22 years old.
Oh, to be a writer enthralled by pirouetting autumn leaves and dashing winter snow, perched on a balcony and draped in a blanket, heart wandering outside but a pen in hand, furiously recounting the magic that is everyday life, unencumbered by the dread that is everyday life.
Oh, to know more ever-changing certainties exist other than death and taxes, and to be privileged enough to spare more than a moment of thought to them, free from the heartburn of bread and butter, instead spacing out about poetry and what lies beyond the horizon. Bound not by my next paycheque but by my humane inability to comprehend the ants on the street and the numbness in my brain. Worried not about my bills but about finding purpose within a purposeless existence of certain doom, an existence less significant than a speck of dust on a grain of sand.
Oh, to feel and feel again an authentic emotion devoid of machine-like learning, and regurgitate its rawest form onto a sheet of tree corpse, there vulnerably displayed, tattooed for all judging gazes and spiteful comments.
8 years old.
A distant memory.
The babysitter kept me in the basement of her house, letting the cartoons on TV illuminate my face for hours. At long last, I perked at the sound of tires crushing snow on the driveway. Mom arrived late to pick me up again.
I climbed into the passenger seat. The dim orange streetlights cast their hue into the car and onto our faces, left to right, left to right. I huffed a breath onto the window and drew a happy face on it with my mittened hand. The face eventually faded with the breathy fog. Mom said gas prices were too high to turn on the heat.
My hands wiggled out of the mittens, palms spread wide. I stared at each finger curling and moving at my will. Why was I the one to be stuck in this skull, looking at the world through these two holes and controlling these limbs through unconscious thoughts? Every person was a chosen soul stuffed into a skull, watching the world through their lens, swaying their body to the rhythm of life.
Mom broke the silence. “How was school today?”
The streetlights darkened the shadows on her face and highlighted the wrinkly dryness of her hands on the steering wheel.
“Fine,” I said. “We learned the rest of the multiplication table.”
“Shit,” she cursed, frowning at something ahead. The city’s snow-shovelling trucks cleared major neighbourhood roads only, pushing the icy chunks and slush into a pile on the sides of the street and amassing a wall of hardened snow at the sole entrance of the cul-de-sac where we lived.
I tried my best to scrape the rigid snow wall that was taller than me, but there was only so much my tiny hands and tiny arms could do. Sweat gathered beneath my winter coat and fused my undershirt onto my skin. The moon hung high in the dark sky. A stiff gust of wind blew into my unzipped collar, freezing the sheet of sweat as if my skin chewed on mint.
Shivering, I raised my head and looked past my breath. Mom fished a shovel from the car trunk and was digging a path for the car to fit through. The glistening on her forehead mixed into the strands of the bangs she’d just cut a few days ago to appear more youthful. She raised a finger to brush them aside, the hairs dragging a wet trail behind them like a snail.
I wondered then. Was raising me worth it? Was moving from her comfortable countryside home into the ruthless city worth the better education for me? Was I worth quitting her easy life as a schoolteacher in her hometown to work a minimum-wage job in the city? Was the hope of providing a better life for me worth living long distance from her husband and family?
“Voilà!” Mom exclaimed. She beamed at me, gesturing to her trophy: a sizeable gap in the snow wall. She shooed me back into the car, a spring in her step to celebrate yet another victory against the universe. “Let’s go home, sweetie.”
13 years old.
I couldn’t feel anything.
Everybody’s existence felt tethered to an invisible string that led above. No one could follow the string to the puppeteer, and no one seemed to care.
A classmate and I sat at the back bench of the gym. Her name was Leah, I think. She held an ice pack against her ankle, having sprained it during volleyball, and I volunteered to keep an eye on her. The rest of the girls and boys ran around the gym, ponytails flailing and shoes squeaking on the freshly polished floor, for some reason eager to ace phys ed class.
Cut out from construction paper, strings of pumpkins and ghosts hung on the gym walls — decorations from last night’s Halloween school dance. Middle school-friendly, of course. The pumpkin faces grinned with crooked teeth. The ghosts stuck out their pink tongues and cried a friendly boo!
“I hate Halloween,” Leah abruptly said, seemingly at me, yet seemingly at Casper the Friendly Ghost.
I felt obligated to voice something. “Don’t like scary stuff?”
Leah turned her body toward me. I realized I’d opened Pandora’s box.
“It’s not that. Horror movies don’t scare you when you’ve experienced worse in real life. My mom battled cancer for almost two years before she died when I was ten. On Halloween. That’s why I hate Halloween,” she confided.
My eyes scanned her face, unsure of what she wanted from me. I was pretty sure she didn’t even know my name, so why would she tell me this? Did she want attention, sympathy, consoling, a pep talk, a wordless embrace? I hadn’t a clue how to control my expression, and my prolonged silence only thickened the tension in the air. Before I knew it, a single whispery ha escaped my lips.
Leah stared me in the eye. “You’re laughing? My mom’s death is funny to you?”
My shoulders fell in a subtle sigh. I’d made the wrong face. “Sorry, Leah,” I said.
Her voice raised even more. “My name is Naomi!”
15 years old.
“Fake it till you become it,” said Mom.
I’d asked her for advice. I seemed to react incorrectly to my environment. I couldn’t bring myself to feel interested in anything or anyone, but I registered the offence on people’s faces when they couldn’t elicit in me an expression or word that affirmed themselves. Nor was I strong enough to wholly disregard others’ opinions of me.
A personality like mine wasn’t welcomed in this gregarious world. I contradicted the world’s rhythm yet yearned to belong somewhere.
Mom untied the apron knotted behind her waist and hung it on a half-rusted hook by the kitchen entrance. “Feign interest. Tell yourself this is cool information, this person is interesting, and I want to learn more. Do it until you trick yourself into believing you’re interested and empathetic, until it becomes second nature.” She shrugged, bringing dinner to the table. “It worked for me.”
And that I did.
“The cinema down the street just shut down. It was my favourite spot, ugh.”
This is cool information.
“I like collecting inspirational quotes to scrapbook in my free time. There’s something to be remembered in each receipt, ticket, and newspaper clipping. It’s like memory-collecting.”
This person is interesting.
“How was your spring break? I went to the Maldives with my family. We had a great time.”
I want to learn more.
I observed the way others reacted to certain emotionally-charged situations. In turn, I output a practiced general reaction whenever I identified a similar circumstance. For instance, when someone’s pet died, the appropriate response is the combination of an awuh, a sad eyebrow tug, a slight drop in the shoulders, and I’m sorry to hear that instead of yeah, living things die. The latter remark was unhelpful because, of course, people knew that living things died.
The path to becoming more genuine, empathetic and friendly was first being a bit dishonest, seasoned and rehearsed.
20 years old.
I sat cross-legged under a large oak tree in a courtyard on campus, scribbling my stats homework in the last few pages of a thick notebook. This part of campus smelled like freshly-cut grass and aging wood. The autumn breeze flipped a page for me, and I tucked the collar of my navy blue quarter-zip sweater closer to my neck. Even then, my eyes smiled at the chilliness and the vibrant leaves that came with it.
A figure sped across the trimmed grass and called my name. I widened my eyes by a fraction, the corners of my lips rising into a bloomed smile and back straightening to wave at Josie, my girlfriend, at a slightly higher altitude — pleasantly surprised and excited to see her.
She neared, her left hand carefully balancing a small plastic bag and right hand clamping on a brown paper bag — food and drinks. That warranted a higher level of appreciation. At once, I put my belongings down and jogged to her, sweeping the items from her hands and — judging by the look in her eyes — her off her feet.
Josie began to tell me about her day while we ate our burritos. I relaxed the muscles around my eyes, head nodding, thumb caressing her hand at a regular interval, gaze slipping to her lips every so often — tenderly listening, deeply loving.
“…and I’m so screwed for the final for this class, so I’ll be at the library for the next week.” She tapped her free hand on her forehead — a little tick of hers that reveals her stress.
I took that hand and lightly squeezed it. “I see how hard you worked this year. I’m sure you’ll do well. Don’t stress.”
“Thanks. And how was your day?” she asked, followed by the faintest sniffle.
I immediately stood. “Let’s head inside. My day was good and productive. This guy in my morning course randomly started browsing through his gym selfies mid-class.”
She laughed for the first time that afternoon and laced her fingers through mine.
Most of the time now, the fake it till you become it layer that I’d built from observation and practice responded to situations before my “core” did. The logically deduced reactions became the foundation of emotional behaviour, so well-developed that even I sometimes believed I felt the emotion I displayed, the emotion I should be feeling. But that belief always disintegrated when I delved beyond the become it layer and inspected my heart, knowing its leisurely beats meant that whatever I thought I felt, once again, melted into bubbly foam. I had simply conditioned myself that that was the “right” thing to feel. And I acted according to that condition. And that action had become second — perhaps even first — nature.
I didn’t belong anywhere and couldn’t find in anything a meaning great enough to assign myself an arbitrary purpose in this objectively purposeless universe.
This perpetual awareness of emptiness gave rise to a nameless dread. Not one born from any remarkable incident or even subtle childhood trauma, but one materialized seemingly from outer space, worsening with ample time for overthought but insufficient persuasive answers. It was an unambitious yet ceaseless anxiousness that had set up permanent residence in the back of my mind, occasionally flaring into a soundless meltdown on the deepest of nights.
25 years old.
Perhaps this is the reality of too many humans’ lives — to be living, yet not alive. Maybe many futilely spend their entire years of existence searching for what they want, what they want to do, and what they can do. Even less fortunate is the slap in the face of reality’s limitations to the lucky ones who realize their true passion, yet are thwarted from ever achieving it. Just like that, the days bleed into nights, the nights escalate to years, the years fade into a lifetime. It all teleports away from our grasp.
Such is the melancholy of mediocrity. Like a worker ant, from birth to death, not a soul will remember its presence had once graced this world. The ant has laughed, cried, loved, grieved, worked and lived. The mark that it left on the universe, in time, withers from memories and history until it vanishes into smoke and millions upon millions of other identical ants swarm in the ant’s place, replacing it as easily as gliding butter on a piece of toast.
Hearing the front door open, I pull my glasses off my face, then stretch my arms and rise from my desk. I sign off work. My career commenced on a rocky note, but over the years, the bud of the AI industry has blossomed. My machine learning specialist is proving to be invaluable, and now things are looking up.
Josie, my now fiancée, carries four full bags of groceries into our house. I speed to the kitchen and begin with dinner preparations. I’m only good for dicing an onion or peeling a carrot, but I do my best to help.
I peck her rosy cheek and lightly caress her arm — a learned gesture of affection — then start transferring groceries from the bags to the fridge and freezer. Leafy vegetables in the left drawer and roots in the right, organized to Josie’s liking. Perfectly on cue, I hum the upbeat melody I heard on the radio this morning.
Josie’s body knocks into my back, her arms circling my torso.
I tense, loosen my muscles, then chuckle thrice and pitch my tone a tad gentler. “What’s up, baby?”
My back muffles her voice, but her words are clear. “You don’t have to constantly pretend you’re okay.”
She squeezes me in a tight embrace, cryptically mumbling, “The sky retains no trace of the bird, yet in its short lifetime, the bird has long flown across. Who cares if the sky doesn’t remember it?”
The opened fridge whirrs. My heartbeat leaves its perpetually undisturbed pace and matches Josie’s.
The doorbell rings. Josie peels away from me to answer it. Mom and Dad walk in, smiling from ear to ear. “We brought fruits!” Dad announces.
“You kids need to eat healthier,” Mom adds.
Following on my parents’ heels, Josie’s dad arrives too, bringing his famous smoked salmon.
Watching the four of them from an arm’s physical distance but a galaxy’s emotional distance, I cannot recall the emotion I’m supposed to feel right now. Just the night before, I prepared every heartwarming sentimental display, but my arsenal is now so empty I can hear my pounding heartbeat echoing in it.
Mom calls out playfully, “Onion cutter!”
I rush to take the knife, nearly tripping on my own foot. Chatter and bouts of laughter fill the house, swelling its hollow chambers with bliss. I glance over my shoulder and catch Josie’s warm gaze.
She knew. She always knew. She watched over me.
Behind her, my parents wash the fruits and childishly debate plate presentation, their years apart not eroding their bond. Soon, Dad concedes and helps Mom cut the strawberries into little flower shapes. Their arms brush against one another’s with every other motion, feeling each other’s existence.
Josie’s dad, a professional chef, compliments my onion-dicing skills as if there can be anything incredible about it. I laugh out loud, noticing an unintended, unpracticed pitch.
In that split second, the universe shrinks. There is no oceans’ and galaxies’ worth of unexplored mystery. My universe is right here in this house, in this anthill. Every clink of kitchen utensils and every chime of laughter feel so close to me, knocking on the windows to my soul, waking me from my nightmare of a mind.
Josie enjoys cooking alone, so I needn’t appease her by helping in the kitchen, but I want to follow her to spend peaceful time together, almost selfishly. Because I want it. Because I want to feel her existence beside me. Because I need and care about her.
The worker ant scurries within a radius of its colony, its center, its entire world. Who am I to stand six feet above it, turn my nose up, and snort in disdain at its life’s work — a miraculous formicary, a wonder of life? Why would the ant pay any mind to the contempt of an irrelevant, dull-witted creature who hasn’t the faintest capabilities to construct an underground empire?
My eyes search for Josie; she’s already looking at me again. A grin blossoms on my face — a side-cocked, too-many-teeth, feature-twisting grin.
I am flying across the sky. I belong here. The dull-witted airspace hasn’t the faintest capabilities to dice an onion.
Who the fuck cares what the sky thinks?