A Violent Love
A Cycle of American Songs
The Don't See it Coming
A Choral Piece
September 6, 2016
“It’s pretty much one fucked up thing after another.”
That was my answer. Someone, not a friend, just someone I encountered for a moment at that party, a work obligation, maybe a birthday party, I can’t even remember, in one of those moments when you feel like you’re alone with one other person in the middle of a crowd, as if everyone else is frozen in time, and this person asked me, it came at me like a voice in the wilderness, what it was like to be the chair of a large department, a department at a large university, the Department of English. The entire phrase—Department of English—said like it was the Holy Land. He was not, it seemed, from my world, not from academe, just my assumption, just from how he asked the question. He was probably a guest of a guest of a guest, at least thrice removed, or a first date of some graduate student, more than thrice removed, more than three degrees of separation in this small world. He asked as if he thought it were an important job, an achievement, not merely the job that no one else wanted to do. Almost with a naïve sense of awe, there, in the middle of that party, he asked me what it was like. Then, at that time, it seemed sincere—the question. I didn’t sense any irony.
“It’s pretty much one fucked up thing after another.” Those exact words. I was as shocked as he was, as if the words came out of someone else’s mouth, as if I had no control over my response. Lately, I have had a lot of experiences like this. I hear myself saying something. It is usually totally inappropriate. Almost immediately, I think to myself, My God, did I actually say that? I want to hide, run away from myself, but people have been kind. No one has attacked me for blurting out some bullshit that should stay deep inside some little Freudian compartment, protected from my public identity by a series of sputtering, ill-repaired, neglected synapses, none of them firing as they should. But I see their faces freeze into a half smile. I feel as if I am out in the middle of a deserted street, and everyone, every object, from every window, is looking at me. . . . Yes, even the objects. As if flowers in pots on windowsills become animated, pointing leaves at me, shaking with half-suppressed giggles.
I am sure they are thinking, What is wrong with him? I am sure they talk about me, maybe even laugh behind my back as they repeat and mimic my recent eruption. Maybe adding, he has not been himself, to make them feel less guilty about poking fun at someone who is in crisis. I know it is all beyond control, not my outbursts, that too, but how I am perceived in my period of crisis. There is no way to redeem myself, this I know. These are minor events in the life of a minor player. Not significant enough for some sort of ritual cleansing, but too significant to be forgotten or brushed aside as a lapse. (I seem to have a knack for hitting the border between “disturbing eccentricities” and “clearly needs medication and/or therapy.”) There is no way past it. I just have to live with it, realizing that I have been diminished by something trivial—small yet beyond repair. It might have been better, instead of these borderline eruptions, to have done something significant enough to land myself in jail. A DUI would work. Then, I could begin a process of rebuilding my life, instead of being diminished, made small in some small way for some small offense, an event hardly worth notice, but noticed. If I apologize, I would only become more of an oddity. If I ignore it . . . Well, it begins, like a funnel cloud, to breathe and suck nutrients from the heat of the land, to grow, changing everything.
Not too long ago, I was alone, eating dinner at a restaurant, and I realized that I was talking to myself and laughing at some of the things I was saying, like my wife was still with me, still alive, there, sharing the dinner with me, and then I realized some young guy and girl, a date couple, so normal, so much a part of the environment that they were almost like wallpaper, torn wallpaper, were looking at me, talking about me, chuckling.
I know I have become an oddity. I am a sick man. And it doesn’t seem like it’s possible to reverse it. It is out of my control. Accelerating. Gaining mass and velocity. I can only watch, as if I have become dissociated from myself, floating above my body, conscious but unable to move my limbs.
“Doesn’t sound like fun,” he replied, or something like that, probably trying to figure out a way to turn the conversation, or turn his entire body in the other direction, politely excuse himself. I didn’t catch the cue. Not until later, that is. I kept talking, like he was waiting for me to say more, like I had something interesting to say, like I was in my head, thinking something through, trying to justify an action to myself that was beyond justification. But I don’t think I had thoughts. I was confused, immersed in emotions, most of which I couldn’t even identify, maybe just panic. . . . Why? What did I think was coming? What did I fear? I don’t know. I don’t know. Something vague.
Where was I? Oh, yes. I did it again. Again, the words came out. Escaped. I watched myself mouthing the words. Heard vibrations in the air, felt movement under my feet.
“What’s it like? What’s it like? I wake up each morning, with a sense of dread, shower, dress, drink coffee, eat some Cheerios, then I drive to work, barely conscious, praying along the way, please God, let me keep things moving in more or less the right direction today, and please God, let me find some little way to help some creature out, some student or just a stray dog, so I can maybe sleep a little better tonight. But I get to the office, and I get caught up in dealing with one disaster after another, moving toward some unknown. . . . Not really praying. You understand the prayer stuff is just a metaphor. It’s not like I actually pray. I’m just saying that is my state of mind.” That’s what I blurted out next. I think I remember this accurately, more or less. That is the gist. Those words, pretty much.
I fell into silence again, embarrassed, waiting for something outside myself to right this situation. Prayer? I guess half way through this self-pitying rant, I thought I might have offended his sensibilities by mentioning prayer (I don’t know why a vague awareness of audience emerged at this point and then almost immediately dissipated), so I backed off of it, apologized for introducing religion into a party full of humanists, or a mob of professors and want-to-be professors, they, I assumed, were humanists. (I don’t even go to church. I would say I am an atheist, but I honestly don’t even care enough to affirm a belief in non-belief.) For some bizarre reason, I tried to move back into the safety of political correctness. How pathetic.
He took a small step back. I should have stopped, again, at this moment, but I kept going as if I had a willing audience, as if I were in a trance, speaking in tongues, my body convulsing, mouthing nonsense from my lips to God, or from God to my lips. What is with the religious metaphors? Why couldn’t I just walk away? Stop talking? Fake a heart attack? A stroke? I assume most people assume I have some sort of illness, not diagnosed, even those who don’t know what my life has been like in recent years. I could have just said, “I don’t feel well. I need to go.” Simple. The out could have been so simple.
I couldn’t help myself. I went on. “It’s like you come up on this guy holding an ax, and you say, ‘What are you going to do with that ax?’ And the guy says, ‘I’m going to chop off my foot.’ And you say, ‘I strongly advise you don’t do that. It’s going to hurt. You might lose your job. You won’t be able to take care of your family.’ Then you watch the guy cut his foot off. And you try real hard not to say, ‘You stupid sombitch, I told you not to do that.’ That’s the hardest part of my job. I can never say, ‘I told you so.’ Instead, you calmly say, in some reassuring sing-song, sappy voice, as if you really want to help this idiot, ‘Let’s try to fix this. Let’s get someone to sew your foot back on.’ I can’t say, ‘I told you so. I warned you.’ It would do no good. No one would listen. The next week, the same sombitch has an ax and it’s like you’re in some long-lost Kafka novel, except there’s no transformation into a cockroach or rodent that might suggest the possibility of a mutation, of hope even. It’s just the same, everyday. No transformation. No change. That’s what it’s like. An endless stream of reports and forms. Then, I go home, too tired to read or write or do much of anything. I watch bad TV, saccharine shows like Funniest Home Videos, and drink Bourbon. Then, I get up the next morning and do it all over again. Everyday, I try to keep things from getting worse.” Those words, more or less.
A parable. Somehow, I moved from a rant to a sermon with a parable.
This man, this stranger, who appeared to want nothing beyond a few moments of polite conversation, stared at me, a blank look on his face, no emotion, as far as I could see. I looked now, right at his face, now out of the trance, or whatever state I had been in, because I was through with the tirade, embarrassed, starting to realize what I had done, and I hoped he wasn’t . . . I don’t know. I hoped, maybe, he didn’t think I was too crazy, that he would just forget it, not tell stories about me to the person he came with, whoever that was. Or whomever. What the fuck? That was what I hoped. It will not happen that way. He will remember it. He will talk about it. I knew I had just opened another festering wound, visible on my forehead, a sign of everything that had happened to me in the last decade or so, a stigmata. Not even a stigmata. A sore. Too bloody and grotesque to ignore.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said.
“For what?” He tried to seem unsurprised by any of this, or at least he pretended like it was all within the realm of normal behavior.
“I shouldn’t have said all that.” For some reason, at this moment, I kept repeating to myself, not to him, just to myself, It is not I. It is not I.
Another awkward pause followed. I don’t know what the other guy was thinking, but I was thinking, How pathetic, dumping a bucket load of self-pity on someone I just met, someone whose name I had already forgotten, an innocent by-stander who did nothing but try to speak to me, probably because I was standing alone in a crowded room, seemingly a stranger to everyone who was smiling and chatting away, drinking to a socially acceptable level of inebriation, munching on finger food, even though these were people I worked with, supervised, or their spouses, people I had known for years, or graduate students, people I am supposed to mentor, professionalize. And I erupt like this?
We think that social decorum is inauthentic, a phony coating of black lacquer over our true selves, but I’m not so sure. I don’t know why spewing the crap that goes on in our brains is more honest and authentic than observing the norms of social decorum. I mean, fuck, this is the South. Our mothers raised us to have manners.
I don’t know how long the silence lasted. There were a number of lapses like this. I erupted, then I sank into stream of emotions, intense, immediate, like terror, but not just one emotion, a stream. Then I would erupt again. These lapses, this stream of emotions, might have been for twenty seconds or several minutes. I can’t remember.
“So why don’t you quit?” he finally said. Outsiders, people not of the academy, always ask the commonsense questions that seem so childlike and innocent. I wanted to say what academics always say in these situations, “It’s complicated.” But I felt emotionally spent. In unfamiliar terrain.
“I don’t know.” I am sure I sounded like a little boy when I said this.
“You have tenure, right? You could just say, ‘I quit.’ Then go back to teaching. Or retire. Aren’t you old enough to retire? I mean . . . Jesus.” All of a sudden, he seemed to be more of us, someone who understood my world, the mysterious academy. He seemed to know something of how things worked. And that “I mean . . . Jesus” was the first sign of emotion from my new friend, acquaintance, whatever. And that was over in a moment. By now, I think I had calmed down. I could hear my breathing. I felt my speech slowing. Again, in this moment, I was thinking, It is not I, It is not I.
So, I said, “I don’t know.” At some objective level, I realize I have options. He was right. This stranger. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feel as trapped as if I if I were without education, working as a short order cook, with no savings. That’s how it feels. It was like when you talked to me about your last marriage, how you knew you needed to end it, even though it wasn’t that bad. You knew you needed to be somewhere else in your life, but you didn’t want to feel like you had failed again. You didn’t want to leave a guy you basically loved, just because the relationship felt played out.
I stood there for a while, feeling trapped, wondering why I didn’t really believe, deep down, that I had options.
It was only at this point that I looked around to see if anyone, any of the people I supervised, or guests, or guests of a guest, guests of guests of a guest, were watching, only at this point, then, damage done, I started to fully realize how I had acted, only then did I begin to feel embarrassed and self-conscious, only then did I think to assess the damage, what would come at me from the horizon in the next weeks or months.
Far away on the other side of the room, I saw Steven Thomas holding court with a number of grad students, mostly female, telling a story, . . . yes, more delivering a lecture. He was performing. The students around him were enamored, as usual. None of them, I am sure, took notice of me.
Sid Barnes, the Chair of Political Science, was standing next to his wife, Angie, a grad student in our department. His head was half drooping for the most part, looking awkward in the crowd, hiding the face of a gallows-maker. There is something leveling about social events. Barnes is always comfortable when his place in the hierarchy is clear, like in meetings. Here, his head drooped a bit. Occasionally, he extended his neck, raising his eyes above the crowd to scan the room, probably to see if anyone was looking at his wife, who is taller, younger, and wearing a low cut top that night, lower than one usually sees in academic circles. Barnes might have seen something of the episode, my outburst, during one of the moments when he was stretching his neck like a turtle to scan the horizon. And he was listening to those in his circle. Robert Cooper was there. I’m not sure why he was at this party. They were probably talking about the election, probably talking about Trump, hashing over all his comments about women, Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks. Making predictions about the Electoral College vote. They’re both conservatives, ex-military, I think. At least, Barnes is. I would like to know what they are thinking about this election. They were talking. Animated. I doubt he was close enough to hear anything, even if I spoke louder than a conversational voice. Just a bit louder. I don’t like Barnes. Don’t respect him. I was hoping he didn’t see or hear anything.
The only person who caught my eye briefly was Charles. . . . Yes, Charles Elliot. He was off by himself, as he often is, holding a large plate of food, some of which already stained his shirt, no drink, eating and glancing here and there. He could have witnessed the whole thing. He’s a good guy, a good friend, you know this, but, if he heard anything, even just a few fragments, he will tell a complete story of the episode, and tell it often, not in a mean way, more as an expression of his concern for me, but it will do damage with each retelling, each embellishment, until it becomes mythic enough to push my reputation to a darker place. Mythic and complete. He couldn’t have heard everything, but he might have heard and saw enough to have a ready and serviceable narrative of a human failing, not yet a tragedy, but with enough gaps to demand a larger story, one that will almost certainly be generated collectively by the community. Charles will fill in some gaps, others will add to it, until the gaps, the fictive filler, becomes an epic looming over, almost erasing, a few paltry decontextualized facts. In the end, the story will be tied to me only because my name is part of it. For months, maybe years, people will come up to me and ask, “Are you okay?” And I will know Charles has just told them the story of my outburst at a social event. Or, someone else has just told a derivative. They will ask with a tone that comes from hearing a tale worthy of fear and pity and they will have already decided that I am not okay and they are trying to find a way to talk about it. And I won’t know if they just want to verify the facts, or find out if there is more to the story, or actually help me. Some will want to help. You know this. Some will just want to hear the backstory, the truth, what they think will be the truth, in this post-truth society. But they are unusual. Most will want the dirt—more dirt. And I will tell them I am okay, even if I’m not, but they won’t buy it. This will only validate everything they have heard. I will never know what they’ve heard. They will never know what really happened. But we will both know that something happened, and now it will be forever there in the space between us. Crap, how can people who study narratives for a living be so naïve about gossip?
“I don’t know,” I said again. This time with a different tone. A finality. The guy, the stranger, the new friend, walked away, not even feeling the need to fabricate an excuse or announce his intention to leave, all normal social convention gone, destroyed, with not even a “fuck you, you pathetic piece of shit” needed to bring closure to it.
If I didn’t say “I don’t know,” I could have maybe fixed it at that point, maybe moved the conversation into another direction. I could have said, “I’m sorry. It’s been a difficult week. The election, you know.” Or, “It does have benefits. I like helping students.” Anything remotely civil. But I didn’t. So I just stood there, feeling a sense of vague dread. And other emotions.
Even after he had turned, made steps in the opposite direction, I keep muttering to myself like he was still listening, still there. I was saying something to him, trying to justify that series of eruptions, muttering to myself like Crazy Jane on the road, speaking to the dead.
I recovered to the safety of social pleasantries the rest of the evening. I felt more myself, even though I was afraid I might erupt at any moment, without warning. I don’t remember seeing that guy again. That night. Maybe he collected his spouse or friend and left soon after our brief chat. Maybe he was never even there. I wonder, I do wonder, like many people in crisis, people in a state like I am in, not yet healed, not in anything like a normal state, I wonder if I am still sane, a if I have crossed some line, if I am a little crazy now.
The only other thing I can recall about the entire evening, even though it was just a few weeks ago, maybe not even that, maybe less than two weeks. It was on a Saturday. We didn’t meet for coffee last Tuesday. It was a little over a week ago. A week and a half, I guess. The other thing I remember, yes, I was standing alone in the middle of the room, an empty glass in my hand. I don’t know how long I had been standing there, but then you came over.
“Are you okay?” You said it like that. Not like you had heard something, but like you were concerned, like you knew I was distressed, like you cared.
“Audrey.” That was my reply. Not as a greeting. More like an acknowledgement that you were now there before me, when, I am embarrassed to say this now, I hadn’t even realized you were in the room.
I immediately assumed you had seen my eruption. I guess you didn’t. . . . That’s what I thought. Your question was more benign, out of concern. Maybe you had seen me standing alone, nothing more than that, and had felt the need, out of simple kindness, to make sure this person was okay. This guy whom you considered your friend, the boss of your friend, someone in this group of people you sometimes socialize with.
I had probably been there, in the middle of the room, for a while, lost, dazed, unaware. You probably were standing with Lisa and some of her graduate students. You excused yourself, I would think, without an explanation, and walked over to make sure I was okay. You said, “Why don’t you join us?” You said this, without saying who the “us” was. I said, or this is what I remember, that I was going home, and I did. I went home. I got there safely. I watched a little bad television, I had a little more whiskey, then went to bed.
You worry about me. I know this. You and the others. You all worry about me. It is sweet—and a little troubling.
None of us really talk about it, but it is there, like the weather, felt if not voiced. I can say it to you. I was in a bad spot that night. I still am. It seems like I always will be, from now on.
I know the signs, and I know I have all the signs. I have trouble sleeping and concentrating. I eat too much. I’ve gained so much weight. I’ve tried to drink to dull it, but I just get confused and fall asleep for a hour and wake up and can’t get back to sleep, or even sit still and read, do anything productive. Alcohol hasn’t helped, but I still take a few drinks. I don’t think the alcohol dulls much, but it gives me something to look forward to each night, a ritual. I seem to have no energy. It takes an enormous act of will to go to the grocery store and think about what I need to buy. Or walk to the mailbox. Or look through my mail and pay bills. I always know things are really bad when I start watching TED lectures, one after another, the ones that teach us how to reach our ultimate potential. David Graeber calls the self-help movement “individualistic fascism.” I think he’s right. These people, the TED lecture people, are so sickeningly optimistic. I keep thinking it will rub off, make me feel better, but they become my new impossible norm, and I don’t look good next to these people with their PowerPoint presentations and their “got all the answers” attitude. It’s almost become a form of self-flagellation, a hair shirt worn as an act of contrition for some unknown sin. I can’t be the only one who sinks into depression while watching TED lectures. One of these days they’re going to have a mass suicide at a TED conference. There’ll be dead bodies still in their seats in the auditorium, a PowerPoint still lighting the screen, everyone in spotless white outfits and those cheap Nike shoes that the Heaven’s Gate cult wore on their way to the Mother Ship. I don’t know why I keep watching that crap. Maybe, I need hope and don’t know where to find it, so I watch lectures on human potential and fall into despair.
And then I unload on this guy, some innocent guy. I don’t mean innocent in the sense that the guy was pure and without the taint of original sin. We are all, I know, horribly flawed. I only mean that he had never harmed me. We were innocent with each other. We owed it to each other to be pleasant. We had no history. We could have become causal friends, the kind who don’t expect anything of each other, uncomplicated in our presence before the other, full of potential. Hell, we might have collaborated on a TED lecture.
I probably ruined his entire evening. For no reason. And my outburst made me feel worse. And it clearly didn’t change anything. This is only one of the reasons I hold no hope for help from therapy. The more I talk about it, the worse I feel. This is why I don’t go. To therapy, I mean. Or, usually to any place.
I left the party soaked in sadness. This is the pattern. I go out, see friends, get exercise, go to a movie, thinking it will make me feel better, and I always feel worse. When I move through a crowd, I feel empty. When I see a man brush fingers across his wife’s cheek, I want to hit him. When the Official Greeter at the grocery story, the old guy who stands near the carts, who’s there because he can’t make it on his Social Security checks, says, “Hello, Welcome to Kroger,” in that phony Corporate Solicitude tone of voice, I feel angry. I want to yell, “Get a real job, you worthless sombitch. Do something. Restock some shelves. Clean up the mess on aisle twelve. But don’t tell me to have a fucking nice day. You cock-sucker.”
Whenever I am around people, I think, Now I am going to have to lie. I am going to have to respond to this smile with a lie. But I don’t. I don’t say anything. I just look miserable. Sometimes people say something like, “It couldn’t be that bad.” Or, “You look like you’re having a bad day.” I wish I could lie, mutter a few social clichés. That would probably help. Make me feel normal. Allow me to disappear. I say nothing. I sulk.
This is how it has been for years. Things are okay. Then they are bad. At some point, somewhere in the long string of crises, sadness slips into despair, and despair into depression. At some point, you find yourself in an unkown land, and you don’t know how to get home. It has been five years. I should be better by now, but I am not. In many ways, I am worse. Early in the process, maybe six months in, a friend told me that you either get better or you get worse. While he probably didn’t mean it, I heard a judgment in this. I heard him saying, “Get your shit together. Quit moping. Quit whining. Find a way to get back into the game.”
But how? I just don’t know how to get better, unless maybe I just retrace my path, look for the forks in the road, rethink some decisions. Maybe something can be salvaged. Maybe. At some junction. Maybe, something took the wrong turn. If only I could find that moment.
“They Don’t See It Coming”
The chorus sings of their fear that a disaster is on the horizon.
I see the dark horizon
A storm is building out there
All the winds are spiraling
Lightning strikes around me
Earth, I feel it moving
Air, I feel it cooling
Wheat, I see it bending
Dogs, I see them running
We can’t stop it now
It will come this way
They don’t see the lightning
They don’t feel the tremors
They don’t hear the thunder
They still trust their neighbors
Lord, this will end in blood
Their dreams are blurs and shadows
They wake confused and sleepy
They’re tired and full of questions
They pray to God for answers
Lord, can you see I’m sinking
They don’t see it coming
They don’t see it coming
They don’t see it coming