< the curio cabinet of the american story
I have a roommate that I talk to, usually at night, about just about everything. And in some ways it’s an honest exchange, in that we hold few pretentions, though in another more pervasive sense we are very distant, seemingly permitted to share stuttering or otherwise unfit-for-company thoughts only because we are, to each-other, not so much real people as drive-through windows. We are here but we are not of consequence. We’re roommates by happenstance, have not been roommates for long, and soon enough they’re going to move out, and we will be alone in place. We are proverbially tangent in life: slipping by. And this is very freeing, in the standardly sad way that it is freeing to run away from home, remembering that the act of running away is almost never done successfully (cops tell worried mothers, who clutch at their chests, that the kid always comes back). Besides, the real stories of people running away for good are nothing like what people want; they are horrible.
Try telling someone a story, and not just from your day, but also from your life—from a long time ago, maybe—and try to keep it going, and in detail, and with commentary about what you think the story means in its individual remembered parts, in its sensory distension, in how you twist it so that it is not just a home-video but an edited script. A thing with shape and body. I think this is very hard to do, seldom called for, and so probably related to some of the biggest lies we tell ourselves when reading: that people tell a lot of stories, that storytelling is essential to our demographic (overeducated, American), and that stories belong to everyone no matter what. There's this cold respect for but also bewilderment about literature. The long-form drawl of your grandfather’s war stories, or the clipped rhyme of the newest children’s book, seem to model or suggest rather than represent some real, actual, central need or palpitation for stories in our hearts. Like a prize dog or a child’s illustration, we appreciate with a cold distance and unknowing. Do we get it?
The roommate is willing to talk in full stories, and I am too. And it kind of sucks. It is like eating gristly meat, or seeing the bobbing, max bodies of America in a wave pool at a theme park (and not the high-Q ones). Everything is hanging loose, co-dependent, a gridlock of bleach vs. bacteria. It is backtracking, malformed sentences, gestures instead of words, and nodding. But what seems, to me, different about all of this, as compared to the lazy, pseudo-precious story-matter America drags to the forefront, like a literary fanny-pack, is that I feel like I’m learning things. I’m not learning how to learn, or how to interpret. I get data, and I get data about data too, but it is all presented so ridiculously and unboiled that I’m not paralyzed by some idea of building a relationship or rapport using that relationship or rapport. It is not social Jenga. And in the same way a book can’t stare you down, in the way a book can wait for you, I don’t feel stared down by my roommate. And it’s a shame that it takes such fatalistic circumstances to get here. It is embarrassing to say how bad I am at facing someone down and trying for that big connection that makes someone feel good and seen and unalone. It is unsexy to be seen being unalone. It is not hip or cool but passé and known and done-for. Totally wacked. But, damn, don’t you want it? Whatever it is?
My problem is that once I’m unalone, and seen being unalone, which is necessary for being unalone, it becomes entirely and disastrously clear that the whole thing is only simulated or apparent, that I am taking refuge on a small and arbitrary ledge, having in actuality duped myself into thinking: “in this moment, I am unalone.” This feeling is itself misleading or double-edged; it is both that feeling unalone is purely subjective and, once felt, by definition is, no questions asked, and also that any doubt about this unaloneness cannot be soothed or sedated fast enough to actually permit the true instance of being unalone to be experienced. So it both is because it is, and cannot be because I am separated from the verifying body (that someone else with me) by space, time, and uncertainty.
Instead of being actually unalone, we just assume and approximate and glaze over: communicate, and repeatedly verify. And I’d feel a whole lot better if that was done without the mythos of how close we can 'truly be,' without wallowing in how everlasting stuff is, without the idea that we are all naturally storytellers, can naturally be receptive and clever, can naturally be okay and transported and unalone and immersed. These are big-ticket items that need work and are not at all obvious.