the end

I woke up at five am this morning, and it was sunny and beautiful and bright. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling for a while before getting up and going to take a shower--not because I had to go anywhere. It was a bright, free day, and tomorrow, the world is going to end.

I took a hot shower and sang like I always did. It was seven by the time I got out of the house, wearing my best suit and tie, walking down the streets like a cheerful ghost. I stopped in to order breakfast at the local diner. The omelets are some of the best I've ever had. Then I took a book--a whodunit I'd never be able to finish today--and wandered over to the park to read. By noon the people were out in force, walking around, smiling, cheerful, enjoying the spring breeze and the sun and the warm, almost as if the world doesn't end tomorrow.

I always used to worry about the end. I'd have to call my family, my old friends and lovers, tell them how much they mean to me. But there's so little time left and now all I can think of is how beautiful everything is. As I ate a salad over lunch I watched a couple arguing, quietly so as not to make a scene. She was tense, terse, glaring pointedly. He was avoiding her gaze, sullen, muttering darkly. So close to the end we're still worried about the little things, the unintentional insults, the stupid symbolic gestures. He would go on to tell his friend the story, leaving out the details that make him sound petty or in the wrong, knowing that he's lying to himself--doing it anyway.

I'm in a little coffee shop now. I don't know when the world ends, exactly. It could be midnight, it could be some other time. But it will all be over--and, more importantly, it will all be quiet.



Falling in love means forgetting to watch, forgetting about context.

I'm a simple man. I spend my days at work, and my evenings taking care of my sister. I'm all she's got, and have been for a few years now. She's sixteen and doesn't talk much anymore. I try to be there because there's no one to take care of me.

She never used to be the quiet one. That was me. I'd watch, wait, try to understand before I do anything. It kept me safe. It meant I made the right decisions mostly, though sometimes I felt like maybe it meant I didn't make any decisions at all, and that was never fun. The point is when she started being quiet I started worrying. Maybe I was doing it all wrong.

Then there was this amazing girl--or woman, I guess--and she was so nice and helpful and understanding and I just forgot to watch. I didn't understand how any one person could be so amazing and helpful and perfect. I didn't wonder if maybe she was just one of those people, someone who is like that without any regard for who you are--someone who is just genuinely a good person, in fact.

But I'm just a simple man and sometimes I forget that I got where I am by watching. I think maybe I drove her away.


questions of definition

On Friday afternoon I stopped by a camera store in the Cambridgeside Galleria to ask a few questions. The girl who worked there seemed lost and a little worried. I wondered whether it was my questions that did it, or something else entirely. In any case, I had an objective and I didn't plan on being deterred. Like any good salesman she tried to anticipate the answer I wanted and make suggestions for alternatives when she couldn't tell me yes--but she didn't want to be pushy. I appreciate that. I felt bad for her. Stocks were low, they were dealing with companies which didn't produce the supply to match demand. "Sorry I can't help you," she said, and I thanked her for answering my questions.

On Friday evening I allowed myself to be maneuvered into a quiet conversation with the friend I was seeing at the bar. She stepped outside for a smoke, and I offered to join her. We sat on the curb and watched the occasional cars driving by and smoked and she started asking me questions. She had an objective in mind--trying to pin me down somewhere. I avoided the questions, sometimes deftly, sometimes clumsily. She grew increasingly frustrated, though she tried hard not to show it. Eventually she demanded a straight answer for once, and I shrugged and said, "Sorry I can't help you." When she finished her cigarette she opted to head home rather than return inside. Before she left she thanked me for picking up her tab. I finished my cigarette alone and went back inside to pretend nothing had happened.


sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, Friday. Wake up, tired but unable to continue sleeping.
Sunset, Friday. Engaged in a deep conversation, telling her everything. It lasts until late; fall asleep feeling unresolved.

Sunrise, Saturday. It's another beautiful morning!
Sunset, Saturday. One more than one too many; everything seems so inadvisable.

Sunrise, Sunday. Stagger into bed. Is this really happening?
Sunset, Sunday. "I love you." Avoid responding, wonder how much she notices.

Sunrise, Monday. "Oh God, the sun is coming up. I have to get up in the morning. We should probably go to bed or something."
Sunset, Monday. Coffee and cigarettes.

Sunrise, Tuesday. "Are you always up this late?"
Sunset, Tuesday. "Do you want me to go home?"

Sunrise, Wednesday. Asleep, for once, though not as dreamless as I'd like.
Sunset, Wednesday. Engrossed in a book, ignoring the cell phone as it rings, rings, rings.

Sunrise, Thursday. Give up and answer the phone. She's not upset. We talk, and it's like nothing, or everything, happened.
Sunset, Thursday. Step outside for a smoke. She doesn't join me.

Sunrise, Friday. This is no time for an existential crisis.
Sunset, Friday. Trying to remember how to be honest.


exchanging hostages

We were originally supposed to be going out with our friends--no particular occasion except that a few of us actually had tomorrow free, so we went out drinking at a bar not too far from her house. Then as the night wore on some of the others retired--not wanting to stay up too late, or the evening winding down, or whatever. Soon it was just three of us--all probably more drunk than is advisable. Once our friend had staggered off towards the bus stop, my ladylove wrapped her arms around my waist. "I love you so much," she said, quietly. A boy passing by glanced at us, and I felt uncomfortable knowing someone had heard.

"Do you love me?" she continued. I wondered why I was the subject of this interrogation. Had I done something wrong? Was I distant? Was I ignoring her? I remained silent. I wasn't going to play this game. We walked home in unsteady silence, only leaning on one another because we didn't trust ourselves to stand up on our own, and as she slept I stared at the ceiling. We would never talk about this. Everything I could have asked or said wasn't relevant anymore. Tomorrow we'd pretend nothing was wrong, but sometimes I'd feel uncomfortable when our eyes met and look away.



I used to be the type of person who didn't have heroes. Or I would never admit it, anyway. I had different answers any time someone would ask. Sometimes it was cynical--"heroes are just normal people," "I don't know anyone who should be called a hero," "idolizing heroes is stupid." Sometimes it was something like "I think everyone is heroic," or "I'm my own hero." But I dodged the question, and it was really only for one reason: I was afraid. There's weakness, vulnerability, in liking someone. And I don't want the safe choices. I don't want to just say that my sister is my hero even if she is. Or that I think that this great writer or great musician is my hero, or even a great philosopher, because that's not what it's about. A hero is someone you pattern your life after. A hero is fascinating. A hero stands out, is memorable--and not just for a body of work.

I was afraid of saying "I think that these people are awesome." I was afraid of enthusiasm, of saying "yes" to something. There's no weakness in saying no. But saying yes? Saying you admire someone? Saying "hey, I think you are clever and brilliant, and I love the way you aren't afraid of making mistakes, it's inspired me to try to be bold," or "your enthusiasm is so awesome, and you're so unpretentious, I am glad I know you and I really wish I could be more like you--" that's scary.

So, ask me about my heroes! I want to talk about them. And tell me yours.


parting advice

I call my father every week, just to keep in touch. It's a conversation nobody would be very interested in, except for the part at the end. I feel like he feels each conversation will be our last, like he knows he's not going to get this chance again. I say, "Good talking to you," like I always do, and there's a pause.

"You, too," he says. He starts to say something a few times. I wait, patiently. He gives me some advice--be polite. Be a good guest. Be a good host. Make the world a better place than when you found it.

I say, "Yeah." I say, "I do what I can." I say, "I love you." I never say, "It's all I ever try to do, Dad. Thanks so much for giving me the only advice that means anything."

There's so much he's taught me, so much he could leave me as parting advice. He could try to imprint his philosophy on me, his beliefs, his politics. But in the end all that's important is that I don't make a mess, don't make anybody mad. Be a welcome guest and a gracious host. Try to leave the world better than when you found it.

He never says, "The world's a mess. Try to clean that up." We both know neither of us would settle for anything less.

[File this one in the department of 'Oh, I meant to hit the submit button on this last night.' -Ed.]


oh, we've met

It must have happened to me a dozen times last night. I'd come up to someone I recognized and they'd see me and smile and extend their hand and introduce themselves and I'd just smile and shake their hand and say "Oh, we've met." I explain it, briefly, and there's that moment where they try to place it, clearly don't, and say, "Oh, right!"

I worry, though. It has to be normal. I'm not memorable or anything. But maybe it's weird or creepy that I remember people, where we met--am I making meeting people mean too much? Am I being creepy? Exactly how awkward is it? Am I crazy for just wondering? And then sometimes there's the times when we both know we've met but can't remember where, and it's all squinting and sidelong glances and "Hey, do I know you?" and then you puzzle it out, one step at a time, and then once you've figured it out there's that pause and it's like "Okay, now what?"

After probably the tenth person who I knew but didn't know me I decided to make a game of it. I introduced myself, smiled, engaged her in conversation. We'd met one crazy night at an ice cream parlor--settling down after the party, we actually had a fairly long talk. I made subtle references to the place and the event, like it was an accident. By the end of the evening she was talking about the crazy coincidence, how it was like I was reading her mind, and she almost felt like she already knew me, despite having (she thought) just met me.

She had to flee to catch the train but she would definitely remember me this time.



My friends had gotten used to a version of me that was quiet and unassuming--a quiet listener, easy to talk over, easy to ignore. I had a quiet, calm sort of confidence about me--thoughtful and not likely to act impulsively.

Every day I walk past all these cars and houses and businesses in the morning and evening and late at night and think about the possibilities. That car left on in the driveway could take me places. Or that building with the broken locks. I plan elaborate heists, but I never act on them. I could never act on something alone, with no one watching. To paraphrase a character in a play, I'm an actor, the opposite of a person--I require an audience. So I walk on, because I have lost my passion for adventure.

Fuck that noise.

Last night I broke into a house just because I could--I saw the owners leave for the weekend and I found an open window and explored this wonderful old house, this strangely foreign place. I started a fistfight with a friend at the bar over one of those issues he was always offensive about but I'd never bothered saying anything, then got caught trespassing by the cops and ran for a mile, and escaped on the train.

Then, getting off at the end of the line, I called my girlfriend and told her I was bruised and bleeding and breathless and alone and that I was lucky to have someone as amazing as her to share this pathetic, miserable, short existence with. I told her that despite all of the violence and depression and job losses and fear and anger and stupidity in the world--or no, because of that--I was happy just to be alive. I told her I was done with being dispassionate and unassuming and quiet and guarded and thoughtful. Life is too short, too brutal, too pointless, to be careful with it.


the whole story, pt. 8

At thirty-five Nicole was in New York on a conference. The first speaker she caught was a congressman from Seattle, discussing education and social justice. She met him after, and they escaped to a quiet bar for drinks, then to an IHOP for coffee. It was eleven o'clock.

At thirty-seven, Eric said, "In college I used to stay up until, oh, five, six am at places like this."

"Yeah, I used to work in the IHOP in the U District. Usually on graveyards. Part of me really misses those days."

"No kidding? I probably ran into you a few times."

She smiled. "Were you a student at the U?"

"Yeah. I left a poem on a napkin there once, actually," he continued. "Right before going to New York for a few months. It seems silly now, of course. There must have been hundreds--"

He trailed off while she fished through her wallet and delicately set a yellowing napkin on the table and pushed it towards him. "Was it this one?"

"I can't believe you kept that."

They stayed up late just like they used to years ago. This time they told the whole story.

[That's all she wrote. I'd love to hear your thoughts. -- Ed.]


the whole story, pt. 7

At thirty-three Nicole had her doctorate. She was living in a nice house in Cambridge, taught social work at Harvard, and often felt she valued her time alone more than anything. Her boyfriend had proposed; she turned him down and fled across the country. She never looked back. Sometimes she wondered if she was supposed to have happier times to look back on, but it never seemed to happen that way.

At thirty-five Eric had two kids through a loveless marriage, and a nonprofit organization for political advocacy and social justice. He wanted to give the kids an environment more stable than he'd had himself; when he was served with divorce papers he resigned himself to the fact that this was not an option.


the whole story, pt. 6

By twenty-eight Nicole had an MSW and was a case worker in abuse prevention, dating a boy she'd met in college who had just received his doctorate and was looking for work as a college professor or something. He was so effortless and unconcerned--she worked hard and worried about everything. She had mellowed since she received her bachelor's degree. She tried to repair her relations with her family. She had taken up drawing again--alone in her room, wondering if she could ever show the stories to anyone. The old napkin that was buried somewhere in her wallet was forgotten.

At thirty Eric was on the state legislature. He no longer left poems on napkins for waitresses, but he tried to be friendly, at least. Now he wondered if he'd missed his chance for adventure somewhere--sometimes wistfully, sometimes wondering if he really missed it at all. He was doing something he liked, and was it important if his last relationship failed and he hadn't been interested in another one for . . . it must have been a few years, now. His sister was living in Montreal, making a living editing at a local magazine. He visited frequently, and on the plane always wished the most that there didn't have to be be a flight back.


the whole story, pt. 5

By her twenty-first birthday Nicole had transferred to the UW's psych program, and despite juggling work and school managed to find time for partying, but not a lot for her art, despite the supplies that decorated her room. Her tendency for volatile relationships had not so much faded as it had fallen into the background--she kept a number of acquaintances at a distance. She was the only one who noticed that she had changed, and spent much of her time trying to hide from the fact.

Eric worried about his place in the world at twenty-three--despite being in the UW law school there was always the fear that he was missing something, that he didn't understand people as well as he thought he did, that he was really just an impostor, convincing the world of something he didn't really believe himself.


the whole story, pt. 4

At nineteen Nicole was living in an apartment in the U District with some high school friends she barely knew. She was working her way through community college--working as a waitress at the U District IHOP--much as she had worked her way through the last few years of high school, but had only a vague sense of her future--she had learned to cope with some of her problems better but was still mostly working away from the past more than anything. She did not speak to her parents once she had moved out, and they seldom attempted to contact her. One night someone left her a poem on the napkin. She wondered what the story must have been behind the boy who'd written those words. Was he happy? Something about it intrigued her. She kept it in her wallet, hoping she'd run into its author again. She moved on to a different job at a different restaurant, and resigned herself to its continued mystery.

Eric, at twenty-one, was enrolled in the UW working towards a degree in social studies. He had never worked a day in his life and couldn't decide if he was profoundly lucky or something else entirely--but he was happy and enjoying himself. Life was still a quest for self-discovery. He left a poem on the napkin for his waitress at the IHOP the night before he took a flight to New York to visit his sister for a few months. He envisioned himself a wanderer, an adventurer. He planned to wander the world.


the whole story, pt. 3

When Nicole was fifteen she was withdrawn and frightened, prone to volatile relationships and anxiety attacks, struggling in class and often too unmotivated to leave. Her parents often asked her why she was so useless, tried to force her to be more driven to succeed--and chastising her when she failed. She spent as much time as possible away, and the rift was profound.

At seventeen Eric was utterly stoic. His father had moved to Seattle to work at a startup in Redmond--Eric had decided to stop letting the world in at all. He was developing a sense of self, but it was a laborious process. He felt that he understood everything perfectly, except for himself. His sister, two years his elder, had moved to New York for college, and this left him a profound sense of isolation.


the whole story, pt. 2

When Nicole was ten and Eric was twelve, she was just beginning to concern her teachers with some of her morbid tendencies. Her mother had quit her job at the library and grown too tired to be concerned; her father seldom spoke to her directly anymore, and when he did it was shouting, angry. If Nicole was quiet as a child she was utterly withdrawn now, spending hours in her room making drawings she never intended to let anyone else ever see.

At twelve Eric was angry and unhappy, brilliant intellectually and creatively but with no drive to accomplish anything. His mother was killed in a car accident, leaving his father to spend more time at home, but there was distance there--as there was between him and his sister. He didn't understand why he was having problems, or even that he was having them. His teachers tried to correct him but he was resistant. He spent hours in his room writing confused, angry, and otherwise distraught journal entries that he never intended to let anyone else ever see.


the whole story, pt. 1

Nicole was born a beautiful baby girl in a hospital in Seattle to a working-class family, the third child in a family of four. She was quiet and slept a lot, a welcome change from her older brothers, and was very intelligent and curious in a few years, well-loved by a busy, growing Lake City family that was struggling to get by. Her father worked at Genie; her mother worked at Seattle Central Community College's library, but was thinking of quitting to take care of her children full time.

Exactly two years before, Eric was born in Portland, Oregon, who was loud and mercurial--just as prone to throwing a fit as to being utterly pleased with what was going on. He was problematic and tiring on his parents. He was the younger of two children, and his father worked business and was seldom home, while his mother provided legal consultation for the poor. His mother was frequently tired.


state line

It's amazing the little details you can remember. Crossing the state line in my beat up stationwagon, realizing I'd made a wrong turn, driving there just once, and I remember it perfectly. Little things, little details--"let's get gas here," and then it's walking and looking at this place I'd only been to for ten minutes before, like it's my childhood home. Memories flooding back.

When I was a kid I always imagined the state line was something real, like you could actually see it--and I remember her hand pointing at this row of lights, the only night we were there. "That's the state line." And it was. That was that little stretch of road in Idaho I'd driven down before I realized I'd made a wrong turn. It wasn't far from the weird triangular intersection on the highway, which wasn't far from the little remote cul-de-sac where she lived.

That was years ago, before I took my pilgrimage back, driving a new car, wearing new clothes, older, wiser. Before I went back I found a place where I could see that little row of lights, where she'd first shown me something I thought I'd only imagined.



Ever since watching a video of the rioting in London I've been uneasy. Everything I knew, or thought I did, about people just seems to be wrong--and not just society, not just the recession. Little things. Quiet comments by my friends that make me wonder if there's something unraveling there, and then when we're out for drinks laughing and acting like there isn't anything going wrong.

Then it's "so how are you?" and I say "oh, pretty good." I say "never better." I say "how are you?" Deflect, deny, and then I watch them talk and wonder if they always seemed this nervous, this ill at ease. Maybe that's just me. Maybe I'm projecting. Maybe there's nothing wrong.

Then I'm home and it's quiet and the sun is coming up and I collapse on my bed and listen to the birds and wonder if they always sounded so repetitive and so fake. I read the letter from my brother again and can't help but feel like it sounds sinister, like the last letter he'd ever write. I'm picturing his voice, the same not-quite-ironic tone he always uses, and it sounds wrong.

The next day I'm downtown and it's raining while a peaceful protest turns ugly and I'm caught in the crossfire and throwing a brick through the window of a building I never even knew existed, and later on, when I've run away to a friend's house to lick my wounds, I stare at the empty fireplace, and wonder when the world started burning.


what's your name?

She sits down next to me at the bar, looking rough--like she's just been running her hands through her hair and doing everything short of screaming or crying. She's looking at me sidelong, so I say "Hey," noncommittal.

"Hi there," she says, and asks me my name.

I tell her "Uh, Mason," because I'm never sure how to answer that question, and she says her name--I've forgotten it by now--and says I have an interesting name. She wants to know if there's a story behind it. I tell her. It's rote by now. It's just my last name, I say. I explain when I started getting called that. The nuances behind it. Who still calls me by my first name. How it's made a resurgence in time. How I'm never quite sure what to tell people my name is. I don't say how I sometimes wonder if I even know what it is.

Then I think, Jesus, it takes me a lengthy several minutes of extrapolation and backstory to tell someone my name. I tell a light joke and smile, and she stops zoning out long enough to say "That's interesting," even though it isn't.