by Paul LaFreniere

Say there was a girl, about eighteen. Now, she’s surpassingly beautiful, really stunning. She’s pretty smart and ambitious. Wants to go into neuroscience. Problem is she fucked up a lot in high school, left for a year, drank too much, etcetera. And there’s another person, this dude, a few years older, lets call it four years, say he’s twenty-two. Now, this dude did everything right, vis-a-vis his whole academic career. Went to a top-flight school, worked really hard, got all his shit in on time. And now he’s graduated,with a degree in one of the more technical fields. He’s already landed a decent job, not so easy in this economy, and he’s gently perambulating towards a large paycheck, a 401(k), and maybe the ownership of a small company. He doesn’t sparkle, but he’s got a nice gleam on him. He’s not one of these people who looks like they’re marked out to be really successful, he doesn’t bend the shape of the world around himself or anything, but he’s doing well, and it’s apparent to anyone who spends a lot of time with him that he’s going to have a profitable life.

Now, say he’s sitting next to this girl at this party he’s gone to. He graduated a few weeks ago, and he’s spending time back home, which is where the party is. And this dude, his hometown is pretty small and rinkydink. Just this little spur of a new England coastal town. The primary source of income for the town is tourism, followed closely by the fishing industry. There’s a small biotech firm way off at the edge of the town, where it meets the highway, but it’s just a transplant from Boston, a rogue cell way up here, and the biotech firm doesn’t really hire locals because most of the people that work there have long strings of letters after their names, much like the dude we’ve been talking about intends to, and most of the people who live in the town have a high school degree, some community college, maybe a diploma in psych from one of the state schools, but there’s really only a few of them that would have the qualifications necessary to work there. They’ve mostly moved away.

The party’s happening out near the beach, amidst the salt pines, and the dude can see the glow of the neon signs from the strip through the trees. The light around him and the girl is composed equally of yellow light from the bonfire at the center of the party, and a sort of fuzzed out actinic glare from the main street, where big multicolored signs advertising water skiing, sea kayaking and various forms of fresh seafood shine, even at this late hour. The girl next to him is very beautiful, but he is not sexually attracted to her. Say she has a boyfriend, and this turns him off, or say that she just feels too innocent, not physically innocent, but mentally a little more naive and healthy and undamaged than the dude does, and so he feels that he couldn’t really talk to her about the stuff that bothers him, and that maybe talking to her about it would be a sort of imposition because it’s stuff she hasn’t really had to experience yet, and maybe that period when you don’t have to deal with this kind of base-level unhappiness is something that should be preserved and that while he’s capable of just fucking another person’s body while they do the same, the usual sort of atavistic pleasure seeking you see in hookups, where if there’s any sort of really deep profound connection it’s entirely nonverbal, will really not work re. this girl, because he’s already felt something kind of profound while he’s been talking to her. She’s very nice, and kind, and the dude, the man suspects that she has a sort of centeredness, a sort of understanding that feels a little alien to him.

He’s very scared for her. He knows that what she wants to do is exceptionally difficult. That with her grades and her history she’ll have difficulty getting into the kind of undergraduate program that will get her where she needs to go. He has a vision of her, twenty years from now, working one of the concession stands that stand now only fifty yards away from them, and he feels sick to his stomach when he considers the possibility that she might venture out into the world and retreat to man a concession stand only fifty feet away from where she now sits, so that if a man or woman was to see her now and then again twenty years later ensconced in a stand, if they were to see only those two moments of her life it would appear to them that she had spent twenty years crossing those fifty feet. The thought scares him, puts him in mind of the sensation of walking in darkness and placing one’s foot forward, only to encounter empty space. He wants to understand this moment, as painful as it is, because it feels on some level true, vital, approaching the crux of life. But it scares him too much. So he decides to tell a funny story.

He tells all the people at the party a really funny story, about the time in college when a very wealthy friend of his offered to buy him a hooker, and his subsequent refusal. The penultimate line is “for two hundred dollars she’ll rub her tits on your face,” which elicits a big laugh. But the real punchline comes when the man says, “And all I could think was, Jesus, that’s kind of expensive.” This joke relies on the man’s innately goodhearted personality to succeed, and the tension between this goodheartedness, which is apparent in thought and affect to all his friends at the party, and the moment of naked, abstracted calculation which comprises the punchline. The tension between the man’s goodness and his momentary abstracted apathy provides a frisson, a moment of emptiness between expectation and reality. And it might appear, initially that this story is a little edgy, a little self-destructive in the most literal sense, with a little of the vital honesty and depth that the man craves. But the story has problems. The story is true in its particulars. Everything that happened in the story happened the way the man described it. But he was forced to omit certain details in order to make it amusing. The man who offered to buy him a prostitute was an international student from Korea. The man did not mention this because he was afraid that it would give the story a racial tinge. He also omitted certain details concerning the Korean man’s emotional background that would compromise the story’s humor, such as the Korean man’s surpassing loneliness and total alienation from the women in his life, an alienation so profound that he could either sleep with a woman or have a serious conversation with her, but not both. The man neglected to mention that he thought that his friend was destroying himself a little every time he hired a prostitute, that he was damning his soul. Not in any Christian sense, the man on the beach who sits next to the girl is an atheist, though he has not told his old friends, many of whom still attend church. No, the problem was not religious, not concerned with divine violation. The problem was that every time the Korean man hired a prostitute and returned to have coffee with the man the next morning, it seemed to the man that his friend was a little less himself, as if the act of renting another human being’s body widened some preexisting crack in the Korean man’s psyche, that every time the Korean man slept with a prostitute he was rendering himself more catastrophically alone. The man does not know what effect the Korean man had on the prostitutes. He has never met a prostitute, and he is acutely aware of his ignorance. The man has omitted all this from his story, all this information and knowledge which he contains within himself on a level so deep it is almost inarticulate. He imagines now that if he were to speak out these words to the people around him he would lose his easy facility with language, that every word would be a battle against something he does not have a name for, something that is at the crux of his problem with the young woman. Call it the will-to-lightness. A gliding over the surface of things, because everything is funny if you look at it the right way, and though humor can be a knife that cuts you open, humor can also be an anesthetic, and it is very easy to live life like this.

He avoids these thoughts. Because thinking in this way, taking stock of all the interior shit he sees around him conjures up pain, anger and indecision and feeling these things is painful to the man, and human beings recoil from pain, as all animals do. He recoils from this way of seeing in the same way that he would if he placed his hand in the bonfire. But the man suspects that what he experienced when he saw his friend’s slow destruction, when he sees the terrible upwards slog the woman has ahead of her, the path she has set herself on that seems doomed to fail, and when he hopes she will succeed with an intensity so great it makes his chest hurt, when he feels these things he suspects that the fire he has placed his hand in is a sort of clarifying agent for the soul. He suspects further that if he was able to find the bravery to live in that place, that fire, even a little more than he does now, to see and not flinch away from seeing, he might find another form of happiness, another form of being, beyond the horizon he can perceive. Another way of being that might suffuse the small single-residency flat he currently lives in, the job designing small complex steel implements, the nights he sometimes spends alone in bars, with a quiet, entirely unknown form of radiance. A form of grace.

But the man, as he sits in front of the fire feels that all this is very faraway. His friends are close, and he is not so stupid as to imagine that all that has passed through his head, half articulated, a pitchblende of words and emotions, has not also passed through theirs and he knows that some of them spend portions of their time in that place, small fragments or long stretches, but his problem seems different, more calcified and total, an either or, and then, in a sympathetic burst he wonders if his condition is common, if it might, in fact, be the norm, that part of the vaunted “purpose of life,” the purpose of life, the “purpose,” that as a good graduate of an excellent midrange liberal arts school he cannot refrain from placing quotes around, that part of the meaning of life that obtains with or without a belief in God, is this. That part of the meaning of life is finding one’s own accommodation with that which is light and that which is heavy, with light and with darkness. He knows more clearly still that the thoughts he is now having are not his usual thoughts, that he can go for years without ever questioning the level on which he rests, with nothing but an inarticulate discontent to warn him of the damage he is doing to himself. He stares into the fire and lights a cigarette and feels the disjointed parts within himself slide into place, or farther out of true, it's hard to tell. His mouth twists and he looks down and he, the man whose name is Eddie Sacre, begins to realize how hard it is to run, if you have no idea where you’re running to.

(first appeared in
Constellations vol. 1)