I remain suspended in fluid. All around me are faces I recognize, flickering with the strobe: former schoolmates, acquaintances, and even a few “friends” sprinkled in hazily. Though I don’t know who I consider a friend anymore. All the conversations tonight have been vacuous and still too lengthy. If these are friends, what are my enemies like?
The party is at a triply-removed acquaintance’s apartment, a two-bedroom somewhere in a nondescript neighborhood, presumably south of some places and north of others. The music, electronic sonic pollution, emanates from two monitors propped up against the back walls. I am above this, yet almost like clockwork, I find myself back in these situations, playing the part. The part of the smiling young man who sips and talks, nods and laughs. All I really am anymore is an actor. And just like the greatest thespians of the generation (Hanks, Day-Lewis, Hartnett, DiCaprio), I blend in like a chameleon.
An intoxicated girl slips away from her circle of friends and chats me up next to the bookcase, where I’m admiring the host’s collection of thick postmodern novels (most of which have been unread, I presume).
“You don’t seem like you’re having a good time.” She speaks a bit too loudly.
“What makes you say that?”
“You’re not talking to anyone, you’re just looking at these books. Why don’t you come and hang out with us?”
While I’m contemplating whether she truly wants me to answer that question, she sweeps me away from the wall with a vigorous stroke of the arm. Before I know it, I’m listening to someone in a flannel shirt talk about his rock band and how they’re “so close” to getting signed.
The others sound impressed, but I can see right through him. He seems like the type of person who enjoys talking about his music career more than actually creating art. But in the current year (2016), I suppose that’s to be expected. A time of likes and retweets, but not of true artistry. The artist has been killed, and it was the celebrity who delivered the fatal blow.
I space out for a moment, losing track of the conversation. It takes a moment for my senses to refocus. “Did you know that if you eat celery, you actually lose calories because it takes more energy to digest it than the celery has in it?” There’s no way that’s true.
I interject, “I don’t think that’s right.”
The short blond who brought it up doubles down on her claim. “Yeah, if you eat celery, you actually lose calories because it takes more energy to digest it than the celery has in it.”
I find no reason to continue arguing over something so banal, but already people are giving me stares as if I was too aggressive. Maybe I’m “ruining the vibe.” Right when the tension reaches a maximum, the intoxicated girl next to me turns and begins to speak. But instead of language, vomit comes out. She begins apologizing profusely as I assess the damage.
I’m upset, but also relieved to have this as an escape route. I announce that I’ll be going back to my apartment and nobody tries to stop me, for I have an excuse in the form of a puke-encrusted blazer. The air outside the apartment cools my lungs, which had been steadily rising in temperature from the muggy air and hedonism inside.
I take a 5 minute walk before opening Google Maps, allowing myself to experience the sensation of being lost for just a moment, a rarity in today’s plugged-in age. 13 minute walk to the station. Perfect. The time passes easily, the night is still. Apparently I’ve taken the scenic route. When people aren’t around, it’s astonishing how beautiful a city can look. Sometimes I think all cities would be better without anyone living in them.
Late at night, you don’t hear things. You only hear artifacts of things, bleeding across their designated borders, a car horn here, the bass from a nightclub there. It makes one feel so lonely and so communal simultaneously.
I would be lying, though, if I said I didn’t wish I had someone to share this with. But not just any person. Someone to love. Someone who thinks like me, who can see past the illusions of life and truly understand what is going on and what is important. I have yet to meet anyone who fits this mold. I want to be with someone who has had a real conversation sometime in their entire life. I should also think they’re hot.
The train arrives. It’s middle hours between rush hour and the late night exodus which, just like so many middle children in suburban America whose tree-houses will remain perpetually unfinished, are mostly neglected.
The train car is near empty. I sit across from a girl about my age, with hair in her eyes and over-ear headphones on, quietly leaking some tune I can’t quite make out. She is radiant. She is like a pearl. But unlike pearls, which are housed in the exoskeletons of oysters, she is cased in beautiful pale skin beneath multiple layers of fabric. An overcoat to keep her warm, a light jacket underneath for fashion. Her head gradually becomes more and more buried in the book she’s clutching. She is a cocoon, remaining inside herself, reading, reading, reading.
An intellectual in today’s age is a woolly mammoth, a tiger with ombre stripes, a rare specimen. Her existence only makes me want to know more. But should I talk to her? Should I say something? I feel like saying anything would destroy the sanctity of the scene. In my mind, she can be anything I want her to be and that’s the beauty of it all.
I avert my eyes. I stare at the floor. The car seizures as we pass under the industrial district, a rougher ride than usual. It’s as if the exaggerated motions of the train on the track are speaking directly to me: “Talk to her!” I wish I could talk to trains so I could spit out my 100 different excuses why I’ll do anything but.
We stop in the heart of downtown. A few teenagers returning from a night out board and sit at the back of the car. I have five stops to choose. Choose between an imagined nothing and a tangible something. I look back up at her, feeling like an absolute cretin for what could now be considered staring. Creep. Voyeur. Peeping Tom. I try to make out what book she’s reading, but can’t quite discern the lettering on the spine.
Four stops left. Perhaps if she’s getting off at the same stop as me, I could try to talk to her on the street? No, no, no. The only thing worse than being approached on the bus is being approached late at night curbside, by a stranger no less. Even if I’m polite, it’ll feel like I’m accosting her. This is the place. If you’re going to take a shot, take a shot.
As we pass through a certain section of the tunnel, the interior lights dim. Stud lights shining through the window behind her intermittently form a halo-like vision that dances six inches above her head. Divine intervention. This is my chance! As my mother used to tell me, don’t read when there’s not enough light. She can’t read while the lights are down.
Right on schedule, she puts the book in her bag. Should I act? But what would I even say? I could talk about how I too enjoy reading and what a worthwhile pursuit it is. Is that worth saying? My tongue is tied. I hesitate too long, the pause not being simply pregnant; it has gone ahead and raised the child all the way to adulthood during my time of indecision.
Three stops left. A group of four men in their mid-20s, dressed uniformly in classic fraternity attire, board and split between my bench and the bench beside my crush (the term crush seems too juvenile, but this is certainly a juvenile predicament, isn’t it?). They are chatty, with a slight hint of inebriated aggressiveness in their voices.
She turns up her music, the melodies singing out from the headphones now recognizable as distinctly classical in nature. Another person in the world who appreciates the subtler notes of culture! But the new riders pose a problem. I feel frozen, overcome by stage fright. If I were to approach the girl, I would now be performing in front of an audience. The stakes have been raised. Failure has been elevated from potential dejection to humiliation.
Two stops left. She begins to gather her things and takes a quick glance at a phone to check the time. No, this is not how I imagined it happening. The fates must be feeling mischievous tonight, almost having her and my destination line up. Almost, but not quite. The train rolls into the station, the deceleration feeling like the peak of a roller coaster, pit in stomach and all.
A wave of adrenaline swims through my veins. I am going to transform this nothing. As she heads towards the doors, I follow behind her, courage pumping my vocal chords like an accordion to get them to say something, anything.
“Excuse me, Miss?” I’m buried under the sound of her headphones and the ambient train noise, she doesn’t hear. I speed up to get closer to her. The doors open and she steps out. She’s only a few feet away, but it feels as if she’s become part of another world. She is in the real world. It’s no longer a controlled environment. It’s not the dream of minutes past. It can’t be and will never be the same.
I am on a train. I ride for a short while longer until I reach my destination. Alternate eternities are flickering in front of me, being born and killed in instants of time too small to measure. I see smiles and laughter mixed with winces and tears, along with emotions too subtle and situational to classify. All these realities, all these possibilities. Together, we could have made some somethings out of nothing.
Back home now. Tonight, I experienced the totality of human existence in the moments that I believed in ‘us.’ But you can’t spell us without you.