REPORT A PROBLEM
Chris Van Dyke
I woke up feeling like a metaphor, as if some outside observer was looking thoughtfully at me and then gesturing limply toward his companion – "See! That. That man there. That is exactly how it is, you know; that is exactly the trouble with things these days." It was a vague yet intense sort of feeling, like when you walk out of your house and are bombarded with sourceless nostalgia for a spring day that was identical yet forgotten. When you feel like a metaphor, every movement becomes exaggerated, imbued with a significance that nearly stuns one into motionlessness, or silence.
You know those moments you experience when you are walking down the street listening to a song that so perfectly accents your mood and the moment that you feel as if you have been captured in a soundtrack? You shrug your jean jacket over your t-shirt, let the door slam shut behind you. Your feet hit the sidewalk and you turn into the overcast chill of spring just as The Tindersticks kick in and its all so perfect that you can watch yourself walking along Broadway, the camera pulling away to capture the entire dying city as the credits roll.
It was during their tenth day at sea that Sean began to wonder if they would ever actually sight Iceland. The wind was running fast from the south, so the captain had ordered the oars taken in, giving Sean a chance to stretch his aching arms and chew some of the dried fish that the North-Men called food. They were a quiet lot, these strange barbarians he had fallen in with; the blond warriors were not much for gossip or idle chatter, and Sean found himself with hours, if not entire days, in which to think and watch the sea.
Spring night, thunder tearing through the cool dark-dampness with the sodden rending of the air; the clouds are ripped through to a sudden bleeding quick, raw tear of light and a brief scream of pain. Then the reverberations, the low growling air rolling down the streets and avenues and scratching at windows and then rolling back again, again. Silence follows in the heat-beats of the rumbling wake, but slowly the wash / hush / shhh / wash of the soft rain returns, seeping into the aching spaces left by the thunder, puddleing to reflect neon night, washing clean the wound.
Simone ran her fingers through her hair and peered down the block. The bus was still nowhere in sight, and the Harlem sun was beginning to make her feel light-headed. The light pounded down from above, glaring violently off the glass façades that rose above 125th, car windshields, reflecting back up from the glistening blacktop. Simone felt adrift in a maelstrom of light, her entire world a pulsing sea of burning white shards; nothing held any shape, any form – it was all light, burning into her eyes, her skin, even closed her world was light, tinged red from her blood.
There's a certain grit to your eyes when you've smoked far too many cigarettes – a Friday afternoon spent in a beer garden, the drinks and the smoke and the hours vanishing into laughter and empty conversation, until suddenly the evening has crept across the sky and the air has lost the glowing warmth of when you sat down some uncounted hours ago. There's an empty pack of cigarettes meant to last you a week, and when you slouch into a chair at home, that pleasant ache pressing against your forehead, you can feel the smoke shifting about behind your eyes.
I wrote a stranger today, on an impulse, just to send words a thousand miles to someone I don't know. She might read this someday – these won't be online for another twenty-three days but will float about in the ether until then, being about her all that time nonetheless. Though not really about her; writing about someone seems to imply you are writing about an individual, but I am writing about nothing more than the abstract concepts of "female," "in London," and "writes 100words too." She didn't post this month, so I thought I'd ask. She has unknowingly inspired meta-words.
He comes in slightly a-bluster, an open-toothed grin in the midst of a flyaway grey beard, paper tucked under one tattered arm of his suit-jacket, pockets bulging with tattered books and scraps of note-book pages scattered with half-formed thoughts. His jeans are faded like the chipping paint on the walls, like his hastily combed hair, and he drapes himself slowly onto a stool near the window at the bar. He looks somewhat startled, somehow caught between getting lost and coming home, and he folds open a copy of the New York Times to help him anchor himself in one place.
We're moving soon, and I'm in the weird state where you know that soon you will be leaving a place never to see it again. You live for two years in the same apartment, existing in the same space day after day, growing accustomed to the feel of it: the way the light plays off the walls in the morning, the placement of furniture, the texture of the floor against your bare feet, the view of the bedroom from your chair as you type on the computer. Suddenly, one day, it will be gone, as if you were never there.
The palpable tension in the moments leading up to a thunderstorm. When the world is still, thick with anticipation, the low banks of clouds and muted half-shadows, the humid soil all hold their breath waiting. Nothing dares to stir, not now, not yet – the abandoned morning news is reluctant to scatter, the sky scarcely sighs the slightest of sighs. Everything is a muted grey, the colors draining from leaves, brick fronted brownstones, awnings that dare not flutter their once vibrant greens. Sound is dampened, and the playful shriek of an ignorant child sounds distant, misplaced. Not now, not yet. Wait.
She sits there nodding to the rhythmic jostle of the train. Her raven-wing hair sways against her pale cheek, the slight curve of a soft jaw-line that ends in a nearly absent chin. She raises a hand to idly rub her eyes, then her arms cross protectively across her chest, her grey sweater hugging about her tattered black bag and threadbare black shirt. Her dark eyes flutter slightly open from time to time beneath the faintest black slice of eyebrows, then close again. She is uninterested. A muffled yawn breaks her repose, pale lips quickly lost behind her small fist.
Shockingly vibrant green pressing eagerly against rigid edges of coiling razor wire, glinting metallic silver entangling verdant throbbing leaves. Cracked pavement mottled sun and shade, muted grey and summer glare aching. On an elevated D Train platform, the jostled meeting of metal and nature, of the formed and the grown, both exhibiting the same look of unplanned chaos, diametrically opposed but somehow similarly organic for all that. The coils of barbed wire, the crumbling concrete and rusting iron were not planned any more than the leaves – they too spring from the mystery of necessity, they have ceased to be man-made.
“This place is memorable only because I have no memories associated with it at all, save the memories of seeing it and thinking to myself: this is the place that I have no memories of. I’m not sure how it started.”
“That’s very Don Delilo of you,” she said in a way that left me uncertain whether she was complimenting my cleverness or deriding my nearly painful self-consciousness. I decide to take it as a compliment, as I do with most things.
There are sentences that sound witty or clever on paper, but sound idiotic if interjected into a conversation.
There’s something pleasantly depressing in the sideshow decay of Coney Island. Each surface is covered in chipping, once-bright sun-bleached paint and dead neon-signs resting idly under the noon glare. Barkers call out half-heartedly to the scattered handfuls of passerbys. “Two dollars to play, every game a winner,” but nobody plays here anymore. Nobody wins anything. Benches line the creaking boardwalk, occupied by overweight middle-aged white men, skin burned past red to an aching rust from days of watching the young women walk past. Old men with lunches of rice and beans fish from the wharf; tired bodies litter the sand.
There are times when I have been paralyzed by the horror of my future self, by the knowledge that my actions are not wholly my own, and that anything, anything is possible. I remember standing in the garage at the age of ten, holding a hammer and knowing, knowing that I could smash all the windows of my parents car, that my muscles could move and that the glass would shatter, equally terrified by the thoughts that I could act but would not do so and that my future self would act and I would be unable to stop myself.
Standing at the edge of Gullfoss, the rush of the falls so close - the sudden knowledge that I was about to jump in and plunge to my death. Complete terror of knowing it was possible, that reality split: I walk back with my parents or step into that torrent. I could experience being dashed against the rocks and they would watch me, return to their hotel devastated, call relatives with the tragic news. The possibility was so close – I could touch it, breath in my own death, with no guarantee that I would not reach out and seize it.
There’s an old man who spends all day sitting on the steps in front of his brownstone just down the street from us, shouting out greetings to everyone who walks past. His voice is loud and jovial and sounds like happy laughter turned into speech. “Good morning! How is the young man today!” “Very well! How are you?” “The old man can’t complain – he can’t kick high, but he can still kick!” He laughs, his smile creasing his eyes nearly closed, his teeth and beard standing out in white contrast to his dark brown skin as he greets someone else.
You’d think that you’d remember your first time telling someone that you loved them – not your parents obviously, but the first love of your life. You’d think that baring your soul like that, risking the nakedness of emotional commitment, would be one of those defining moments of one’s life, remembered forever. But I don’t – I vividly remember my first kiss, my first break-up, my first blow-job, but I don’t remember telling Michelle that I loved her for the first time. When was it? How long had I known her? Did I say it first, or in guilty response to her?
Yesterday the Kingsbrigde station was closed because a kid had been stabbed in a fight. I spent the night terrified that it had been one of my favorite students, that I’d come to school the next day to find out that Rasheen had been killed, or that Christina was dead. Every time I see an ambulance and a crowd gathered around some fallen figure I have a hard time breathing, and terrible fantasies start running through my head – I see myself breaking down at the news, Maggie’s dead face, Yadera’s sobbing mother. Sometimes the terror nearly brings me to tears.
We unpacked our books yesterday – boxes upon boxes of books hauled up two flights of stairs to our new apartment, their contents emptied into massively chaotic piles all about the room, slowly sorted into some semblance of order: Medieval Philosophy, Modern Icelandic Fiction, Salmon Rushdie, Graphic Novels. It seemed we had more than enough books to last a lifetime - more than we’d ever want to box up and move again, surely. But now that they are up on the shelves . . . they filled the floor-to-ceiling shelving, and now it feels like they’ve shrunk, like we need more.
Its easy to get accustomed to living in Manhattan, but then one comes across a spot that suddenly makes you think “Oh my god – I live in New York City!” and all the magic and romance of the place pours over you like an afternoon thunderstorm. Bicycling through central park, a break in the trees near the boat pond. And there are the couples out in the row boats on the water, families spread out in picnics in the grass, the rise of the hill to tree-tops, then the glass and steel of midtown spires up, winking silver and blue.
Does it always make that noise? The fan, I mean. Is there always that galloping tha-thu thump, tha-thu thump droning away in the background while we read the paper, discuss each other’s days over dinner, argue noisily on the couch? If its always there, how come I just noticed it five minutes ago? Suddenly I thought “goddamn, that fan is making a lot of noise,” and since then it hasn’t stopped. It seems pretty consistent, but I’d never noticed it until just now – and now it’s the only thing I can hear. Its drilling into my skull, driving me slowly crazy.
There’s a half-empty beer on the table next to a pile of books we mean to return to our friends soon, and a small, wrinkled bandage over a sore on the top of my foot that I got from my new pair of K-Mart sandals, a crumpled green headscarf in the shadow of a half-filled Nalgene water bottle. The light comes from a central ceiling lamp, and the shadows all lie with radial symmetry, facing away, towards the walls. The ceiling fan limps along steadily, and from outside, the muted tones of salsa and familial greetings, the slap of hands.
Sitting in the quiet hum of a spring night on the roof – it’s dark, but the sky still has the subtle atomic glow of a city, with only a few stubborn stars fighting their way through the metropolitan glare. The faint sound of voices, traffic, the hum of generators, the distant wail of a siren, somewhere a television and salsa. Around me, the dark canyons of the other apartments, looming as they stretch above my perch towards the night, broken occasionally by a lit window, yellow glowing through breaks in the curtains. Inside, I hear Mulzer getting ready for bed.
Union square, epicenter of freak show faggot psuedo-punk rock, patchouli hippie poser dreadlocked skateboard hipster coifed shirtless break dancing ghetto-thugs chain-smoking NYU waif chino hip-hugging black-clad gotham and hotdog vender sweat, your name on a grain of f*cking rice, pot-smoking grey beards panhandling in the afternoon sun breeze hippie-chick skirts blowing trucker-hatted i-poders spitting cherry stones two dollas apound sketchpads, tripping latino rock queers smiling through cigarettes and birkenstocks, crowd clapping tourists and gucci clad upper-east-siders, armature scrawled portraits and steaming coffee, steaming sidewalking summer heat crop-toped damp dripping jogdogwalkers, jostle tossed melting pot in the heart of my city.
A simmering, sharp-edged thunder cloud of anger – objectless, really, or rather all encompassing, having boiled well past the initial causal factors and into a state of blind hatred towards everything and everyone that comes across one’s path. The spring-time frustrations and disappointments of teaching, the hypocritical demands of a ground-level bureaucracy, stirred violently together with a cabin-spring-fever humidity. After work, I punched an SUV after the driver failed to yield while I had the walk sign; had he stopped to shout, I think I would have pulled him from the car and kicked him in the face until it bleed.
From the first I didn’t trust his booming manly laugh, his overly firm, manly handshake, the way he repeated my name as if filing it in a rolodex. He had a wide grin plastered across his face at all times, like some mask from Classical theater, and he was too quick to chuckle at the slightest witticism. There was an unfocused, polished sheen to his blue eyes; he’d trained his lips and voice to respond socially and then set his face on autopilot – perhaps that explained the fact that his smile and laughter never quite matched what you were saying.
Last night I suddenly saw the distance to Venus – the distance from here. Starting at the brilliant, glowing pin-prick in the sunset I suddenly felt space expanding, felt the evening star simultaneously swell and retreat until it wasn’t merely a pin-prick but an entire massive planet reduced to the size of a period on a sheet of paper by the hundreds of thousands of miles and I could, all at once, feel them on some visceral, subconscious level; I saw them stretching from Central Park West out through the cold wastes of space’s vacuum, heard them sing in my head.
The refreshing edge of mornings chill is universal – it bites at one’s legs with the same eager teeth in Washington Heights as it does on the Oregon Coast, on the Montana plains nestled at the foot of the Rockies, in the fields that huddle along the Hudson. You must make minor adjustments for latitude, of course; your age; your exact location in the dizzying array of memories and anticipations - but when the sky is that perfect pulsing pale blue and the breeze whispers to the branches just so, there is the knowledge you have been here before. Nothing is new.
I hate getting haircuts. I never explain how I want it cut well enough for the barber to get it right, and I’m too self-conscious and shy to correct him once I realize he’s doing it wrong. I can’t speak, can’t tell him he’s wrong – the words sit in my stomach like cold stones; I compose them in my head, a simple “actually, I was hoping for something a bit shorter,” but they don’t come out. I fell tense, nervous, sick to my stomach, until he finishes and asks me how I like it. And I say fine. It’s fine
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away. How far away was it? Its funny how fairytales take place in locations removed from all possible context. I suppose that allows them to be universal, more archetypical I suppose (as if Jung wrote the fairytales himself in order to have some ready examples to illustrate his theories), but it also seems to make them less personal. Perhaps that’s part of the point as well – real enough to teach us lessons, to entertain us; not real enough to become too entangled in our lives. Only as close as our dreams.
The Tip Jar