My daughter is sick. We go to the zoo but she refuses to walk, and so I carry her on my shoulders. She won’t speak, but only points at things she wants. Eventually she points to a bench, and we sit down. She sits a few feet way from me, but as she get more and more tired, she slowly closes the distance between us. Finally, she rests against my shoulder, and closes her eyes. I pick her up, and hold her in my arms. Instinctively her hands burrow into my coat, and she falls asleep almost instantaneously. As she breathes, I rest my cheek against hers, and I realize this is the best part of the trip. This moment, even if it’s one she won’t be able to remember, means more to me then anything else that has happened since I arrived in Germany. And because of that I know that I am happy.
My thoughts return to a repeated question: are we born to be happy, or is it a learned behavior? I don’t want to know from some study of lab rats, or by analyzing people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. I simply want to know anecdotally, in my own life. I remember being happy, and I remember being sad, but then when I dive into the memories, I can barely recall either. There is a prevailing sense of anxiety slipping through everything, as if I were throwing a caffeine pill into each memory, simply to watch the shearing effect it would have. But feeling happy, and feeling sad, are so rare it strikes me as artificial.
And if that’s the case, then why do I feel so fucking guilty when I’m happy? Not to be left out, I feel guilty when I’m sad as well, but that feeling of guilt seems more appropriate, given my relatively positive circumstances. But happy, happy just about kills me. Because happiness ends, and even when I can acknowledge it, and live in the moment for as long as possible, it still doesn’t seem worth it. Given that my most obvious memories of happiness come from my childhood, it’s likely that I’ve actively trained myself to avoid it: a defense mechanism to a naturally ever-progressing world.
I feel like a man possessed. I find myself drifting back down 17th St. in Denver. A place I lived only briefly, but where I felt a rare connection in a city that has the depth of an also-ran Dubai. I write for hours in cafes and bars, and look back on what I’ve written with surprise and déjà vu. The writing is strange to me, but vaguely familiar.
I must look borderline insane, my head resting on the back of my hand, inches from the paper. I drink coffee until I can feel my heartbeat in my eyeballs. And then I switch to beer to try and balance it out. I’m no good after two drinks, but I drink slow, and feel the slow warmth of reassurance spreading through my brain. It’s not a novel feeling anymore, but there’s more pleasure in the familiarity then I would have ever guessed when I was young.
I forgot for a long time why I ever started writing in the first place. It wasn’t to keep the memories for longer than they would float in my head, and it wasn’t to share the writing with others. It was simple; it made me feel better. It kept me from circling the drain: it was therapist, Xanax, and best friend, all insulating me from the grating quiet of everyday life.
Somewhere it moved away from that. It became another part of my life where I needed to allocate time, another pull on the thin thread keeping things together. And then, when I’d forgotten how it feels to write frantically in a dirty notebook with ink covered hands, when I’d forgotten that it’s even an option, it finds me again. And I realize it’s the simplest siren song: I just feel better when I write.
A while ago, for a number of situational reasons, I decided that I had had enough of living in the least communicative life I had ever occupied. It consisted mostly of me running around like a drunken rat during work hours, and letting unspoken things dominate my personal life. I became a high-functioning nervous wreck, and so the concept of vulnerability was appealing to me: put it out there, and let it go. Regardless of the outcome, at least you put it out there. What an appealing concept after years of insomnia and motor skill deterioration.
Like a drug addict that’s found religion, I’ve taken it too far. I hate this new “vulnerable” me in equal bizarro measure that I hated the old “stoic” me. I went from living on pins and needs, to sulking around with dark circles under my eyes. Vulnerability is just a one-sided conversation, which leaves me feeling embarrassed and exposed. Apparently, I’m not good at either. I should have known better, because that’s the problem with binary solutions, one way or another, they each get their pound of flesh.
Middle age comes on hard. People like to say it’s a state of mind. I don’t disagree, but there are elements that are unavoidable, regardless of your mindset.
From November, 2015:
What am I missing? What am I not seeing? I’m in a club so full of smoke that I can’t distinguish things 2 feet in front of me. It’s a long time before I realize that this is strategic. Again, what am I missing?
I’m not sure how I ended up in this place. But I’m with someone that I used to love. In fact, I probably loved her more than I’ve ever loved anyone, besides my daughter. But instead of love, I feel empty. I can’t tell if it’s because we’ve drifted too far apart, or if it’s the smoke, or the drinks, or if I’ve become something unrecognizable, but I can’t get back to where I was. Yet every time I look at her, I know why I once felt that way.
What I’m left with is one constant phrase: if you love something, let it go. Perhaps one the hardest things in life, is realizing that someone you loved for so long, is a stranger.
I met her in the hallway of a bar: I was twenty, she was nineteen; she’s Czech, and I’m American. That night should have been all of it. Except that it continued for years. Except that we grew to love each other. It was my fault when it ended, but in a situation that was far from clean. That was a long time ago now. And after all this time, the only thing holding us together are those shared memories.
I’m back in Madrid for the first time in nearly five years. It seems almost impossible that it’s been that long. I have a nervous energy that’s similar to calling an estranged friend.
“I’m sorry, I should have called sooner…” Anything to blurt out to break the ice. A guilty energy.
To my surprise I’ve missed the city. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time in Madrid, it’s that despite all of the time I spent here, I never felt like I lived here. I was too involved in my studies, in a relationship, in a bubble, to ever really feel a part of something. So it’s surprising when I feel the excitement of familiar sights. Unlike Prague, or Chicago, it doesn’t carry with it the weight of ‘what could have been’. I was never going to stay in Madrid. But as a result it’s light, and lacks the hollowing feeling that normally accompanies me to my old homes.
This is familiarity without the existential baggage, and I need that. I can’t remember if I was happy when I was living here, that was a strange time. But I’m happy now. Returning to a place without expectation is a rare and enjoyable thing.
I watch the table in front of me bark orders at the waiter. He scrambles backwards into the kitchen. After he’s done filling their requests, he circles to my table. He bends over to clear the plate in front of me. I’ve eaten everything, there’s barely any indication that there was food on the plate.
“How was the meal?” he asks, in clear English.
“Terrible. I want my money back,” I respond jokingly, before I can realize where I am.
A look, not of horror, but resignation crosses his face. Shit. My mind goes to an Economist article that talked about the difficulty in conveying sarcasm in Germany.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” I say quickly. “I meant it as a joke because I ate everything.”
There’s no light of realization that crosses his eyes. It seems to still be lost. I try again.
“It was really good. Thank you.”
“It’s the house specialty,” he says quickly as he clears the plate. He leaves in a hurry, which doesn’t seem sheepish, but an escape from the conversation.
I can’t blame him. Despite my best efforts, I’m probably as much work for him as the table that’s been snapping their fingers at him all night.
I haven’t listened to any music for over a week. I can’t remember the last time I went a day without filling every quiet moment with background noise. But now it’s silent and I can’t bring myself to listen again. Lyrics from different songs continue to run through my head: “Black eyed angels swam with me”; “I think the thing you said was true, I’m going to die alone and sad.” But the thought of listening to music makes my head split at the temple. Melancholia. How cliché, I’ve hated most of the things I used to love lately. Except for the things I used to fear, now they seem manageable.
I’ve always thought of myself as an anxious person. Not “depressed”, just anxious. Big distinction: different medication, different symptoms. And up until now that would have been true. Or close enough that it wasn’t lying to tell myself that. But whatever has come back, the insomnia that has gripped me at night is one of rage and frustration. I used to scribble furiously in notebooks in the middle of the night, and now, instead, I want to scream and tear down the walls.
Melancholia. It hasn’t fully taken hold. The music will come back. I’ve already started to retreat into many of the things that I know well: novels, work, family, video games, and relentless activity that borders on a fear of repose. I’m still feeling hunger. That’s a good sign. But I have a taste for melancholia now, and it has a literal taste: the muddy paste that forms in your month while you sleep, that you can actually taste for a few moments once clarity returns, but before you can chase it away with water. That taste stays with me now.
I don’t know whether to lean in, in the hopes of pushing through to the other side. Or to ignore it, and starve it to death from a lack of attention that it desperately wants.