I can remember the exact moment it happened, and how it felt in that moment. I was walking up a crowded stairwell at some lecture hall, jammed up against all my fellow students, camera over one shoulder and a book in my left hand. Up, up, up, maybe two or three floors to my next class. And something started welling up inside me, from deep inside my stomach, a weight or a pain that rose up into my chest and began clawing at my throat.
My head grew warm. First my temples, then my forehead. Suddenly my brain was on fire. My feet were tired. My chest ached. I could feel something pressing down on me, something flat and cold and lifeless.
I tried to shake it off. I went to class anyway. Maybe fifteen minutes later, I stood up and walked out. My instructor, who was nice, left the classroom after me and asked me to come back, asked me if something wasn’t wrong.
I turned back, maybe ten or twelve feet from her, and just looked at her. I wanted to speak, I wanted to say something, I wanted to put it into words so I could understand it myself. But I couldn’t think of any words that could describe what was wrong.
Years later it came to me that I felt like I was being swallowed up by a black hole at the end of a conveyor belt. That there was some great, terrible machine inside that black hole. Every idiot and asshole I was in school with couldn’t wait to go headlong into that black hole.
I kept thinking, me too. But something happened.
I didn’t want to be a product. Something processed and molded and shaped. And all to conform to the world on the other side of that black hole machine. Not better or smarter, not wiser or more complete. Just a brainwashed dolt, indebted and weak and dependent.
For me, it happened there, in college. I guess different people probably find it in different places, and they probably never see it head-on, but askance. Glimpsed out of the corner of their eye. And I imagine some people are able to write it off, and they get swallowed up and destroyed by it. And they never know.
But there have to be others, too, who see it on the drive home from work, or feel it lurking in the corner of a bedroom at 3 am. Who encounter it on a date in their thirties, or who catch sight of it young and never explain it away.
I still can’t explain to people how I feel about the machine. I can’t articulate it, and I don’t think many people can really recognize that kind of insanity or revulsion that comes over me when I think about it.
But it also occurs to me that I’ve never passed through a fire.
And that makes me wonder if everything I say isn’t just bullshit.
And then I read what I’ve written and wonder if everything a person says isn’t bullshit,
regardless of what a person has or hasn’t been through.
That you can’t listen to anyone at all.
So I stay up late, not sleeping, but thinking about what it would be like to die. And I think about Camus’ Stranger, and how he thought it didn’t matter if you died today or in twenty years because you were still going to die someday.
And I think about how it might happen, if it might happen gradually over a period of days or if I might blink out of existence when my heart or brain suddenly stops. But then I think of it happening somewhere far away, in a place I can’t yet even conceive of.
I think about getting inked. And I think about breaking all contact with friends. But I’m nearly there, anyway. I already talk to practically no one.
Just family, and my roommate.
Salma calls me when I’m cooking dinner and talks and talks.
I finish the jerk seasoning and soak three pork chops in it, letting the molasses and rum wash over and work its way into the meat. I wash dishes to the sound of Chet Baker and Salma running on. Reasons to stay quarantined and this country sucks and she can’t wait to leave.
Everyone eventually goes away. It isn’t a tragedy. If you want something, or a taste of something, fucking take it or don’t.
I’ll call you and we’ll do a photo session, she tells me. Such a treat. Why waste another minute? Save money, buy photo gear. Save money, buy computer parts. Save money, buy airfare. Save money, fund projects that matter.
But I still pretend to care, and I tell her I can’t receive texts. She suggests calling me when Corona ends. I tell her that’s a great idea. Then I save her number in my contacts list. Why? So I can avoid her calls better in the future?
It’s funny that the more bitter you become, the more intact your pride seems.
I am sick of it. I don’t want to talk and hang out and drink. I don’t want to bullshit and catch up on something better left behind me.
I don’t want to be stuck in the same shit, year after year, until I die. Stuck in a compromised, dull existence filled with shallow entertainment and soullessness and hyped news and advertisements and boring jobs and being surrounded by people, always people, who aren’t going out of their skulls, who seem resigned to it all, like it ain’t so bad, like it’s not sucking every drop of sanity out of your head and leaving you starving and lonely and crazy, like it’s not gnawing away at your heart and mind.
Like we aren’t all thirsting for a better kind of life. Or just a better kind of living.
I can feel it now, every day, the overwhelming sensation that all of this is bullshit, that none of it means anything, that you might as well just do whatever the fuck you want, whether it’s ignoring people or calling them up like you’re some sort of pal or building churches and hospitals for people who have nothing.
But when I look at my own life, I feel like I’ve wasted so much of it doing nothing of consequence, and nothing of much purpose, at least to any greater good.
I get paid to make corporations more money. I retain a weak hold on my sanity by taking photos of the things that I photograph. If I go out with people, it feels like walking along a shore. We have running conversations, and the pieces I remember are broken shells.
But if I disappeared tomorrow, there would be no deficit. And that makes me wonder if I really exist.
I think I’ll go away for a while and get lost and forgotten.
I think it will do me some good.
I think I may be able to find some reason to live, some way to make the world a better place, to put in some work and do my share, and come out a better person on the other side.