Candles in the dark

I was born. If there is one thing I can say without any doubt, it is that I was born. Sure as the sun returns after it dips below the darkening horizon, I was born. What an unlucky thing it is to be born. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to be nothing rather than something? I have never tilted my ear toward the wind and heard it pleading for mercy from an intangible deity in the heavens. God help me. I have yet to look up at the moon and witness it shivering in an alley lighted by orange tinted twilight in the depths of a New England winter. I can’t feel my toes. The sun has never risen worrying about whether it will or will not have anything to eat today. I haven’t eaten since Friday. A star has never squeezed the trigger that sent lead hurtling toward a neighboring star out of jealousy or misplaced aggression. I’m sure the children will hardly miss him.

Nothing is just so much more natural. Nothing is the untouched vastness of the Amazon. The rain drop that refracts light into a million different directions as the sun shines through after clouds, once casting shadows from their fortress in the sky, decide to hold captive some distant land.

Something is a dilapidated building. The city dump that smells like waste and decay. It is the smell of something attempting to become nothing again. Nothing is as fresh as odorless deodorant spread upon a wisp of wind. Something sure smells like shit.

On the day I was born I began mounting the wooden steps. I could not yet walk, but my feet still moved me upward. I felt the wood moan beneath the weight of my body. It sang a song of sorrow and regret. Maybe it wasn’t a song at all. It was a mournful prayer; a cry for help whispered to a deaf deity in an untouchable sky.

I was in Washington D.C. It was the heart of winter, and I could feel the chill cast upon me as I stood shivering in the shadow of American idealism and faux-democracy. The streets of Washington D.C. were rumored to be paved with gold, but beneath the lustrous surface were the bones of the faceless families lacking both homes and shelter.

Walking toward the Metro I came upon a man, with brown and gray-stained hair, standing motionless in the street. The wind whipped against the exposed flesh on the left side of my face. It was cold. It wasn’t an early autumn cold. It was a kind of unrelenting, middle-of-winter, wind-whipped cold. It was the kind of cold that made one surf the web in an attempt to find a way to get away from it all.

Look at that, a round-trip to the Barbados for only $629.99. Perfect.

He stood patiently. It was the kind of patient waiting around that people can only do when they have no other place to go. He was wearing a torn black sweatshirt with an assortment of bright colored stains, like the canvas of an artistically inclined second grader. His jeans were worn. In some places the jeans were a deep blue, while in other areas the denim was faded to an off-white hue.

Beside him was a bent and dented tin can. The edges were a reddish brown from rust. I stopped.

“How’s it going?” I said, my fingers fumbling around in my pocket as I rummage for the change from my morning coffee.

“I’ve been better, I’d reckon.” He laughed uneasily.

We both feel the tension in the air that is characteristic of casual conversation between two complete strangers. The air smells like a cocktail composed of listlessness and uncertainty, shaken and topped with a garnish smelling most like unfettering nervousness.

I threw a few dollars and whatever change was sitting in my pocket into the rusted tin. I hear the change clang against the bottom of the no-longer empty tin. The sound of metal-on-metal sent an echo that traveled toward the top of the can. The echo seemed to hang around as I stood looking up at this man who seemed lost in his aloneness. I saw every part of him without opening my eyes. I saw it all while I saw nothing.

“God bless ya,” he says. Why are blessings always given to those who don’t need them by those who do? 

I am now looking at myself. I am wearing a paisley tie with a white collared shirt and light blue stripes. My face is without wrinkles. I have a face that screams youthfulness. “I am young, fearless, and strong,” my face screams out to anyone who cares to listen. And then I see a wrinkle forming on my forehead. Then another crease forms on the corner of my left eye. My skin is losing its’ youthful sheen. I watch as jet black hair becomes speckled with gray. A moment later, my hair is silver with a patch of whitish scalp peaking through in an area where hair had ceased growing. I’m still wearing that shirt and tie though. I look down and see that I am wearing a black sweatshirt with stains in an assortment of different colors. And this is life. This is what I will be.

Without realizing, my lips form the words “god bless ya.” You’re gonna need it more than I will, thinking, I already know my fate, just wait until you discover yours.

I feel my feet beneath me again. I look down at the sidewalk and watch as my legs devour pavement. As my feet keep a steady pace, my mind moves ahead at a relentless sprint. My mind is a mile ahead of my body when it thinks to itself, “I hope he spends every penny I gave him on something with a kick. I hope he buys a barrel of whiskey and drinks it all in one long, drawn out sip. I hope he stays forever intoxicated. Please do not burden yourself with this pathetic reality. They will tell you that it was your fault, that you are too blame, when it was all set in motion long before you were even born. Don’t let them blame you for your actions when the world had already drawn out the blueprints for your life. You were just on the receiving end of an expensive bet that was made by someone long ago who never considered you before going all in.”

I’m sitting on my front porch. I look off toward the East as the milky morning light begins to do its’ morning stretches across a darkness-filled sky. “In 15 minutes,” I think to myself, “complete blackness will be drowned by a cascading wave of light.” When daytime washes over nighttime, nighttime becomes nothing more than a distant, unfathomable illusion. Light becomes all I know and all I remember until white light fades and twilight slithers across that dimming sky.

***

Ernest Hemingway was not nothing, and he said this: “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” When he was a little over 60, he killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head; it was his favorite shotgun.

***

When I turned 10, I had a birthday party at my house. It was nothing special, but it meant the world to me because it was my day and my birthday party – I share my birthday with millions of other people’s birthdays – it was pretty selfish to think that it was just my day. The presents were all wrapped in bright, pastel colored wrapping paper with the words “happy birthday” written across them. I got a board game that I never played and money that I spent on something that seemed meaningful at the time, but is worthless or broken now; or both. As I blew out the candles and prepared myself to make a wish, reality washed away like soap on the hood of a car as it is rinsed with water.

I had finally made it to the top of those moaning stairs. I could feel the sun radiating on my pale, whitish face. As I turned my head, I saw a man who was wearing what looked like a black pillowcase over his head. In the black pillowcase were two holes cut out for his eyes. His eyes looked like two moons lost in the same nighttime sky. No, wait, his eyes looked like two ivory billiard balls spaced evenly on a pool table covered with black felt. There’s no doubt that those eyes were as cold and emotionless as ivory. Beside him was a wooden lever. The wooden lever was worn smooth at the top in a way that wood can only get from ceaseless contact from human hands. A bead of sweat formed on the top of my forehead and began to crawl toward the bottom of my face. It was as if this droplet of water knew what was happening before my own consciousness did, and was moving with haste to escape an imminent fate.

I don’t remember what I wished for, but I know what I should have wished for. Nothing. I should have wished for nothing.

This time I’m in Haiti. Even a scenic paradise can be ugly. Palm trees bearing ripening coconuts rise from the ground alongside houses composed of nothing more than blue, weather-beaten tarps. Mounds of human waste are piled high along crystal clear Caribbean-blue water. It is filth that makes you recognize what actual beauty is. Garbage and endless beauty, divided like night and day.

I go to visit the hospital in Les Cayes.

“The American health system is such shit.” If only you knew.

I step off of the bus and I can feel vomit already rising in the back of my throat. It is the smell. There must be raw sewage nearby. It smells like human excrement and stale water mixed together as one. The two components mix together to form a gas hardly bearable and painfully unconquerable. As the group walks, the smell begins to become natural; however, and I soon grow accustomed to the bile that rests in the back of my throat.

We are going to the pediatric ward. As I approach, I am confronted with a nonnegotiable reality; the pediatric ward is a glorified tent. It is long and narrow with an off white coloring that most closely resembles beige. Maybe the tent was designed to be beige, or maybe it is just covered in dust and dirt. It might be 50 feet long and maybe 15 feet wide.

I am taken back to my childhood. A high school graduation party (how lovely!) The house is filled with relatives and family friends who spend their time talking about nothing in particular, and everything imaginable all it once. It is gossip and laughter and humor and deceit all at the same time. It is a mixture of first impressions and timeworn judgment blended harmoniously.

Outside there is a tent. Beneath the tent are tables filled with ribs, hamburgers and other party food favorites. A table in the far right corner is filled with an assortment of money-filled cards and tissue paper-filled gift bags. The tent exudes the good life. It reeks of opportunity and tastes like tomorrow. I run to the ribs with a plastic plate in hand and pile on more food than I could possibly eat. This is the good life I think. This is it. What else is there to life?

In front of the tent I see a child in a white crib. There must not be enough room in the tent for him. He is naked. His mom stands alongside him as he looks up to her with big eyes that have experienced more in his short life than I ever will in all of mine. As if on cue, the mother grabs him by the waist and flips him over onto his stomach. As she flips him, I notice how his head seems to be uncontrollable. His head helplessly falls backward as he is lifted and then flops back forward after he is placed back into the crib. The child’s head moves like a pistol rolling around in an empty mortar. Once on his stomach, the child begins to defecate. I watch, helplessly as liquid brown oozes out of him and rolls down his naked leg.

My stomach hurts so bad, Mom. I feel like my insides are exploding. I think I’m dying. I must be dying. I have been so fucking dramatic.

I watch myself from afar now. I enter the tent cautiously. I am a young child about to cross a busy street. I try to listen as my mind tells my lifeless body to stay exactly where it is. Don’t go in there, don’t you dare enter that tent. I watch in horror as my legs continue to propel my body onward. From where I am watching, I look like a soldier who is about to run head on into enemy gunfire – I can hear the lead pinging against the steal barrack. Mines are exploding in my mind and my ears begin ringing. My eyes glaze over with a white film, but I can see perfectly.

There are nurses in white uniforms. They are standing helplessly near the front of the tent. I am probably such a joke. “Look at this ignorant prick,” they must be thinking to themselves. “You come into my country to judge me for the life my people live. It is greedy people like you in the greedy countries that you reside in that cause people like me, in countries like this, to suffer such poverty. Get the fuck out of my tent and get the hell out of my country.”

The nurses stand in the front of the tent because there is nothing they can do. There are no medical supplies at hand, and if there were, it is unlikely that the patient’s families would have the money to let the nurses utilize the supplies. The nurses might as well have been sitting in a car with the keys in the ignition without a drop of fuel in the gas tank. They might shift the car into neutral. It makes no difference; they are sitting at the bottom of a mountain.

I expected to have a car when I turned 17. I didn’t even question it. I just assumed, like one assumes that December will be cold, that I would have a car when I turned 17. I had maybe a hundred dollars to my name. In May, two months before my 17th birthday, my Mom showed up in “my” car. All I had to pay for was gas. I could climb to the top of any mountain. All I had to do was pay for gas!

The ringing in my ears is interrupted by the unique sound of plastic colliding with bone. There is a child sitting upright in his bunk. He is holding a green water bottle with both of his hands. Without breaking rhythm, he moves his hands toward his head and smacks the green water bottle against his forehead. The sound continues incessantly, methodically, and habitually. The bottle thudding against the child’s head pulses like the beating of a bass drum or the ticking of the second hand on an ancient clock tower. The blood in my head pounds along to the same hopeless rhythm.

The beds in the pediatric ward are laid out with no spaces between them. One bed sits next to the other. The beds are sardines packed tightly in a tin. The tin says that there are only eight sardines in it; I open it up and count 24.

I watch myself as my eyes dart toward a boy beneath a green, vomit colored mosquito net. His eyes are covered with some kind of moistened cloth. He goes to the bathroom on himself. On top of the mosquito nets dozens of flies patiently bide their time. “Any second now,” they must be thinking. It has got to be any second now. There is a shadow looming somewhere within this tent waiting to overtake this child. If I didn’t know it, the flies did. As I watch myself from outside the tent, I watch the shadow as it dances in the corner.

This isn’t a hospital. Something feels like shit.

I am laying lifeless in my bed. This is it. My body jolts; it is a subtle reminder that I am still alive. This is it. I think about death, and I think about life, and how the two are so different yet so inextricably bound together; sometimes I don’t know which category I fall into. This can’t be it. I see my parents, and I hope that this is what they always wanted. I am sure they dreamed of living in a greenish, three-bedroom house in suburbia. I tell myself that a 40-hour work week was everything they wanted – and more. It must be. My father is clean-shaven now. Youth nestles itself upon his cheek bones and jostles itself under his eyes. I see visions of a future both beautiful and miraculous, and realize nothing is familiar to me. Why must it be this? Then I see my mother. She is beautiful in the way that only young women can be; men are too prideful to tell themselves they are beautiful. Her eyes close, and behind her eyelids she sees herself covered in waves of silk. She is swinging across an endless ballroom with a faceless man. This is what we hope. I let my eyes close and am shaken awake by the sun as it struggles to conquer a fierce horizon. Here we go again.

This isn’t a hospital, I think. Children do not come here to get better. They come here to die, or watch the child beside them die. You do not come to this hospital to get better, I say again. You come to this hospital to die, I repeat. You don’t get better, you die. Something becomes nothing.

Reality can lift upward like a helium filled balloon, or it can press downward like an iron weight dropped on your chest. “We saw this young boy in the hospital.” I felt the weight pressing. “We hope that he is at peace…” My chest begins to bend, I hear the strain of bone struggling to maintain a natural shape. “…more than he was in his short life.” Snap. The weight falls through my chest and plunges into darkness. I know not where the weight fell to, but I know it has yet to stop falling; it drags me down with it.

The smell of damp Earth lingers in the still, early April air. I look up toward the sky; it is still clustered with ominous puffs of singed cotton. The storm will never pass. One last rumble of distant thunder reverberates through paper-thin air. The sky momentarily opens, and a pillar of light descends toward a world groping for something beautiful.

***

T.S. Eliot was something, and he said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

***

I begin my walk toward the center of the platform. The smell of sun bleached, long-dead pine rises from the boards beneath my feet, lingers momentarily, and then is swept away as a gentle Northerly wind slides past. The sun is pounding on my head. I feel eyes looking at me, but they aren’t looking at me; they are looking through me. A crowd has begun to gather. Everyone is exactly the same. Their faces are all round and their hair falls in exactly the same way. Everyone is male and female all at once. Every face is stoic and remorseless. I tell myself that they are silently hoping to be up on this platform alongside me. They don’t look at me because they can only see themselves. I notice how all the eyes are filled with cataracts. It occurs to me that all these people have never seen anything in their lives. The world has been nothing more than different shades of the same desperate shadow. They watch the outlines of the world in hopes that it may be the real thing. The world is only a different shade of darkness. I realize that I am staring at my shadow. I look up and I see the shadow of a noose.

When I was 12 years old I realized that I was too fat for the first time. My classmates had told me often that I was, but I never believed them. And then one day I looked in the mirror and could not recognize the person who was looking back at me. He looked like a stranger who I had heard of before, but had never seen in person. Who the hell is that guy. I was disgusted. I was revolted. The next few months flew away like a scrap of paper in a tornado.

I let those fuckers get to me. 

I was there in that not-so-comfortable chair, and she was over there, across that infinitely long desk forming words with her lips that my ears were deciding to ignore. I sat stone-faced, but I was a faceless rock after an early spring storm; water beaded and iron tears trickled down stone. I looked at her like a child looks upon a sunset; enthralled by the splash of colors spewing across the twilight sky. Her hair was illuminated by the yellow tint of fluorescent light. When I began to hear her words, they arrived late like the collision between bat and ball does for a spectator sitting in deep center field. The words floated momentarily and then fell like lead. It was the diagnosis and the realization – the facts trumping fallacy.

I ate because it was all I could do to find comfort. I ate compulsively. I ate even after the feeling of hunger had faded long ago. I ate out of nervousness. I ate for the sake of eating. I ate because it was the only thing that made sense at the time, until one day I decided that eating too much wasn’t the right thing to do. So then I started running and I stopped eating. I ran away from the person who I saw staring back at me in the mirror. I ran until my insides hurt and until my stomach roared. I ran away from the present moment like a dead beat father runs from his family. I ran steadily, greedily, and without any regard for the family I knew that I was harming. And then I cried. I cried because there was nothing left to do.

I could hear them whispering. “What’s wrong with him?” they would ask. “I think his uncle passed away.” “I hear that his dog died.” “Why is his head always down?” “He must be some kind of idiot.” I just want the wind to blow me away. Let me be dust in the wind.

That was when I saw my father cry for the first time. My father was a rock. He was the sturdy piece of furniture that occasionally wobbles, but never falls. I remember how it felt to watch the cabinet come hurdling downward. The doors flung open and the ceramic plates smashed on impact. Glass cups shattered and splintered into a million pieces on the linoleum floor. I watched as I shattered with all the dinnerware. His face seemed so unnatural as tears streamed down his dried out cheeks. It was like watching water being squeezed out of two oval shaped, emerald-colored rocks. His face wrinkled in places that had not been wrinkled in decades. My mom came into the room with the dustpan and began to sweep up the broken dinnerware. When you shatter into so many pieces, you never collect all the pieces that were strewn across the floor.

I left so much of myself on that damn floor. I lost so much time gluing myself back together. I made a mess that would never be completely cleaned up.

Sunlight envelops my sunglasses as white light trickles across my milky eyes. I continue to sit motionless as ropes of stringy light are pulled tautly across tinted lense

***

The noose floats in the air like an apparition. I feel the frayed rope in my hands. I look at the rope like I have never seen a rope before. It looks harder than cement, but as soft as cotton. It is welcoming and uninviting; exciting and terrifying.  I am drawn toward the noose like a child is drawn toward the campfire that a parent has just got finished saying should not be played with. As I approach the noose, I smell the natural aroma of dead fibers. It smells like death, but also like new beginnings. Death is an endpoint and a starting point.

I put my chin on the bottom of the loop of rope and rested it there for a second as I looked out at the stoic, blind faces in the crowd. They were silent. Their faces were beaten.

And then I did something miraculous. My legs were moving beneath me again. I was no longer in control of my body. I felt my arms grab the railing on the stage and catapult my legs over the rail in one clean, swift motion. I began to run like a man who had never run before would run. As I ran, I could feel the wind in my face trying to blow me back toward the fate that the world was conspiring to put me through. But I could also feel wind at my back pushing me forward toward the setting sun. I was running toward the sun in hopes that the sun would never set on me. I was running toward the light because I had unknowingly been in the dark for too long. As the wind pushed me toward the horizon, I thought to myself the wind that blows down the house is also the wind that blows away the storm and so I kept running.

When William Faulkner was still something, he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among the creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

And so we endure. Endlessly, tirelessly, and infinitely. Not because we want to, but because we need to; because we are candles burning in a darkened room.