Memoir into Madness / Ashes

Memoir into Madness / Ashes

She’s the girl you see in lecture hall, the one at the far end of the room with whom you make brief eye contact once and whose eyes haunt you night after night as you lie awake in bed staring up into the darkness. She’s the girl you pass by as you make your way down the airplane’s rows, looking for your seat, and who occupies your thoughts the entire flight though you never see her again. She’s the girl you pass in a crowd, whose face seems to draw your gaze like a moth to a flame just before it is blown out by the wind, as much gone from sight as it isn’t from mind.

You pass her and you find yourself thinking, I could love you. I could be there for you, I could know you, I could hold you in the night and stand by you in the day. You imagine a life together, you construct a personality for her and a situation in which you happen to start up a conversation, and your eyes meet and you fall in love. The flame is gone, but the fire’s only just started.

It hits you one day, but you only recognize it later if at all, like the delayed development of a bruise from a punch inflicted during a drunken bar fight several nights before. The faces have piled up, the stories lie atop one another like slides on a projector, each word and letter blurred and unidentifiable from the next, until all that is projected is a mess, a shapeless blob of dark figures faceless in the crowd. You forget where fiction ends and reality begins, and some days you can’t distinguish memories from imaginations, fantasies from realities. But the faces keep coming, the stories keep rolling out. I could love you. You fall for face after face, and some of the old ones make reappearances, surely a sign that they are significant, a sign that you are meant to be. Coincidence is a foreign concept, fate is all you know, blind to the irony of your own ignorance, the tragic flaw in your beliefs ever evasive beneath your nose.

You’re convinced in the existence of true love, of destiny, and yet the impossibility of this is reflected in each face you fall for. But you ignore it, so preoccupied with falling in love that you don’t realize that you’re not. And the fire rages on.

You no longer sleep at night, spending the time vainly sorting through the stories, trying  to organize and sort them in order of likelihood and appeal. Your days are no better, and you lose your grip on life as you trade it for something that doesn’t exist. You feel alienated from the world, which inexplicably remains stagnantly contradictory to the fantasies you entertain, as though it has betrayed you.

You stop making eye contact with the people you pass by, afraid you’ll feel that all-too familiar click again, that brief cry which echoes on inside your skull for an eternity afterwards, adding to the already deafening screams of those who have already contributed. I could love you. You fear your head will split open at the seams if you fall another time, and whether through your own imaginings developing a placebo effect or simply a symptom of the sleep deprivation, you suffer raging migraines on a regular basis. Your appearance acts as a reflection of your descent: your eyes are permanently shadowed, the sockets hollowed; your skin pale and at times clammy; and your hands shake so violently that you have developed a habit of firmly gripping onto whatever is in reach to still them, lest they betray your weakness.

The fire consumes you. Soon you stop going out in public altogether, only making runs for food and other necessities before scurrying back to your room like a rat fearing capture. You imagine you can feel them staring at you, their eyes boring holes into the back of your skull, cracking open the bone and exposing the stories hidden beneath, pouring through the holes and flowing out into the air like black ink in water. Your secrets, exposed. Vulnerable. You start imagining that you can hear their thoughts, their cruel whispers behind your back as you pass, hissing their contempt for you. They can see it, they know you are pathetic, you are unlovable, you are unfaithful. They see you for what you are and they laugh and sneer.

You sit on the edge of your bed and pick through your stories, broken and incomplete, feebly lifting them like dead things, half expecting them to come to life in your hands. But when you loosen your grip they drift downwards like fragile, crumpled ashes, as lifeless as they were from the start. They litter the ground, empty husks and hollow duplicates of something living and beautiful. They offer you no consolation. You stare down at the fragments of lives you have never lived and will never live, and you whisper five words, your voice hoarse and broken, scarcely more than an exhale, the sound of a dying flame, the final snuff of a fire as it is forever extinguished.

I could have loved you.

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Meaningless Everything

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet

The world does not work in positives and negatives.  Nothing can be said to have any intrinsic value of “good” or “bad”.  Our society and the people within it dictate norms and designate alignments of actions, objects and occurrences, generally based upon whether or not the thing in question serves to benefit our goals at any given point.  To extend said alignments beyond that is to delude oneself into believing in some higher cosmic power dictating the rights and wrongs of the universe.

It can be difficult to accept that a school bus full of children crashing into a lake is not inherently bad, but such things – and worse – happen every day and the universe is none the worse.  As the age-old saying states, “life goes on”.  Nothing we do and nothing that happens to us will ever “matter” outside the scope of our own self-interest.  A school bus of children crashing into a lake is only “bad” insofar as society views it as such.  Compassion for our fellow homo sapiens sapiens is an evolutionary trait developed to ensure and further our survival as a species, nothing more.

The same goes for emotions.  Certain triggers will illicit emotional responses to either encourage or discourage behaviours in life, a system that once again arose to help ensure our survival but which now struggles to keep up with humanity’s rapid production of newer and trickier triggers.  Happiness is no more the mascot for “good” than sadness or anger are for “bad”.  Indeed one can be said to be healthier than the others, but this only goes so far before we run into the same problem: health is not synonymous with “good” either.  Health and happiness are certainly ideals in this society, and in this sense and this sense alone they are synonymous with “good”, but make no mistake: to confuse the ideals of human civilisation with those of some higher universal power is to damn yourself.

When we begin weighing our experiences on this earth against some existential concept of “good” and “bad”, of “right” and “wrong”, our primitive consciousness is overwhelmed with feelings of failure.  Happiness, sadness, anger, ecstasy, guilt, love, insecurity, these are all entirely natural feelings.  Sure, some may make you feel better than others, but that does not make them inherently “good” anymore than it makes the others “bad”.  They are simply two sides of the same coin, tumbling down the stream of consciousness that is life.  They are a natural part of existence, and to harp over them, to consider some a failure and others a success, is to not only deny yourself all that existence has to offer, but to deny what it is to be human.

Things only “matter” in the sense that they matter to us.  Our feelings are what set the parameters for our existence; we assign and prescribe definitions such as good and bad to occurrences that are, in every sense of the word, inconsequential.  In this way we are the masters of our own lives.  We give this world meaning, give ourselves purpose.  We are the ones who will live and die for the sake of an idea, the ones who mourn the dead and celebrate the living.  And when you’re feeling down on your luck and the walls are closing in, when all you seem to do is screw things up, know this: there is no wrong way to live, anymore than there is a right one.  Sadness, happiness, love, hatred, these are all masks worn by the one true state of being: existence.  No matter what you are, no matter how you feel, it all boils down to existence.

You exist.  Anything beyond that is over-complicated bullshit imposed upon us by society and our own egos.  You exist.  Do with that what you will.

BoJack Horseman is My Spirit Animal

BoJack Horseman is My Spirit Animal

“I don’t understand how people live. It’s amazing to me that people wake up every morning and say ‘Yeah, another day, let’s do it!’ How do people do it? I don’t know how.”

– BoJack Horseman

Well season 4 of my favourite show in the world has just been released, so I figured it warranted a repost of this old gem.  If you want to watch the trailer (featuring this fantastic song by Saint Motel) you can do so here.

If you have yet to acquaint yourself with Netflix’s first original animated series for adults, then what the hell are you still doing sitting here reading this?  But seriously, if you haven’t seen the show, it comes highly recommended from this stranger on the internet, and if for some unthinkable reason that doesn’t immediately convince you to watch it, I suppose I could offer a quick summary.

BoJack Horseman is a dark comedy/drama set in a world with anthropomorphic animals- but that doesn’t really have anything to do with the show’s plot… like at all (so just accept it & move on).  The star (and source of the show’s name) is none other than BoJack Horseman, a (yep, you guessed it) horse/man actor and washed up star of the old-but-gold ’90s sitcom Horsin’ Around.

But that plot summary doesn’t even begin to do the show justice.  The series encompasses so much (a satirical analysis of celebrity culture and the film industry,  social commentary on key issues in today’s society, and a powerful analysis into the darkest recesses of the human – or animal – soul, just to name a few) that you’d be hard-pressed not to find something you like.  The show brings together a slew of colourful and diverse characters, each dealing with their own struggles to cope with and understand the chaotic nature of life in their own way, each finding support and opposition as they cross paths.

Fair warning: season 1 starts off more fartsy than artsy, so if you find yourself thinking back to this high praise and wondering why you keep letting yourself get talked into doing things by strangers on the internet, just remember that it does get better.  People on the internet are never wrong.

Horseman

The series finds BoJack struggling with a lack of purpose, a dangerous amount of self-loathing, and a seemingly unquenchable desire to launch himself back into the spotlight.  Despite his apparent enthusiasm for said task, somehow BoJack always ends up second-guessing himself – will this accomplishment actually make him happy?  Is he just grasping at straws?  Does he even deserve happiness? – and be it intentional or otherwise, more often than not his efforts fall victim to self-sabotage.  His existential crises escalate as the series progresses, and before long he’s an absolute fucking mess.

Just like me, in other words.

While BoJack and I aren’t perfect matches – in matters of money, fame and sexual partners BoJack seems to have me beat by quite a bit – I still can’t help but feel a certain connection to the severely flawed protagonist.

The fact that the television character I relate to most is a bitterly cynical anthropomorphic horse with self-destructive tendencies, a highly addictive personality and a severe case of depression probably says a lot about my current state of affairs- none of it good.

But that’s what makes the show so fantastic.  For all its eccentric animal characters, BoJack Horseman is a series that perfectly exemplifies what it is to be human.

We are flawed.  We’re vulnerable, and we’re selfish, insecure, self-destructive, and weak.  But we still try.  We fuck things up and we make a huge mess and we wonder if there’s even a way back- and then we try again.  We hurt the ones we love, and we hurt the ones who love us, but there’s something to be said for having been loved in the first place, and maybe the world’s not so bad after all, if even after all the things you’ve said and done people still root for you to come out on top.

And it’s not just you.  It’s all of us.  BoJack Horseman shows us that no one is safe from the dreaded existential crisis, and no one is alone in it, either.  Everyone has those days, when they can’t seem to find a reason to keep going, a purpose to define their existence, a key to unlock the door to happiness.  We’re all struggling to figure it out.

But the most important aspect of this beautiful show is also its arguably most subtle message: that you need to forgive yourself.

If I can still hope that BoJack makes it out okay even after all the shitty things he’s done, then maybe redemption isn’t out of the question for me.  That’s the show’s message: that sure, people fuck up all the time, but if you can find it in yourself to forgive this horse, then you can learn to forgive yourself too.

Sure, the way back is long and hard, and sometimes -hell, a lot of the time- we slip and we lose our footing and we fall back to the bottom of the pit again, but we get back up again, and we dust off our knees and we get back to it.

After all, as a wise baboon once said: “It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”

Business or Pleasure?

I’ve been feeling rather disenchanted with blogging recently, which is part of why I haven’t checked in for some time.  I think the problem is that most WordPress users are here as writers, first and foremost – our role as readers is secondary.  Which isn’t a problem in itself, obviously: there’s nothing wrong with honing your craft and sharing your work.  The problem is that most of us came to this site with certain expectations, expectations that just so happen to hinder their own realisation.  If everyone is here first and foremost to promote their own brand, and one of the only ways (or perhaps the best way) to promote said brand is through mutual reciprocation, then every time someone likes a post or follows a blog it’s with self-interest in mind.

Obviously I’m both generalising and oversimplifying, and I don’t want to be accused of wining about my own wounded pride or anything, because that’s not what this is (well, at least not entirely).  I’d like to believe that most of this is just paranoia and insecurity, and that it’s just a coincidence that the only people who read my posts on a regular basis are the ones whose blogs I read on a regular basis, despite the fact that I have over 60 other followers whose blogs I do not follow, but I’m not stupid: I know a correlation when I see one.

I accept the system for what it is, and I accept that this is just how things work most of the time – I just didn’t have this in mind when I signed up.  I don’t have the ambition or the business sense (a mean part of me wants to say two-facedness, and we’ll allow it simply for the sake of documentation) to put in that kind of effort.  The problem is I have yet to reconcile this fact with my own bruised ego.

I’d be a liar if I said there wasn’t some part of me that secretly hoped, expected even, that my writing’s popularity would soar once it hit the worldwide web.  I think it sort of comes with the territory – writers are nefarious for their uncanny ability to balance self-loathing and pride.  But when I realised that achieving that kind of popularity would take a lot more than simply writing your best, I decided I didn’t want to go to such lengths.  After all I’d come into it for the writing, and I could still write regardless of how many followers I had.  Even so, some part of me still expected the fireworks and the parade.

Not to mention there are certain problems with resigning yourself to casual writing when you’ve also decided “hey, why not make a living off of this?”  Because that’s when things get tricky.  Once you decide you have to do something it takes half the fun out of it.  They say if you do something you love you’ll never work a day in your life, but the flipside of that is turning what you love into work.  Pretty soon the thing you once turned to for pleasure and comfort becomes riddled with anxiety and pressure.  I’ve been staying away from the blog purely because I feel like I should be putting more effort into it: into writing more posts, into reading other people’s posts, into reaching out to more bloggers in the hopes they’ll follow me back.

The point being I’m sort of caught at a crossroads.  On the one hand I want to take my writing to new levels, to take it to a point where I can make a living off of it.  On the other hand I don’t want to feel like I have to do it for any reason other than I want to: I don’t want to taint this beautiful thing with the stresses and the expectations that come with work.  I know there’s a balance between the two: I just have to find it.


Apologies to anyone I may have offended in this post: just as a reminder, this blog serves as my own personal venting platform, where I can address all the nagging little voices at the back of my head, dragging them out into the light where they can be thoroughly scrutinised, followed by dismissal or confirmation.  There are a lot of insecurities back there, and a favourite pastime of many insecure people is to look for faults in others so they needn’t be alone- after all, misery loves company.  All that being said, I hope you won’t take too much heed in the ramblings of my darker half (or majority).

Fiction Analysis: The Arboretum

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

– Elie Wiesel

This is an analysis of the fiction piece The Arboretum.  If you haven’t yet read this story you can do so here.

Inspiration:

Like most of my angstier stories this one was written during and inspired by my tumultuous first year of University, specifically when I fell in love with a girl and everything went to shit.  I remember feeling like nothing had hurt more in my life, and wishing that I could just be numb.  That feeling inspired this story’s plot/message, and my University’s arboretum inspired the setting.

Summary/Meaning:

The story starts with a boy, talking to his therapist about a girl he’s fallen in love with.  I never actually had a therapist to talk to about such problems in real life (nor did I want one), so the conversation they have is based around similar conversations I’ve had with myself.  Essentially the issue is this: the protagonist is so wrought with self-pity and self-loathing (sound familiar?) that he is convinced she could never feel the same way, and even if she did he wouldn’t be able to handle the emotional volatility that comes with being in a relationship.

Feeling overwhelmed with emotions and the pain they bring, the boy mentions that he would rather feel nothing at all.  The therapist asks him if he’s sure, and while he admits that he isn’t sure, he says that if he didn’t feel anything then he wouldn’t have to be sure.  After a moment of silence the therapist asks him if he’s been to the University’s arboretum, and when he says he hasn’t he suggests visiting it.

We then flash forward to him doing just that, and as he takes his first steps into the park his mind wanders back as he contemplates how he came to this point.  He recalls his final meeting with his old therapist, and contemplates how much different his new therapist is.  He lists off his new therapist’s personality traits: detached, cold, distant, something that will be important later.

He then moves on to thinking about the girl he’s fallen in love with, recalling how he met her and so on.  This part is important in establishing his character and provides some helpful backdrop, but there’s nothing that really needs to be unpacked with further detail so we’ll skip ahead.

As he ventures further into the arboretum he forces his mind away from his problems and away from the girl, and before long he gets lost in the experience.  He observes and contemplates all the things the arboretum has to offer, snapshots of a life outside of his head.  There is a moment when he realises he wants to share this with someone, and naturally his thoughts first turn to the girl, but something stops him from contacting her and he ends up going on alone.

The idea here was that he’d achieved something that few people achieve or even strive for in life: a sense of pure contentment with himself.  He’s learnt to enjoy his own company, to think in terms of himself rather than through the eyes of a nonexistent lover.  Unfortunately this revelation pushes him to the brink of a very thin line, and he ends up off the deep end.  Something about the arboretum has changed him; from these snapshots of life he has gleamed some all-important truth, one which shakes him down to the very core of his being.  The opposite of empathy is apathy, and he gets exactly what he thought he wanted: he feels nothing at all.

Six days later he is back in his therapist’s office, and the therapist confirms that he knew what would happen.  In the conversation that follows the therapist shifts in his chair:

The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.

This paragraph is meant to confirm what was hinted at earlier in the story: the therapist, just like the boy, went through a troubled youth which stemmed from feeling too much.  His emotions are the wound which has become a callus (sounds a lot like callous… see what I did there?), and as a result he is detached, cold and distant, just as the boy is now.

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”

Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.

Those of you who read The Woods and the Way may have noticed similarities between the boy in that story and the boy in this one (at least, I hope so).  That’s because it’s the same character.  This story takes place after the boy in TW&TW goes off to University, wedged in right before the final chapter of TW&TW.

So you’ll be happy to know that he ends up getting a happy ending after all.

Cheshire

Cheshire

My brother used to have a mug; one of the ones with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.  The picture on this particular mug was of Cheshire Cat (the original, mind you; not the Disney one), sitting up on a branch, staring down at a young and rather startled Alice.  In one corner of the mug there was the quote “Well, I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat!  It’s the most curious thing!”  And, of course, in accordance with the words of Alice, when the cup was filled with the hot beverage of choice (in Alphie’s case it was always straight dark roast) dear old Cheshire would disappear, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.

Looking back now, I see with equal amounts of surprise and understanding that I had never really questioned its presence, or more specifically its origin.  Understandable under normal circumstances, I suppose; after all, it was a mug.  As far as I know people don’t usually keep track of their sibling’s dishes.  But in this case it was more than that.  It had been a constant in my life, something that was always there, always in the background.  For as long as I could remember he had had it, even as far back as when we were kids.  With every memory I recall the mug makes another appearance, and I can’t help but think how blind I had been, not to have noticed it for so long.  And yet I know why I’d never acknowledged it, or more accurately never allowed myself to acknowledge it.  Hence the equal amounts of surprise and understanding.  To make use of an old cliché, it all makes sense now.  The mug had always been there, lurking in the background, but like a lot of things in my life, I’d simply never brought it up.  At least, not until about a month ago.

I had spent the night, a drunken mess afraid to go home to a girlfriend who had warned of the last straw.  It wasn’t the first time either; Alphie and I had reached a sort of unspoken agreement that I could always count on him to cover my ass, especially my drunken ass, and that his door was always open to me, no matter the time of day (which more often than not was sometime around two in the morning.

Immediately after waking, sprawled out over the couch in his living room, I was overcome by that incomparable sensation of a right powerful hangover, the kind that washes away all other thoughts as though wiping the slate clean of the night before.  It was just a feeling, so intense and foreign (yet uncomfortably familiar) that my mind could not cope.  If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it was probably how a computer might feel when being reset.  For the briefest of moments nothing else existed, not even a concept of pain.  Everything else was gone.  There was no sense of who I was, where I was, what I was feeling.  It was like my mind was so overwhelmed that it couldn’t even decide what it was feeling, and was so preoccupied with sorting through the sudden rush of incoming data that it couldn’t be bothered with even the most basic of functions.  I was nothing but a series of reddish blurs in the darkness, an indescribable sensation in a series of nerves.  I was nothing.

It was a release.

Then it was over , just as soon as it had begun, and like a druggie coming down from a high the real world rushed back in with painful vengeance.  Suddenly the feelings were being processed, categorised, and the overall consensus was discomfort.  Intense discomfort.  The sensations were so powerful I felt as though my body would be incapable of containing them all, that I would expand or explode.  Unfortunately neither of these things happened, and instead my mind adjusted accordingly to match the almost global proportions of my sensation overload.

I was the Earth.  My mouth had become the desert, my head a volcano on the verge of eruption, and my bladder home to all the ocean.  I shifted onto my side with a groan of pain, bringing my wrist up in line with my eyes, and squinting through the tears and blurriness to read the time on my watch.  7:00 am.  Fuck.  Thirty-four years, and it still happened every morning.  No matter what time I went to bed, no matter how tired I still was, no matter how much I had had to drink the night before.  Always 7:00.  My arm went limp, swinging back down to my side, and my vision settled on a bottle of Advil and a glass of water set on the coffee table in front of me.  Despite the pain, I managed a grin.  The old bastard never let me down.

I sat up and the volcano erupted, and the searing white burst of pain was almost enough to knock me back down, but I held fast, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut, one hand pressed to my forehead and the other reaching blindly for the Advil.  I took three, washing them down with the water, and then took three more after a brief reconsideration.  I sat there for a while, completely still with my eyes closed, waiting for the drugs to do their thing, taking the time to think about what I would say to my girlfriend.  I stayed like that for what felt like an hour, just sitting there thinking, waiting, until eventually the bladder urgency outweighed the pain of moving and I was forced to go to the washroom.

The ocean successfully drained, I spent some time at the sink, washing my face in cold water and combing my fingers through my hair in a rather futile attempt to make myself more presentable.  It really didn’t matter, after all Al had seen me a hundred times worse, and it wasn’t like I cared.  But I did it anyways, and I knew Alphie would approve, even if he didn’t really care.  It didn’t make sense, but it was what it was. We were a strange pair, my brother and I.  Such dedication to appearances. It’s strange that I only see these things now.

He was out on the back porch when I came out of the bathroom; I could see him through the window wall in the kitchen that overlooked the entire backyard.  He was sitting at the table with his back to me, facing the sunrise over the forest at the edge of his property line.  I stood there for a moment, watching him, wondering what he was thinking as I so often did.  The coffee maker’s click startled me back into the real world, and I noticed he had set out a plate for me for breakfast, with scrambled eggs and bacon.  I grabbed cutlery from the drawer and a mug from the cupboard, and in accordance with one of our many unspoken agreements, grabbed the coffee pot and brought it out with me.

“About time,” he said, without turning his head from the sunrise.  “I’d been beginning to think you may have finally cracked it.  Come on then; I’ve been dying for that coffee.”

I smiled, making my way over.  “Good morning to you too brother, it’s always so good to see you.”

“Oh, dispense with the socially compulsory pleasantries, why don’t we.  Why do we always have to say things that other people already know?  I think conversations should be about saying things that the other person doesn’t already know, and about avoiding the sharing of mutually known information as best we can.  Now, bring over that coffee.”  I obeyed, revelling in his presence.  It may have been childish of me, but even then I had looked up to my brother, had practically worshipped the ground he walked upon.  Not to say that there was an imbalance in our relationship as adults, but sometimes I would just find myself marvelling him.

“Thanks for breakfast.”

“Again, with the mutually known information.  I know you appreciate the breakfast, and you know you appreciate the breakfast, so why say it out loud?”

“Because it’s only right to show other people your appreciation.  Don’t you feel good when I thank you?  Doesn’t it make you feel good?”

He shifted in his chair.  “How I feel is inconsequential.”

“Ah. You’re in a mood.”

“Shut up and eat your breakfast.”  We were both grinning now, and again I obeyed, shovelling the scrambled eggs into my mouth and thinking that nothing had ever tasted so good.  He poured the coffee, first in my mug, and then his own.  “Sleep well?” he asked, filling the mug to the brim before levelling out the flow.  I opened my mouth to answer him, my eyes briefly catching on the picture on his mug, and suddenly the words dried up in my gaping mouth.  Cheshire had begun to fade away in front of my eyes and Alice’s, and soon only his grin was left, hovering in the air between a suspiciously cat-shaped space in the tree’s leaves.  “Hello?”

“Huh?”

“You okay?”

“What?”

“Are you okay?  You just… zoned out for a minute there.”

I blinked, still staring at the mug.  “…Yeah.  Yeah, no, I’m good.  Listen; where did you get that mug?”

“What?”

“That mug,”  I said, pointing.  “The one with Cheshire.”

He frowned, clearly perplexed by my question, but after a moment he just shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I can’t remember; I’ve had it so long.  Why are you freaking out?  I mean, it’s not like this is the first time you’ve seen it.  Not that freaking out would be an acceptable reaction upon seeing it the first time either.  I mean, it’s not exactly a ground-breaking advancement; it’s a mug that changes colour with temperature change.  Whoop-de-doo.”

“I’m not freaking out.  And yes, I know I’ve seen it before, but that’s just it.  It’s only just occurred to me that I have no idea where it came from.”

“So?  It’s my mug, and I’ve had it for a long time, and even I don’t know where it came from, so it’d be weird if you did and I didn’t.  I assume I bought it one day, just like every other piece of dishware I own, as is hopefully the case with you and everyone else.  I mean, do you know anyone who keeps a detailed account of every dish they buy?  Do you have any idea where that mug came from?”  He gestured to my own mug, a rather plain if not bright orange one in comparison.  “And before you respond, I have to say, it’d be rather strange if you did.”

No, I don’t know where this mug came from, but it’s different.  For as far back as I can remember, you’ve had that mug, and yet neither of us can remember where it came from.  I don’t know, it just struck me as odd for some reason.  Forget it.”  I took a sip of coffee, ignoring his gaze as he studied my face, presumably looking for a glowing neon sign that said ‘losing my mind’.

“You okay?”  he asked eventually, as I had known he would.  “Is everything… okay with Cheryl?”

I sighed, resting the mug back down on the tabletop.  “If by okay you mean same as usual…”

“Don’t I always,” he quipped.

“…then yes.  Everything is more or less the same.  But the same gets exhausting, doesn’t it?  After a while, you start hoping for some change.  Any change.  Good, bad, ugly, anything.”

“Then why didn’t you go home last night?”

I scoffed.  “Because man was made a coward, and because I don’t intend on facing change of any kind when I’m drunk.”

He laughed, raising his strange, omnipresent mug in my direction.  “I’ll drink to that.”

“I think that saying only applies to alcoholic drinks.”

“Says who?  The act of drinking is the same regardless of what you’re drinking.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I just think that’s the way it is.”

“Fuck the way it is.”  We chuckled together, under the light of the morning sun in the brisk chill of the morning air.  That was the last good memory I had of us together, just the two of us, happy.

He killed himself two weeks later.

His neighbour found him, quite by chance, when he went over to return some household appliance of one kind or another.  I don’t remember what it was.  A lawnmower, maybe. Al’s car had been parked in the driveway, so after a few minutes of waiting, the neighbour started to get worried.  Later on he claimed he had ‘had a bad feeling from the start’ otherwise he wouldn’t have thought that much of it.  In other words he would have just assumed my brother had been on the shitter, rather than lying in a bathtub filled to the brim with a mixture of water and the blood that had flowed from his own slit wrists.

He ended up calling Al a few times, both on his cell and on the house phone, and when that didn’t work he called the cops.  The knock on my door came about four hours later.  My girlfriend held me in the doorway where I collapsed, held me as I cried like a child, cried with no regard, no thought for the two policemen awkwardly standing before us.

At the funeral, I kept hearing the same phrases muttered under heavy breaths over and over again, numb and disbelieving.

“…he was such a happy man…”

“…how could this have happened…”

“…always had a smile on his face…”

“…didn’t see it coming…”

The realisation hit me halfway through my eulogy, and it hit me hard.  My speech cut off, and I began to choke up, staggering backwards as though hit by a physical blow.  I imagine the crowd’s reactions would have been interesting, but I can’t remember any of it.  Suddenly all I could see was that mug, that damned mug being filled with darkness, Cheshire fading away, his smile fixed in place with nothing to support it.  Other visions began to flash through my mind, visions of an approaching shadow outside a bedroom door left ajar, visions of thin, pale hands buttoning the top buttons of white collared dress shirts, visions of two young boys standing side by side in a church pew, hair combed neatly to one side, visions of red lips pursed tight in a grim, ominous smile.  And then they were gone, and I was back in my childhood, to a memory I hadn’t even known was there.

We were at the zoo, the three of us walking side by side.  I was young, somewhere around six, my brother no older than ten.  Our mother, a prim and proper character who seemed to tower over our world, could have had the entirety of her essence summed up in one word: stick.  Her figure was as thin as one, her patience just as quick to snap, her lashes just as severe, and she lived like she had one lodged firmly up her ass.  The Stick. Had we been more creative (or rather more daring) as children we might have called her that behind her back, in hushed tones and giggles beneath bedsheets at night, the security of our small world illuminated by a tiny flashlight.  But we had been raised better than that.

The zoo was one of many regular family outings we would partake in throughout the week, none of which were for the benefit of the family itself, ironically enough.  We all knew what they were really about, even at that young age.  We knew, but never spoke of it.  That was one of the great rules of our family: certain things were never spoken of.

Despite the rather unfortunate underlying intent of our outings my brother and I still managed to enjoy ourselves, or at the very least as best we could.  After all, we were young boys, and such matters held little sway over our perceptions of the world.  And the zoo had always been one of our favourites.  Even then, I like to think that we had felt more than just the usual fascination for the creatures, that somewhere in our subconscious minds there was an awareness of a kindred relation between us and those poor creatures, both locked away behind bars which everyone saw yet no one acknowledged.

We were in the felidae section of the zoo that evening, walking between the cages of magnificent beasts, docile and submissive behind their bars.  We did not stop to watch each one in turn, did not pause a moment to read the signs hung over the cage doors containing little tidbits on the creature hidden in the shadows before us.  We walked forwards, my mother possessive of a purposeful stride poorly disguised as a leisurely stroll.  We had learnt long before that straying behind (or ‘lollygagging’ as our mother called it) was unacceptable to the highest degree, and as such out of the question.  So we kept pace, our eyes quickly darting from side to side in an attempt to gain their fill of each creature we passed before they were gone again, passed by with no chance of returning for a second look. That was how things were with us.  We passed things by and never looked back.

You see, we didn’t go to the zoo to see the beasts.  We went to the zoo so the beasts could see us.

It was on that particular day that a wrinkle arose in our mother’s plans, the plans she so meticulously ironed.  My brother tripped and fell on a crag in the concrete walkway.  I saw it happen, because I happened to be looking in his direction to the creatures there.  His body fell forwards, and his bare knees scraped against the ground, his hands opening up before him, the skin on his palms grating.  He shot up almost as fast as he had fallen, looking startled and rather dazed, as though unsure of what had just transpired.  I watched him, my mouth agape, and then simultaneously, like trained dogs, we both looked to my mother for an indication of what would happen next.  She was staring at him, and while I couldn’t see her face from where I stood I knew she was pursing her lips.

“I- I’m sorry, mother-” poor Alphie began, stuttering as he so often did when talking to our mother.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought to come up with an adequate apology, stammering through unrecognisable words and phrases.  I realised he was going to cry, and a feeling of dread formed in the pit of my stomach.  Suddenly she crouched over, grabbing him by the shoulders.  Passersby would have seen nothing more than a mother comforting her son, making sure he was okay.  Only I could see the indents in my brother’s shirt sleeves where the fingers dug in hard and deep.  Only the three of us heard my mother’s tone, her voice low and dark, like a cat crouching in the shadows of the undergrowth as it crept up upon its prey, the eerie and ominous calm before the explosion.

“Don’t you dare cry,” she had said that day, looking right into my brother’s eyes.  “I don’t care how much it hurts.  Don’t you dare cry.  I want you to smile.”  She spoke through gritted teeth, bared in a menacingly fake smile.  “I want you to smile, even if it hurts.  Especially if it hurts.  I want you to smile and I want you to never stop smiling.  Even when there’s nothing behind it, I want you to smile until the day you die.  Do you understand me?”  Alphie looked up to her, the tears drying in his eyes, and he nodded.  And then he smiled.

Later that day we found ourselves in the zoo’s gift shop, and my mother bought Alphie a gift, “for being such a brave little man.”  It was a mug, the kind with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.

They put me in the mental-health clinic almost immediately after the funeral, under suicide watch.  I’ve been here since, wasting away in a bed that can move up or down whenever I want.  It’s been a month now, 31 days since my brother killed himself, 45 days since I noticed the mug and brought it up.  I spend my days going over that moment again and again, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering if I could have stopped him, wondering if it was my fault somehow, for noticing the mug and bringing it up.  I know the answer, but it’s easier to pretend I don’t and to keep dwelling on it than it would be to accept the truth.  I’m not ready for that.  I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

People come and go, visiting me for a little while every few days just to make sure I’m still alive, just to say that they made the effort.  It’s all about appearances, darling.  There are no repeat guests; once is enough, and they never stay longer than is required to realize they’re not getting anywhere.  My girlfriend is the only one who comes more than once, and even she has stopped coming as often, the days between visits growing exponentially since the first time.

“They’re thinking of letting you go,” she said earlier today, sitting on the bedside, idly picking at her fingernails to avoid having to make eye contact.  “They say you’ve been okay, but they want to make sure it’s okay with you.  They just need some sign that you’re going to be alright.”  I didn’t respond.  I was staring directly ahead, at the wall, at something that wasn’t there.  She started to cry, sniffling quietly.  “You’re breaking my heart, Chester.”  She turned to me, eyes red, looking for a reaction, a sign that I cared, a sign that I was still alive.  At least we had that much in common: looking for things that weren’t there.

She cried for a bit longer, her stifled sobs echoing through the dead room, but eventually she stood up to go.

“Oh, I’d almost forgotten.”  She reached into her purse, looking for something.  “They found this at your brother’s house.  There was a note beside it.  He said- it said it was yours now.  I thought, you know, you might like to have it here.  To remind you of him.”  She finally retrieved the item, holding it up to show me.  I didn’t look, didn’t have to look, didn’t want to look, because I already knew what it was.  My eyes started tearing up, but I blinked them away, refusing to avert my gaze from the wall.  She held it up a moment longer before giving up, placing it on the windowsill with a sigh.  Then she left.

I could feel his eyes on me, boring into my soul, could feel his smile, the teeth grinning back at me from the darkness, waiting for me there.  I resisted for as long as I could, but he was strong.  I sat up, pushing the bed sheets aside and turning to my side, my legs sliding off the side of the bed.  For a moment I stayed like that, hesitating one last time, then I stood, walking over to the window, to the mug.  His eyes followed me as I approached, his smile never wavering.  There was no kettle in the room, but there was the knife I had kept hidden beneath my mattress after sneaking it back from dinner several nights before.  I dragged the edge clean across my wrist, watching as the hot blood flowed down my arm, pouring into the mug’s gaping, thirsty mouth.  I watched as the mug was filled to the brim, watched as the surface of the dark liquid caught the reflection of the moon and seemed to glow in the moonlight.  I watched, and I waited.  And, in accordance with the words of Alice, dear old Cheshire disappeared, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.

The Arboretum

The Arboretum

“I can’t stop thinking about her. I mean, we hardly know each other, but… it’s like I’ve known her all my life. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. I just… I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you just ask her out then?” His eyes flick up to meet the therapist’s, intense and irritated.

“You’re joking, right?”

“You never know-”

“Oh, don’t give me that ‘you never know until you try’ bullshit. I mean, shit, I already know you’re a therapist; you don’t have to keep throwing out cliché’s like that, especially stupid ones. You and I both know why I can’t ‘just ask her out’. You of all people know that best.”

“If that’s what you think. Personally I disagree, but…” he shrugs. “I just think you shouldn’t give up so easily. Who knows? She might surprise you.”

“Even if… look, even if by some miracle she did feel the same way, I’m not… ready for a relationship. I can’t… I wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of emotional stress.” His speech is littered with sighs and huffs, like the breaks in an old record that just keeps playing the same song over and over, desperate to be turned.

“Fair enough. So what do you plan on doing then?”

“I don’t know, doc,” he says, glaring. “That’s kind of why I’m talking to you, isn’t it? So you can tell me what to do?”

“Actually, no. I’m just here to listen, and to offer up suggestions where I see fit. But I already gave you my suggestion for this particular problem.”

“Alright, well give me another, why don’t you?”

“You’re certain you don’t want to be in a relationship with her?”

“Of course I want to be in a relationship with her, but I also want to commit suicide, remember? Sometimes what we want isn’t what we need. Or don’t need, in this case. I just… I want to stop having feelings for her. For anyone, really. I can’t take it anymore, alright? At this point I’d rather feel nothing than feel anything at all.”

“That’s certainly a bold statement to make. Are you sure that’s how you feel?”

“No!” he shouts, pounding his fist on the desk and making the therapist’s pens shake in their mug. The therapist, having seen it all before and worse, does not so much as blink. The boy takes in a shaky breath, slumping back in his seat once more with an air of defeat. “No,” he says again, this time whispering the word. The expression on his face is indicative of hopelessness and exhaustion, as though the outburst has drained him. “Don’t you get it? I’m not sure how I feel. I’m not sure of anything. That’s why I don’t want to feel anything; then I would know. Then I wouldn’t have to be sure.” The therapist is silent for a moment.

“Have you been to The Arboretum yet?” he says eventually, picking up one of his pens and idly, casually fondling it.

“The what?”

“The Arboretum. It’s a lovely park east of campus. Beautiful this time of year. Late enough into autumn that the trees are all colourful, but early enough that they haven’t fallen yet. Not to mention it’s still fairly warm out. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time alone, to reflect on things and whatnot. I’d highly recommend it.”

That was how he found himself standing at the entrance, looking down the path to the other end. Almost as if the therapist’s words had been prophetic, it had turned out to be a beautiful day: the air was still, the sun was out, and there was only the faintest hint of a chill in the air, the promise of the coming winter. He looked out over what he could see of the park, and decided, somewhat begrudgingly, that the trees did indeed look beautiful.

It was the fifth week of university, and things had started off surprisingly well. His old therapist had warned of the dangers of a change in surroundings, of experiences, of his life as a whole, but he had also mentioned that the change might do him some good. The problem was that with such a drastic adjustment things would either go one way or the other, and for people suffering from depression things hardly ever went in the up direction.

“Call me whenever you need to talk,” his therapist had told him on the day of their last session. “You still have my number, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Good.” He had clasped the boy by his shoulders, giving him a quick once-over, trying to hide the worry in his eyes. “You’ll do good. You hear me? You’ll do good. You’re a good student, as long as you apply yourself, and the change in scenery might very well do you some good. Just keep your head up, and remember to call me the moment you feel it creeping in. Don’t try to be brave; you’re already brave as it is and you don’t need to prove it to anyone. The second you feel it creeping in you call me. Do not wait it out. Okay?”

“Okay,” he had said, fighting back the sob waiting in his throat, eager to be heard.

“Good boy. You’ll do fine.” He had hugged him then, which might have been a little unprofessional, but as his therapist of all of four years he doubted anyone could have blamed him. And now the tears did come, and he gave a little sniffle, his face buried in the shoulder of his therapist’s coat. He had felt safe, protected. And then they had separated, and he saw that the therapist’s eyes were misty too. He gave him an apologetic smile, and they shared one last laugh. “Be good to your new therapist, you hear? We went to university together; he’s really quite a good guy. Give him some time. Let him in. Don’t make him go through the entire painstaking process of prying you open that I had to go through. You hear me?”

“Yes,” he had said, his head nodding. “Yes.”

Yes. But he’d been unable to keep his word. His new therapist had turned out to be nothing like his old one. He wasn’t funny, or sympathetic, or amiable. He was detached, distant, cold, calculating. And even if he had been better, the boy didn’t think he would have been able to see past the feelings of resentment he harboured for him, simply for not being his old therapist.

But even after the bad first impression with the therapist, things had still been good. Better than they had been in years, in fact. He had made new friends, settled in to his residence comfortably, enjoyed his classes. Most of the time he was so busy that he would completely forget that he suffered from depression, that he had a mental disorder, that he was different. For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.

Then he had met her. They were in the same residence, and had several classes together. He had seen her around several times before, and something about her had made an impression on him. It was inevitable, really. Eventually, quite by chance, they struck up a conversation. It was on the way back to their residence after a class that they found themselves walking beside one another. And before he even realized what had happened, he was in love. The revelation came to him two days later, lying in bed at night and staring up at the ceiling, which one of the previous residents of his room had covered in dozens of those sticky glow-in-the-dark stars you could buy at the dollar store.

It was when he realized that he was in love that the real trouble began. Suddenly he couldn’t stop thinking about her, couldn’t think about anything else. When he was with her things were great, better than great, but like a lantern in the night when she was gone the darkness would descend upon him and swallow him up, making him feel more alone and lost than ever before. It was as though he had finally gotten used to living in the dark, and then suddenly she had come into his life and changed all of that, reintroduced him to happiness, to the light. And when she was gone he was all the more aware of the darkness, once more susceptible to its effects, the effects he had just gotten used to, had begun to learn to cope with.

And then suddenly things weren’t so good anymore.

The wind picked up, scattering several yellow and red leaves across his path. He shivered, an unconscious reaction that had nothing to do with the temperature, and stirred from his thoughts. Okay, he told himself, don’t think about any of that. You’re here to distract yourself from your problems, not rub them in. He started to walk without knowing where he was going, simply allowing his feet to take him down what appeared to be the main path. The road broke off into smaller trails in front of him, but he kept on going forward, deciding he would make it to the end first and then see about exploring the smaller ones later.

He passed by people walking their dogs, couples walking hand in hand or arm in arm, with eyes for nothing but one another, old people bundled up tight in weathered coats and jackets that you could tell had seen them through many winters, their faces obscured by oversized sunglasses, joggers whose hot and heavy breaths stained the air like miniature clouds that dissipated into the world they were born into only seconds after their creation. Some of the people he passed would give him a smile, and before long he was returning those smiles, sincerely if not consciously.

He stopped for a moment to watch the antics of three squirrels, chasing one another up and down trees, back and forth in the grass. He knew chances were they were probably fighting over food or territory or something, but he told himself that they were just playing.

Eventually he came to a pond in a small sectioned-off area of the park, hosting several signs that warned of the dangers of stepping on the stones, which were allegedly unstable. He made his way over to the bench in the middle of the area, sitting down and closing his eyes. He sat like that for a moment, each deep breath of cold air like a cleansing wave that swept over his mind, erasing all his thoughts until his head was clear. When it felt right he opened his eyes, looking around as though expecting some sort of visible change to the world, but finding nothing. He stayed a moment longer before standing, the joints in his legs complaining from the cold.

Further along he found a fountain, hidden behind a wall of hedges that ran alongside its border. The pumps were still running, but he decided they would probably shut them off once the temperatures dropped low enough for the water to freeze. There were four statues standing at each corner of the fountain, and it seemed to him that they were watching over it, cold sentinels indifferent to the water’s antics. He looked at each of them in turn, and then took his place among them at the head of the fountain. He watched as the water shot upwards into the air, breaking off into individual droplets but still a part of something greater, never wholly separated from the water as a whole, always readily accepted back into the masses once their flight ended, cascading back down through the air and getting lost in the sea of thousands of droplets just like them, inescapable from the masses.

He walked down the smaller paths, among hedges and flowerbeds and modern art and benches dedicated to people long gone. He wondered what they thought of that, that their legacy was summed up in a plaque on a bench in a park, a name that might be ignored by those who sat there or read by others but almost always forgotten, always lost in a sea of names, all indistinguishable from one another without a face, a hand, an identity to nail it too, and he wondered if they thought anything of that at all, or if there was nothing to think.

He walked under the trees, under the beautiful canopy of colours, the light filtering through and colouring the world around him in a sea of hues, all warm colours despite the chill in the air, in his bones. He wondered about the irony of that, and decided that if he had been a writer he could have found a good metaphor in there somewhere, but as it was decided not to look too deep into it, and left it for some other poor sap to find, to ponder.

He marvelled at the beauty around him, of the tiny snapshots of life, and suddenly it occurred to him that he wanted to share it with someone. And of course he thought of all the couples he had seen pass by, and he thought of her. He reached into his pocket for his phone, what he would say already taking shape in his head.

And then he stopped.

And then his grip loosened, then released entirely, and he let the phone slip from his hand back into his pocket.

And he continued to explore the park, alone.

Six days later he found himself sitting in his therapist’s office, staring at a painting hung on the wall directly above and behind the psychologist’s head. The painting is abstract, but sometimes we don’t need to understand something to know what it means.

They’ve been sitting in silence since he came in, the boy staring absently at the painting and the therapist staring intently at the boy.

“You knew,” the boy says eventually, his voice soft.

“Yes.”

“You knew it would… change me.”

“Yes.”

“…How?” The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”

Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.