I keep having these dreams where I can’t get out of the room. Some grim dinner party or shabby hotel cafeteria where I’m exposed somehow to a whole gallery of faces I can’t quite make out. Where I’m stuck with someone from my past or present who wants something I can’t give, or knows something I’d rather they didn’t. Sometimes I’m able to escape, but then can’t seem to find my way out of the building—the trap just expands, until at some point I’m hit by the dread realization that no matter what they look like, each person I encounter is exactly the same on the inside.
Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine airport, incredibly futuristic, where I keep following bad directions or encountering incomprehensible bureaucratic obstacles requiring me to traipse back and forth between ticket counters and security checkpoints and terminals. I can never seem to make my flight, yet it’s always imminent, and panic builds until finally I wake up grinding my teeth and repeating incomprehensible nonsense to myself in a low whisper until well after I’ve had my coffee, like I got high the night before and it still hasn’t worn off.
Other times I’ve committed a crime of passion. As I begin to realize what I’ve done, my surroundings become dim, narrow, subterranean. Acquaintances and passersby all take on a uniform, alien quality. I feel I have to hide from them as I go about planning how to cover my tracks, but I can’t get out of public and they keep questioning me and I keep piling lie upon lie until I’m all out of lies and no longer believe myself.
Lana wanted to have a date—clothes shopping at the mall. It’s not how I would choose to spend a couple hours away from the kids, and she knows it. The clock slows; my blood congeals. I’d resist, but I’ve got to buy my next reprieve. We’re living on borrowed time, so why not live on a little more borrowed money?
On the way, we discuss what to buy. What the kids may like. Then a hopeful note underlying the subject of job prospects turns to debts, bills. Once that subject is wandered into, we fall silent. Her phone comes out of her purse. Like having to eat a failed attempt at some new recipe, I’ve ruined our afternoon, but still have to see it through.
The unspoken tension ratchets up as we near the mall. I fight traffic on the proximate boulevards and join a rotating queue of drivers, presumably all grimacing and overweight, as we circulate the packed rows of parking spaces, now stopping as some optimistic rube slams his breaks behind a pair of glowing tail lights, now proceeding again, now stopping, all in a row—trapped together, but unknown to one another. Some ham-faced slob in a ginormous pickup nearly backs into us as he jerkingly vacates a parking spot without looking over his disgusting shoulder. Honking, shouting, shaking his fist, he ejaculates his soul’s phonetically memorized plaque and drives off in a cloud of diesel exhaust. In my own grey-green, calcified heart I blame Lana, realizing all this could’ve been avoided. She feels it, and lowers her face into the refuge of the pillar of blue light emanating from her stupid smartphone, which may be the only thing keeping us married.
The mall is filled with wretched refuse and flooded via loudspeaker with the vacant crooning of some new ethnically ambiguous slag of the month. Huge families of eggplant shaped Mexicans block our progress as they amble along at a snail’s pace, shoulder-to-shoulder across the width of the walkways, stuffing their faces as they go, from carafes of nachos, fries and mega-sized slushies all teetering precariously atop the canopies and cupholders of baby strollers occupied for some strange reason by five, six and seven-year olds. I nearly trip over a morbidly obese preteen in ankle shorts and a Nike shirt that reads, “Skilled in Every Position” when the family’s uppity little garden-gnome patriarch casts a threatening glance, holding up his cartoonishly oversized pant-waist with one hand like he’s somewhere on a prison yard.
Lana peruses the racks of a store. We stand in the massive checkout line with her items. A couple of shameless, mercenary orientals are in front, delaying everybody’s day to interminability, yapping scarcely comprehensible harangues at indifferent teenage cashiers in an attempt to find some grift in a system that permits no haggling otherwise.
Some ghastly, freckled, androgynous high-yellow in a denim vest and fedora is staring out of a wall-length advertisement with a quote emblazoned along his misshapen flank: “sometimes, you just gotta do you.” Somewhere in a stock photo lean-in high in a glass tower some shrewd hypnotist wants you to think of these pontoon-lipped vacancies like a quotable Confucius or St. Matthew. It seems with each passing day that being white and remotely genteel in America is more and more like being a ruined old noble in a Chekhov play. We’re living through this long night, and we can’t bring ourselves to turn the lights out, but we’ve had too much time to ruminate and it isn’t getting us anywhere.
Lest you find all this bigoted—which it is—allow me the caveat that I consider these plague rats the real Americans. Their ready, unreflecting belief in magic, their vulgar fixation on commerce and utter abandonment of traditional scruples in the hubbub and banal, intermittent terror of this strange new land—as new to me today as it was to them last week—make them far worthier to be called Americans than all the brokeback whites longing for cowboy chivalry as they use their bottom incisors to greedily scrape the Dorito dust of this neurasthenic consumerist birdcage off the tips of their fat, diabetic fingers.
We pass the food court, the metastasis of sickening flesh in sweat pants with little cups of frozen sugar and cardboard palettes overflowing with cheap sauces. Then we make our way into another one of the undifferentiated neon storefronts so Lana can look for jeans. Somewhere over the rainbow, beyond every sales display and stack of merchandise lies the smoke-shrouded neo-Dickensian charnel house it all emanates from, the ant-farms and blood-sausage of Christmas present, and corrugated metal dwellings stacked along alleys strewn with plastic rubbish, flowing with human excrement, and interminable fields of shipping crates transiting sweltering ports. It’s only mid-July, but in my head I hear jingle bells. I start to wonder whether we’ll ever get away from this, whether we’ll ever be self-sufficient and free, or will we always just be employees and consumers and patients, avatars and reflections, bar-coded replicants, objects to whom all meaning in life is provided, administered, and presented like food to a capricious toddler. The wax paper burger wrapper wafting along the ground that fifteen hundred people just stepped over, the cigarette butts floating in the urinal, the fluorescent lights overhead, the LED screens in our palms, the model on the wall poster like a whore in a red-light district window, her snide smile doubtless masking every private misery, and the thousand hidden thoughts or inarticulate nagging doubts between hand-holding couples with lowered expectations, their acne, their cankles, their flat feet, fat asses, and venal cravings—the yawning gap between what you own and what you owe, and the sense of resignation to a trap so thorough we dream what it feeds us and conceptualize nature itself like a kind of unknowable death.
This is the cross. These are the nails.
“I’m so fat.” She’s in front of the mirror in the narrow corridor across from her changing room.
The worst part of marriage is the lying. Falling in love is this perfect kind of exposure that relieves you of everything you thought you needed to hide, and you reciprocate this to your lover and she accepts it with tender ecstacy and you’re free and she’s free and the world is light and song. But marriage builds lie upon lie, just in order to function. There are never enough sorries. There are never enough I love you’s.
“You look great, babe.” And she does.