For Want of a Voice

Jacob woke up one morning, and his voice was gone. Admittedly, this gave Jacob little pause to start. He'd always been prone to bouts of severe coughing and raw throats upon waking since he was a child. He had a hypersensitivity to mold and dust. And mold and dust seemed to find him wherever he slept. Often, Jacob would be unable to speak for several hours lest he risk severe discomfort. And Jacob hated to be uncomfortable; which is probably why Jacob refused to take many chances at all. But that's neither here nor there, and regardless of his proclivity for glossopharyngeal maladies, Jacob's lack of voice furthermore failed to present an immediate problem, for Jacob was unable to think of a single reason he'd need his voice at all that particular day. So, beside what rose to become an overwhelmingly acute moment of despondency, Jacob thought little of his voicelessness until his phone rang late that afternoon.

    Luckily for Jacob, he never answered his phone anyway; instead, allowing the answering machine to speak on his behalf, ensuring he'd only be forced to speak to those people he chose to speak to and, more to the point, cared to speak with. Therefore, this brief moment of necessity, too, presented little issue. Hearing his own voice request whomever was calling leave their name, number, reason for calling, and relation to Jacob—Jacob was notoriously awful at placing his relation to those around him—caused only the slightest frown to mar his otherwise unremarkably placid face. Hearing himself, however, did remind him how much he detested his own voice. And just as his preserved voice finished outlining his intricately plotted protocols over the answering machine, Jacob felt very thankful he nor anyone else would have to hear that voice again for the rest of the day.

    After the beep sounded, there was a long pause, though Jacob could tell there was still someone on the line's other end. The silence only broke when a heavy sigh and deep inhale steeled whomever was calling against what was to come next. 

    "I don't know why-- I know you can't come to the phone, but I just-- I guess I just wanted to hear your voice..."

    It was his sister, Meghan. She lingered there, in limbo, between her unanswered and answered call, until the machine's time limit disconnected her without another word. Jacob half expected the phone to ring again, immediately, and for Meghan to be, again, on the line. But despite Jacob staring at the cordless handset rocking back and forth atop his kitchen counter, the phone didn't ring. And Jacob returned to the last few dishes needing drying in the dish drainer beside his yet-to-be-drained sink.

 

That night, Jacob set down the novel he'd only been paging through anyway—admiring the feel of its pages instead of reading any particular one—and flicked on the TV. Just as quickly, though, he flicked off the TV and walked to the bathroom, resigned to go to bed early, wake up early, and just maybe go for a walk before going in to work, it being Sunday and tomorrow being the start of a new week.

    His pupils, having dilated on the way to the bathroom through the dimly lit hallway, crushed themselves to miniature black holes when he illuminated the compact florescent bulbs over top the mirror. For a while, he watched them regain mass, but became distracted by a piece of basil that had taken root at the very top of his left incisor where gum meets tooth. It's not as if anyone had seen, for no one had stopped by—not that anyone had been around uninvited, well, ever—but the pang of embarrassment Jacob felt was unbearable. Even after removing the herb from its unwelcome roost, he scrubbed his teeth until that wave of discomfort passed; this proved to last well longer than the recommended two-minute brushing time and caused his gums to flush a deep purple at its conclusion.

    Spit, rinse, spit, moisturize, Chapstick, smile, frown, and Jacob reached for the bathroom's light switch. But his fingers lingered just above the wide, flat control. There must have been something about the way the light caught his body in profile—a bit more pear-ish than he was able to recall—or that he had tweezed more grey hairs that night—7—than he had previously, but, in any event, Jacob was overcome with the desire to speak.

    He squared himself to the mirror and stared candidly into his own hazel eyes. Just say hello, he thought. Just one word and you can go to sleep and you'll know you still can. It's not as if Jacob thought he couldn't, but just that he hadn't and that maybe he should. He opened his mouth and his tongue reached up familiarly to touch the backs of his two front teeth anticipating the first syllable of that word, hello, but despite such training and resolve, the word just wouldn't come.

    It's not so much the word that wouldn't come—for his tongue and lips and brain all worked in perfect unison to conduct his muscles into their established choreographies—but it was his voice. The sound of it. The decibels themselves. 

 

For an hour, then another, then four, five, six more after that, Jacob gripped the edge of his bathroom sink and stared at himself, his welling eyes, his ruby throat, his flecked tongue unable to produce a noise. Jacob thought, first, perhaps if he but whispered he'd be able to sneak around whatever wall had been placed between his larynx and the world, like a drip of water that finds its way through the mortar in an otherwise robust levee. This proved fruitless. So Jacob resolved to burst the levee outright. He screamed. He screamed and watched his uvula bobble about and his tongue flail. He screamed until his jaw had locked and unlocked itself so many times it felt like a rusty gate at first freeze. But still he didn't hear a sound. Not even the sound of his breath escaping his mouth. An absence of noise. An absolute silence.

    Which is why, next, he began to laugh—silently, of course. He collapsed and turned his back to the cupboards beneath the sink and rested his forehead upon his knees. After a short while, Jacob lifted his head from his knees and stared into the dark hallway that led to his bathroom. He raised his right hand to the right side of his head, his middle finger pairing with his thumb right beside his ear, an arrow drawn in an archer's bow, and he snapped his fingers.

    And he heard. 

    And, in retrospect, the notion that he had gone deaf sometime between hearing his sister's call and brushing his teeth instead of losing the ability to create any sort of spoken sound did, in retrospect, well, sound absurd. As unfortunate as that admission was.

 

The snap of his fingers continued to ring dull and short around his head as he lay there in bed, the sun already rising. It seemed to be all he could hear, now. So it startled him when the snap of his fingers was replaced by the sound of his doorknob rattling and turning in its place, giving his front door license to open without adjudication. Laying there, his sheet, blanket, comforter, and down throw pulled to the very bottom of his chin, Jacob listened as footsteps plodded through his house. The syncopated clopping of flip-flops on hard wood.

    "Hello?" a female voice called past the closed doors, one of which Jacob lay silently behind. Of course, there was no answer, beside her own directed at herself, "Stupid, stupid. What did you expect?"

    Hearing the voice and footsteps of his next-door neighbor Maggie, instead, so early and inside his house so uninvited, froze him stiff. Yet, at the same time, this was not unlike his most replayed fantasy. Though the time periods changed and Maggie's name with them—always Margaret in full, pre-1900, and Mags when his mind led him to the far-future where he imagined her a rough-and-tumble captain of a rebel shuttle ferrying the disenfranchised to their new home far away from the grips of imperial space—Maggie had represented an ideal for Jacob since they both moved in beside one another on the same day six years ago. Despite how many times Jacob had yearned for Maggie to sneak in to his house and, subsequently—obviously—his bed, now that it was actually happening seemed a gross betrayal of his trust and privacy. Not to mention Jacob wanted nothing less than to have to attempt to explain that his voice had been stolen from him. Already she treated him with the kind of care one might use to comfort a student on his first day of school; her actions always seeming to say that, one day, Jacob, all this newness will seem just as familiar as your own reflection. For six years, though, Maggie had never lost her peerlessness despite those promises. Then again, Jacob, in his twenty-eight years, had never quite become comfortable with who he saw in the mirror, either.

    These thoughts vanished as quick as they'd come and were replaced with a kind of pulsating dread when his bedroom door creaked open, and Maggie stepped past its threshold and stared full-on at the half of Jacob's face that was visible above his covers.

    She seemed to stare through him, a look of longing Jacob had never seen before painted her face. He opened his mouth; he had an overwhelming urge to tell her everything would be all right; but his silence remained infallible. He hoped his face, of which three-quarters was now revealed, would convey what he was unable to speak. 

    Maggie walked to his side of the bed, the right-most edge of it, and gripped the covers in her milky hands. Jacob had never had sex in this bed. He didn't own any condoms. He assumed he'd be rubbish. He hadn't even masturbated in a month. And he couldn't even remember what a vulva looked like, the picture in his mind more Monet or O'Keeffe than Chuck Close, not to mention how to—

    Just then, Maggie took the bundle of blankets and sheets in her hands and instead of ripping them down, exposing Jacob underneath, she gingerly pulled them over his head making sure to smooth the creases flat at the center and tuck in each corner between the mattress and box-spring. 

    Mortified, Jacob lied beneath the covers, an abandoned soldier in an abandoned bunker, until he heard his bedroom and front doors close, Maggie's front door open, and the echo of her flip-flops dissipate like so much mustard gas.

 

***

 

Jacob pedaled toward Meghan's house faster than his bike's gears were able to transform such force into revolutions. He pedaled so fast, in fact, that Jacob failed to recognize that, apparently, the invisibility Maggie so callously bestowed upon him persisted here, outside in the world. Cars failed to make enough space for him or simply cut him off altogether. Pedestrians ignored his bell and, subsequently, his middle finger. If Jacob hadn't been so horrified by the events of his morning—he still couldn't bring himself to classify what had actually happened—this might have been cause for more alarm. But Maggie's calm, resolute decision to forever hide Jacob from sight seemed to fit right in line with everything else. This was his life now.

    It was fifteen miles to his sister's house; he'd ridden nine. It was nearly eleven in the morning and only just then did he remember it was Monday. Jacob woke his cell phone, but found no notification of any missed calls. Perhaps Maggie had called his office to let them know that he wouldn't be coming in to work due to an overwhelming case of full-bodied impotence. Having not eaten or drank anything since the bit of Listerine he had accidentally swallowed the night before, Jacob decided to at least buy a bottle of water at the convenience store across the street before he resumed his trek.

    

A bell rang brightly as he entered. It was one of the most annoying sounds Jacob had ever heard. The man behind the counter seemed to agree, as evident by how fast he clutched his chest and nearly fell from the stool he was perched atop. Jacob made straight for the stand-up cooler of water, grabbed a large, slender 1-liter bottle, cracked its seal and downed half right there. 

    "Ex-- Excuse me?" the attendant said. 

    Jacob opened his mouth to tell him not to worry, he'd pay, but closed his mouth just as quickly. Instead, he raised an empty palm toward the attendant in a gesture that said, simultaneously, calm down and you're absolutely right. Jacob reached for his wallet and pulled a few dollars from between the first flap and anterior hinge of his tri-fold. The attendant raised himself from his stool and stared above Jacob's head. Jacob, not wanting a confrontation, dropped the cash on the counter and quickly left without looking back. He made sure, for that next mile or so, to pedal even faster than he had before and to never go to that particular convenience store again.

 

When Jacob rounded the last curve leading to the cul-de-sac on which his sister's quaint little house sat—after the immediate relief of actually being there at all—he was struck by just how many cars had been wedged into what was usually (only able to judge by the two times he'd actually visited) a very tranquil crescent. 

    He parked his bike in front of the house, leaning it on the old oak tree that had only just begun to shed its yellow-green pollen. It covered everything, even those cars whose hoods still radiated heat. The grime made him painfully aware that not only might he be intruding—on what, he couldn't be sure; it was noon on a Monday, after all—but if he were to intrude, he'd be doing so wearing the same sweat pants he'd slept in, the same V-necked sweater he wore the day before, and all without a shower in between. This led him to catch sight of his fingernails and, for Jacob, they existed in that moment for one purpose alone: to goad him. To taunt and sneer at him. Speckled with dirt, too long, too thick, his nails were those of an eighty-six year old. He could have sworn he'd clipped them not two days ago. He could have sworn he'd washed his hair the day after, scraping his scalp, allowing his hair to swipe beneath his nails and brush whatever collected crud away down the drain.

    Jacob shoved his hands into his sweat pants' deep pockets. Now, he thought, not only can I not speak, hand gestures are out of the question. When he made it to Meghan's front door, he raised a clenched fist, but just before he knocked he heard the unmistakable sound of his sister's sobs. He could picture how her entire body shook. How her chin quivered. How clear her eyes looked, her welled tears magnifying their blueness. He wanted to rush in and console her. And, then, she console him.

    But his feet carried him away from the front door, his fist unclenched back in his pocket, clawing at his thigh through the cotton. Jacob knew he would be unable to cope with another instance of invisibility, especially from his sister. So he walked through the short, wooden gate and along the side of the house and peered inside.

    There, in front of him, separated only by a pane of glass and a sheer, ecru curtain were the owners of all those cars parked bumper-to-bumper around the perimeter of Meghan's cul-de-sac.

    They wore dark colors: blacks, deep blues, greys like thunderheads. He couldn't find Meghan, but he could still hear her cries. Though, Meghan's weren't the only tears. It was a symphony. Tissues rising to and from the corners of so many eyes. Quick, jolting inhales through so many noses. And there, at the center of it all rested a bed whose occupant Jacob couldn't see. He could feel Meghan's tears on his shoulder, now. He could smell their salt. He was here, finally, when she needed him; and now it was her who'd gone missing.

    Too much strangeness had befallen Jacob since he woke up yesterday morning. It was with that in mind that Jacob decided to embrace the weirdness that seemed, in only one short day, to occupy and overthrow all that he had been for so long. And in a very un-Jacob-like sequence of events, he walked from the side of the house, across Meghan's front yard, and through the front door.

    When the door's inside knob bounced off the foyer's inner wall, just as Jacob's voice had been taken from him so was each tear, each sniffle, each breath from every mourner before him. But it wasn't at him they looked. Jacob could see, now, around what they had formed their circle. Upon what their focus was transfixed.

    There was a man covered from chin to toes by a white blanket and a whiter sheet beneath it. His skin was the color of a just-expired hard-boiled egg; that pale, grey-green hue seemed to filter all the light in Meghan's living room. Or was it hers? Jacob failed to recognize the arrangement of the place. It looked too modern. Where there used to be walls there were none; where once there was his sister's antique roll-top desk was, what looked like to him, a floating pane of horizontal glass, the desk's legs camouflaged, selling the illusion. Jacob inched forward. The man in front of him didn't move. Couldn't move? He looked to be in his eighties. An oxygen tank was zip-tied to the left railing of his bed, its tubed leads winding around both ears and pegged inside both nostrils. There, beside him, holding his hand, was a woman of maybe forty. Her shoulders shook and when they did her fingers clenched the old man's hand even tighter for those split seconds. Tears dropped from her to the old man's shoulder. Jacob could feel them, again. Sympathetic experience, he told himself as he scanned the faces around him for his sister's.

    That no one was able to see Jacob allowed him to move as he had often wished he could when he was alive: undetected. He was able to accept that revelation much faster than his voicelessness the night before. Oh, Jacob had also accepted that he was most likely dead and made incorporeal some time before he woke up yesterday morning. Accepting his own mortality actually filled Jacob with a sense of purpose. He, ironically, felt more whole than he had since this all started. 

    Really, all he wanted to do was find Meghan, say goodbye—for why else would he be here?—and let go. He inspected every face. Scoured every room and hideaway inside the house. He couldn't find her.

    "M-- M-- M-- Meghan."

    The word bubbled and slinked through the air, too quiet to hear, but just loud enough to be felt. Jacob's back was turned, staring out the living room window onto the cul-de-sac. A breeze became a proper gust of wind and aided the pollen, and with it the next generation of oaks, miles away.

    "Meghan."

    The word reached him. The voice was unmistakable. Jacob turned and with three steps found himself at the foot of the man's bed. The woman at his side had abruptly stopped crying. She stared at the man, the blueness of her eyes magnified by her still-welling tears. Jacob followed her gaze and took up staring at the man, too. Despite his age and pallor, his face was placid, unremarkably so. His eyelids could barely lift from his eyes, but Jacob could see the man, too, was searching for someone.

    "Where is Meghan?"

    Jacob hadn't attempted to speak since he'd arrived at, well, what he thought was Meghan's house. So, when he heard this question spoken by his own voice, he became so overwhelmed by relief that he began to backpedal and question the salience of he being invisible, dead, a ghost. If he could now speak, its loss having been the first symptom--

    "Dad. Meghan's not here."

    If Jacob had been thrust into glacial water, the chill might have come close to half of what he felt. He watched as the woman gripped the old man's hand tighter, drawing strength from him, what little strength was left, choking back her tears, smiling sweetly as she delivered her line. 

    "Dad. Aunt Meghan passed away last year. Do you remember?"

    Jacob dropped to one knee opposite the woman, next to the man on the other side of the bed. Jacob wanted nothing more than to say he was sorry.

    "I'm s-- s-- s-- sorry," the man said, "I can't remember."

    Jacob could see the almost imperceptible movements of the man's mouth. He could hear the man's voice, Jacob's own voice, leak past the man's chapped lips like the first moments of high tide spilling over a long-unused jetty. Jacob reached for the man's left hand laid at his side, but recoiled, the man's long, thick fingernails causing Jacob to clench his own hand into a fist.

    "I waited six years for y-- y-- y-- you," the man said, staring into the woman's eyes beside him, the corners of his mouth curling into open and closed parentheses, "My Maggie."

    "No, Dad," the woman said, her voice cracking like a thousand-year-old sequoia, "Mom isn't-- Mom's not here, either."

    "Oh. Well, tell her I'm sorry it t-- t-- t-- took so long."

    Jacob clasped the man's hand in his, not that he expected the man to feel his grip, but with hopes that he, Jacob, might feel the man's. The man's hand was brittle and dry and soft at the same time like rosin or the bark of a white birch tree. Jacob gripped tighter and felt the man's own hand match his force.

    "Your face looks so familiar. Beautiful, like a g-- g-- g-- girl I used to know. Eyes as blue as my sister's," the man said to the woman who had allowed the dam to break, tears flowing unhindered over the apples of her cheeks, "Have you met my sister? I think you would l-- l-- l-- like her. Where is Meghan?"

    

Jacob stared at the man's caved chest so evident beneath his covers. His staccato breathing shallow and strained. The congregation in front of the man, behind Jacob, had stopped crying, hanging on the man's every word. His family and friends and friends of friends here to usher him across whatever plane Jacob had already reached all alone. Jacob didn't recognize a single face. None of their tears were for him. He still felt twenty-eight, too young to be without a voice, without an impact, without a life.

    "We had a good life," Jacob heard the man say, he assumed, to the woman beside him; Jacob's head now rested on his own forearm, his eyes averted from the fate laid in front of him.

    But when Jacob raised his head, a faint red blotch having already bloomed on his forehead where its skin met his arm, the man's eyes stared unwaveringly at Jacob. The woman stopped crying, but, realizing the man had turned his head away from her in favor of speaking to the emptiness at his left, she sobbed, her head on the man's shoulder, the smell of ocean spray flavoring his oxygen.

    "We lived a good life," the man said again.

    Jacob stared back into the man's hazel eyes like he stared into his own reflection. And when Jacob next looked at the woman, his daughter, beside the man, himself, he was struck by the unmistakability of her beauty, the uncanniness of her resemblance to the two women that meant the most to him after her, and the pride he felt for his own life.

    He remembered who he was. And, finally, he knew why he was here.

    Jacob swallowed, inhaled; he wet his lips with his tongue. He leaned in to the man he had become, positioning his mouth close to the his ear. Jacob formed his words slowly, deliberately, as if soothing a baby to sleep; his words passed so lightly from him, even Jacob couldn't be sure he spoke them.

    But the man turned his head nonetheless and faced his daughter. 

    "I'm so proud of you, Melody."

    And so, Jacob found use for his voice. And, as quickly as it returned, Melody's smile stole it from him once more. For his last words were hers to keep alone. His last words were all he'd really ever wanted to say, after all. And he'd said them. And Jacob knew he'd never speak again. But, as his fingers wilted and his breath escaped one final time, he couldn't think of a single reason he'd need his voice anymore, anyway.

The Buy

Every, every piece of art demands one of its audience. A buy. The buy. The keystone that holds the audience's suspension of disbelief aloft. The one, big ask that can either propel us forward should we accept its terms or hold us back and keep us at arm's length should we reject it. The buy is often the first and best reason why a piece of media just didn't work or why its audience just wasn't into it. Or, in other, more proverbial words: it's the it in I just didn't buy it.

Though the buy is by no means limited to film, film will be the focus of this essay because film is the media in which I am most versed. Though, I expect, the leap from film to TV or comics or novels or music or sculpture or painting or crayon drawing will be fairly evident. For art is a conversation between creator and audience. The creator asks its audience to believe. The audience can then either answer, Yes, in fact I do, and and add to the conversation, whether that be critically or complimentarily, or answer, No, I don't think I believe this at all and simply end the engagement right there. This is not inherently a negative or bad thing, though! This is merely an element of preference, of taste. However, the buy is most applicable to that first group, those who do believe—or, are at least willing to believe—but find that belief challenged, eroded, and/or destroyed. The buy and how it's maneuvered after its presentation is the very incitement of an audience's belief. The buy, when bought, is what makes us sit up and lean forward in the theater. And, when rejected, it's what'll have us groaning and checking our watches by projector-light fifteen minutes in.

* * * 

Above, when I said one, I meant it. You only get one. Now, that's not to say there is only one in any given film. There isn't. There're many in every film. Depending on how granularly you explore a film, too, there can be many in any given scene of any given film. In any given moment of any given scene. The micro-buys: Did we buy that reaction, that look? Did we buy that response, that word? That shot, that effect? But there's always that one, the big one. And as a creator, just like first impressions, you'll only ever get that one, that once.

And more often than not, that once isn't even in the context of the movie itself!

So, you're in the theater. Center-screen, mid-way up. The lights dim and here come the previews. The first one rolls and because this isn't the first time you've sat in a theater, a checklist starts: Okay, sci fi. Time travel, interesting, cool. Aliens, of course, fine. Big Movie Star, makes sense. Oh--wait. A time travel loop. That is caused by the alien--

And there, right there, is the buy. That other stuff, we've already bought that. Those buys—a science fiction world, time travel, aliens—are already in the popular consciousness. The macro-buys. Filmmakers get those for free. We've seen their parallels, the alternatives, so when we see something like them they're just not so novel anymore. (It's why so many sci fi worlds look so similar and why there are so many of the same show on television and why there's almost always a love triangle. Not only have those buys been bought, but they've been bought countless times again and again. It's much easier to renovate when the foundation is already sturdy. It's way more difficult to build from scratch on a muddy hillside.) 

If you'll indulge me and my mixing metaphors, imagine your brain as a blank, white canvas. Nothing to reference. Nothing at all. Now, imagine the color red. Not something red or the actual word red, but red. You can't possibly! You have no idea what red is. You have no basis for what it looks like or what it feels like or examples of it or what red is used for. It's an abstract beyond comprehension. But then you see it, red. It's vibrant and warm and deep and just is. Now, when you look back at that canvas, your brain, there's a beautiful blob of red there. And then, out of nowhere, you see orange. Wow. It's a color, like red. It's vibrant and warm, like red. But it's not red. It's not as deep. But it sure is a lot easier to comprehend in the context of red, isn't it? 

These macro-buys are the red on our canvas. The new elements, like a time travel loop caused by aliens, the one, actual big buy of any given property is the orange. We are predisposed to buy it based on what we've bought before, but it still has to engage us on its own terms. It still has to convince us.

Take Twilight, for example. What's the buy? Well, we have the macro-buys of vampires and werewolves. The micro-buys of the performances and the effects. But it's the relationship between Edward and Bella that is the real reason for the thing to exist. And, more specifically, it's Bella herself. With that in mind, I argue that the buy of Twilight—and of the franchise as a whole—is the desirableness of Bella Swan. If the audience buys that Edward and Jacob and everyone else throughout the films desires Bella—whether sexually or politically or otherwise—then the films work. (And part of the brilliance why the films work so well for its target audience is that Bella is so blankly an audience surrogate that audience is forced to bring so much of themselves to that question. And don't we all want and hope to be so desireable?) For me, well, I don't buy it. And beyond all else, it's because of Bella Swan.

Now, the film About Time asks its audience to buy something similar. I imagine one might argue that it's not the relationship between Tim and Mary that's the buy, but instead the fact that Tim can travel backward in time. But I'd argue that while that may be the buy during the preview when you're running down your checklist, like in our scenario above, in the context of the film it's much more crucial to buy Tim and Mary's relationship rather than the time travel itself. To support this I'll point you to Tasha Robinson's piece about About Time where it is not the time travel that she brings to question, but instead Tim and Mary's relationship. I don't share Tasha's reservations, or, in other words, I bought it, but it's those very reservations that illuminate the buy itself. If you're ever searching for it to no avail, the critical response is wonderful at helping pinpoint the buy of a given film. Or, at least at lighting the signal fire nearby. 

* * * 

Above, when I said, Above, when I said one, I meant it, well, maybe I didn't so much. Have you ever watched a movie and begun to feel overwhelmed? This is what happens when a film asks its audience to buy too many things, too close together when it should be utilizing its second buy. Like in Hancock when we're asked to not only buy that superheroes exist, but are drunken buffoons, but are actually Gods or angels or something and that when in close proximity they begin to lose their powers all while also asked to buy that Hancock and Mary are fated or destined to be together even though they've been so utterly cold toward one another the entire time… No wonder the film received such a negative response and left its audience so utterly baffled by its third act.

Third act? Yeah, well, that's what I meant above when I said, uh-- See, the third act is—or, at least, should be—home to the second buy in a film. It can be called a reversal or a reveal or a twist, but at its core, it's a buy. And just as with the first buy, what incites our engagement with a story, this second buy is what can either leave a film resonating inside us far beyond the theater or cause the film to evaporate from our minds as the lights fade on.

Take Iron Man 3. Whether or not you buy the bait and switch of the Mandarin and the identity of the greater villain will predict your either positive or negative reaction to the film as a whole. How about The Sixth Sense? Do you buy that he's been dead the whole time? Even if you bought that Cole can talk to dead people, if you don't buy this twist, you might feel cheated or betrayed or left confused. And if you do, well, this second buy can lead to an openness to reflection and engagement and a richer reading of the text than before. Where the first buy is important to one's experience within the film, the second is most important to an audience's experience without it.

So, the next time a film just doesn't work and you find yourself saying I just didn't buy it, ask yourself what it was. Because it is the only thing that matters. If you buy that, of course.

Happiness

More often than not, I write when I'm unhappy. Depressed. Low. Today is that not . I am and have been overwhelmingly happy for months, now. Even while I continue to recover from surgery—with a swollen left testicle to prove it—and still argue daily with my bank account, I am happy. I'm sitting here watching my two, four-month-old kittens chew on the analog sticks of a PS3 controller, and I'm happy. There are numerous sent emails in my archives with a screenplay that I wrote attached, and I couldn't be happier or more proud. I'm texting my girlfriend just to say I love her, and I do, so much, and that makes me happiest. I'm collaborating with a wonderful writer, working under him, learning from him, and I am thankful. And I am happy. 

I rarely see posts like these and even more rarely have thought to write anything like the above myself. For fear of self-aggrandizement. Conceitedness. Narcissism. And perhaps all three are the truth.  But because the hand patting my back is too often not my own, I'm risking it to prove to myself more than anyone that being happy can be just as normal, as comforting, as feeling down. 

I thought, not too long ago, that I might not be able to write without that low, murky feeling. I might have even embraced it once or twice. Or, at least, attempted to sublimate it into productivity. It occasionally worked, sure. But never enough. It was a lie. No one's better than me at lying to myself.

So, about fourteen months ago I stopped writing. It wasn't a conscious choice. Not really. I still thought about it every day. But the actual physical act of it, getting those thoughts in between margins, it just sort of dissolved. There were a host of justifications, of course. There always are. That's about the time I met Melissa and began our life together. I was unemployed, constantly searching for work, constantly worried about my financial fortitude. I was seeing a therapist I couldn't afford, but desperately needed, but was forced to stop. Then, I found a job and devoted myself to it completely. And so with the new job came a new living situation. Moving away from an apartment housing five to an apartment for just Melissa and me. A space of our own. And my first time ever living with a significant other. And furnishing. And decorating. And expanding our family by two kittens. Of course then there was the hernia, a gift from work, of course, and the surgery to repair it. And now the month away from work, of which one week has now passed. A week that has led to a possible new job path.

So, justifications.

But among them, each, even the surgery, has led to that happiness I opened with. Because I needed to not write for a while. I needed to miss it. I needed to want it, not just press toward it, blindly forward. I needed to love it again. I needed to be in love with writing, my writing, the idea of writing again. 

I am happy to say that I am. Rather than wary, I am happy to be happy, which rarely has ever felt like the correct impulse. It does, now. I feel normal. Despite the subjectivity of the word. I just know this  normal is much preferred to my normal of fourteen months ago. This normal is welcome. 

This is usually when I expect the other shoe to drop. Turns out, I need a new pair of shoes, anyway. So I'll just be right here waiting.

The Bottle

I'm nearly 26 years old. And yesterday I peed in a bottle.

Yeah. Unfortunately, embarrassingly enough, it's true.

I'm nearly 26 years old. And yesterday I peed in a bottle. While double-parked in my car. On the side of a suburban street. In front of a public park. 

So, here's the story.

Yesterday morning I went to Target with my girlfriend: she, to get a new sunhat—as she was going to be working outside for most of the day—and a new water bottle—for, presumably, the same reason—and me to accompany her because, well, I see the inside walls of my apartment too often as it is. Once we ventured over to the Sporting Goods and I'd thoroughly inspected the solidity of the bicycle helmets and the tautness of the strings on the tennis rackets and she'd chosen her new, purple CamelBak sport bottle, I couldn't resist grabbing one of my own. However, as I drink much more water than she does, I went with the next size up, a 1000 ML wide-mouth twist-cap in slate grey. 

Best choice I ever made, it turns out.

So, we check out, I drop her off, and away she goes, protected from the sun inside and out. I head back home, fill up my new BPA-free bottle and settle in to my desk chair to scour the job boards….

Lo and behold, my good friend and former roommate Alex vibrates my phone to life and saves me from an afternoon of rejection and despair.

Back in the car, me and my bottle are on the way to the flock of food trucks stationed just outside Universal Studios to meet Alex for a bite. The Kogi truck is there, but throwing predictability to the wind we decide on The Green Truck for some wild-caught Halibut tacos. Alex and I settle on the bent bough of a nearby oak and sink into a couple hours-worth of conversation. The Toronto Film Festival leads to The Master leads to our most anticipated movies of the Fall leads to if Spielberg has become too Spielbergian and therefore wholly predictable and woefully unexciting. By this point, all the food trucks have departed, my water bottle is empty, and all but Alex and I and the homeless man sunbathing in the grass behind us remain. He's moving to New York, Alex, that is, and I make him promise we'll get dinner before he does. 

We shake and wave goodbye and as I'm walking away, back to my car, my brain, no longer preoccupied with what The Master really means, finally catches up to my bladder, now full to bursting with 1000 ML of water. It's fine, I live not seven minutes away. It's fine. But once I pull the three-point turn and speed down the little side-street and bank right onto Lankershim, it's not fine. It's not fine at all. 

Dead-ahead, there's a Bank of America. I'm a loyal customer. Just that morning I'd deposited a bit of cash at a sister branch nearer my place. Surely they have a toilet inside. My brain convinces my bladder they do and my bladder tells my brain it damn well better.

It doesn't. 

My bladder screams I told you so and my brain pleads back, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please, just a wee bit longer. My bladder doesn't find the use of puns amusing and stabs a middle finger right behind my balls. 

In moments of dire, animalistic need, you're no longer presented with the luxury of choice. Just the frank fact of necessity. I have to pee. I have to pee now. It is going to happen. Just, where?

That's when my brand new, contaminate-resistant, unbreakable plastic water bottle rolls from its cup holder onto the passenger seat beside me.

Now I'm speeding, clenching my PC muscles for all they're worth, and I find myself on a suburban, tree-lined back street. Cars everywhere. Too populated. I keep driving. I consider just letting it go, liberating my bladder's contents, but, no, I refuse to fall so far. Really, I just refuse to deal with that clean-up. And I can't afford to buy another car. Beside, that empty bottle is waiting, egging me on, begging to be filled. 

I curl around a corner, half-obeying the stop sign at its edge, and find myself in front of a school. All I picture is knocking on my neighbors' doors, notifying them that they're living next to a registered sex offender. Even my bladder quiets down for that one and says, Yeah, let's get the fuck out of here.

Turns out bladders, though, have Leonard Shelby's memory. 

I'm unbuttoning my khaki shorts, now. Unscrewing the cap of the bottle. Throwing my bladder a bone. A peace offering, a promise it'll be empty soon and the bottle full. And I see it, a quiet dead-end, dead ahead. Only a couple houses to the right, but with high hedges and no visible windows. An abandoned park to the left. As perfect as peeing in public can get.

I throw my car into park before I've even stopped moving, rip my pants from under my ass, and pop my dick into the mouth of the bottle. 

Oh, now I get stage fright.

I arch my back a bit more, mimicking a standing position as best I can with a steering wheel in my crotch, and coax the piss from my body like a slobbery tennis ball from a puerile puppy's jaws. 

There's a silence that overcomes all else when you realize you're pissing into a ten-dollar water bottle at nearly 26 years of age in broad daylight next to a public park that will, in an hour's time, be bustling with the laughter of a hundred elementary school students just let out from the school but a block away. 

There's a panic that overcomes that silence, though, when you realize the bottle you're peeing into is reaching that 1000 ML hash and you're going to have to pinch your stream, empty the bottle out the window, and continue pissing into a goddamn bottle inside a goddamn car next to a goddamned public park.

Now I'm driving home. The cap securely fastened on the three-quarter full bottle of my own urine in the cup holder of my center console. My shorts still around my ass, dappled in what my PC muscles were too worn out to keep inside. I drive slowly. I stop at the stop sign I missed for twice as long this time.

I make it home and take the side entrance to my second story apartment, avoiding eye-contact with even the windows of my neighbors' apartments. I wipe off, clean up, dump the contents of the bottle in the toilet, and flush. I fill the bottle with dish detergent. A few times. I spray it inside and out with bleach a few times more. And then promptly toss it in the trash.

* * *

Target had a few of the same bottle left in stock when I returned later that afternoon.

1000 ML. Slate grey. 

I avoided the cashier I'd used earlier, though. Just in case. 

And I made sure to use the toilet before I left.

You know, just in case.

How I Cope with Being Unemployed and Unemployable

I bet.

I don't have any money, so I bet what I do have. 

I bet my sanity. And I bet my happiness. I bet my expectations and hopes and patience.

I bet on baseball games and Food Network programming and Seinfeld episodes. Even though they're reruns. Even though I've seen them all. Even though I know Jerry will win. And I know Little Jerry will lose. 

I bet on every Olympic sport. With so much time, I've taken to watching a lot of them.

I bet on which sport will pop to life as I change the channel. I bet which will follow that one. And I bet which will follow after that.

I bet who will win even if there are no winners. 

I bet I'll win. Even though I'm not playing.

I bet on every email I send. 

Every application I fill.

Even though I lose every time.

Every time, so far + 1.

I bet that I'll fall asleep easily last night. And I will have fallen asleep easily tomorrow.

I bet that I'll make it to the refrigerator in fourteen steps instead of fifteen. I change the rules at step eight. It still takes sixteen.

I bet that I'll have food inside when I get there.

I don't.

But I still bet I do.

So, I steal an egg and half an avocado from my roommate.

And I bet he won't notice.

I bet. And I bet. And I lose. And I bet.

I bet what I have.

Though what I have is dwindling. 

So, I bet it'll return.

And I wait for the results. 

I bet it will. But the smart money's on it won't.

How to Tell a True Story

Lie.

Lie about what doesn't matter.

Lie when there's a gap in the action.

Lie for the story.

Lie to strangers.

Lie to an audience.

Lie when you said something stupid.

Lie when you didn't say anything at all.

(And really, really should have.)

Lie when you said too much.

Lie to your enemies.

Lie when it was daytime, but it felt like night.

Lie about the weather.

Lie about the season.

Lie to make yourself stronger.

Or weaker.

Or both, one after the other.

Lie about being cold.

Or too hot.

Lie to enhance the truth.

Lie with grace.

Lie with conviction.

Lie when you can't remember.

Lie if all you want to do is forget.

Lie to make them laugh.

Lie to stop their tears.

Lie to end it early.

To get out.

To save face.

To coddle a fragile heart.

Lie when it's your only option.

Lie when your imagination's the limit.

Lie when your gut says it's okay.

Lie when it's true. Or, at least feels that way.

 

But never lie when the truth is enough.

Or even when the truth is too much.

Never lie for love.

Never lie for the moral.

Never lie to appease.

Never lie when your gut disagrees.  

Never lie to yourself.

To your heart.

To your head.

To their face.

(Or behind their backs.)

Never lie behind their backs.

Never lie when it counts.

Never lie for its own sake.

Never lie for gain.

Never lie via deflection.

Or projection.

Never lie with malice.

Never lie when it makes no sense.

Never lie when they need to hear the truth.

Never lie to make them listen.

Never lie to the ones you love.

(Or want to love.)

(Or used to love.)

Never lie about lieing.

Never lie if you lied.

Never lie if you really, actually plan on lieing soon.

Never lie about listening.

Or knowing. 

Or feeling.

Or wanting.

Or needing.

Or the lack thereof of all of the above.

Never convince yourself you aren't.

And never lie when it's true.

Even when you wish so badly it wasn't.

But it is.

'Cause even when you lie,

You'll always know the truth.

If I Found My Voice

So, there I go counting. Sentences and fragments. Their words and syllables. Each letter. The construction of them. Each line. Each curve. Every serif. An edifice. Burned out, barely erect. Ghosts waggle bleary fingers behind scorched glass. I recognize those fingers. Characters I used to know. I can't see their faces. But I know their eyes are haunting mine. I can't recall the sound of their voices. The meter of their sentences. Whether they spoke in fragments. Their words and which syllable rose and which plummeted out of reach on the exhale. I don't remember which added letters and who subtracted them. I can't call to mind who says ā and which says ə. They're ghosts, you see. They don't have voices any longer.

So, what's my voice, then? Have I lost it? Can one lose what one never possessed? Does the impact of the rhetorical question increase or decrease when used in such short succession? Is the rule of threes and fives not to be fucked with?

I fear with all of me, the bones of my bones, that it's gone.

My voice.

The same fragmented stream-of-consciousness. The juxtaposition of hyper-literacy, hyperbole, metaphor, obtusity, and good ol' fucking colloquialism.

The one-line paragraphs.

For emphasis.

The purple prose. (More amethyst than plum.) The nostalgia. The anecdotal humor. The anger. The depression.

I'm fucking sick of it.

I fear I have so much to write, but nothing to say. I fear I have nothing to write at all.

So, I count her laughs, instead. Chuckle. Snort. Wheeze. Pant. HAH! Five so far. I fit her into stories already written. I fit stories into her. I read to her. She reads me. I learn to her. She knows me. It all gets jumbled. By all accounts I'm falling, but it's clouds all the way down. My back's to the ground, I guess. Or gravity took the day off.

And I fear I have too much to write, after all. But maybe it's all been said before.

I want to write for myself. (Like my sister.) But I want to be known. Remembered. Paid. Forever. I want to be commercial. But I won't give up my integrity. I want to write, but is it all out of convenience, now? Is it comfort? Will I ask a third question? Is my relationship with words one of comfort instead of passion? Will I ask a fifth?

Is this post-modern self-awareness the identity I'm now branded with?

So, I describe her, instead. From sketch to phantom cam. Ultra-slow mo. I think it through. I count the sentences and fragments I'd use, if I was to write, if I found my voice: eighty-eight. I count the words: four hundred seventy-three. I watch her form letters with her lips. The curves of them. The serifs of her. If I were to write, she's what I'd write about. If I found my voice.

If I only found my voice.

High-Roller in a 99-Cents Store

I've never shopped at a 99-cents store. I can't ever remember being inside one, for that matter, beyond killing time before a movie or a show or killing time just because it's the only kind of murder not punishible by death. Never when I was a kid. Never in high school or college. Not since I've been here in Los Angeles.

Mostly due to ignorance. More mostly because they terrify me.

It's what they represent. To me. For me. It's what I see when I see them, blue and pink and bold on the corner next to a 7-11 and behind an El Pollo Loco. The mirror they thrust in front of my supercilious face.

The fucking mythological hubris that stinks on my skin.

The legacy my father and his father before him left for me to leave to my son—sorry, son—can be summed up quickly: you're a high-roller; accept no subsitutes. That's it. You're oppulent and affluent and flush with scratch. To be seen as cheap, to even give off the scent of a bargain-hunter, is to be humiliated more than Seth, Golden Boy, who, right there during the first week of sixth grade, pissed his pants while running up the stairs after lunch. Or was it before? Being chased, I think. Definitely not chasing. But you probably knew that. Everyone knows about Seth. The way the piss cascaded down the steps, trailing after him, and for so much farther than he could ever run. How could you not know about Seth?

But here's the thing. I'm not flush with scratch. I don't have mad duckets to sink into, well, for starters: my credit card debt. my car payments. my car insurance. health insurance. rent. food. condoms. I'm not prosperous. I still rely on the charity of my father and the State of California. I work. I have two jobs. It's still not enough. But I don't want for anything that could be considered a necessity. Though I do want for things. I've never gone hungry due to inability. Though I have due to laziness. I've never known true hardship. Though, all things being relative, I do know adversity. But you don't know any of that. So, when I pull my wallet out of my unwashed jeans and tell you "I've got this one, you get it next time," it's so you keep not knowing. It's so my grandfather won't know. It's so my dad won't know. It's so my son won't know.

Because I never knew. 

What I'm saying is, I could use a little cheapness. I could lose a lot of pride. I could stand to eat Crispy Oat Rounds or Crispy Rice or Multi-Grain Flakes or Bran Sticks Cereal instead of what's in those other boxes painted with the same colors, slapped with the same fonts. What's in a name? More literal description, for one. I could use a bit of molting, shed some of this gold-plated heritage. I could bear to shave my expensive taste buds away and exalt the Golden Arches and The King and The Colonel, himself. I could brave the 99-cents store.

I could brave the 99-cents store.

But I won't.

I'll tell myself the ingredients will kill me. In the long run, what's a few extra dollars if it means my health? I'll tell myself I don't have to, it's not that bad, it will all be okay. I'll tell myself I can always make more money. What's money?! It's everywhere. I'll cook for two and eat the leftovers. I'll do crude math in my head, calculating the cost per meal. I'll tell myself that isn't so bad. I'll compare everything on a curve of my own creation. I'll tell myself I can get this one, and the next one. I'll tell myself I can make it. 

And I will.

Because, if I don't, who will fuck up my son? He has to learn he's a high-roller sooner or later. That he'll never need. He'll rarely want. There's always a twenty for him in my wallet. And, if he really needs it, there's another where that came from.

Now, off to Whole Foods. 

I Bought a Zoo, and So Should You

Today I published an article about Cameron Crowe's latest film, We Bought a Zoo, on FirstShowing.net. But I didn't get to say all that I truly wanted to. As it is, I push the boundries of personal admisson over there, so I'm going to append a bit more of a personal coda to the piece here, instead. For context, here's a bit from the piece linked above:

 

"We bought a zoo!" It's a line exclaimed by precocious, cherry-haired Rosie throughout the film to anyone in earshot. Strangers. Animals. Herself. And every time, her voice is pure. It's the embodiment of optimism. It'sjoy. Complete, unadulterated joy. There's a reason—sure, among more obvious ones—We Bought a Zoo is titled as such. It's that line. But, really, it's the emotion that line evokes. That joy. Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who is able to capture, personify, and epitomize emotion better than most other filmmakers. Emotion is his currency. And he doles it out with impunity. 

So, for someone like myself whose life is lived—more often than not to a fault—through emotion rather than logic, Crowe hits a sweet spot that few others, if any, can touch. He gets me, and I him. I think he even wrote a line about completing something or other one time that still holds true...

What I'm hemming and hawing about here is that I'd always rather feel something deeply, feel something honestly that is flawed rather than admire something from a distance that, while beautiful and perfect, is abstinent. We Bought a Zoo is flawed. But it is so joyous, soulful, and lovely that I couldn't care less.

But now that I'm out of the theater, wiped away the tears, and downloaded Jonsi's score and deleted every other track on my iPhone, it's the film's flaws that are just sort of floating there in front of my face like dust caught in the sun. But let me try and look past the dust to the sun a bit first.

...

I suppose I'm so frustrated with this film because its flaws are so small yet so visible and even more fixable. The way it made me feel is the way I feel when watching my favorite movies. The way I felt in the theater, though, just didn't carry over as I drove home. The film should have been—could have been—amazing with a few tweaks, less over-writing, less contrivance. And I'm saying this while still feeling my love for it.

Most of the film is so assured, trusting itself as it thrives in emotion born of its mostly fantastic characters that feel real even if there's no way they are, expressing emotion in ways that feel even more real. (It doesn't hurt that Crowe pulled some truly phenomenal performances from his actors, young and seasoned alike. Elle Fanning is especially exceptional. She's a beacon on screen. The film's brightest spot.) Yet, can it be that all of that just isn't good enough? You know what, I'm going to take a page out of the Mee playbook: I'm going to take Cameron Crowe's hand and cross party lines. I'm going to buy a zoo and damn the consequences. Hell, I've already bought the zoo. Feels good, man. Feels like joy.

 

What I didn't say, above, is how directly I connected with Dylan, Benjamin Mee's son. I was an angry kid. I couldn't control it and, most of the time, I didn't even know I was flying off the handle when I so obviously was. I punched holes in drywall, tried to punch holes in concrete, tore my larnyx and ruined my voice for screaming.

There's a VHS tape of my sister and me just as we arrive at a cabin our family rented for our vacation in North Carolina; I was to be the audience's—inevitably me, twenty years later—tour guide through the cabin. I showed the bedrooms, kitchen, bathrooms, and original hardwood banisters like a realtor selling for his right to live. My sister, though, she always wanted to be involved. She wanted to be there for it, right there in the middle, no matter what it was. I love that about her, now. But then, despite the grain and failing tracking of the VHS, you can see the anger setting on my face like concrete over top a coffin. Thinking about it makes me cringe. Watching it makes me recoil.

What did I have to be so angry about? Dylan lost his mother, lost his friends, was moved from the city to a run-down zoo in the middle of nowhere... I didn't have any of that fuel. But seeing Dylan there on screen, I felt his anger so deeply. His cynicism. His frustration.

I'm often called a cynic, still. Usually, it's when I walk out of a movie theatre. There's nothing I love more than feeling deeply. Feeling honestly and purely. But there's nothing I do better than analyze. I can't not see flaws. I can't not fix them, even if fixing them happens only in my mind. I can see how frustrating it must be for those around me when all they want to do is express how wonderful something was or how truly awesome this one thing made them feel... while I physically, literally can't not talk about what was wrong around those things. But it's never from a place of malice. It's because I want it, whatever it is, to be better. And I think it, whatever it is, can be better! I don't think that sounds like something a cynic would say. Or maybe it's exactly what a cynic would say.

This internal gladiatorship is why We Bought a Zoo has me so conflicted. It's a film that, no matter how real it is, it feels like it kills cynicism. Dead. Gone. Joy and optimism and idealism win, once and for all. And I felt that there in the theatre. But, here I am... saying it can be better...

Maybe it's me that can be better. All I know is that I don't feel like a cynic. And I totally want to buy a zoo.

"We bought a zoo!" It's a line exclaimed by precocious, cherry-haired Rosie throughout the film to anyone in earshot. Strangers. Animals. Herself. And every time, her voice is pure. It's the embodiment of optimism. It'sjoy. Complete, unadulterated joy. There's a reason—sure, among more obvious ones—We Bought a Zoo is titled as such. It's that line. But, really, it's the emotion that line evokes. That joy. Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who is able to capture, personify, and epitomize emotion better than most other filmmakers. Emotion is his currency. And he doles it out with impunity.

 

So, for someone like myself whose life is lived—more often than not to a fault—through emotion rather than logic, Crowe hits a sweet spot that few others, if any, can touch. He gets me, and I him. I think he even wrote a line about completing something or other one time that still holds true...

What I'm hemming and hawing about here is that I'd always rather feel something deeply, feel somethinghonestly that is flawed rather than admire something from a distance that, while beautiful and perfect, is abstinent. We Bought a Zoo is flawed. But it is so joyous, soulful, and lovely that I couldn't care less.

But now that I'm out of the theater, wiped away the tears, and downloaded Jonsi's score and deleted every other track on my iPhone, it's the film's flaws that are just sort of floating there in front of my face like dust caught in the sun.

...


I suppose I'm so frustrated with this film because its flaws are so small yet so visible and even more fixable. The way it made me feel is the way I feel when watching my favorite movies. The way I felt in the theater, though, just didn't carry over as I drove home. The film should have been—could have been—amazing with a few tweaks, less over-writing, less contrivance. And I'm saying this while still feeling my love for it.

 

Most of the film is so assured, trusting itself as it thrives in emotion born of its mostly fantastic characters that feel real even if there's no way they are, expressing emotion in ways that feel even more real. (It doesn't hurt that Crowe pulled some truly phenomenal performances from his actors, young and seasoned alike. Elle Fanning is especially exceptional. She's a beacon on screen. The film's brightest spot.) Yet, can it be that all of that just isn't good enough? You know what, I'm going to take a page out of the Mee playbook: I'm going to take Cameron Crowe's hand and cross party lines. I'm going to buy a zoo and damn the consequences. Hell, I've already bought the zoo. Feels good, man. Feels like joy.


Our Community Script #savecommunity

A year—shit, or was it two—or so ago, my writing partner, David Sigurani, and I wrote a spec script for the fan-favorite, always admirable NBC comedy, Community. Now that Community has been put on "hold" and has all but been travelled to the farm upstate where it can run free with the likes of Pushing Daisies, Traffic Light, Firefly, Lone Star, Kings, and the like, David and I thought it was time to dust off the ol' .PDF and share it with the rest of our Greendale peers. 

We hope you all enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it. And, hey, if in five years when Netflix decides to defrost the then long-since-cryogenically frozen Community, David and I will be ready. But not in a creepy way. Like, a totally inncocent, in no way still-wearing-a-Human-Being-unitard-under-all-of-our-outfits-like-Spider-Man-but-way-less-cool kind of way.

So, here it is: "The Human Portrait," a spec episode of Community, written by Brandon Lee Tenney & David Sigurani. Pop! Pop!

An All-Dialog Beginning

"So, that's it?"

  "That's it."

"Just like that?"

"Try not to think about it like that. In those terms. You understand how it's been up here, it's not black and white--"

"Apparently not, no. What other terms though? Yesterday I'm here... tomorrow? Enlighten me."

"Come on, Jack, don't--"

"Jackson."

"Jackson--"

"You're grinding my goddamned bones to dust. That's what you're doing, Brian. Everything I've fucking worked for. I pioneered this, in on the ground floor. And for what?"

"For what? You just said for what. We wouldn't be up here, doing what we're doing today, if not for you."

"That supposed to make me feel better? Don't fucking flatter me. What happened? Am I that irrelevant?"

"Of course not. Jackson, you know damn well what happened. You know how it's been up here. There are directions we should've been exploring six months ago. Directions, if I recall correctly, that you were unwilling to entertain."

"Is this the part where I beg for my job? 'I'll come back, I'll be a good boy, I'll do what I'm told, it won't happen again, honest--'"

"No, it's already too late for that."

"What then?"

"You're not honestly worried about finding work, are you?"

"'Course not. Some ozone filtered sun will be a fucking godsend."

"Then what?"

"When's the next shuttle?"

"That's the kicker--"

"This is the kicker? Oh, good. Now that I know this is the kicker, I think I can get my head to touch all the way to my knees."

"Three months."

"Three months?:

"Three months."

"Three fucking goddamned months? What the fuck am I supposed to do up here for three months without a project to work on, without security clearance, without motherfucking pay? We're on the Moon, Brian. You remember the Moon, right?"

"Your severance is good through your time here, plus an additional three."

"How generous of you."

"Think of it as a vacation. You've been up here for four years. There has to be a book you've wanted to read."

"A vacation. Like working at a five-star beach resort and vacationing under the boardwalk on the goddamned Jersey shore. Besides, I fucking hate to read."

"You've got a goddamned mouth on you. That didn't help your case."

"Fuck you, Brian."

"Three months, Jack."

"So, that's it, then."

"That's it."

Pirates of Culture

It's dangerous, in my opinion—and since these are my words coming to you via my forum, that phrase shouldn't even be necessary—when someone chooses not to exchange money for art. It's more dangerous, still, when one derides another or judges them negatively for doing just that, exchanging money for art. Further still is the opinion that art is worth no compensation at all.

I hope to be paid for my art—these words you're reading may, one day, someday, not be free—so I've been known to take this sentiment (too) personally from time to time to always.

Of course, when I say art, I mean to say any and all artistic endevours: drawing and painting, sculpting and dancing, poetry, prose, sequential storytelling, filmmaking, and all things music alike. To me, all of the above are worth money. Because all of the above, and those pursuits I haven't even listed, are worth preserving. Art is who we humans are. Art is culture. And culture is us. 

But without a demand for art, art dwindles. It'll always exist, sure. No one commissioned the caves at Lascaux. But without a fostering of demand, those without the means to create now may never have the possibility of the means later; so their art is lost before it's had a chance to grow. What the diminishing of art begets is the genocide of artisitc potential.

So, when I buy an album from a band I particulary enjoy or pay to see a film from a writer or director I admire or purchase a painting from a local artist whose works affects me, I'm not only supporting those artists individually, I'm supporting art on a macro level. I'm supporting art culture. I'm supporting the potential, the possibility of more artists like them. Those artists who sit with their guitar in their lap or stare at a blank canvas and say, yes, this is viable. I can do this. It won't be easy, but I choose to try. Because there is someone out there right now who is doing what I want to do and they have support. I'm supporting the license to try.

Perhaps all of the above is a bit lofty an idea to ponder each time you're clicking Buy Album in iTunes.

Especially when this generation—my generation—are the digital pirates of culture. It's so damned easy. Too damned easy. I guarantee I could not spend a cent on art if I didn't want to and still experience and imbibe just as much as those who choose to pay. The Internet is a vast sea of immediate availability. And, sadly, the experience of piracy is often much more pleasurable than the compensated alternative.

Movies are available without fine print and advertising and menus. It's just the movie. It's what I expect. It's what I want. And only what I want.

Television shows are available without commercials. Even via online, paid streaming services that solve the problem of immediacy and anywhere availability, the pirated option is just easier. A universal file format. The ability to play a show anywhere on anything.

Comic books are higher quality and readable anywhere on any device.

Music, well, like the rest of that above, is free.

So, while some attempt to solve the piracy issue by bringing compensated outlets of art delivery as close to their no-holds-barred, high-seas antitheses, I say it's not the method or the practice that needs to be changed; it's the mindset.

It's that dangerous opinion that art, because all I know it to be is free, immediate, and everywhere, is worth only that: nothing at all.

Fostering a love for art and its importance is what's, well, important. Shifting the paradigm so the question isn't Why should I pay for art? but Why wouldn't I pay for art? 

Did you torrent their latest album? No. Because I want there to be another latest album after this one.

Why would you buy that? Because it's beautiful. And I want her to make more things that are beautiful.

Did you see that, I just downloaded it last night? And so you may never see anything like it again because of it.

The opinion that art is a luxury and that it's lesser and other and unimportant is wrong. I've utilized the more artistic-centric aspects of my education far more than important subjects like mathematics. There's a calculator on my phone. Google can teach me how to balance an equation or find the circumference of a circle. But neither my phone nor Google can cause me to feel the importance of Cormac McCarthy's words or Kate Beaton's sequential humor or the potential of some unnamed, unrecognized, possibly unborn artist.

Unfortunately, compliments and Likes just aren't enough in the way of compensation and recognition. Capitalism remains our overlord. So it's with money with which we must speak. Money toward representation in our government that will choose not to limit artistic programs in public schools. Money toward artistic centers in your city where this sentiment can be fostered after our kids leave the school where their artistic programs were cut. Money toward those kids who became local artists. Money toward local artists who became our culture.

And, if not with money—because the consumption of art can be expensive—then perhaps speak with time. The time it takes to say a word of encouragement and provide someone the potential to make great art. Because it's the potential for art that's most important. Without the potential for art, we cease to exist. 

For nothing speaks more about a culture than its art.

Art is the definition of one's culture. One's culture, the reason for one's art.

Though, there is an episode of Doctor Who I missed last week. And I did want to see that Kristen Wiig movie when it was out... just never got around to it...

...I wonder if they're both online. Maybe I'll pick up a few of DC's New 52 while I'm there.

Political Apathy, Political Anger

During my junior and senior years of high school, I anchored Mustang News Network's daily, morning news program. I reported upcoming events, sports scores, the day's lunch menu, and the odd human-interest story around campus—usually involving our cheerleaders. (Always involving our cheerleaders.) And, often, I was joined by a co-anchor. She and I were and remain friends. I attended her wedding two years ago. Flew from my home in California to Florida for it. During the summer. Florida's summer. 

However, then, we rarely agreed on… much of anything. 

Especially politics. The one topic, above all else, that we were forbidden to debate on air. The one topic, above all else, that, with all our teenaged wisdom and cunning, we attempted to debate on air most often.

I was no stranger to receiving calls from teachers and administrators after broadcasts regarding my editorializing and sensationalizing and, most often, my inappropriate appearance—I've had tattoos since I was eighteen, one of which was visible on the inside of my left bicep during broadcasts. Oh, and I've had my ears pierced since fifth grade and gauged since I was fifteen. To those teachers and administrators who weren't familiar with my excellent academic performance and thoughtful, straight-laced personality, I was an… undesirable.

So, during the 2004 presidential election, it should have been no surprise that both my co-anchor's and my fervor would reach its crescendo. The first election either of us could participate in. The first moment our voices could be heard. Our time to take part in a tradition at our nation's very heart; the very reason for our nation's existence.

Sadly, we were two among thousands. Thousands who fit the stereotype of the youth vote perfectly. Apathetic, ignorant, and puppets of their parents. I suppose I, and she, were also puppets to a point. Products of our environment. But more the Scarecrow after he's bestowed a brain rather than before.

And then I wore a John Kerry t-shirt on air. And then I was called to the principal's office while still on air. And I was told that without equal promotional time given to each candidate on air, my t-shirt is in violation of the law. Not the rules, but the law. Me, a teenaged anchor of a close-circuited high school news program, breaking the law because my t-shirt was giving unfair promotional time to a presidential candidate. Uh huh, sure.

That next day, I wore the shirt again. And sitting beside me, my co-anchor wore a George W. Bush t-shirt. Equal time. Equal promotion. We didn't debate or even mention our attire. We read the news, signed off, and, quite pleased with ourselves, walked from the studio to the adjacent classroom where we were forbidden to do that ever again lest we be replaced entirely.

It's only taken me seven years to become disenchanted with politics writ large to the point of that same apathy my classmates showed during the very zenith of my own political interest when I sat behind that news desk donning my support quite literally on my sleeve. 

And I hate it. I hate that I feel more strongly about my apathy than I do about the reason for my apathy. 

And even more so, I hate that the only thing I feel more than apathy is anger. But it's impotent anger. It's useless.

I can't even laugh at shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report anymore because the jokes are no longer funny because they're true. They're infuriating because they're so fucking real.

I feel underrepresented, misrepresented, not represented at all. And in a representative democracy, isn't that the fucking point? Especially when they guy I voted for is seated at the top.

But, like most of the elected officials currently in office right now, I don't have any answers. I don't know what to do. Our political system isn't about doing what's right for the people. It isn't about representation. It's a battle of morals. A war of ideals. A church of extremists and fanatics that speak the loudest and say the most and overwhelm the majority. How did the outliers become the mean?

Perhaps I'm naive, but isn't the whole point of our government to compromise? Do we not elect those who we feel will represent us most, send them to speak on our behalf, and trust that they will do their best to compromise in our favor in the pursuit of progress? Differing viewpoints leading to new, different ideas leading to compromised progress for the good of the nation as a whole. Not as a party. Not as a group. Not as one side or the other. Progress for us all, together.

Is not progress the whole point?

Though, I am not unable to see the reasons why political and social progress is at a standstill.

Both parties are so well branded that to step outside their brand in the pursuit of compromise is to betray itself, its constituents, its ideal. Both operate on fear. They're backed against a wall. And that fear turns everything to black and white, fight or flight. So we're left with absolutes. We're left with closed ears and closed minds.

But I'm guilty of the same thing. I recognize that. In the simplest of terms: I think I'm right. When I listen to Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin speak, I know I'm right. Scientifically, logically, objectively, I am right when it comes to their "opinions," their false knowledge about science. It's maddening and infuriating I'm so right. The very idea that they can argue with facts. With scientifically proven facts. The fact that they use the word theory incorrectly when in a scientific context. The fact that they are able to turn logic and proven science into pejoratives, into rallying points for ignorance. 

I know I'm right in dismissing that. In closing my ears. My mind.

But it's the very government that I'm speaking of that provides them the unalienable right to dismiss me. To know that they are right. To close their ears and minds. It's for this same government that I fight.

And so it goes. The unanswerable question. The unpassable impasse.

Suppose I'll just continue to hope—while the other side continues to pray—that those elected, those with power, those who act as our representation will be better than me. Better than them. Better than us. That they'll act on our behalf. That they'll act for us, not because of us or in reaction to us or for fear of us.

That compromise is achievable and necessary and important.

That change is possible.

 

Yeah, right.

The Canoe Test

I usually know my relationships are over well before I actually end them. Or, most often, before they're ended for me because of me.

It's usually an off-hand comment that, unbeknownst to my significant other, cements itself as a symbol of our slowly decaying romance. Like when, in college, a girlfriend stormed from my living room after I flicked on a Discovery Health channel show about the morbidly obese—a show I happen to find particularly amusing—and, after I caught up with her and with tears painting her cheeks, said Those poor people. What if they were here? Would you laugh at them, then? I thought you were a better person than this, Brandon.

I knew we were done. Right then. No question about it. A better person? I don't know who she thought she was dating, but a show titled The Half-Ton Man is inherently humorous. An adult human, an animal of my own species, who is so large the only possible way to transport him is via forklift. And the only reason he needs to be transported via forklift in the first place is to visit a doctor for the very reason he's being hauled... by a forklift! Morbidly hilarious is more like it. 

Of course, I didn't say any of that. And the relationship lasted another six or seven months. A cowardly move on my part, for sure. But what if I had just ended it there? Is that a seriously dick move? How superficial is that? When does knowing what you feel align with societal morality?

"Why'd you two split?"

"Oh, yeah. So, you see, I was watching The Half-Ton Man on Discovery Health--"

"Yes! That show is hilarious!"

"Right?! I know, I know--"

"A forklift? You've gotta be kidding me--"

"I know! They drove him through town on a forklift. Just, him sitting on his all-but disintegrated California King mattress hovering above the ground like he's on Jabba's barge, supported by what is basically a giant, mechanical eating utensil."

"Holy shit. I never even--"

"Why do you think it's so funny?! A morbidly obese man—a man who, undoubtedly, knows his way around a fork—is forced to be carried atop the very thing that's aided him in becoming what he is! I don't care that he's fat. It's the irony of the thing."

"Holy shit."

"I guess it really wouldn't work if he wasn't fat though..."

"How'd we get on The Half-Ton Man? ...what were we even talking about?"

"Oh, right. Uh, yeah, she saw me watching it and laughing and told me she thought I was a better person than that. So I broke up with her."

"A better person than what? Laughing at a fat guy on a forklift?"

"I guess."

"So, you two broke up over... The Half-Ton Man."

"Looks that way."

"That's not gonna look too good on you, is it?"

"No. No it's not."

"Don't worry. It's still hilarious."

"It's a fat guy. On a forklift. It'll always be hilarious. That's never not been hilarious."

Suppose what I'm trying to say here, is, with that situation in particular, even though I knew it was over, I didn't really know it was over. Or, I didn't want to know it was over. I was still gathering evidence. If I'm going to eject at the first sight of a bad-clapper or a fist-pumper or a movie theatre drink-slurper, what the hell kind of person am I? Not that those things won't be entered into the record, of course. ...and not that each one doesn't raise the probability of ejection exponentially.

So here's a simple test for all of you who are blissfully unaware that your relationship is clinging to a cliff's edge like so many fingers in so many '80s action movies:

Plan a day for just the two of you. Preferably a weekend, Saturday. Preferably in the morning so you'll have to wake up early. Now, take your significant other to a state park or national forest or somewhere with a lake or river where you can rent a canoe. Now, rent a canoe. Sit in the back, allowing your partner to sit in front of you. Finally, canoe.

Sounds like a pretty relaxing occasion, right? If it is, congratulations, you two are going to make it.

If your day, however, breaks you over its knee and causes the non-religious to talk to God and the religious to forsake His guidance, then, well, I've saved you a lot of time and excess pain.

Canoeing relies on teamwork. Really, it's the perfect distillation of a romantic relationship.

To move forward and accomplish your main goal, you have to paddle together, but independently, one oar on one side, the other oar on the other. You must be in unison, yet able to retain your own independence.

To turn, you must compromise. One oar must lift from the water while the other steers toward this new goal. However, that other oar must remain poised just above the water for support, lest the canoe turn too quickly and lose control, sending itself into a circular spin that is all but inescapble.

To travel upstream, you must be willing to work together, adjusting frequently, with flexibility. With patience and poise. Paddling harder than you've had to in the past. Fighting for calmer current.

And, above all, both parties must remain committed to the canoe ride. In the canoe, it's just the two of you. If you can't stand staring at the back of your partner's head while they stare at the beautiful view in front of them, well, like I said, you'll know it's over.

I failed my canoe test. Wasn't too long before, like our canoe that day, we ran aground. Then again, I've always hated boats. Then again, then again... she should have just let me steer like I asked her to in the first place and just maybe we could have avoided that piece of driftwood and I wouldn't have had to get out in alligator infested waters and shove us from that thatch of mangrove roots.

That's all in the past now, though.

Totally in the past.

 

...a FORKlift! Come on!

Every. Goddamned. Day.

February 7th. That was the last time I posted. It's not the last time I wrote something. Just the last time I wrote something, well, here. And that shit needs to stop.

I've been working on something about politics—hey, wake up—for a little under a month. See it at the top of the page here-- oh, yeah, right. 'Cause of the not posting.

I don't know what it is lately. I'm writing fairly consistently. For me, anyway. I have a few things in progress. That blog post about politics I mentioned. An original television pilot script I'm writing with my writing partner, David, about magic and rebellion, responsibility and crawling from your father's shadow. A short story about a scientist who's shit-canned 'cause he refuses a military contract and then gets caught up in the project's experimental procedures anyway. (Oh, yeah, that short story takes place on the Moon.) (I need to work on my pitches.) And, of course, there's the feature script I return to once every couple weeks. For maybe an hour or so. Sometimes as short as a few minutes.

What I'm getting at here is pretty well decreed there in the title. I need to be writing every day. Some will just be days. Most, days that feel damned. That's just how it works. But the days and goddamned days alike need words all the same.

I have a tendency to overthink and overanalyze and overplan. Too many outlines—and I used to fucking hate outlines. I still hate outlines. I just want to ...write. So that's what I'm going to do here. I'll save the outlining and overanalyzation for the scripts and short stories. Here, it's going to be a little more raw than it's been in the past.

So, every goddamned day. Or, you know, more frequently than every. goddamned. seven. months.

At least more frequently than that.

Oh, and today, my upper left cheek beneath my eye and along the inside of the bridge of my nose began going numb at infrequent intervals throughout the day. I Googled that shit and caused an already-in-progress panic attack to escalate into a chest-clenching walk around the block talking to myself while the oppressive heat soldered my boxer-briefs to my balls. But I'm sure it's fine. Or in a month I'll look like Sly Stallone. As they say, ce la Rocky.

Oh, that's not what they say? I was never the best French student.

Space Unavoidably Left Blank

There's a theory—a hypothesis, actually—that our Universe isn't the product of the first and only Big Bang. It's a hypothesis that postulates that our Universe is cyclical and never-ending. No beginning and no end at all. There's just Everything and always has been Everything, and when Everything is destroyed there's just Everything again. 

In that Universe there is no Before.

Now, just imagine, that there is. Imagine before what has no Before.

Just, imagine.

The word: Before. Just the word. And then nothing. Not blackness, there is no blackness. Not whiteness, there are no colors to combine to create it. Not even nothing, it doesn't exist yet.

It's blankness, but without the word. Just the feeling. But it doesn't feel like anything, there's nothing to which it can compare. Just the instinct.

Blank. Before.

Then, impossibly, a whisper. You can't even hear the whisper. You can't even hear the echo of the whisper. You can just barely make out the echo of the echo of the whisper and it's saying

"How did you know to clean the coffee maker?" 

…what?

"How did you know to clean the coffee maker?"

And you realize the blankness is just your brain attempting to process the unprocessable.

The above is as blank as my brain has ever been. Terminally blank.

As a new hire, it continues to amaze me that every new boss is impressed with my ability to clean a coffee maker. More specifically, that I can clean the coffee maker without being asked to do so.

Seven-thirty strikes and I start to pack my things. Did you take out the trash? Yes, it's my job. Did you straighten up the offices; the writers are kind of a mess. Yeah, I know, and I did. The, uh, coffee maker? Yes. The coffee maker is clean. There's a fresh filter ready to go for the morning.

Oh, well. I guess you're good to go. Okay, thanks--

How'd you know to clean the coffee maker? I'm sorry, what? It's your first day, so, how did you know the routine?

I… I dunno. I, uh, what.

This is where the blankness happens. The Universe before that doesn't have a before and none of that.

It's my brain stopped completely and spinning off its axis at once. Chock empty. Full out. Stuffed to starvation.

I could answer honestly. "Oh, thank you. I've done this before. (You saw my résumé.) At my last job (it was on my résumé). Cleaning the coffee maker at the end of the night is just something I've been doing. Figured this job wouldn't be any different (than my last job… that one on my résumé, yeah, right there). With respect to the routine, anyway."

Probably too sarcastic. Probably.

I could answer sincerely. "Just figured it's something that needs to get done and I'm the guy who's here to do it." 

Maybe, yeah. That one's okay--

How about… actually honestly. "Because I'm not a lazy, inconsiderate idiot. I'm an adult. Why are you surprised? Who have you been working with prior to hiring me? Who are these fucktards swimming in the job-pool with me?--" 

"Fucktard" is more than likely the downfall of that one. Or, you know, everything plus.

Then again I could laugh it off. Or just be gracious. Or just be thankful I have a job and say nothing at all.

That last one, that's where my brain finally stops whirring. 'Cause I am. I'm very thankful to be working. To be emptying the trash. And straightening the offices at the end of the night. And cleaning out the coffee maker.

The despondency only flickers when I realize I'm competing against people who aren't thankful to be doing those things. That aren't capable of doing those things. And yet, every new boss is impressed that I am capable. Meaning just before me… someone who wasn't occupied the very same position I'm occupying now. They were hired just the same. 

And then that blankness floods back.

And I just smile and nod and continue to scrape the wet grinds from the bucket and reservoir. Someone forgot to use a filter again. Next time, let me make the coffee, too.

To Sleep Vividly Again

A few nights ago, I had a dream. Unmiraculous for most, but for me, dreams are rare and fleeting. Few and very far between. Things to be cherished. I often wish I dreamed more frequently. I often wish I was someone who had to have a notebook or scrap of paper beside my bed. I suppose I am that someone, but while there is a notebook on my nightstand, it isn't filled with much that happens while my eyes are shut. And should such a catalog of my dreams exist, it would be severely light on material. A mere three dreams have stayed with me in my twenty-four years. The most recent two about love found and love lost. The first and oldest, about an ape by the name of King Kong.

When I was nine or ten or maybe eight for that matter, one of those ages that only matters at the time, but in retrospect blurs together in a flurry of confusion and discomfort without specificity, I awoke to a rumble outside my bedroom window. My room was an addition to the house proper and therefore jutted into the dense thicket of wilderness even farther than the back of the house previously had. Even during the day, the ground was cast in shadow back there. The damp, dead leaves in a perpetual state of decomposition. But it was at night that the dark flaunted its true cowl. The darkness was fluid. It would bubble up like oil from the brown vegetation and coat the world around it. And I hated it. I hated the dark.

In a feeble attempt to keep the dark at bay, my dad had a high-voltage insect lamp installed directly above my bedroom window. When outside, it was difficult to decide which I hated more: that buzzing, blue lamp or the dark itself. When inside, though, the blue glow and white-noise buzz was soothing. Even the crackling carapaces of the insects singing in one, final electric jolt became a necessary element for a good night's sleep.

And it was the lack of that crackle and buzz that first stirred me awake.

It was the rumble outside my bedroom window that caused me to sit upright, wide-eyed and out of breath.

And then, there was an eye. Dark chocolate brown, massive, split horizontally over and over by the blinds shielding my window. But an eye, one eye, nonetheless. Then it blinked. I could feel the puff of air erupt from the crack beneath the half-open window. It was searching, most probably as curious of what it was seeing as I was curious of it, though, most likely, less terrified. With another rumble—what I recognized now as a footstep—the eye was gone.

The house became eerily quiet. My sister wasn't in her room. In fact, her room wasn't even there. My parents, either asleep soundly in their bed or missing. Either way, their door was closed and remained so. By now, I'd ventured into the play-room boxes of board games, Rubbermaid bins of stuffed animals and action figures, an old air-hockey table, a long-unused changing table when another rumble broke the still. Two. Four. Footsteps.

The roof was gone before I had time to react.

The moon was surprisingly bright, the air crisp, the sky clear. There, above me, was a gargantuan ape. The gargantuan ape. King Kong, himself. In his massive hands, he held the roof. And with the flick of his wrists, he cast it behind him like I might a pebble. I darted under the air-hockey table, unsure if my shivering was due to the rush of chilled, autumn air or the sheer terror gripping the muscles just beneath my skin. That ceased to matter when Kong's fingers plucked the air-hockey table upward.

Then it was just him and me.

I didn't resist when he lifted me up between his thumb and index finger. He rolled me into the palm of his hand, held me close to his hairy face. And he smiled. His breath smelled of fresh bananas. His palm coarse like worn burlap. And then--

I woke up.

Between my face-to-face with Kong and my next fully remembered dream, thirteen years passed. Coincidentally, this second of three dreams begins with an eye, too.

But an eye of nebulous, brilliant blue.

I met her at school. I was a sophomore at university, too eager to start living the life I was studying for, too focused on the future. It was in a lecture hall with a capacity of four-hundred. If the ratios are to be believed, one hundred fifty other men saw her eyes at the same time as me. But mine are the only eyes she saw. When I looked away—for to continue to stare would have turned my smile to flint, striking a spark to my skin, igniting myself and those innocent bystanders around me; I could have killed hundreds had I not averted my gaze; I could not have lived myself—but she did not look away. So, when I looked back to her—for to continue to avert my stare would have sublimated my self from solid to gas to stardust, killing me just as quickly—only then did she smile. Just the left corner of her mouth. Just the left corner of her top lip. It looked like a wilted tulip petal that only just remembered how to drink water. It was the most staggering--

We became inseparable. We lived our lives with, through, and for one another. We graduated together. We moved together. We lived together. Our relationship was utopia. Ours was heaven actual. Her hair became grey along with mine as years fell beneath our wrinkled toes. We shared a glass of water that with each sip dripped from that same left corner of her mouth. Her eyes never dulled. She died in my arms. She left me alone. And so I drifted away, holding her frail frame--

And then I woke up

in my college dorm room with tears streaking my cheeks and staining my pillow. I felt hollow and without purpose and alone. I felt abandoned. I turned to check the pillow beside me, expecting her there... I'd lived an entire lifetime with her and she'd left me. I tossed and turned and flicked on the TV. And there she was. A blonde instead of a brunette, but her eyes hadn't dulled.

There was Zooey Deschanel on my television screen.

I'd dreamed of an actress and singer and married woman. Watching her recite lines and perform the director's blocking, I knew her. Not a feeling of recognition or passing fancy, but... I knew her. I know I didn't... but, for that day, nothing else made sense but to know her and expect her reflection next to mine in every mirror.

It wasn't until two years later that I dreamed of Nicole. From a lifetime to a moment.

Nicole walked to me, barefoot, atop the greenest grass I'd ever seen. Her hair was short, even though I know it'd grown long. She said goodbye. Her lips didn't move. Nor her tongue. Nor throat. The word seeped from her, blistering from the blades of grass or the air just around my ears or both, in concert. I couldn't speak as I had no mouth with which to make any sound audible.

I tore the grass and wrecked the air around me, but the word only gained strength as it echoed just for me.

And she kept walking to me. Calm. Determined.

And when she placed a single finger to my missing mouth, lips grew. And when she outlined my lips, they parted. And when they parted, a tongue was shaped behind brand new teeth. My throat tightened as I realized I had a throat at all. Then I yawned and a sound escaped the prison she'd built for me.

I said goodbye and the grass charred black. Mine was not an echo or a whisper or a word. It was a creature terrible. It was torrential.

And she was gone, swept away. But I still smelled burning... I smelled her goodbye lingering on my tongue... I tasted salt and heard the fire on my fingertips--

And then I woke up.

Another warm body beside me. Female. Freckled.

I felt my lips and tongue, satisfied with their placement. I whispered. I heard. Satisfied with its sound.

I drifted back to sleep, I think. Or else I laid there until I couldn't lay there any longer.

And I haven't remembered a dream since.

I hope for nothing else, every night.

But I do sleep well. And without fear of the dark. Without fear of the death of my future and the death of my present. Without fear of loss.

I do sleep well, if but darkly; I forge my own dreams, if but lit by the light of the sun.

I do sleep well.

But I can't help but want to sleep vividly again.

There's a darkness

There's a darkness in me. I can usually keep it at bay with a few choice defense mechanisms: deflection, denial, sublimation. I can usually get by by writing a bit here or there. I can usually keep a bulb lit by talking to my family or my friends or strangers online. Twitter and Facebook and Reddit make that last one easy. Reddit, especially.

But, sometimes, none of the above helps. Sometimes, the light just goes out. The light's out.

I was laid off one week ago on my first day back to work after my two-week holiday.

I'm jealous of my friends. I'm angry with myself. I'm angry. I'm concerned with choices made and choices about to be made. I'm afraid there won't be any choices to be made. I want to do well. But, most of all, I want to do good. I don't think I've done either. I'm where confidence meets arrogance meets insecurity. I'm lonely. I'm not alone. Sometimes I want to be...

I really do want to do good. Be important. Do something important. Be a part of something important. Be a part of a part of something important.

I'm crippled. I want to be unfiltered. But I still feel pressed against a chain link fence. Pressed between a chain link fence. Cut into chunks. I like to imagine each chunk would fight for superiority, for the right to be the heart of where I'd coalesce back into a human. Less "like to," more I just do. They'd probably become warring factions. Brain chunks against Heart chunks against Body chunks. Brain would convince Heart and Body of each of their respective treachery. Heart would lash out. Body would fight, but die. Wither from a fatal wound. It'd die beneath a rock, holed away. Heart would realize Brain's cunning. It would charge into battle, reckless, but sure. Brain would foresee this. He's watched it all their lives. He knows Heart is only strong when active. Brain knows Heart hasn't been in years. It's weak. It's small. But Brain wouldn't know that Heart has started to petrify. It's calloused. And he always forgets that Heart always wins. Brain, with his last breath, would deny it. Heart would cry over Brain. And then put me all back together.

But incomplete.

I don't know if I've ever been.

There's always a piece missing.

There's a darkness there. Sometimes a glow. That keeps me going. There's a darkness.

But I like knowing it's there. (Brain died, remember. And Heart's never been much of one for rational thought.)

Something about crows. Something about a metal hand. Something something something about a lake and sinking stones and how I'll forget.

Something about how I hope there is something to forget.

Better Than Me

I used to write a lot of poetry. I also used to perform some of this poetry. It's been a while. But nothing clears the cobwebs from between my skull and brain like some free verse. This, though, is something new. A hybrid, if you will. Half poem, half hip hop/rap, half social/generational commentary, half journal entry. Better believe that's four halves. Math has never been my strong suit.

Without further ado, here's Better Than Me:

 

You better be better, better better be better than me

My skull is fucking chock, all full, flash No Vacancy

Me with no kids to feed or a bitch to make my wallet bleed

I'm living in a fantasy, created all alone

But please, please don't worship me

Now that's a fucking litote

Push forward toward the future, accept what I give to thee

Got to grasp, hold on, combat the acidic jealousy

That's all I got

 

All I got is the drive to succeed

 

Me at home alone, yelling through this megaphone

Anonymous, anono-many, anono-you and me

Complex, compound, write it down so ambitiously

Fingers do the talking and the walking across the keys

 

Try to get my story told

I realize that I'm getting old

Twenty-four's the new fifty as far as you ask me

 

Though being old

Is the only where that

I want to get

 

Want a life in a house with two kids and a family pet

But my mind isn't ready yet

My bank account needs transplants

In the red, passed dead, it's where most of my stress is at

For you types who'll prickle at a grammatical faux pas

The preposition doesn't matter, these words are fucking raw

 

Like the ulcer in my stomach, headaches behind my eyes

Eating tacos on the corner of my street outside

Orange lamplight at night makes the salmonella green

Can't afford health insurance, gotta build up an immunity

Can't get sick you see, no one to look after me

Only call my mom on nights and weekends when I know it's free

Call me Icarus

Call us Icar-we

Clipped our wings before they're glued complete

Stuck in this fucking labyrinth

Can't escape without dear old Dad's waning money

 

So I'm angry at my lot even though I've lived a privileged life

Cynical for no reason 'cause I didn't really see it right

Too eager to grow up

Passed by my child life

Rewarded with a recession

An older generation saying

You're not doing right

All I want to do is fight

Make it disappear

Curl up and say goodnight

 

Wake up whiny fucker, break out of these parenthesis

Mark my life with periods, destroy these bitch ellipses

Need to have finality

In a rush to actuality

Altruistic on the outside, but jealousy's taking over me

I'm not speaking hypothetically

Fuck the hyperbole

The fear of failure is what's driving me

Revenge is what I seek

Flight, fight, fight, flight, hoping you'll admire me

 

Sell my soul not be a forgotten lump of fuel

An artist's worst nightmare, to be dust and unused

Filling up the hovercrafts of future tycoons

Learn from my mistakes, jot it down, it's all for you

A generation lost, a lost generation

Upset, fed up, all of us confused

 

It's the process that's the battle

It's the product that's the wealth

Don't look back, don't look forward

It's a commonplace disease

Look up, through the smog

It's not difficult to see

Remember to remember you still weren't better than me.