothpicks and fireflies.  My pinky cradles my jawline like God’s fingernail clipping and I whisper half-asleep poems into its curvature.

And so it is.  I feel a bit compelled to apologize to you, dear reader.  You patient listener, you.  See, this is not a story of any particular importance.  This is not a story with underlying, ulterior motives intended to teach you something new about something you thought you knew. This is not an answer at all.  This is just a story.  You’re probably left with more questions than you came with, but it’s also not my fault that narrators are characteristically untrustworthy and that you’re a bad listener.  So, really, you’re to blame.

It’s okay, I forgive you.

The fact is, we are all storytellers with the best intentions, making it up as we go.

The fact is, even though the answer is an ending that makes us feel complete, it’s the question that makes us human.

The fact is, you were damned from the get-go.  Though you can’t say that I didn’t warn you.