Criminals are histrionic, Marty decided. Even their vigilance is feigned. I will not let you catch me until I’m ready to tell the story.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Marty Olmes, 23 years young, was just another white male with a headful of atrocious hair in this well‐written city. He’s done a bit of everything: nibbled through college, roamed the streets with a zigzag bag full of second‐rate pot, walked homeless dogs with homeless thugs. It was an acquired taste, the fragrance of vagrancy. Recently he landed himself a job as the watchman at the studio of Connoisseurship, a pirate website. (“Don’t you work at night, though?” ”Nope, once it hits 7 pm here we hand it over to the Swedes, give ‘em a reason to stay up on white nights.”)
He quite liked working at night. Waking up in broad daylight felt like the first step into an uncharted area, and Marty was always a bit agoraphobic when it came to the unlimited, the unprecedented, the untamed. The vast possibility, a desert of deserts. Night was finite; it had a palpable quality to it, like fuzzy streetlights in the drizzle. Marty often extended his arms and let the smoggy texture of darkness caress them, while his shadow mopped the somber alleys.
And it was on that night Marty met you. With his arms still wide open, his shadow soaked, he embraced the air one block behind you. The fluorescent bulb outside the deli next to you made you seem a troubled character from a black‐and‐white film, your fingers fumbling the cable lock, interrupting shades of grey. Marty heard Alessandro Cicognini warble in the back of his head. No one saw like he saw; in the deli a brown man was dusting plastic‐wrapped sandwiches that made it through another day. All was well and icy quiet.
Finally, off you went. As you rode away, you disfigured, decomposed, specks of you dissolved into the abysmal darkness. Somehow intuitively, Marty just knew that at the end of the tunnel, you would emerge, completely rebuilt, brand new. He, too, would be soon washed ashore by the tender tides of the night.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Marty found himself bumping into you at an unalarming frequency, always with your hands on things. Sometimes neon signs, mainly souvenir gifts, never bikes like the first time; maybe you had realized it wasn’t exactly your forte. By then Marty had established that you were kleptomaniac. But aren’t we all? Rushing through life like tipsy wasps, we pilfer, we ransack. We leave traces here and there for those who want attachment, for them to render, decipher. After all, does a tree make a sound if it falls in a forest and there is no one near to hear it? That’s what people do. They leave notes.
Marty was your note. Terribly impressionable of him, really. Absorbent like a sponge, but not as involuntarily or perfunctorily; he was enchanted. A luffa trained to hold onto the filth and foam of humanity, he hovered over you, this shallow pool of murky water. Why not some other pit, a swamp? Marty never entertained such alternative, for he harbored no existential angst. He let entropy take its toll; complete, utter randomness, not unlike the result God might get if He threw dice. Marty had a bit of Heidegger in him. (But did God decide to throw dice, or was it just one die?)
You led Marty to parts of the town he had yet to been. Interrupted building projects, ethnic boutique, an exhibition featuring half‐empty glasses and half‐full beer cans, places that were sparsely populated by a group of people – always the same people – who did not bother to converse. The closeted cosmopolitans. So Marty was safe, wearing their standard‐issued aloof expression, bordering short‐term constipation and chronic hipsteritis. Marty did not enjoy these uneventful, pretentious escapades. Nonchalance pounded against his ribcage, a vital force that kept him buoyant in the crowd.
Adrift, Marty did have the gait of a somnambulist. He survived on a minimal amount of blackouts. You gave him an excuse to rescue himself from episodic slumbers that tiptoed around insanity with indecision. Sleeping itself was only stiflingly numbing, it was the daily ritual of undressing, slipping into pajamas, scrubbing his skin and teeth with religious pedantry, the inevitable glimpse into the mirror, that reminded him of his physical existence, the irrevocability, the tyranny of his very heart and lungs, throbbing like a persecution.
You permeated through Marty’s life like moonlight dispersed across the river by a rowing stroke. Glass walls reminded him of you, of how you skipped a beat, almost imperceptibly, every time you walk past a transparent structure. Was there an urge to jump? When Marty passed by To Eat or Not to Eat, a restaurant where all waitresses were anorexic, he thought, will you invite him to lunch? Will you make his life a postmodern rip‐off of “The Following”? Synchronized plagiarism is 21st century’s answer to the Baby Boom. But you never turned around, you marched on like a deserter.
Many of us have had this experience: we suddenly turn around for no reason, only find ourselves meeting the eyes of a person who plants his/her stare too deep into our back to evade eye contact. We are conscious of others’ attention, except the unconscious and the pompous. Were you pompous? Did you register, ever so slightly, Marty’s presence? He was about to burst, the sheer weight of secrecy and the inertia of it; he could not stop at once, yet he could no longer remain silent, taking air punches on the throat. That was when he started writing again, in the notebook of prenatal attempts and premature casualties of prose and poetry, snippets of his youth.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Marty always had a penchant for alphabets, exotic ones, wiggly symbols whose complexity could only be malicious – systematic dismemberment of a language, with the precision and discipline of a kamikaze attack – bits and pieces, shards and shreds, entrails scattered around by the hand of an airplane crash in an uncannily neat manner, with no intrinsic order, free from the hierarchy of significance.
Letters, we reassemble them, create our own private Frankenstein. It bounds us, haunts us, a physical extension of us but not quite, like a miscarriage, an unfinished cigarette.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Marty felt he was crafting you into another existence – what he wrote was, in a way, fan fiction. Except Marty was not a fan and this was not fiction. This mode of nonfiction had emancipated Marty from himself. Instead of embodying the author, characters in nonfiction provided an escape, an alternative, for it was observation, not humor (“Ionesco, you are wrong.”), that could detach one from oneself with analytical power at one’s disposal. Every exegesis was an excursion that relieved Marty’s myopic disposition.
But as Marty wrote, certain not necessarily welcomed recollection surfaced like flotsam, unwanted relics, a single shoe. Describing your hair (lush, dilutes to a feebler auburn near the end ‐ dyed? Highlight?) Marty remembered how his mom aggregated her hair into a disgusting ball and stuck it to the drain, the hairball was so thick it actually prevented more hair from going down. The fundamental irony in her practice lingered on Marty in a weird way ‐ an almost inappropriate pinch on the thigh from an uncle you only met at Thanksgiving dinner, an uncle with a mischievous smile that only belonged to the cradle of humanity, the smile of been there, done that. Marty detested such seasoned omniscience.
Marty held the same grudge against most of his childhood memories. The passage of time democratized all traumatic experiences. Food poisoning at an expansive restaurant didn’t make one hate Crême Brulée more than a suicidal parent made one fear open scissors. Or should it be vice versa? See, point proven.
Your fingers reminded Marty of an eastern European expat’s film opening that his mother took him to, or rather, brought him along as an outdated accessory – five year olds weren’t cute any more. Marty didn’t remember any of the film – the director now occurred to him as a native of Ljubljana, though maybe he just loved the cadence associated with how it sounded – but he could still see this woman standing in the line in front of him and his mother, she turned to face the adjacent direction, her fidgety fingers playing the ticket at Marty’s eye level. Marty remembered her nail polish – mauve.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Marty was definitely less deft when it came to introspection. He really did not understand his own obsession with you, and this thinly‐veiled realization kept him from acknowledging the severity of his incomprehension. Psychoanalysis can’t help here, you see. There are emotions that do not spring from sexual motives. It is the same with amphibian creatures at the dawn of earthlings – why did they crawl onto the land, stay, and adapt? The resolution of changing their habitat had nothing to do with reproduction or recreational coitus, not even remotely. It just took place naturally, a chain of events precipitated by forces unbeknownst to human beings, who then applied their primitive creativity and fledgling rationality to reconstruct a second‐hand history – much like what Marty was doing with your presence: he dissected you to piece together an underpinning system of reason.
A common scholarly profession, to be fair. Some devoted their entire academic careers deciphering and, eventually, re‐encoding one great classic that, over a life span of gnawing endeavor, wore itself to a thin thread woven into their lives so seamlessly, it ceased to be anything but. Marty merely happened to study you, quite conveniently. If there must be a reason, it could be that you were the only man Marty ever laid eyes on without actually seeing yours. It just so happened that you never turned around. Although speculating from the color of your hair would not be a daring extrapolation, Marty wasn’t that fixated on knocking off every little detail. He wasn’t much of a pedant.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
You really were a generic human being. What was intriguing about you was none other than Marty’s own gaze. Marty shed the spotlight on you. And how to play God better than eradicating something one had painstakingly created? Marty now understood the fury of the Roman gods, why the Hindus exalted Vishnu and Kali. Wage war among one’s precious little puppets and watch them get devoured by carnage; why not, if eternity is so hard to spend?
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Marty’s time, however, was running out. With an animalistic sense of constant erosion lurking inside him, Marty could feel the storm gathering. The big change he intuited but was not fully prepared for was unemployment. Connoisseurship was ambushed – looted – by the government’s internet ghostbuster squad one night Marty was out strolling in the other side of the town, hung over with post‐you emotional cocktails.
Freddie was on the fourth stage of grief when Marty finally grasped the repercussions. He simply said, “I wish they’d not shut us down yet so I could fire you. That being said, you kinda fired yourself there, dude.” The only affordable server turned out to be located in Switzerland, but those Swedish partners of Freddie’s resented that nation and its “perturbing neutrality.” And that was that.
Marty carried on working at Costco. He usually worked two consecutive 8‐hour shifts in order to pay the bills on time. He was constantly galvanized by the sheer quantity of foodstuff, processed and raw alike, people consumed for sustenance, then gluttony. One day enveloped over his head after another like those gigantic mechanical arms rearranging products on twostory high shelves. The fluorescent bulbs above exposed him to all functioning, hungry, thirsty customers; they spotted and approached him – his uniform – like he went after you. The sudden reversal of roles combined with the ever‐expanding catalog drove him further into writing, a refuge of continuity, which turned out to be no less stagnant than work.
Marty devoted a huge bulk of his time on writing and rewriting his notes on you, and he became, naturally, nauseated and self‐doubting. Marty did not progress as far as he’d wished.
In fact, he had never exceeded the curse of a five‐page standard college essay. He kept editing down what used to be a primary source into some transparent worksheet recycled again and again by public high school teachers, words on it washed out by generations of Xeroxing. All literary techniques known to human kind had now been exhausted: Marty tried different formats, tested out the prose, polished the diction and revised the syntax, until every single word looked hideously mediocre; those endlessly unwinding descriptive clauses strangled any redeeming quality of his writing.
He then went on to revolutionize the narrative structure. Linear. 2D web. 3D spiral. A full circle created by overlaps of double exposure. Ambiguous perspective swimming from one logical loophole to the next. But all sequences of events led to a cul‐de‐sac. Frustrated, Marty played with fonts. He wrote in caps and decapitalized – decapitated – the last letter of the word whose first letter should be capitalized in a conventional sense. Danny became DANNy, Michaela MICHAELa, like a child’s palm daggling on the tip of his father’s finger. Nothing helped. Marty witnessed his lack of a writing ability morphed into a stop motion animation with too much voice over, a pathetic attempt to recreate WWII battles in a small‐budget documentary. In desperation to glorify, it trivialized everything.
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Is the urge to create, to express fundamentally a human response in order to channel one’s unassailable emotions, or a phenomenon that happens naturally and irrevocably under the tyranny of talent? Is man the owner of his free will or merely the medium of it?
Do we invent a new feasible verisimilitude during the excavation?
‐‐‐ ‐‐‐ ‐‐‐
Months passed before Marty realized that writing was essentially a process in which one learned to reconcile with oneself, to relent. Months passed before Marty saw you again, the night you got caught. He couldn’t join the chase because the alley was so narrow, another pair of tumbling footsteps might make it reach its boiling point. Fortunately, Marty had lived here all his life, a hermit locked up in the world’s most dynamic metropolis. He knew the the block’s layout by heart, so he made shortcuts.
Marty kept bumping into pedestrians who were used to it. Just another drunk, another tourist, another heartbreak. The crowd absorbed him as gracefully and effortlessly as he reemerged, like a liquid molecule surfaced from a solvent of completely different chemical composition, a well‐choreographed tango. Nobody frowned. Momentary intrusions like this are very similar to one night stands. We package our respective bodily fluids and leave without hustle. Urban Etiquette, Lesson One: the chivalrous act of leaving one to suffer alone in dignified anonymity. As Dante said: hell is proximity without intimacy.
One more crossroad and there you are, hands as empty as Marty’s pockets, no visible wound or bruise. You must have thrown whatever you stole back to the owner, whom was nowhere in sight now. You strode excruciatingly slowly toward the dead end of this backstreet, even wearing the same outfit you were in when Marty first met you, stripes and loafers. This situation seemed uncannily familiar: you were three steps ahead, getting swallowed by the tangible mass of the night, and Marty watching, deafened by the vacuum in his mind. So why the chase, if nothing lasts?
Why the chase, if nothing lasts?
Marty had never been so close to contemplating life and death. Just then, you turned around.
Marty had practiced possibilities of his first line before. “Chill, we’re all friends here.” “Hey dude, want some pot?” “Hey dude, you got some pot?” “I’ve seen you before (and I want to see more of you).” “Don’t turn around.” “Turn around.” “I’m not gay.” He thought to himself, I’m not afraid of it happening. Future is not a landmine I’m desperate to get rid of, however imminent.
But when it really happened Marty choked up as he saw your pupils twitched. Hazel. He couldn’t possibly tell in such bad lighting, though. Something left him immediately, left him empty, left him angry, left him clingy, left him withdrawn. He turned around before you uttered any sound. Then maybe, he’s not sure, you turned around as well. There was no Alessandro Cicognini this time.
Two backs parted and dissolved into the night like a pair of stage curtains drawn open, so inviting, the fourth wall in shambles.
Marty marched on like a deserter.
Heidi Zheng, French leave extraordinaire and native speaker of Mawkish, is an aspiring Linguistics and Religion double major at University of Rochester.