Once, a good morning or a how-are-you rose from me like a wave. I smiled that little jack-o-lantern grin, as my sister Nan called it. And once I cruised the streets in my Subaru, just feeling empty streets at dusk, while streetlamps came on, feeling the smooth motion of turning wheels, the rise of oldies and classical from radio, Elvis or Tchaikovsky accompanying me home.
Once, I pointed out the majesty of puffed clouds, like aired out laundry. And I likened dusk to lavender blankets and tried to grab it, hands stretched out into the vastness of sky, swath, and youth.
Once, I texted Nan like diarrhea, made memes about her name, and we insulted each other with cheer. Douchebag, dumbass, chucklehead.
And once upon a time, I ran, feet clickety-clacking, concrete and shoes converging, symphony echoing on a vast landscape. Once, I strove to drink twelve beers without a hangover and pronounced my idiocy aloud.
Now it’s just a morning, the beginning of my third decade, a rushed shower, pita and half-empty hummus for breakfast, a curse, a pair of Khakis that just look stupid, copious deodorant, grunt, a nod in a neighbor’s direction. Feet shuffling to a car. One block. Two blocks. A Diet Pepsi chugged in a coffee shop, caffeine coursing through consciousness, yellow walls watching, people moving and laughing.
Each day’s sinking into a seat, a pathetic plop, a sea of bills, credit card delinquencies, student loan rates, lit mags rejection letters, and frowns. Self-promotion, Botkin, don’t be so dogmatic, fellow authors chide from electronic chats. Submit a dozen pieces, submit two dozen pieces. Format, be obsequious. Be daring. Write your own narrative, your own bio.
And don’t forget more rejected teaching applications, applications with trick questions waiting to ensnare and discourage honesty. Initiative, grab the world, they whisper. CVs naked and shameful stare from screens. Testaments to tutoring back in the college days, a few publications here and there, a writing group too.
Smile, smile a little wider. The world loves smiles, fake ones especially. But fake ones just hurt, like strings pulling at loose teeth, wider, wider, until they’re dislodged.
My life’s a bottle of Merlot or Moscato for the heck of it, onions and crackers and Vienna sausages for thrift’s sake, or a semblance thereof. An evening growl when a neighbor does as much as bang a pot next door or laughs. My life’s a glare at undergraduates marching en route to parties, still wearing youth like a skimpy tank top, something ostentatious and pink. A head shaken over a truck sputtering.
And my life’s tossing and turning, discarding sheets, telling myself the next day can be different, I can smile, I can laugh. I can, I must. It’s nights of trying to find the right sitcom, but everything seems too contrived. Red Forman on That 70s Show just seems like an authoritarian and Sam Elliott’s f-bombs on The Ranch give the world a very sharp edge that not even his spruce handlebar mustache can blunt.
Of course, something else sets me off by the next morning. A baseball cap turned backwards, someone in baggy pants, even though my Khakis are a tad too big for me. A history book that fudges a fact. Someone’s laugh that sounds too much like Adam Sandler.
Now Nan says I’m like Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, even though she still loves me. Rules, edicts, she laments in her voice that kind of reminds me of Carey Mulligan, when she’s doing an American accent. Where’s my Nicksie? Come back to me.
In all fairness, I try to bring gifts to neighbors. Hold out bottles of Merlot and chocolates with good wishes conveyed in block letters, letters that once were childish but cheerful. I hold them, my mouth forming an awkward little O. They just take them and retreat fast. Or assess me with beady eyes, arched eyebrows, with a tentative “thanks” thrown in. And I whisper an unheard “peace,” while they retreat into the murmur of Netflix and cooking and parties to which I’m not privy. Peace, peace, a shut door stares back.
Some nights, I try to listen to music, to just let soft piano notes mingle with the moon and the wind. To let strings carry me away to some elegant palace in 1880. But it’s just a reminder of the vast spaces, a world so large and yet so claustrophobic. The notes are just painful sounds now, not dynamic shapes that once burst for me.
And I try to tell Nan I love her, but the words stick. She jokes I sound like a creature in a 50s sci-fi movie, her laugh striking me, so good-natured and open. I just end up hanging up.
I try to march up and down the avenues, but slink. I even try to laugh sometimes, but each one cracks harder and harder. Once, it was easy to laugh and I couldn’t shut the fuck up, as Nan says.
So I tuck the half-laughter in a drawer, pull it out again. More cracks. I sink into sofas and empty spaces before it all breaks.