It's a poor omen when the first time you visit a place you walk around its back alleys sobbing uncontrollably. This was what I did when I first came to The Village. It was a merciful foreshadowing on the part of the body, as if it at this early date, it already knew what suffering and misery would await me as a result of my time there. I took an expensive bus into town from a nearby metropolis -- I was one of the only passengers and sat at the back, staring out the window at the rippling gray fields, listening to my Walkman. The Village came into view after miles -- a couple of rolling hills, a WASPy college plopped down there, the fall leaves burning through with ochres, oranges, and flaming reds. Coming from a place that had autumn on lockdown, I was pleasantly surprised by the intensity of fall in The Village. It caught me off guard -- like I was being given a chance to relive some of the magic of being young, when I spent my time kicking through piles of leaves -- when my friends and I had secrets, and everything we did seemed illegal and exciting.
I moved into a sublet in what reminded me of a suburban house in some bygone '70s TV sitcom -- the kind of house that wasn't shaded by trees and the sidewalk out front was cracking, and the vinyl siding was falling off. I replaced a morbid, pale young fellow who had his room rigged up with computers. There was a wobbly loft bed that sat up too close to the ceiling. The room had a strange, empty feeling to it -- like it had no emotion, like it was nothing more than a hollow shell of a living space. My other housemates weren't exactly friendly -- a couple, in their thirties, and their feline HIV-positive cat, who seemed accustomed to a procession of subletters. It was clear I was just a rent-check. The purse-lipped girlfriend would go off to work all day at her non-profit while her boyfriend would wake up around eleven and start playing online poker. When people asked him what he did he said, "I work from home." Since we were both scrubs hanging about the house, I tried to commune with him. I would smile when we met in the hallway, trying to lure him into a game of chess, but he would just trudge by in his socks and pajamas into his room.
I didn't like them and they didn't like me. "They" were the people
living back East. Sometimes I got so worked up and anxious thinking
about them that I would have to have a drink to calm down. Through
the magic of The Internet, I always knew where they were and it made
it feel like they were right there with me even though they were so
far away. All of us were continuing our trajectories in small
incremental steps, like blips on a radar screen. None of us were
cloaked. Well, I was more cloaked than they were, but hell -- we were
all on there together, on The Internet. Shadows of our recent lives,
our pasts projected up there on the walls for everyone to see. This
made it harder to never think of them again. Morbid curiosity got the
better of me. They seemed to be doing more of the same. So was I. I
was spying on them, watching their lives in slow-motion lag. But like
watching a webcam refreshing, it didn't provide a true image. The
more I looked at their Internet shadow lives, the more of my real life
felt whittled away.
I moved out of the sublet and into a comfortable, but lonely one-bedroom apartment on the edge of The Village. I keep thinking about that thing that people said about living in a place: "The first year was really tough. It took me a long time just to get comfortable. But after that, everything just fell into place." I had always felt able to adapt quickly into the different circumstances, to new and harrowing living situations. Showing up time and time again allows for some alchemical additive compounding, where the layers build on another. The mysterious outsider slowly becomes a local. People slowly begin to see you as belonging there. I was hoping that The Village could become my home in a matter of weeks -- I wanted to walk around with confidence and have people recognize me. I felt at home in The Village but The Village needed time to feel at home with me -- to them, I was just the new guy, stripeless shadow. It took living there through the entire winter. It took enduring four seasons straight, without leaving or taking breaks. As beautiful as itinerancy is, I learned that the world operates on a seniority system -- trust is key. And you have to earn trust the hard way, by sticking around, by giving in completely.
Emotions can ferment and rot in your insides. They can spoil at the bottom of your stomach. They can block your bowel movements or give you diarrhea; they can sit at rest somewhere in your intestines and keep you from getting drunk. They can keep the coffee from energizing you or force you asleep before you're tired, like a narcoleptic. They can make the food taste like metal and make your stomach rumble. You can swallow the poison or spit it out. You can scream in punk bands or play sports. You can coax them out with yoga, or by hanging upside down in your closet and noticing how much clearer you feel after. You can forget about them and hope reading the news, or having a boyfriend or girlfriend, or staying very busy with repetitive tasks helps. Or you can sit down and try to untangle them -- choking and pulling them out from your throat like entrails and laying them on the table to pick at; a jumbled, nonsensical mass of life lived, gradients of positive and negative experience -- unanalyzed and ultimately unanalyzable. Layers wrapped up like mummy's bandages unfurling to reveal the pitiable interiority of men, mostly cowardly, at root infantile. All affectations, now afflictions. A history of being put to the test and consistently failing. Changeable with effort, yes, but compulsions that have become ineffable, psychoses total. Our most despicable moments laid out for everyone to see.
You're desperate. Self-loathing. Crying and screaming into your pillow. Eating nothing but candy and beef jerky. You lack self-esteem. You're uninterested in getting out of bed or contributing to the advancement of society. But dignity must be preserved at all costs. Everyone must continue to think of you as a whole and rational person. You will show yourself to the world as John Cusack in Better Off Dead. Under pressure, they say that's when you display your true grit. What you do at that crucial moment is referred to as your character. There's no room for mistakes in the formation of your character. No room for cowering and crying. You can't snap under pressure. But will it make you happy? Watch a feel-good indie flick like everyone else? To be hopeful? To have a normal relationship that just keeps getting better and better with time? To get drunk at the local bar? To continue the struggle? To strive for their approval, to live in their world, when you could be living in your own?
I have no record, no journals, no photographs from my time in The Village. It's as if in playing the game of LIFE I somehow landed on a space that wasn't on the board. The Village still lives on inside of me -- like a bit of undetected colon cancer or the necrotic bite of a brown recluse, an ulcer growing on top of it. The ultimate misstep. I eventually followed the trail of breadcrumbs back East but when I got there no one recognized me. I wasn't the same person. The structure of my face had changed. Too much time had passed. It was already too late.
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