Only Death is Real

“…beneath the sound of hope.”

It’s the same thing every time, she told me. It’s an act, the whole thing; it isn’t real. The eye contact, the pursed lips, hands in the hair, the inflection in tone- “baby, baby…” She’ll pick up on this and mimic it back to me- same eye contact, same pursed lips: “baby, baby…”

When you’ve lived what feels like a thousand lifetimes compared to the high school sweethearts; you’ve figured out every bit of the female algorithm- missile launch codes carved into your skull like the password to skip to Mike Tyson; right to the bedroom; right to true love, scientific discovery at the price of normalcy; at the price of family.

At the price of outliving your parents- at least numerically. Without anything else- anything to provide perspective- the single man will either self-destruct in addiction or grind himself into the ground; defiance, on the road to decay; defiance in the face of genetic limitations- trying to get muscle car performance out of an economy class. Your parents were shopping on a budget- who knew how bad things would get?

The cold void of an endless January seems even crueler when juxtaposed with the colored lights of December. It was a December morning, before first period, that our eyes met in front of her locker. In what couldn’t have been planned, at least consciously planned- perhaps, more like the march of the penguins, or a rosebud uncoiling before the relentless morning sun- perhaps, something guided by nature and etched into a plan that wasn’t within our power to modify. Our eyes met, guided by invisible forces so strong that they had almost revealed themselves- a proof for God, had we been more conscious of it in the moment- our eyes met, and hung in the air frozen. No words exchanged. Even a kiss would have spoiled the purity of the moment. We had from our surroundings what was needed, and we could make from it something more.

We stayed after school that day and spent the afternoon talking about the future as if we could write it. Too shy, of course, to include one another in these plans- but we spoke in ways where this acknowledgement wasn’t necessary; that it was maybe so pressing and obvious that it could be left unsaid.

That night, December 16th, 1996, I took the late bus home from school- and that night was the only time I wore a seatbelt. This was the greatest day of my life, and I couldn’t let anything ruin it.

***

You’re just like Stanley Kubrick, is what people must have told Shane Carruth. Absolute darling of the independent movie scene at the dawn of the new millennium, Carruth did what would have been considered impossible- made his first movie, with a seven-thousand dollar budget, and won the grand-jury prize at Sundance. To put this in perspective, it’s like your friend’s student film winning an Oscar- like breaking a law of nature, this was something that couldn’t happen… but it did, because Primer (2004) is incredible. Breathtakingly incredible- even with its flaws; flubbed audio and blown-out lighting; there is nothing like Primer and Primer is fucking incredible.

And even still, I can never decide whether I prefer Primer or Carruth’s follow-up Upstream Color (2013)– a film so uniquely outside the box that I wouldn’t know where to begin describing it. Part science fiction, part cold realism- broken people with interdependent relationships- Upstream Color examines the connection between identity and trauma, how the latter inescapably shapes the former- and, more so, how these elements, so crucial to how we understand the world around us, are often invisible.

Absolute darling of the independent movie scene, for a short time Carruth had tried to work within the Hollywood system- to the point of even pitching a Batman movie. When he couldn’t get funding for his big budget, trippy sci-fi adventure A Topiary he pivoted back to realism with A Modern Ocean– which caught a bit of fire, even making it to the casting stage… and then nothing.

Absolute darling of the independent movie scene, which is ultimately meaningless. No one wants to finance difficult, obtuse art. No one cares how good you are. No one cares if you’re just like Stanley Kubrick, or just like Delicious Tacos, your inaccessible art- your brilliance- means nothing in a world of Mickey Mouse superhero bullshit. Beauty means nothing in hell.

***

It was in the cold void of January that Kevin had slipped you the little blue sheet of paper, folded up with your name across the front, during second period Theology. You had nothing to worry about, he said. He wasn’t interested, he explained. He was already dating Michelle- a fact you all knew, but Jessica had still called him the night before, just to be sure.

It is only in the cold void of an endless January that all can be laid bare. Only in the absence of the ornate, and the emotions inherently consequent, that proper assessment can be made. Only after New Year’s Eve, 1996; making out with Jessica in her living room; Dick Clark with KISS ringing in the New Year; “I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day”; drunk only on each other; hands in her hair, looking into her eyes- this is gonna be our year, baby– only in the absence of this can things be properly contextualized.

Terms and conditions; hypothesis and conclusion; the manager who won’t let the artist pursue their passion project for practical reasons. Hollywood who won’t give Shane Carruth money to make pure art. She was the prize and you were the runner up- second choice. She tried to negotiate for a better deal but chose to accept the offer on the table. You bought what you could afford and were happy with what you got. One little blue sheet of paper later and it was tainted- like finding a horde of ants behind the wall of your dream house or the new car that never leaves the shop. A heap of junk who’d tell you that she loved you but you weren’t buying it– it wasn’t good enough– who cried at your coldness and sucked your dick on Friday night. You wanted a fairytale; you wanted purity and you got mayhem.

The punchline is that Jessica loved me for years after we broke up. For years, she’d do her best to find me- in the years before social media, this wasn’t easy. Messages sent through friends. Showing up at the same goth clubs. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985); always a step behind, always on the prowl. She’d let a guy hit on her and I’d swoop in and pull her away by the waist.

No one could understand why I wouldn’t just date her. If you saw the dress she’d wear to Detour, you’d have wondered the same thing, but she just had the dumb luck of knowing me. She had the dumb luck of buying all those Seattle stocks at their IPO; the dumb luck of buying bitcoin for pennies; an early adopter– commendable, but now she could step aside ’cause this rocket’s not stopping ’til we hit the moon. Thanks for playing, baby. Maybe next time.

***

Writing is the pursuit of truth- this is what you’ll say when asked why you write. Greatness existing within your reach– brief glimpses of its Platonic form, so brief you can only sketch them from memory; scribble out words, inadequate substitutions for what you’re trying to impale with your ball-point spear; feel the juices stream down your neck as you indulge on the progress you’ve made. The pursuit of truth- there’s a purity to this.

Internet fame, a substitute for your relationship with God. This is what you say matters. This is how you get to sleep at night. This is how you justify a meandering existence, never having to commit, always thinking you could do better; you should do better. Incredible truth to be found in meeting desperate women on dating apps. There’s no room in hell for the happily married; only the dead walk the Earth.

As if David Foster Wallace’s suicide doesn’t haunt you. Poke holes in your theory. You’ll never be as good; you’ll never be as acclaimed; historically significant; critically well-received; famous- both Internet and real life. Even this, what you woke-up early to write, before work, in a spiral-bound notebook that you bought for a quarter; even this, your recent work- which you believe shows significant growth; your stylistic prime; your best, which by anyone’s judgement would have to be considered clever– will always be shit compared to Wallace’s worst… and even if you want to believe that turning words into art is enough to justify an otherwise meaningless existence, DFW’s hanging corpse is somewhere laughing at you.

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4 comments

  1. Craig · January 16

    “…I’m missing Cleveland and the snow; ”
    Sounds like someone who never had to shovel the driveway clean before, much less have to commute to work in a blizzard, and the fucking car battery died from being so goddamn cold outside. Yeah, I’m a little bit salty when I see people talk glowingly of snow unless it’s a clever euphemism for cocaine.

  2. Craig · January 16

    ” Our eyes met, guided by invisible forces so strong that they had almost revealed themselves- a proof for God, had we been more conscious of it in the moment-…”
    I remember experiencing something like that, and I really wanted to believe it to be true. But the moment was fleeting and I could feel it slipping away like when you’re at the arcade playing Smash TV, you get shot and see Game Over on the screen with the 10 second Insert More Coin To Continue. It’s a moment in time most mortals dream of extending into eternity, the playing the game part, not the Insert More Coin To Continue part. Given the realization that a woman’s sexual desire is the closest a man can ever get to “true love” is a rather painful understanding. The why of why we crave it so much is cold and unforgiving, but necessary for maturing.

  3. Craig · January 16

    “It’s the same thing every time, she told me. It’s an act, the whole thing; it isn’t real. The eye contact, the pursed lips, hands in the hair, the inflection in tone- ‘baby, baby’…”
    Can confirm, easily executed with very little effort on her part so much so, it’s cliché.

  4. Craig · January 16

    “Writing is the pursuit of truth- this is what you’ll say when asked why you write.”

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